The Zamani Reader

On Atlantic Africa and the West Indies (1655-1807)


The US (19th Century)

Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Six)

The History of Settler Colonialism in Hawaiʻi

NOENOE K. SILVA. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Pp. x, 260. Paperback. $21.95. ISBN:0-8223-3349-X.

JOHN WHITEHEAD, “Hawai’i: The First and Last Far West?” Western Historical Quarterly 23, 2 (May 1992): 153-177.

RUTH OLDENZIEL, “Islands: The United States as a Networked Empire,” 13-42, in Gabrielle Hecht, ed., Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003. $32.00. Paperback. ISBN: 9780262515788.

The readings for this week discuss the contested history of American settler colonialism in the Pacific islands of Hawai’i. Historian Ruth Oldenziel, in her chapter contribution to the edited volume Entangled Geographies, sets the stage for this discussion by analyzing the generally overlooked, historical role of overseas island possessions in the formation of American empire. Oldenziel argues that far-flung, peripheral islands like Hawai’i became “nodes in exclusionary, global-spanning technical systems closely connected to the military hardware of a networked empire.” To put it more simply, islands played “a central role” in the history of US imperial expansion. Yet island possessions are unique territories because “they render US power invisible to the world.” Indeed, most Americans are completely unaware of the extent to which the United States controls overseas island possessions. Despite their minuscule size in terms of acreage, these “US [overseas] territories are the largest of the post-colonial era” in terms of population.[1]

Continue reading “Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Six)”

Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Five)

Settler Colonialism and the Indigenous Borderland

JOSHUA L. REID. The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. 416. $40.00. Hardback. ISBN: 9780300209907.

STEPHEN ARON and JEREMY ADELMAN, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States and the Peoples In-Between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104, 3 (June 1999): 814-841.

PATRICK WOLFE, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, 4 (December, 2006): 387-409.

The readings for this week address historical and modern relationships between Indigenous peoples and Euro-American empires and nation-states through the lens of settler colonialism. Australian anthropologist and ethnologist Patrick Wolfe provides a theoretical background for the process of “settler colonialism,” whereby colonizing peoples occupy a specific geographical territory with the intention of forming a new community there, rather than just extracting labor or resources. As Wolfe writes, “invasion is a structure [and] not an event.” As a unique type of invasion, “settler colonialism” is “eliminatory” but not necessarily genocidal. “In some settler colonial sites,” Wolfe acknowledges, “native society was able to accommodate—though hardly unscathed—the invaders and the transformative socioeconomic system that they introduced.” This question of indigenous-settler accommodation is the over-arching theme of this week’s readings.[1]

Continue reading “Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Five)”

Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Three)

The Great Plains and “the West” as a Region 

ELLIOTT WEST. The Contested Plains: Indians, Gold Seekers, and the Rush to Colorado. Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1998. Pp. 446. $18.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-7006-1029-7.

DONALD WORSTER, “New West, True West: Interpreting the Region’s History,” Western Historical Quarterly 18, 2 (Apr. 1987): 141-156.

WALTER PRESCOTT WEBB. The Great Plains. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1981. Pp. 525. $25.00. Paperback. ISBN: 0-8032-9702-5. Originally published by Boston: Ginn & Company, 1931. (Selected Excerpts)

The readings for this week discuss the topic of “The West” as regional history in the context of the American Great Plains. Worster’s 1987 article provides a theoretical basis. Worster revisits the concept of western history roughly one-hundred years after Frederick Jackson Turner popularized the field in the 1890s. His catalyst for reflection is a sense that western history in the twentieth-century has lost its focus. By following Turner’s idea that “The West” is an abstract process rather than any defined geographical place, scholars like Frederick Merk and Ray Allen Billington have taken the concept to absurd limits, suggesting “the West is to be found wherever there is optimism, a love of freedom and democracy, an indomitable will to overcome all obstacles, [and] a determination to make things better for the future.” This broad and nebulous definition of “the West” has included everything from Hong Kong, to Australia, to New England.[1]

Continue reading “Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Three)”

Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Two)

BETHEL SALER. The Settler’s Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest. (Early American Studies.) Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Pp. 392. Hardback. $45.00. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4663-6.

FREDERICK JACKSON TURNER, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin 41 (Dec., 1893): 79-112.

WILLIAM CRONON, GEORGE MILES, JAY GITLIN. “Becoming West: Toward a New Meaning for Western History,” 3-27, in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. Pp. 368. $26.00. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-393-31063-4.

The readings for this week address the American “Great West” as a mythically and historically constructed place. A unifying theme is the writings and legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian of the Midwest who achieved fame in the early 1890s for his articulation of the “frontier thesis.” In a foundational essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner argued that American history and the unique character of the American people, as opposed to their colonial predecessors, could be explained through the frontier experience: “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward.” From this view, “American history [was] in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.” From the days of Columbus and the Europeans who made colonies on the tidewater, before the “fall line” of the Atlantic, to the American settlers who crossed the Rockies into California, the frontier had been a site of “perennial rebirth.” Its “primitive conditions” assured the initial creation and subsequent regeneration of what Turner saw as the main “contributions to American character,” namely, individualism, democracy, and nationalism.[1]

Continue reading “Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Two)”

Review of Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson

WALTER JOHNSON. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. 283. $25.50.


 Soul by Soul is the award-winning first book written by Walter Johnson, an American historian specializing in capitalism, imperialism, and nineteenth-century slavery, particularly the internal slave-trade of the American south between 1820 and 1860. In the book, Johnson explores “the making of the antebellum south” through “the daily history of the slave pens” in the largest North American slave market: New Orleans, Louisiana. He approaches the domestic slave trade—which resulted in the relocation of one million enslaved persons from the declining, tobacco fields of the Upper South to the burgeoning, sugar-and-cotton plantations of the Lower South—from the conflicting viewpoints of traders, buyers, and slaves. The slim stature and narrow focus of this book betray its sheer brilliance; Soul by Soul is an outstanding work of history that recaptures the complex psychological processes involved in making the commercial abstractions of the political economy material in the form of human bodies.

As a foil, Johnson cites historiographical preferences for representing the slave trade graphically (e.g., The Transatlantic Slave Trade by James Rawley and The Atlantic Slave Trade by Philip Curtin). He states, “the very aggregations that have been used to represent” the trade—charts, arrows, lines, maps, and tables—have obscured its human history. Borrowing inspiration from W.E.B. Dubois’ Black Reconstruction, Johnson claims that the history of the domestic slave trade will remain incomplete until its story is told “from the perspectives of all of those whose agency shaped the outcome.” For this reason, Johnson devotes himself to articulating “the story of a single moment—a slave sale—from three different perspectives.”

For sources, Johnson relies upon the nineteenth-century narratives of former-slaves, their abolitionist publishers, and their amanuenses. Among these, Johnson emphasizes John Brown, William Wells Brown, Solomon Northrup, Charles Ball, and Moses Grandy. He also features escaped-slave interviews conducted by Benjamin Drew in Ontario, Canada, in the 1840s. Johnson compares these narratives with the docket records of 200 cases of disputed slave sales in the Louisiana Supreme Court, as well as Notarized Acts of Sale, slave advertisements, record books, and price lists. Because Louisiana law designated slaves as real estate, rather than personal property, these court records are extraordinarily comprehensive. Many of them are stored in the archives and special collections of the University of New Orleans, being used here for the first time. Lastly, Johnson relies upon the epistles and diaries of southern slaveholders, like John Knight, and northern tourists, like Frederick Law Olmstead. Continue reading “Review of Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson”

Situating the WPA, Ex-Slave Narratives in the Historiography of American Slavery

Between 1936 and 1938, approximately 2,194 ex-slaves living in the American south were interviewed by writers and journalists under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), one of five “artistic” branches of the greater Works Project Administration (WPA). As historians well know, both of these initiatives were part of the New Deal, a series of domestic programs first enacted in 1933 by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help the United States recover from the Great Depression. Specifically, these five “artistic” programs were called Federal Project Number One, and they were initiated in 1936, during the second phase of the New Deal.

This blog post will situate the WPA ex-slave narratives within the historiography of American slavery, showing how they have been both used and challenged in the past, and suggesting what roles they might play in the future. Continue reading “Situating the WPA, Ex-Slave Narratives in the Historiography of American Slavery”

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