History of Slavery in Western Africa

 History of Slavery in Western Africa

Writing Slavery’s History Author(s): Dylan Penningroth Source: OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 23, No. 2, Antebellum Slavery (Apr., 2009), pp. 1320 Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Organization of American Historians Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40505983 Accessed: 30-04-2018 23:09 UTC REFERENCES Linked references are available on JSTOR for this article: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40505983?seq=1&cid=pdf-reference#references_tab_contents You may need to log in to JSTOR to access the linked references. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://about.jstor.org/terms Organization of American Historians, Oxford University Press are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to OAH Magazine of History This content downloaded from 129.237.35.237 on Mon, 30 Apr 2018 23:09:10 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms Dylan Penningroth Writing Slavery’s History in the 2008 presidential campaign, the Washington Post published a story entitled “A Family Tree Rooted in American Soil: Michelle Obama Learns About Her Slave Ancestors, Herself and Her Country.” As the candidate had done himself, most famously in his March 18 “race speech,” the Post presented Michelle Obama’s ties to a coastal South Carolina slave plantation as a “quintessentially American” story, one that served to burnish her husband’s own credentials as an American. For all the attention paid to Barack Obama’s multiracial, trans-national family background, there was another set of stories at play during the election. What set Barack Obama’s By the 1980s, African Americanists were^iiscovering a “Black Atlantic” counterpart, subtly but vastly influential despite its constituents’ lack of formal political power. To take just a few examples, this scholarship has shown that the Haitian Revolution not only drew strength from po- litical ideas and struggles in France, it sent refugees and potent chal- lenges to the U.S. (4). Black sailors made themselves into a nexus of transoceanic communication, carrying news and revolutionary ideologies to the back roads of the post-Revolutionary South (5). In the 1880s, Cuban exiles raised money from New Orleans’ light-skinned gens de couleur for their revolutionary – and eman- cipatory – war against Spain; later, some of those same New Orleanians, seeking to prove their worth as citizens through military service, ended up in an American occupation force that was deeply suspicious of Cuban ex-slaves’ claims to citizenship (6). In some regards, the new transnational approach may complicate image apart from that of his wife what many voters talked about dur- ing his House, Senate, and presi- dential campaigns – was not his white mother. It was that Michelle Obama’s heritage was rooted in American slavery, and his was not. The revelations about and reactions some of the moral certainties that to the Obamas’ enslaved heritage tap into a long and complex history, one have implicitly anchored scholarship on antebellum slavery. To sug- that generations of scholars have mapped and interpreted. This essay gest that Cinque, the hero of the 1839 lays out the major themes and lines Amistad revolt, may have become of interpretation that historians have involved with slave trading upon used over the past sixty years to examine the history of slavery in the United States (1). Perhaps the first major theme in discussions about slavery in the U.S. is that slavery was more than a U.S. his return to Africa is deeply unset- tling to U.S. historians; historians of west and west- central Africa have grappled with the problem of Brazil- ian “returnees” who became slave traders by rooting such moves in institution. Its impact and origins the longer history of slavery in Af- rippled far beyond the shores of this country, and the story of slavery is rica (7). These are ultimately moral questions that lead our scholarship more than a story about an instituand teaching both inward, to the tion. In fact, two out of every three charged sphere of a single planta”The Slave Deck of the Bark Wildfire,” Harper’s Weekly, June 2, i860. Almigrants who crossed the Atlantic tion, and outward, to the region and though the importation of slaves had been prohibited in the U.S. since before 1820 came from Africa. This the hemisphere. One of the things I 1808, the trade continued illegally until the outbreak of the Civil War. (Imstartling number, the product of age courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-4167.) tell my students is that only 3 percent some forty years of scholarship on of all the slaves who left Africa ended the volume and composition of the up in the U.S., but that by i860, the U.S. had 4 million slaves – the Atlantic slave trade, suggests how interconnected the histories of Afribiggest slave population in the New World. Students are usually surca and the Americas were (2). That interconnected reality has spurred prised that the first figure is so low, and the ensuing discussion helps historians to rethink older histories that tended to treat “American slavery” as if it began in 1619, with the delivery of “twenty Negars” to put those U.S. -centric moral issues into a larger geographic context (8). The overall picture is one of transformation, of change over time, Jamestown, Virginia. Since the early 1960s, scholars of the colonial and revolutionary era and of complex transatlantic movements that flowed in multiple direchad been reconstructing a complex interplay of people, political ideas, tions, not just from Africa to the U.S. legal structures, and culture between Britain and its colonies, an efHistoricizing Slavery fort that has come to be called “Atlantic world history.” But the sheer Another important current in the past twenty years of scholarnumbers highlighted what one scholar called a certain “myopia” in the “Atlantic World” vision, as well as opportunities to widen that vision (3). ship has been to historicize the institution. For all their considerable Ο AH Magazine of History · April 2009 13 This content downloaded from 129.237.35.237 on Mon, 30 Apr 2018 23:09:10 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms achievements, the big books published during the 1970s, the ones history of U.S. slavery could not be contained inside the familiar boundar- that landed slavery in the pages of the New York Times Book Review, tended to paint a picture rather than tell a story. In these books, the antebellum South functioned as a stand-in for slavery as a whole (9). Oddly enough, 1863 – the end of slavery – served as the major marker of change over time in the history of slavery itself. Perhaps this is understandable; after all, this was the part of slavery’s history that touched the defining event in the nation’s history, the Civil War, and that had the strongest hold on the popular imagination (or at least white people’s imaginations), thanks to Margaret Mitchell’s fictional plantation in Gone With the Wind (1939). Nowadays, historicizing slavery is central. More than anyone, historian Ira Berlin put change over time on the agenda, reminding us that New World slavery started back in the 1500s, and arguing persuasively that its biggest developments happened in the 1700s. In my own survey course, I spend some time talking about Estevanico, a North Africaborn member of an ill-fated 1528 Spanish expedition to what is now the Mexico-U.S. border region, who was still remembered ies of the antebellum period or even of the U.S. itself. Slavery as a System In the 1830s, some Americans took to calling slavery “the peculiar institution,” both because it seemed to them that slavery was disappearing almost everywhere else in the Western Hemisphere and because American slavery was, in the words of Senator John C. Calhoun, “a positive good” for everyone concerned, including the slaves. Today, historians are still thinking about slavery as an institution – a system and how it related to American politics, economics, and the lives of the slaves. One longstanding debate concerns whether slavery made the South different from the rest of the country, a holdout against the tide of modern capitalism and market sensibilities that was sweeping the North in those years. Whereas northerners industrialized, it was said, southerners stuck with agriculture. The South had few big cities; slave labor was inefficient; and the masters clung to a premodern ethos of paternalism that valued honor more than profit for its own sake. Recent scholarship has called into in 1930s Zufii festivals as the “Black Kachina” (10). Beginning with an influential 1980 article, Berlin pointed to key question the notion of southern regional slavery, each with profound implications a “strong dose of capitalism.” To take just a few examples, many slaveowners made distinctiveness. The slave system was quite capable of adapting and absorbing historical transitions in the institution of for slaves’ lives: a shift from several more or less distinct “societies with slaves” to a field slaves work by an industrial clock “slave society” (11) that installed slaveowners in the seat of political power; a Revo- with minutely-divided jobs; the South actually had plenty of railroads and other in- lutionary era that brought a halting end dustrial activity, largely staffed by slaves; and the planter class’s paternalist values did not stop them from treating their to slavery in the North; and a “cotton revo- lution” that entrenched slavery across the continent. In this view, the classic, antebel- beloved “servants” as market commodi- lum era of North American slavery, from ties – indeed Walter Johnson argues that 1800 to i860, is merely the last of four slaveowners effectively “packaged and “generations” of slave experience (12). Within that last era, the “cotton revolu- sold” their image of paternalist honor in the slave market (13). Perhaps the question of distinctiveness is less important, tion” drove its own important transformations. A growing demand for cotton’s fiber launched a burgeoning internal slave trade in the end, than how slavery and slave trading shaped the nation as a whole. that seized close to a million black people from their homes in Virginia and the Carolinas and forced them “down the river,” compromises written into the U.S. Constitution were just the most memorable to carve out thousands of new plantations on lands freshly stolen from Native Ameri- cans. Second, that new interest in cotton changed the way people worked – a crucial shift, since work was the main reason slav- ery existed and the biggest reality in any enslaved person’s life. Third, it was an ag- As Adam Rothman shows, the many Joseph Cinquez was the leader of a slave revolt aboard the Spanish ship Amistad en route to Cuba in June 1839. The slaves seized control of the ship but were soon recaptured and charged with murder and piracy. This portrait was completed in 1839 while Cinquez (or “Cinque”) awaited trial in New Haven, Connecticut. John Quincy Adams represented the Africans, and thanks to his efforts, they were set free and allowed to return to Africa. The original caption quoted Cinquez’s so- ber and moving speech to his comrades on board the ship ricultural revolution that strained, tore, and after the mutiny. “Brothers, we have done that which we pur- ultimately remade the slave family. Fourth, the rise and spread of cotton helped change the master class’s image of itself, from the posed, our hands are now clean for we have Striven to regain the precious heritage we received from our fathers. … I am old eighteenth-century vision of patriarchal- resolved it is better to die than to be a white man’s slave.” (Im- age courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-12960.) ism to the paternalism we recognize as the hallmark of the Old South. The seeds for such a rethinking had always been there. Some of the most familiar tropes in the history of slavery the Dutch “man o’ war” at Jamestown in 1619, for example – as well as Edmund S. Morgan’s highly influential book on the origins of slavery in colonial Virginia, which appeared in the mid-1970s alongside those of Eugene D. Genovese and Herbert G. Gutman, had long suggested that the manifestation of the many ways in which slavery made “the Old South” possible. The rise of America’s “slave country” out west underwrote the national economy’s amazing economic performance. It also put slaveholders in the driver’s seat with- in their region while at the same time weakening their grip on national power, which helped set the stage for the Civil War (14). Moreover, as historians have taken a fresh look at the South’s alleged opposite, they are finding that the North was much more deeply involved with slavery than previously thought. Although the North never became a slave society, its economy relied heavily on enslaved workers, whose lives in the 1700s came to look much like those of the plantation South. Prominent white leaders, important businesses, and even famous colleges had ties to slavery. And when northern states began passing emancipation laws in the wake of the revolution, they hedged them with so many delays and restrictions that 14 Ο AH Magazine of History · April 2009 This content downloaded from 129.237.35.237 on Mon, 30 Apr 2018 23:09:10 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms “The First cotton-gin,” 1869. The cotton gin revolutionized the cleaning and separation of short staple cotton fiber and seeds. It also fueled an internal slave trade that moved close to a million blacks from the Upper South to the Deep South cotton plantations recently carved out of lands seized from Native Americans. (Image courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-1 03801.) some 27,000 residents of “free states” still lived in bondage as late as 1810. As Leslie Harris has shown for New York City, northern whites went to great lengths to muffle the impact of emancipation in their section of the country by cordoning off “black people as a separate, dependent, and unequal group.” Perhaps nothing symbolizes slavery’s centrality to northern society – and how scholars are joining the public to recover that history – than the moment in 1991 when construction crews stumbled on a long-forgotten “Negro Burial Ground” in the heart of lower Manhattan (15). Scholarship on northern slavery has thus come to emphasize some of the same themes as the literature on southern slavery: the pervasiveness of white supremacy, the resilience of black community and culture and their importance for resisting white oppression, and the variability of slavery over time and across space, even within the region. Slavery in Cross-Cultural Context The outpouring of studies on the Atlantic slave trade starting in the 1960s generated more than just aggregate numbers. It has made it possible to do what U.S. slavery historians had long wished for: to draw specific connections between the New World and the Old. Since the early 1990s, we have learned that eighteenth-century slave-importing patterns were often ethnically specific. The process of cre- olization – how Africans became African Americans – was driven not just by what happened here, by the master-slave relationship, but also largely by African concerns and African ideas of nationhood, religion, and politics (16). To take just one example, the famous slave rebellion at Stono, South Carolina, in 1739 was probably led by ex-soldiers from the Kingdom of Kongo, who won a stunning series of skirmishes against better-armed white militias by deploying Kongolese military tactics. Why were they in South Carolina in the first place? Not just because Englishmen wanted workers but because during the 1700s there was a cataclysmic spiral of civil wars between rival powers in west-central Africa that sent a wave of people trained in the arts of war into the broad stream of Atlantic slaving (17). Whereas earlier works offered a generalized, somewhat timeless “Africa” as a baseline from which to trace cultural change in the Americas, these newer works think historically about Africa and connect culture to politics, economics, and religion. Some of the most prominent of the new slavetrade studies now publish their findings in digital form, and this has taken the field’s collaborative tradition to new heights. It also opens fascinating possibilities for teaching (18). But looking at the historical processes that sent people into the slave trade means confronting the complexities of African societies, not just as “the Motherland” but as political, economic, and social systems that were marked by conflict and inequality. We often forget that most of the people who survived the Middle Passage were familiar with OAH Magazine of History · April 2009 15 This content downloaded from 129.237.35.237 on Mon, 30 Apr 2018 23:09:10 UTC All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms slavery already. Indeed, the world we call “antebellum slavery” took shape from more than ioo years of interaction with Native American and west and west-central African systems of slavery. Each of these differences of power and histories of violence (21). Such debates are only slowly making their way into studies of antebellum U.S. slavery, but if and when they do, they may transform the field. broad populations had extensive and deep-rooted experiences with slavery and slaving (that is, with making slaves, as a byproduct of war, judicial proceedings, or other mechanisms), experiences that predated but were profoundly altered by European contact (19). Thinking about these non- U.S. slave systems might complicate the way that U.S. historians have conceptualized agency in their analyses of slavery. Historians of Africa have come up with sophisticated ways of thinking about slaving and slavery, grounding both in specific political and economic developments and changing conceptions of social ties, especially kinship. But in the 1960s, prominent Africanists debated whether there even had been slavery in Africa before Europeans brought the Atlantic slave trade to those shores (20). And the theoretical models developed since then – slavery as an institution of marginality, the slave as “antikin” – have been criticized for downplaying the agency and suffering of the slaves. A similar debate may be emerging about slavery in the Southwest borderlands, where scholars disagree about whether we can distinguish “precontact” slavery from the new forms brought by Spanish colonialism and where questions of human agency confront stark Telling the Stories of the Slaves Scholarship on slavery has grappled with central epistemological problems: how we know what we know about the past. The earliest historians of slavery relied on sources generated by white people, especially by slaveowning whites. Not surprisingly, they concluded that slavery was a benign institution, full of generous masters and happy slaves. For a long time, serious scholars at the most prestigious uni- versities assumed either that whatever the slaves had left behind in the way of historical documentation was hopelessly biased or that there were no documents to be found. In the 1970s, however, historians began to ask the obvious questions: why assume that black-authored sources were more biased than things written by the men who owned them? Such questions were part of a larger debate that swept across the profession during the 1960s and 1970s: which stories are told? Who gets to tell them? It is worth re …