Review of The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James

CYRIL LIONEL ROBERT JAMES. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: The Dial Press, 1938. Pp. xi, 396. $3.75.



The Black Jacobins is the seventh and most famous work written by C.L.R. James, the late Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist, playwright, professor, social theorist, and essayist. It is a vivid and nuanced historical narrative of the San Domingo Revolution, popularly known as “the only successful slave revolt in history,” and its “courageous leader,” Toussaint L’Ouverture, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the declaration of independence for Haiti in 1804. Written in anticipation of widespread African decolonization, with sincere Marxist-socialist leanings and a defining sense of solidarity for oppressed peoples, The Black Jacobins is widely hailed as a classic critique of imperialist and colonialist historiography. James immerses himself in the complex transatlantic drama of the protracted San Domingo Revolution, all while keeping his pen on the pulse of the longue durée; as he makes clear with poignant references to Abraham Lincoln, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and, in the amended edition, figures like José Martí, Fidel Castro, and Patrice Lumumba, the tumultuous plight of Haitian Independence was not an isolated historical event. Rather, it was one of the most dramatic, edifying, and formative chapters in an enduring struggle for global liberation.


For sources, James has synthesized archival material from France, Britain, and San Domingo, particularly Les Archives NationalesLes Archives Ministère de la guerre, Les Archives Ministère des Colonies, Les Archives Ministère  des Affaires étrangères , La Bibliotheque National, La Mission du Général Hédouville, The Public Record Office, and The British Museum. In these archives we find the dictated correspondence of Toussaint L’Ouverture to French agents, commissioners, and governors (namely, Laveaux, Sonthonax, Vincent, Pascal, Raimond, and Roume), European ambassadors and generals (namely, Maitland, Hédouville, and Leclerc) and various French administrators (including the Foreign Minister, the Directors, and the First Consul). The archives also include official government reports, published pamphlets, trial records (of Polverel and Sonthonax), colonial dispatches, and the unpublished letters of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The proceedings of the French revolutionary Assemblies are found in the archives of the government-sanctioned newspaper Le Moniteur Universel. James uses first-hand memoirs, such as those written by Sir John Fortescue, Pamphile de Lacroix, Isaac L’Ouverture, and Lemmonier-Delafosse, to recreate the military campaigns of the revolution. For information on San Domingo before the revolution, James relies upon travel accounts, memoirs, and histories written by contemporaries like the German explorer Stanislaus De Wimpffen and the English politician Bryan Edwards. To better understand social and political events across the Atlantic, James synthesizes secondary literature, both modern and contemporary, from the French historical school of the French Revolution. Similarly, he combs through biographies of Toussaint as well as literature on such topics as the French colonial trade, the mulattoes, the slaves, and the abolition of the British slave trade. All of this literature is summarized in an eleven page bibliography at the end of the monograph.


For the study of San Domingo, James favors the anticolonial histories of Haitian scholars like Antoine Michel and General Nemours. Like his former student, the late historian and statesman Eric Williams, James deplores the official approach of Oxford scholarship to the abolition of slavery and the slave trade—epitomized by the works of Reginald Coupland and Thomas Clarkson—for its “smug sentimentality, among other vices.” For the subject of British abolition, James and Williams both prefer the work of the American historian Lowell Joseph Ragatz, The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean. The abolitionists, like the Russian Toussaint biographer Anatoli Vinogradov and several mulatto historians from the nineteenth century who harbored biases toward Toussaint (most notably Saint-Remy and Beaubrun Ardouin), represent for James a “thorough misunderstanding of the question.” These authors have exaggerated the violence that Toussaint sanctioned against mulattos in the western and southern provinces and overstated the formal education that many of the black revolutionaries received, “thereby ruining the greatest lesson of the revolution.”

Notwithstanding these individual foils, The Black Jacobins is first and foremost a wholesale revision of colonialist and imperialist interpretations of the Haitian revolution. Since France officially lost the colony of San Domingo to Jean-Jacques Dessalines and the Haitian rebels in the early nineteenth century, the historical narrative has been dominated by European scholars with white, aristocratic (Tory and counter revolutionary), Francophone, colonial, and imperial sympathies. For James, these historians are epitomized by the likes of Lothrop Stoddard and Colonel H. de Poyen, who argued, among other points, that black revolutionaries only succeeded in San Domingo as a result of yellow fever outbreaks during the rainy seasons, that black and mulatto revolutionaries were naturally inferior warriors (and could only succeed when commanded by white officers), that the black upper-class held white female colonists against their will and raped and abused them (for no white women would actually prefer the company of a black man), and that reinstating slavery was never the objective of the First French Republic of Bonaparte. Alongside these specific lies are the general colonial arguments about the importance of slavery as a civilizing mission. As James states, “there is no limit to the brazenness of these imperialist historians.”

The Francophone Atlantic:

To understand the Haitian revolution, readers must first appreciate the importance of the Caribbean colony of San Domingo (also known as Saint-Dominique) to the Francophone Atlantic world. French peoples first arrived with English settlers on the isle of Tortuga, above the western half of the Spanish island of Hispaniola in the year 1625. After fifty years of cohabitation, piracy, and sporadic warfare with both the Spanish and the English, the French settlers moved their capitol to the city of Port-de-Paix on the mainland in 1676. In 1697, the Spanish negotiated ongoing hostilities by granting the French government full rights to the western half of the island in the Treaty of Ryswick. This western portion became the colony of San Domingo. Although the French occupied and lost many Atlantic colonies throughout the early modern era—namely, Antigua, Dominica, Nevis, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Louisiana, Martinique, Guadalupe, St. Lucia, and French Guyana—San Domingo was by far their most profitable. Like Jamaica for the English, San Domingo was the “crown jewel” of the national economy. Through a collaboration between the transatlantic slave trade and the sugar plantation complex, the colony made France exceedingly wealthy.

San Domingo Slave Society and the Maritime Bourgeoisie:

Like their English rivals, the French government passed legislation that maximized and directed the flow of national emoluments to the mother country. They forbade colonists from refining their own raw materials and trading with other European nations, they passed high import duties on foreign goods, they encouraged settlement, and they demanded that all colonial goods were shipped in French vessels. Meanwhile, coffee, indigo, and sugar production on the island were maintained by an appalling system of terror and violence. James lists many of the brutal tortures that slaves underwent as a result of transgression or prejudice. Among the most gruesome are stories of black slaves being plugged in the anus with gunpowder and combusted. Others were tarred with sweet molasses and buried in the sand up to their necks so that roving insects would eat their faces alive. In fact, there were so many variations of torture that colonists developed their own shorthand for distinguishing between them. “The four post,” “the ladder,” and “the hammock” were only three.

In short, the extraordinary profits of the French maritime bourgeois based out of Nantes, Bordeaux, and Havre during the early-modern era (known as the ancien régime in France) were reassured, on a daily basis, by acts of unimaginable cruelty. The Negro Code of 1685, passed into law by Louis XIV, was designed to ensure humanitarian treatment and place legal restrictions on punishments that slaves could receive, however, the horrors of the Le June case of 1788 revealed that these laws had been completely unenforceable. African slaves found themselves toiling in a rigid caste system of 128 racial categories, ranging anywhere from full-blooded blacks to sang-mêlé, with 127 of 128 parts white; they sweated in the tropical sun, under the fast-paced, hazardous, and labor-intensive activities of sugar cultivation; and many of them preferred to poison their loved ones and commit infanticide upon their children (if the women were not sterile from shock, depression and overwork) rather than endure the harsh realities of the San Domingo plantation complex. A few individuals—like the slave Padrejean in 1676, the slave Mackandal in 1757 and the wealthy, free man of color Vincent Ogé in 1790—led rebellions; but, nonetheless, the initial slave uprising of 1791 were completely unprecedented.

The Rise of Revolutionary Fervor:

After the American Revolution eliminated colonial markets for the maritime bourgeoisie of the English Atlantic, the French colony of San Domingo drastically increased in importance. Its production tripled, as did its economic potential. The period after the American Revolution put the English and the French in almost constant warfare, of which San Domingo was often the cause and the prize. Simultaneously, revolutionary fervor was entering the Atlantic waters. Abolitionist agitators in France, like the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, emerged in Paris in 1788 to protect the rights of enslaved peoples. Enlightenment authors like Guillaume Thomas Raynal were calling for “courageous leaders” and a “Black Spartacus” to rise up against state tyranny; and, one year later, the French Revolution was ignited with the storming of the Bastille, the Bourbon monarchy was overthrown, and working class peoples proclaimed the triumph of “liberty and equality” against the age of feudalism and the ancien régime.

Summary of the San Domingo Revolution:

The San Domingo revolution began approximately three years after the storming of the Bastille. The initial slave uprising of 1791, led by the Vodou houngan (and possible Muslim) Dutty Boukman, initiated a war between black slaves and the white colonists in the northern plains and cane fields. After Boukman was killed, the new leaders of this revolution—Jorge Bissaou, Jeannot Bullet, Jean Francois, and Toussaint Bréda (not yet L’Ouverture)—organized rebel slaves into military units and continued to fight. The new revolutionary government in France, led by the Girondins or Brissotins, were not quite radical enough to meet the demands of these black rebels to abolish slavery. After some failed attempts at negotiating for individual pardons and their freedom in French society, these leaders embraced patronage from the Spanish colony on the eastern half of the island. From the Western Cordon in Spanish San Domingo, these four black leaders fought a war against the white colonists in the west.

When Robespierre, compelled by the sansculottes in Paris, took power for the Jacobins in the French government, the National Convention invited three deputies from San Domingo to plead the case of the slave rebels before their official audience. Among these was the black delegate known as Bellay. After hearing each of the deputies speak, and being swept up in waves of passion, the National Convention voted to abolish slavery in the Atlantic colonies in 1794. Toussaint, ever faithful to the French government and the egalitarian ideals of the revolution and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, cut his ties with the Spanish government and returned to French San Domingo to lead the slaves against the colonists and the maritime bourgeois. Bissaou, Jeannot, and Francois remained loyal to the Spanish government and were dispersed among other Hispanic colonies in the Caribbean.

At this point, the colony of San Domingo was embroiled in a proxy war that emulated the political climate of France. The revolutionaries, known as the red brocades, included “small whites” and rebellious slaves. These individuals fought against the counter-revolutionaries, known as the white brocades, the royalists, or the Patriots, which included propertied whites, many free people of color, many free mulattos, and the agents of the maritime bourgeois. When the revolutionaries turned out victorious, many of the white colonists fled the country and became émigrés, henceforth agitating against the Haitian revolution from afar. Meanwhile, free mulattos in the west and southern provinces—the product of centuries of colonial mixture between black slaves and white planters—formed their own armies under the leadership of  figures like André Rigaud, Alexandre Pétion, Beauvais, and Pinchinat.

While the white brocades were being subdued by revolutionary forces, led by Toussaint in the north, the British decided to use their ongoing war with France as an excuse to invade and seize the lucrative colony of San Domingo. They landed sieges in the western and southern provinces—planning to advance northward via the Artibonite river—and a second phase of the Haitian revolution was begun. During this phase, Toussaint and his officers in the north organized the Haitian slaves into formal regiments and fought against the British. Similarly, the mulattos in the south and the west continued to fight against the encroachment of the British in their provinces. Although they had never joined forces, Toussaint and the mulatto armies saw themselves upholding the liberal ideals of the French revolution; the blacks did not want a return to slavery, and the mulattos did not want to remain inferior to white colonists. On the argument that slaves were being stolen across the eastern border, Toussaint captured and annexed Spanish San Domingo in the name of the French republic in 1795.

The revolutionaries eventually expelled the British from each of the Haitian provinces, after significant losses on both sides. By this time the Jacobin regime had fallen in France and the administration of the Directory had begun. The government sent a colonial commissioner named Hédouville to negotiate the reorganization of San Domingo, still a colony but under the leadership of Toussaint. Unfortunately, Hédouville sowed seeds of discord between the mulatto armies of the south and the west and the black armies of the north. As a result of this political intrigue, a third conflict was begun, whereby Toussaint was forced to campaign against the mulattos, commanded by Rigaud, and expel them from the island. Despite orders, many of the mulatto supporters were slaughtered by Toussaint’s officers in the process. Many of the highest ranking mulattos fled to France, awaiting their chance to return to the colony and exact vengeance upon their oppressor.

After defeating the white colonists, the counter-revolutionaries, the émigrés, the British, and the mulattos and free blacks in the south, the Haitian Revolution was still not complete. San Domingo remained an overseas possession of the French nation, and the home government was becoming more and more conservative. Bonaparte rose to the throne, declared himself the First Consul, and set about erasing the political victories of the French Revolution. He considered allowing Toussaint to remain the colonial leader of San Domingo; but, when his imperial plans for capturing India from the British were occluded, the importance of re-instating plantation slavery in San Domingo became vital. Despite the arguments of French commissioners who assured Bonaparte that slavery could never work again in San Domingo, Bonaparte reinstated slavery in the other Atlantic colonies (like Guadalupe) and dispatched an excessive military campaign under General Lecrelc to defeat Toussaint and retake the colony.

The Haitian revolutionaries were now engaged in the final and most violent stage of their prolonged struggle for independence. Completely outnumbered and outgunned, with many émigrés, mulatto and black leaders (like Clairveaux, Laplume, and Maurepas), municipal leaders (like Cesar Telemaque of Le Cap), and former free peoples quitting to the French, Toussaint and his armies burnt their port cities and retreated to the mountains to engage in guerrilla warfare and scorched earth tactics. They fought the French armies with hit-and-run warfare in the provinces, awaiting the arrival of the raining season in April. Jean-Jacques Dessalines held up in the fort at Crête-à-Pierrot, from where his forces mowed down the French assaults. Toussaint, ever loyal to the French nation, was persuaded to surrender at the capital of Cap-Français (Le Cap). He and his family were whisked away on a ship to France. He was imprisoned in the Fort-de-Joux in the Jura Mountains, where he died at the age of 57 from starvation, cold, and sickness.

After Toussaint’s incarceration and death in France, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and other figures led the Haitian revolutionaries to complete independence. For the first time since the slave uprising of 1791, a Haitian constitution was drafted and it was publicly declared that irrevocable independence from France was the only acceptable outcome of the conflict. As specific leaders were killed or won over to the French, petty chieftains, maroon leaders, and common slaves continued to rise up en masse. Leclerc was killed by yellow fever and his draconian successor Rochambeau was willing to resort to savage measures, such as drowning 1,000 black citizens alive in the harbor at Le Cap, to suppress the revolutionaries. Unfortunately for the French, these savageries became the cause of unity among black slaves and gens de couleur soldiers, who formed an alliance and finally succeeded in expelling the French from the island of Hispaniola.

James on Toussaint L’Ouverture:

Toussaint L’Ouverture was the soul of the Haitian revolution. Readers will get the sense from James that he represents the title figure, the quintessential Black Jacobin. At first, he was a reluctant leader, protecting his master’s plantation and refusing to engage in the slave revolt led by Dutty Boukman. However, from the moment that he threw off Spanish patronage to the moment of his surrender at Le Cap, Toussaint expressed unwavering fealty to the egalitarian ethos of the French revolution. His devotion to “equality and liberty” outlasted even the French assembly and the National Convention; as James demonstrates, his grasp of Enlightenment rhetoric and principles superseded that of even the greatest learned scholars, Pericles, Paine, Jefferson, and Marx. As an ex-slave, a black individual living in a slave society, and a military general on the front lines of a fiery war, Toussaint understand the stakes of liberty in a way that was much more authentic, and much more personal, than any armchair philosopher.

After a decade of leadership, like a biblical martyr, Toussaint was betrayed and died before his people achieved their freedom. His reign was all the more remarkable because he was an aging (45 at the time of the initial revolt), illiterate (he could read but not write), formally uneducated, Catholic who could barely speak French. He had risen to the highest ranks of the most profitable Caribbean colony in the late eighteenth century, and his name was spoken alongside the names of figures like Napolean Bonaparte and Horatio Nelson. Toussaint dictated tactful and eloquent correspondence to some of the most powerful men in the Western world, and they responded with praise.

James invests himself sincerely in understanding Toussaint’s mentality as a revolutionary figure, as well as understanding the causes of his downfall. As someone who constantly looked to France for answers and assurance, Toussaint maintained a drastically different perspective than the majority of the slaves who formed the rank-and-file. He was constantly negotiating political relationships with the Americans, the French, the British, and the white émigrés. He could not be persuaded to abandon the lost cause of the French revolution, nor could he be persuaded to execute white colonists and mulatto dissidents, and redistribute former plantations. Pressure to perform these actions led Toussaint to make controversial decisions which were never properly communicated to his people. A few of these decisions included abandoning defenses in Spanish San Domingo, executing the revered black leader Moïse, and expelling the beloved commissioner Sonthonax. Eventually, Toussaint became so removed from the masses, and his intentions became so obscure to them, that many ex-slaves and revolutionary leaders began to see him as a dictator and encouraged his removal from power.

As James concludes, “it was in method, and not in principle, that Toussaint failed.” Toussaint was right in thinking that “the race question was subsidiary to the class question in [global] politics,” but he was wrong to focus on global class struggle, in unity with the distant French republic, while completely ignoring the imminent racial realities in San Domingo. When Toussaint cavorted with white colonists, the black ex-slaves could not understand his actions. As James states, Toussaint allowed “the masses to think that their old enemies were being favored at their expense.” By socializing with upper-class white society, and surrounding himself by white and mulatto officials, he “committed an unpardonable crime in the eyes of a community where whites stood for so much evil.”

It seems appropriate that the Haitian revolution was finished by a man like Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Unlike Toussaint, Dessalines had absolutely no faith in the French government or the productive potential of the white émigrés. He was not only willing, but he was eager to massacre French prisoners of war, as well as white colonists, dissident mulattos, and free blacks who opposed him. He was eager to call for absolute independence from France, and he was quick to seize and redistribute all of the former plantation properties and resources. He was a brilliant military general, even more uneducated than Toussaint, who, at the very least, was tutored by his godfather Pierre Baptiste. Most importantly, Dessalines was a hardened ex-slave who bore the scars of the rigoise whip beneath his revolutionary epaulets. He had absolutely no pretensions about maintaining poise, respect, or reverence in the eyes of Europe.

Mulatto Betrayal:

Rigaud and the mulatto leaders of the south and the western province became the Judas’ of the Haitian revolution in what James calls “one of the greatest tragedies of San Domingo.” In this story there is both a missed opportunity for union among two groups who had common cause to fear European imperialism, and a lesson about the divide and conquer stratagems of the white imperialists. European powers, British and French alike, played mulatto and black forces against one another whenever possible, and, since the initial revolution in 1791, mulattos were “wavering continuously.” Rigaud eventually sided with the French, hoping to maintain the racial privileges that colonial society afforded to him and his people. After returning with Leclerc to conquer San Domingo, he was deemed useless, imprisoned by his supposed allies, and sentenced to exile. Through their internalized racial prejudice, many free black and mulatto citizens were like Rigaud; they could not see their common victimhood with black laborers at the heels of European hegemony. As James argues, “mulatto instability lied not in their blood but in their intermediate position in society.”

The Sansculottes of San Domingo:

At times, The Black Jacobins can read like an intellectual and political biography of Toussaint; but, while James is no doubt fascinated by the inner workings of Toussaint, this focus is more for narrative convenience than historical honesty. Borrowing from the French historian Georges Lefebvre, who argued that “the real leaders of the French Revolution were nameless, obscure men, far removed from the legislators and the public orators,” James assures us that the real heroes of the Haitian revolution were the unnamed throngs of ex-slaves, petty chieftains, maroon, and common laborers. Like the lower-class sanscullotes of Paris, who conspired in closed workshops and darkened streets, the ex-slaves gathered in the torched cane fields near Limonade and the isolated foothills of the Grand Cahos. They were the sinews of the revolution. They were powered by an ardent desire never to return to slavery, and they died by the thousands in order to make that dream a reality. When leaders like Toussaint were compromised by their allegiance to France, and mulatto and free black officials were divided by bribes, promises, and their own fear, masses of “obscure creatures” emerged from the plantations in order to shoulder the mantle of the Haitian revolution.

Critiques and Comparison:

As the historian Laurent Dubois has said about The Black Jacobins, James “convincingly demanded that historians take the Haitian Revolution seriously as an event of global significance.” In pursuing this goal, James has created a classic, anticolonial text that is timeless. The scope of what he has achieved in the context of the Haitian revolution is simply dumbfounding, the liberties of his imagination are inspiring, and his broad commentaries on the intricacies of writing history are awe inducing. If there can be any fault with this text, it is that historians now know so much more than James did in his own day. Decades of literature about the African past of slaves and acculturation in the New World have prevented authors from approaching plantation slavery as a tabula rasa, as James does. Discussions about “day-to-day” resistance and petite versus grand marronage have encouraged authors to examine slave agency and not just violent uprisings. Finally, decades of literature on class analysis and postmodern thought have encouraged leaders to interrogate the motivations of each historical actor, not just main figures like Toussaint and Leclerc. In The Black Jacobins, James is too often content to allow groups to remain undifferentiated, namely mulattos and black laborers.

In his review, Dubois draws attention to another theme that has not been adequately explored in historiography since the publication The Black Jacobins. James states in passing that the capital of the French Revolution was financed by the slave trade, a claim which is strikingly similar to Eric Williams’ argument in Slavery and Capitalism that the slave trade financed the capital of the industrial revolution in England. However, while both Eric Williams and C.L.R. James are in agreement that the activists and revolutionaries of Britain and France do not deserve the credit for abolition and emancipation in the colonies, they do not agree on why. Arguing for economic determinism, Williams states that the slave trade and slavery failed because they had become unprofitable. Arguing for human agency, James states that the slave trade and slavery failed because proletarian slaves were united under charismatic leaders who, despite having no formal education, embodied the universal lessons of the revolution. Together, these individuals risked everything they had in order to seize their freedom.


The Haitian revolution was a protracted, turbulent, multiethnic, and multinational drama that lasted thirteen years and cost an untold number of lives. It was enacted by a dramatis personae of British, French, African, American, and mixed-race individuals. It was defined by shifting allegiances, foreign intrigue, extra-national pressures, and the fundamental desire for liberation from enslavement. As James states, “it is impossible to understand the San Domingo revolution unless it is studied in close relationship with the revolution in France,” and, after reading The Black Jacobins, it becomes clear that the Haitian revolution succeeded where liberty in France ultimately failed. As the French revolution descended into paranoia, the reign of terror, and the restoration of absolute monarchy, the Haitian revolution persisted against one enemy after another. From colonists, to émigrés, to the British, to mulatto armies, to the Spanish and the French, masses of ex-slaves upheld the revolutionary, Enlightenment promise of “liberty and equality” for the Atlantic world.

The Black Jacobins is an outstanding text because James combines the discipline of an historian with the passion of a revolutionary and the storytelling talent of a journalist. Like a trained sociologist, he is always aware of the big picture, and he never misses an opportunity to reflect on contemporary circumstances. Indeed, the work is not only a story about a revolution; it is also a philosophical manifesto about revolutions themselves, their potentials and their dangers. Above all else, The Black Jacobins is a powerful text because James knew why he was writing. The lessons of the Haitian revolution were important in his day because global imperialism, particularly on the African continent, was vaunting its exploitation of wealth under the banner of civilization. “In reality, it was strangling the real wealth of the continent—the creative capacity of the African people.” In the late eighteenth century, the revolutionary call for “liberty and equality” in the Atlantic world needed freedom from bondage more than the maritime bourgeoisie needed their money. Today, international socialism needs the unique energies of the masses more than corporations need profits and the plutocracy needs cheap labor.

Review of The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker

MARCUS REDIKER. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Press, 2007. Pp. 434. $27.95.


Slave Ship Book Cover

The Slave Ship is the fourth book written by Marcus Rediker, a prize-winning American historian of the early-modern era and the Atlantic world and a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Through evocative language, fluid narration, poignant imagery, dramatic vignettes, diverse sources, dynamic characters, and bold statistics, Rediker synthesizes the violent nature of the Anglo-American slave trade during its so-called Golden Age, from 1700-1808, for common readership. Like Walter Johnson’s multi-perspective approach to the American interstate trade in Soul by Soul, Rediker captures the phenomenon of the transatlantic trade from the perspectives of its many, diverse participants: merchants, underwriters, captains and officers, seaman, slaves, and agitators. At the core of this visceral, conceptual history is a special focus on the gruesome yet calculated “hardware of bondage,” most aptly characterized by that “vast and diabolical machine,” the Guineaman slaver. To borrow a metaphor used elsewhere by Walter Rodney, although The Slave Ship offers very little new information, the book presents one of the first nuanced and comprehensive portrayals of the Atlantic slave trade as “capitalism without a loincloth.” It not only reminds us that “violence and terror were central to the Atlantic economy.” It shows us, time and time again.


For sources, Rediker has cited diaries, memoirs, letters, legal documents, testimonies, essays, exposés, interviews, muster rolls, manifests, log books, inventories,  manuals, almanacs, broadsheets, pamphlets, images, diagrams, speeches, lectures, sermons, poems, and material evidence. Much of this information dates from the abolitionist movement of the late 1780s, and its resurgence in the 1820s, when historians (like Thomas Clarkson), ex-slaves (like Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, and Louis Asa-Asa), preachers (like Silas Told), and former seamen and captains (like James Field Stanfield, John Newton, Hugh Crow, and William Butterworth) began publishing personal accounts of their experiences. These works coincided with parliamentary hearings that produced depositions, debate transcripts, and reformist legislation (the Dolben Act of 1788, the Slave Carrying Bill of 1799, and the Foreign Slave Trade Bill of 1806). For archival research, (especially on slaving voyages before the 1780s), Rediker has explored many collections, including the papers of the High Court of Admiralty, the sessional papers of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the Liverpool Record Office, the Bristol Record Office, and a multi-volume compilation edited by Elizabeth Donnan, entitled Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America.


Rediker was inspired to make The Slave Ship “a human history” in order to counteract the preference among slave-trade historians for reproducing cold, dry, “abstract, [and] bloodless statistics” that mirrored the ledgers, account books, and balance sheets of traders and merchants. As he states, historians began to distrust “the propaganda and sensationalism of [the] abolitionists,” and so they focused on addressing the relatively safe issue of the numbers game in the slave trade through graphs, charts, maps, arrows, and tables. But, because traders thought of maritime labor (whether enslaved or free) as abstract commodities, this quantitative methodology served to reproduce the very logic of slavery. With its emphasis on representative numbers over individual testimonies, it sanitized the reader from the horrific reality of the Middle Passage in the same way that underwriters and merchants were sanitized by the distance of their desks at the exchange in Bristol or the coffeehouse in London. In short, it reproduced the same “violence of abstraction” that had allowed slave traders to “hide the reality and consequences of their actions from themselves and from posterity.” As the feminist writer Audre Lorde might say, writing the history of the slave trade with numbers is like trying to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. It simply will not happen.

Despite positioning demographic histories as a foil, The Slave Ship owes much to their quantifiable methodologies. The tireless work of slave-trade historians like Philip Curtin, Joseph Inikori, David Eltis, David Richardson and others has culminated in the critical Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database, which serves as an online, public access compendium for all slaving voyages in the Atlantic. In writing The Slave Ship, Rediker has synthesized the quantifiable findings from this database with a wave of recent, secondary scholarship—from historians like Joseph Miller, Stephanie Smallwood, Eric Robert Taylor, and Emma Christopher—that focuses on the experiences of being in the trade. In fact, Rediker’s introduction includes a breakdown of slaves in the transatlantic trade (2 million died before loading, 1.8 million died in transit, 1 million died in seasoning, and 9.6 million survived in the colonies) that would not have been possible without the database. Now, having conquered the demographic statistics, authors like Rediker believe that it is time to recapture the subjectivities of the trade, defined as they were by systematic dehumanization, strict hierarchies, high mortality, arbitrary power, and excessive brutality.

Title and Organization:

Although Rediker never addresses this parallel, The Slave Ship likely draws its title from the homonymous, Romantic maritime artwork by G.M.W. Turner (1840). This oil-on-canvas painting depicts a barkentine slaver floundering in churning waters amid a stormy sky, with black slaves, still wearing their shackles, drowning in the foreground. The painting was inspired by the Zong massacre, in which the slaving commander Luke Collingwood threw 142 live slaves overboard in the Caribbean in 1781 and then filed a law suit to collect the insurance money. The Zong case is mentioned several times in the book, and Turner’s painting was used as cover art on one version of the text.

The Slave Ship is organized in ten chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. One of the chapters discusses the horrors of the slave ship as a “vast machine,” one of them discusses the evolution of the slave ship as maritime technology, four of them approach the slave trade from different perspectives via memoirs, four of them discuss how sailors and slaves ended up on the slave ship and how they resisted the slave trade, and a final chapter discusses the rise of abolition through the dissemination of transatlantic imagery (diagrams of the slave ship Brooks) upon metropolitan readership.

The Carceral Slaver:

Those familiar with Rediker’s work will quickly recognize his trademark emphasis on the intimate relationship between performed terror and Atlantic capitalism in the early-modern era. Using the metaphor of the “wooden world,” popularized by the historian Nicholas Rodger, The Slave Ship takes this emphasis to new extremes by exploring the ship as a “big tool of torture.” According to Rediker, the “slave ship was a linchpin of a rapidly growing Atlantic system of capital and labor.” It served as both a floating prison, for seaman and slaves alike, and a moving factory that produced docile bodies for sale in the New World. Slaves were stripped, inspected, chained, numbered, separated by gender and age, stowed below decks, and forced to “dance” for exercise. When the slaver approached its destination, they were groomed for sale; sailors cut and dyed their hair, applied caustics to hide their sores, and used palm oil to rub down their bodies. This process symbolizes the powerful dichotomy of the slave ship, as a place that served to both imprison individuals and reshape them for the labor market.

Anatomy of a Slaver:

Rediker excels at describing the anatomy of the slave ship. Ranging anywhere between 10 and 566 tons, the Anglo-American slaver could be a schooner, snow (or snauw), brigantine, or Guineaman. Its design evolved from the Portuguese carrack and caravel, which outdated the Mediterranean galley for deep-sea sailing. Most of these ships were made of oak, and later pine and mahogany. They were financed by chartered companies and later private merchants, and they were built “upon the sticks,” from the keel and ribs, in port-side dockyards by a diverse cast of artisans. Glaziers made and set the stern windows, shipbuilders and oar makers constructed the side boats, shipwrights erected the masts, masons laid brick to support the galley, butchers, bakers, and grocers provisioned the hold, ropers supplied the cordage, canvas makers wove the sails and riggers hung them, caulkers filled the seams, coopers built the casks, joiners set the bulkheads, tinmakers lined the scuppers, ironworkers forged the anchor and cannons and hauled them aboard, and painters, wood-workers, and upholsterers personalized the vessel. Without a doubt, the slave ship was a lucrative business before it ever left its berth.

Each slaver contained a quarterdeck, poop deck, main deck, a gallery, gunroom, mates quarters, provisions rooms, furnace room, and the captain’s cabin. The lower deck was separated by bulkheads into at least four compartments, for men, women, girls, and boys. The men were kept in the fore; the women were kept in the aft. These compartments had beams (carlings) to support platforms so that slaves could be stacked on top of one another. As the century progressed, scuttles or air ports were cut into the hull to allow ventilation. The lower deck featured tubs for relieving waste, as well as gratings and buffer layers to prevent slaves from escaping the hold. The ship was wreathed with netting to prevent unwanted suicides.  Finally, the hull of the vessel was sheathed with copper and stocked with oakum, tar, and chalk to delay rotting, plug leaking, and prevent the boring of tropical “Guinea worms.”

The Hardware of Bondage:

Basic anatomy aside, what is most important to Rediker are the technologies of terror that constituted these “floating prisons.” Foremost among these, the decks of each slaver were separated, fore and aft, by an 8-12 foot wooden wall known as the barricado. This was built and repaired by the ship’s resident carpenter. It featured spikes and swivel guns on top, gun holes in the sides, and a single door in the center. Whenever the male slaves came aboard the main deck (for air, food, work, or exercise), the ship’s gunners trained these weapons upon them. But, while the barricado was the primary obstacle against slave insurrections, it was not the only technology used to oppress sailors and slaves. As Rediker demonstrates, slavers stocked masks, gags, chairs, tackle, fishgigs, hooks, cutlasses, pistols, cannons, blunderbusses, marlinspikes, staves, paddles, muskets, straps, ropes, whips (the ubiquitous cat-o-nine tails and the horsewhip), shackles, manacles, padlocks, neck rings, collars, branding irons (namely, the white-hot “tormentor”), bilboes, thumbscrews, and feeding devices (horns, balus knives, and the speculum oris). All of these instruments were employed for torture and submission. Slavers even fed sharks carcasses, offal, and rubbish to encourage their company, serving as a deterrent for jumpers.

Hierarchies of Terror

By taking a class-based analysis, Rediker demonstrates how “terror cascaded downward” from authoritarian ship captains (the architect of terror) to first and second mates, petty officers, common sailors and, finally, to slaves. He depicts the sailor as both “victimized and victimizer,” the subject of violence and manipulation by ruthless captains and deceptive crimps, clerks, and press gangs, as well as the author of violence among slaves. He concentrates on the vertical and horizontal hierarchies of the ship. For example, while all sailors were employed in the common cause of making the vessel go, many of them (cooks, apprentices, foremast men, landsmen, and common sailors) were subject to the arbitrary power of the captain and his mates. This hierarchy changed when African slaves boarded the vessel, and all crewmen, regardless of their color, suddenly became “white.” In general, Rediker must be given praise for devoting equal space to both sailors and slaves. In two brilliant chapters that take place on land, Rediker demonstrates how Africans came to be enslaved and how Europeans came to be sailors. Many times, both of these parties were brought together by forces beyond their control.

The Sailor and the Captain

 Sailors on Anglo-American vessels were typically recruited from British territories like Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, and the overseas colonies; however, muster roles also featured a smattering of people with other European ancestry as well as mixed-race, African, and Asian [lascar] peoples. Some of these individuals were also young boys apprenticing in the trade, and landsman who were working their way up to sailor status. Many of these people were recruited in dockyard taverns and bars, forced by local toughs or mendacious clerks into taking debt and signing contracts. Their roles ranged from the gunner, to the surgeon, to the violinist, who played for the slaves while they were forced to exercise. Captains, on the other hand, typically received promotion after attending voyages as mates and petty officers. Many of them came from high social pedigrees, and they were placed into slavers built and financed by merchants, who also drew up contracts and supplied salaries.

Morbidity and Mortality:

Aside from violence, sailors and slaves were subject to high morbidity and mortality. The “texture of the slave vessel” was defined by diseases, infections, and untreated wounds. Malaria, yellow fever, influenza, dysentery (flux or the bloody flux), dropsy, scurvy, smallpox, measles, fevers, sores, yaws, lacerations, breaks, starvation, insanity, and seasickness all wracked those who worked aboard the slaving vessel. Rats were pervasive, water and food shortage were common, and sailors frequently mutinied, committed suicide, turned pirate, deserted, or were discarded by their captains upon reaching their destination. Many of these destitute seamen suffered from unhealed wounds, swollen limbs, blindness, gangrene and rotting appendages, arthritis, bruises, burning ulcers, sweats and shakes, blotchy skin and bloody gums.  Poor, infirm, and unwanted, some sailors became “wharfingers,” “scow bankers,” and “beach horners,” simply crawling into open hogsheads and waiting to die. Other sailors, such as those in Liverpool in 1775, organized large-scale revolts and strikes against the tyranny of the  merchant, slave-trading class. Others were killed outright in slave insurrections.

Arrival and Fictive Kinship

As Rediker shows, African slaves in the Anglo-Atlantic world came from six different regions on the West African coast: Senegambia, Sierra Leone/Winward Coast, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, and the Bight of Biafra. They became slaves as a result of debt, criminality, war, famine, kidnapping, or economic pressure. They were brought aboard vessels by longboats, yawls, and African canoes, or they were bought from factories, castles, and forts. Many of them, like the Igbo of the interior, traveled hundreds of miles and were sold many times before they arrived at the slave ship. Upon purchase, Africans were inspected by surgeons or traders who looked for film in their eyes, sores on their bodies, distended bellies, sallow skin, bloody gums, and damaged limbs. They were then inspected for their “country marks,” and separated according to their likelihood of resistance. Coromantee slaves were considered rebellious and needed to be chained, while Angolans were considered passive and Igbos were considered prone to “fixed melancholy” (depression) and suicide.

Once in the hold, Africans found themselves alongside members of their immediate families, members of their linguistic community, and complete strangers. Throughout the 8-12 week voyage, these captives developed a form of “fictive kinship” based on shared experience (and were not psychologically eviscerated as Stanley Elkins has previously argued). Through song, stories, dance, work, various forms of resistance, and other ways of communication, they became “shipmates,” creating lasting bonds that were often reflected in the language of West Indian slave communities.

Slave Insurrections:

Despite the technologies of advanced terror on board the slaver, many vessels (roughly 10%) experienced slave insurrections. Even though slaves generally outnumbered their captors ten to one, plotting an insurrection was an extraordinarily difficult undertaking. Slaves had to escape their chains, build forms of communication from completely different languages in a climate of extreme fear, obtain weapons, overpower the crew and their defenses, and acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to operate the vessel. All of this had to be done without alerting or recruiting whistle-blowers and while negotiating preexisting ethnic antagonisms among slaves (such as between Fante and Igbo, or Ibibio and Chamba).

As Rediker notes, many of these insurrections were aided by women and children, who were generally allowed to remain unchained while on the ship. Other significant forms of resistance included hunger strikes (collective and individual), musical expression, and suicide. Overall, Rediker portrays the experience of slaves as a process of African expropriation and enslavement that began on the continent, and eventually led to European enslavement on the colonies. The space in-between was a carceral experience, punctuated by rape, floggings, beatings, compression, forced silence, humiliation, and struggles to maintain humanity. Despite the infinite modes of violence used to create commodities out of people, Rediker concludes that slaves “had the most inclusive and generous conception of humanity.” Although evidence is still speculative, there is cause to suggest that black slaves buried white sailors who had become common victims of the slave trade.

Africans as Non-Slaves

To his credit, Rediker refrains from conflating the experience of black individuals in the slave trade with the slave experience. He is careful to note that black and mixed-race individuals worked upon slavers as mistresses, sailors, fighters, cabin boy’s, servants, apprentices, cooks, and landsmen. Once African slaves came aboard the ship, there is evidence to suggest that these individuals were considered “white.” Many of them found a relative form of liberation working upon slavers. One or two Africans, like Job Ben Solomen, were also repatriated to their communities after being captured. Rediker also features African slave traders like Kabes and John Konny, who were known as the “Big Men” [abirempon]. It should also be noted that West African industries were responsible for producing provisions for the voyage, most commonly yam and rice. These are just some of the many ways that Rediker employs the full experience of black individuals in the Atlantic world to demonstrate how race was created through the institution of slavery, and not the other way around.

The Rise of Abolition:

In the closing paragraph, Rediker portrays the rise of the British abolitionist movement in the 1780s. He approaches the subject from the iconic and oft-reproduced image of the slave ship Brooks, a diagram of a slaving vessel packed tightly with black cargo, like “herrings in a barrel.” Rediker also focuses on the efforts of the Reverend Thomas Clarkson, who collected interviews from common seamen in the sailing communities of Bristol and Liverpool. The results of this field research produced the factual text that accompanied the image of the Brooks. What is most interesting about this chapter are the ways that the diagram and its text were changed depending upon the audience, publisher, and venue. American abolitionists saw fit to emphasize different arguments that British abolitionists, all while using the same image. Both audiences, at different times, saw fit to appeal to their readership by ironically emphasizing the plight of the sailor over the violations of the enslaved. Regardless, more than any other illustration, this image penetrated the greater consciousness of an emerging, transatlantic metropolitan readership. It brought the hidden atrocities of slavery to light among everyday people, and it galvanized parliament to expand their debates.

Parallel to the Prison Complex:

Rediker has stated that his idea for The Slave Ship emerged from visits in the 1990s with death-row prisoners in Pennsylvania, and, although a direct comparison is never elaborated, readers will sense a consistent, underlying comparison between the slave trade and the modern prison industrial complex. In this regard, the Foucaultian idea of producing docile, laboring bodies through a combination of confinement, terror, and subjugation is the main thread. Like the maximum security prison, the slave ship is a carceral facility. It “not only delivers millions of people to slavery, but [it] prepares them for it.” Similarly, the process of incarceration and the process of enslavement both depend upon a “violence of abstraction,” where the general public is removed from the daily atrocities of their commercial system.


Like the image of the BrooksThe Slave Ship was intended for public audiences so that it could break the barrier of academic abstraction. Some critics have argued that it does not offer any new scholastic insights to slave-trade historians, but those scholars have failed to realize that the book was not intended for them. Far and away, Rediker’s greatest achievement is offering an honest, comprehensive, critical, and engaging overview of the slave trade to non-historians. In beginning the book with a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, he has inspired us to remember that “the most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history” was so magnificent because of the people who made it possible, not because of the numbers that made it profitable. In closing the book with a call for a “new, social movement of justice,” he has asked us, where does the most magnificent story of the next thousand years take place? Who are its participants? Who are its abolitionists?


Review of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams

ERIC WILLIAMS. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944. Pp. ix, 245. $29.95.

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Capitalism and Slavery is the first and most important work by the late Trinidadian scholar and statesman, Eric Eustace Williams. Based on a dissertation written at the University of Oxford in 1938, entitled “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the British West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” the work is an “economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the industrial revolution in England and of mature industrial capitalism [eventually] destroying the slave system.” More generally, the book documents the historical shift of Britain’s political economy from monopolistic commercial mercantilism based on tropical, Caribbean islands with black-plantation slavery to laissez faire commercial capitalism based on white free-labor factories in temperate, Continental regions. In doing so, it challenges one-hundred years of British imperial historiography by making the controversial argument that the causes of abolition and emancipation were economic, not humanitarian. Although too cynical in its conclusions, and slightly contrived in its teleology, Capitalism and Slavery is one of the most effective, creative, powerful, and influential history books that has ever been written.

For sources, Williams has relied heavily upon the archival research that he conducted for his dissertation, which covered the years 1783-1833. This research drew upon the Colonial Office Papers, Chatham Papers, Foreign Office Papers, and Custom Records in the Public Record Office of London. Williams has also studied the Liverpool Papers, Minute Books of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the Auckland Papers, and the Huskisson Papers at the British Museum, and he has pursued sources at provincial libraries, like the Liverpool Public Library, the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and the Rhodes House Library in Oxford. He has reviewed parliamentary debates, stock ledgers, custom receipts, correspondence and memoranda, pamphlets, legislation, committee reports, and the material record of the slave trade, exhibited at the Wilberforce Museum in Hull. Finally, he has emphasized the writings of contemporary historians, theorists, mercantilists, planters, politicians, and abolitionists. Foremost among these are Thomas Clarkson and Herman Merivale, Adam Smith, Malachy Postlethwayt, Charles Davenant, William Pitt, and William Wilberforce.

Capitalism and Slavery represents a dramatic departure from traditional, British imperial historiography as it had been written since the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. For inspiration, Williams has cited, among others, the oeuvre of Lowell Ragatz, an influential American historian of the British Caribbean, as well as the work of Frank Pitman. He has recommended Paul Mantoux and John Clapham for the subject of British capitalism, and the Caribbean historian C.L.R. James for its relationship to slavery. As a foil, Williams has singled out the work of the British scholar of African history, Reginald Coupland. Coupland, says Williams, “represents the sentimental conception of history,” and “ his works help us to  understand what the abolition movement was not.” In general, Williams supports economic materialism, aligning himself against those who situate moral causality, ideological humanitarianism, and poetic sentimentalism at the center of the abolition movement. In a chapter entitled “The ‘Saints’ and Slavery,” Williams goes so far as to call English abolitionists hypocrites and the “unconscious mouthpieces” of the “new industrial interest.”

In a change from his dissertation, Williams places the year 1783 at the halfway point of Capitalism and Slavery. Like many historians before him, he has identified the American Revolution as the turning point of his analysis. Prior to 1783, “all classes of English society,” with the exception of a few voices of Cassandra, “supported the slave trade.” The country was under the thumb of the West Indian Interest, a “solid phalanx” of slave society composed of the landed aristocracy, the commercial bourgeoisie, the ecclesiastical authorities, and the political elite. Profits from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantation complex penetrated all aspects of English society, and protectionist legislation and military force were marshalled to ensure that capital accumulated by England remained in the British economy. Politicians had vested financial interests in the slave trade, its Caribbean commodities, and its many ancillary industries, including, but not limited to, shipbuilding, dock building, sail making, cask making, rope making, gun making, coal mining, distilling, refining,  iron smelting, weaving, banking, licensing, insurance providing, investing and underwriting, and manufacturing. These politicians passed high import duties and embargos on foreign products, banned colonial trade with foreign nations,  and demanded that all aspects of overseas trade be nationalized: performed with English ships, English crews, and English victuals, supplies, and naval stores. As Williams describes, this was the economic “infrastructure of mercantilist England,” and it was far more important than the “ideological superstructure” of humanitarianism.

By citing annual import-export profits, national emoluments, and personal connections, Williams shows how capital accrued from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantation complex financed the construction of English estates, seaport towns like Bristol, Liverpool, and London, and their manufacturing counterparts like Manchester. The triangular trade, of which the trade in black human bodies was one inextricable component, stimulated the domestic economy and lowered unemployment by establishing new overseas markets with high demands that needed a source of supply. While the Caribbean colonies offered sugar, tobacco, indigo, ginger, and wood to England, the English textile industries supplied woolens, linens, and cloths to the colonies; meanwhile, the English fisheries in Newfoundland and the mainland colonies of America supplied the necessary provisions. This last fact permitted West Indian planters to specialize exclusively in lucrative cash crops while their absentee landlords lobbied for their political interests in Parliament. Finally, English foundries and furnaces emerged to supply the necessary instruments of enslavement and cultivation while English production centers emerged to supply the diverse, sundry items of the African trade. In this way, the infrastructure of industrialism was galvanized by the market forces of slavery.  To borrow a phrase from Karl Marx and The Communist Manifesto, by supplying the necessary capital for the industrial revolution, West Indian planters were, in a sense, becoming their “own grave-diggers.”

Although Williams tends to cite the annual flow of capital into English ports to show the accumulated wealth of the slave trade, he does occasionally offer more explicit connections. For example, he states that overseas markets and slave-trading capital motivated the cost-reducing technologies that came to define the English Industrial Revolution. Specifically, this includes the steam engine, the rotary engine, the steam loom, the railroad, and the hot blast and the puddling process in iron smelting. Profits fertilized the slate industry, the mining industry, the spinning jenny, the water frame, the construction of iron bridges, ships, and factories, and the beginning of interchangeable parts in the manufacturing process. Overall, Williams argues that it is not a coincidence that slavery and the slave trade became unattractive as domestic production (secondary production) replaced foreign trade (barter or primary production) as the engine of the British economy.

According to Williams, the demise of British mercantilism, the West Indian Interest, and the Caribbean planter class was a process of creative destruction that began with the American Revolution, and was epitomized by the synonymous publication of two capitalist-era texts, TheWealth of Nations and The Declaration of Independence. In short, “American independence destroyed the mercantile system” because it made America a foreign nation subject to the economic restrictions of the British Navigation Laws. It left the Caribbean colonies starved for supplies because it eliminated the provisions market, it engendered renewed competition between the soil-exhausted English islands and the relatively virgin territories of foreign nations (think Saint-Dominique, Cuba, Brazil, and the Cotton Kingdom of the United States), it created conditions of overproduction in England which could no longer be filled by the diminishing markets of the Atlantic slave trade, and it created an economically weak position from which colonial slave rebellions became more bold and more frequent. All factors considered, by the early nineteenth century, the slave trade and the institution of slavery had lost all of their economic viability and, for the first time, humanitarian protests became aligned with the material realities of British capitalism. In other words, the institution of slavery was no longer profitable, and Britain began to “cut its losses.”

Capitalism and Slavery

Unlike his dissertation, Williams spends the first half of Capitalism and Slavery tracing the origins of the English slave trade from the late sixteenth century—the expedition of the privateer John Hawkins—to the year 1783. Particularly, he discusses the rise of slaving interests from the English Civil War to the formation of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa in 1752. While this section makes interesting exposition, its three major claims are less than controversial today. Williams shows that the “origin of Negro slavery was economic not racial;” he debunks the “climatic theory” that white people could not perform adequate labor in the tropics; and he also shows that “white servitude [and we might add Indian labor] was the historic base upon which Negro slavery was constructed.” Today, most historians [David Brion Davis excepted] believe that racism emerged from the unique circumstances of Atlantic slavery and not the other way around. Africans made ideal slaves for whites because “they were conspicuous by their color and features,” they were ignorant of European languages, customs, and laws, they were cheap to obtain by trade, there were existing structures in place for their acquisition in Africa, they could be deracinated from their home environments, and, in relation to Indians and Europeans, they seemed to possess a hardy constitution.

Today, historians have also accepted the claim that the Middle Passage was a horrific experience for both white sailors and black slaves. However, many scholars are more reluctant to accept the claim that the victims of plantation slavery were “the Negroes in Africa and the small white farmers.” Of course, by “Negroes in Africa,” Williams is referring to those individuals who were captured and shipped to the New World as slaves. By “white farmers,” he is referring to the yeomen laborers who wanted to work the land themselves but could not compete with the monopolistic, economic structure of plantation slavery. Historians find a similar theme in the American abolitionist narrative, where white northerners supported the ban on slavery not for humanitarian or egalitarian reasons, but because they knew that wage labor could not content with the profit margins of free, slave labor.

Many historians have critiqued Capitalism and Slavery as being too harsh on the English abolitionists, too cynical about their intentions, and too eager to dismiss them as collaborators with the regime of industrialism. This critique is, at its base, completely true. Of course, we can accept the fundamental claim that humanitarian agitation was not the sole (or even the central) cause of abolition and emancipation without completely dismissing the abolitionists as irrelevant. First, we must remember why Williams wants to warn readers about the abolitionists in the first place. He believes that the “splendid moral isolation” of the abolitionists, the very idea that they were valiant heroes who won an uphill battle against racist imperialism, encouraged English society to believe that it could do no wrong in the future. In this sense, the traditional abolition narrative served to justify the repetition of oppression. If racial imperialism was overcome by the abolitionists in the early nineteenth century, Williams asks, then how do we account for the East Indian replacing the “Negro” on English plantations between 1833 and 1917? How do we account for the brutal mistreatment of the English industrial workforce, the imperial violence of the Boer Wars, and the systematic colonization of the African continent? Unfortunately, the abolitionist-hero narrative has no easy answer for these problems.

Williams wants us to recognize that there is a formula for historical progress that involves humanitarian agitation and economic development. In doing so, he is unfair to the abolitionists. As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, many white people with good intentions were trapped in historical and economic relationships that they did not understand. Just because their agitation was not the factor that forced the hand of the British government, does not mean that their hearts were in the wrong place. We cannot condemn the powerless for being unable to affect change; many of them wanted to affect change, and so they did what they could in their limited circumstances. That is what matters. Can we blame abolitionists for not toppling the economic infrastructure of imperial Britain any more than we can blame modern-day protesters for not redistributing the wealth of Wall Street? Ultimately, their agitation, combined with the agitation of black slaves on plantations, was an important factor in articulating a new demand, both to the government and to posterity. Although most people could not predict the horrors of the industrial mineshaft, more and more people were beginning to feel that the horrors of the plantation were no longer conscionable.

Many other  scholars are critiqued Capitalism and Slavery for its teleology, stating that British plantations continued to remain profitable long after the dramatic upheaval of the American Revolution. In this sense, they accuse Williams of fast-forwarding the historical decline of the British plantation economy in order to fit his chronology. Unfortunately, I am not qualified to argue the profitability of the British plantation complex in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, although I suspect that there is validity in this critique, as the British empire continued to suppress slave revolts with terror and violence until the eve of emancipation. In this regard, I think Williams owes much more credit to the slaves themselves, who found unique and varied ways to lobby for their own freedom in the Atlantic world. To be fair, much of the work on black resistance to slavery had not yet been done in the 1940s, and it was quite fashionable to place the American Revolution as the impetus for greater historical change.

On another note, there is an undeveloped argument in Capitalism and Slavery about the relationship of the artist to the consciousness of society. When listing a few of the unheeded voices of early abolition—the voices of Cassandra or the jeremiads—Williams constructs a list that is composed entirely of poets and novelists. There is Daniel Defoe, James Thomson, William Cowper, William Black, and Robert Southey. Although he does not remark on the significance of this trend, it seems worthwhile to investigate. Why were there so many artists willing to explore critiques of slavery and the slave trade in their works? What was significant about the artist that gave him or her a certain personal liberty in an economic system that seemed to encompass almost everyone else?  As a final critique, Williams states that “the British abolitionists exaggerated the horrors of the Middle Passage.” To this claim I would disagree. As in most historical tragedies, I strongly believe that the worst horrors of the slave trade are those which never reached a larger audience. While historians can debate the representativeness of transatlantic horror stories for eternity, the fact remains that representativeness simply makes no difference to the individuals who suffers.

Capitalism and Slavery is one of the most important history books that has ever been written. It is also one of the few history books that is still being read, after seventy years, with sincere respect. Written by a black West-Indian scholar and future Prime Minister on the eve of global decolonization and in the midst of profound racial segregation in such places as South Africa and America, the book is a lesson in history itself. By challenging the incumbency of a self-serving, British imperial narrative that lauded the historical perpetrators of slavery for overcoming their past, Capitalism and Slavery became an enduring manifesto of anti-imperialism. It was integral to the founding of the University of the West Indies, which has cultivated so many brilliant thinkers since its inception. It is succinct and concise (only 212 pages without notes), but it remains deceptively complex. Most of all, it reminds us that the ongoing struggle for global equality cannot be diluted to binaries. As they were in the early nineteenth century, the oppressors of the modern era are also humanitarians. Despite what they say, both of these groups are caught within a larger, tangled web of economic relationships from which they cannot easily escape. For this reason, Williams implores us to think, “What is my position, and how can I get free?”

Picture of Eric Williams as the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, from 1962-1981

Review of Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers

JANE LANDERS. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Forward by Peter H. Wood. (Blacks in the New World.) Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Pp. xiv, 390. $29.00.


Cover for LANDERS: Black Society in Spanish Florida

Black Society in Spanish Florida is the first book written by Jane Landers, colonial Latin Americanist, historian of the Caribbean and the Hispanic southeast, and assistant professor of History at Vanderbilt University. Inthe text, Landers presents the first English-language, conceptual history of black society on the Florida peninsula during the first and second Spanish tenures (1565-1763, and 1783-1821). After addressing precedents for Afro-Floridian history on the Iberian Peninsula and in the Spanish Caribbean, and covering activities through the British interregnum (1763-1783), Landers organizes her study into six conceptual chapters on the remaining years: entrepreneurs and property holders, religious life, the lives of women, slaves and the slave trade, crime and punishment, and military service. Landers then ends with a critical chapter and afterward on “the demise of Spanish Florida,” and its historical consequences, as a result of American expansionist policies. Overall, Black Society recaptures not only the shared, tri-racial history of Spanish Florida and the extraordinary “cultural diversity and adaptation” of its black inhabitants, but it documents the conquest of a better model of multiculturalism by the prolonged, racist imperialism of Anglo-American societies.


For sources, Landers relies upon military, criminal, civil, notarial, manifest, petition, and census records, as well as parish registers (separated by race after the year 1738) that fastidiously document baptisms, marriages, and burials. In this regard, Landers benefits from the “meticulous” and “distinct” record keeping of the Spanish Crown, inspired by its corporatist/state structure and its medieval traditions of cultural assimilation and integration. Landers also draws upon Florida land grants for the second tenure, housed at the Florida State archives at Tallahassee. Also within these archives are the East Florida Papers, which include the unpublished letters of the Spanish governors and other officials. Landers has also culled much from the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida, the St. Augustine Historical Society, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and other colonial archives in Madrid, Simancas, Seville, Havana, Matanzas, and Mexico. Finally, Landers draws upon archaeological and zoo-archaeological findings from excavations at such historic sites as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé and the “Negro Fort” at Propsect Bluff on the Apalachicola River.

Historiography and Area of Expertise:

Black Majority

Landers has identified Peter Wood as the American “historian whose work has most influenced” her own. The signal achievement of Wood’s career was Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1974), a monograph which casts its shadow upon Black Society, particularly in the first few chapters. Among other achievements, Black Majority recaptured the unique contributions that West Africans made to the plantation culture of the Carolina low country (such as introducing rice cultivation). In a similar way, Landers devotes herself to uncovering the contributions that people of African descent made to the history of Spanish Florida. Also, like other historians of the black colonial experience, such as Ira Berlin and Matthew Restall, Landers is motivated by Frank Tannenbaum’s controversial thesis about the “relative severity of slavery” in different colonial models. For this reason, a direct and critical comparison between Anglo and Iberian slave systems is central to the thesis of Black Society.

In the first third of Black Society, Landers sketches a rough chronology of the black presence in colonial Florida during the first Spanish tenure. Although she acknowledges that “records for the first Spanish period are less complete than those of the second,” it should be noted that Landers wrote her dissertation on “Black Society in St. Augustine,” the provincial capital on the St. John’s River, during the second Spanish tenure (1784-1821); given this fact, readers should not be surprised to discover that the bulk of her study focuses on these four, twilight decades. A quick browse through the twelve appendices of tables, replete with individual names and relationships, will suggest that almost no information can be gathered for the first one hundred and twenty years of Spanish rule, and very little can be obtained before the year 1752. Similarly, although the majority of the peninsula was unoccupied by Spaniards during the colonial period, readers cannot help but wonder whether the northeast corner—St. Augustine, Amelie Island, Fort San Nicholas, and Fort Mosé—receive special attention as a result of Landers’ expertise.

Historical Chronology:

The black presence in Spanish Florida began during the first European expeditions of 1513 and 1521, with free black servants, slaves, and conquistadores like Juan Garrido, Juan González Ponce de León,and Esteban de Dorantes. When Florida became an official Spanish province in the year 1565, under the governorship of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, blacks began serving in St. Augustine as captured or condemned slaves [esclavos forzados], servants and domestics, artisans, soldiers, and laborers. These individuals ranged from “country-born” Africans [bozales], to African-Americans [criollos], to Spanish-speaking, Catholic Africans [ladinos]. They played crucial roles in the clearing of arable land, the harvesting of crops, the building of fortifications (like the coquinaCastillo de San Marcos), and the colonial defense against privateers, slave catchers, and pirates.

Seventeen years after the Barbadian colonization of the Carolinas in 1670, runaway slaves began “voting with their feet,” and entering Florida through its northern border. The Spanish Crown issued a royal edict [cédula] of sanctuary for these slaves in the year 1693 (a proclamation which the monarch reiterated in 1733 and did not abolish until 1790). On a consistent basis, fugitive slaves relocated to the approved mission/satellite village [doctrina/reducción] of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé (just two miles north of St. Augustine), where they served as a crucial military buffer against Anglo expansion from the Carolinas and Georgia.

After decades of cross-border warfare, Fort Mosé was finally destroyed by the English and their Indian allies in 1740, and its black inhabitants relocated to the urban environment of St. Augustine, where they received town lots [solares]. In 1752, the Spanish government rebuilt Fort Mosé, and the black community returned until the British acquired Florida as a trade for the confiscated Cuba in the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War. At this time, the black community relocated to Cuba, where they became new citizens [nuevos pobladores] and received plots of destitute, uncultivated land [caballerias] near the provincial capital of Matanzas. As far as the record indicates, none of these individuals returned to Florida when Spain received the province again in 1784.

The second Spanish tenure was defined by increased activity in the Florida slave trade. This occurred, first legally and then illegally, through the Atlantic port of Fernandina on the northern corner of Amelia Island at the St. Mary’s River. The second tenure was also defined by regular military conflicts with the fledgling republic of America and their Indian allies; these included the French-inspired Genêt invasion (1795), the Indian wars (1800-1803), the Patriot Rebellion (1812-1813), the Creek War (1813-1814), and the First Seminole War (1816-1818). These conflicts were fueled by renewed waves of runaway slaves who established feudal, “Black Towns” alongside Seminole Indian settlements. By 1821, black and white forces in colonial Florida were defeated on both coasts, and the peninsula was transferred to American ownership. At this point, black individuals either relocated to Spanish Cuba for the second time, or else they remained in the American province to test their odds against a new regime of white supremacy, plantation monoculture, chattel slavery, Indian removal, and a strict racial system that undermined the existing free black class.

Who Were Blacks in Spanish Florida?

As Landers argues, blacks in colonial Florida, whether free or enslaved, were highly politicized international travelers of the Atlantic and circum-Caribbean world. They traveled as “Atlantic creoles” (Ira Berlin’s definition of people with “linguistic dexterity, cultural plasticity, and social agility”) through a geographic region that Landers calls the “circum-Atlantic periphery of Florida.” This region includes places like Santo Domingo, Saint-Domonique, Cuba, Yucatán, Savanah, Charleston, Louisiana, New York, Trinidad, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Bahamas. Moreover, these individuals leveraged their military, “linguistic, diplomatic, and artisanal skills into citizenship and property rights” on the contested frontier of a Spanish borderland. Although they were constantly uprooted by political turmoil, and often restricted by the general prejudice of slavery, they managed to obtain a legal and social standing in Spanish Florida that was unprecedented in the Anglophone colonies of the Caribbean and North America. Sadly, this status would be destroyed and written out of history after the American acquisition of Florida finally eradicated the international border in 1821.

Caribbean and Atlantic diving destinations map

Black individuals played a litany of roles in Spanish Florida: carpenters, masons, ironsmiths goldsmiths, stonecutters, cartwrights, coopers, lumberjacks, farmers, orchardists, trackers, foragers, cobblers, hostelers, hosts, hawkers, hucksters, venders, prostitutes, musicians, fishermen, turtlers, boatmen, sailors, pilots, butchers, stevedores, officers, militiamen, translators, Indian agents, ranchers, cooks, servants, maids, laundresses, shop owners, clerks, sawyers, tailors, soldiers, and even slave owners. In addition, they petitioned for titles, posts, salaries, subsidies, pensions, tax exemptions, and land grants, which they often won. Many of them were literate, held personal property [peculium], attended school, received baptism, celebrated festivities, loaned credit, were allowed to carry weapons in public (a mark of significant distinction in Spanish society), and were provided legal recourse to sue their masters for manumission or abuse, testify in court, and purchase their own freedom [coartación]. Additionally, slaves were organized around the task system (as opposed to the gang system), which allowed them spare time to cultivate a social life and tend to their personal needs. Others were allowed to hire themselves out and collect day wages [jornal] in their spare time. Although slavery was still punctuated by brutalities, and legal systems tended to favor the white Spanish elite, Landers reminds us that all of these privileges were virtually unknown in the English colonies.

What Factors Contributed to the Unique Position of Blacks in Spanish Florida?

Black society in Spanish Florida had precedents in the Castilian slave law, known as the Siete Partidas, as well as the official sanctioning of black barrios, black religious fraternities, and Indian satellite villages [cofradías, cabildos, andreducción]. It also drew upon the multicultural nature of reconquista Spain, which incorporated subject Muslims [moriscos], converted Jews [conversos], and gypsies. In this context, Africans existed as both registered citizens [vecinos] and members of the unemployed underclass [gente de mal vivir]. Moreover, Spanish culture attached great value to a life of stable urban communities [vida politica] as well as an official policy of populating [repoblación] empty territories [tierras baldias] threatened by foreign encroachment. Finally, Spanish society was built around reciprocal obligations of extended kinship groups [parentela and clientela], god-parentage [compadrazgo], and military exemptions [fuero militar]. Taken together, these institutions and traditions created social mobility, and relative freedom, for blacks in Spanish Florida.

funeral procession

But to fully understand the relatively privileged nature of black society in Spanish Florida one must also understand the political situation of the province. Florida was both chronically underfunded and undermanned throughout the colonial period. Unlike Peru and Mexico, the peninsula yielded no mineral wealth, and so it survived upon a subsidy [situado] that was acquired from the taxation of Peubla, a province in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and brought annually on royally chartered ships of the Havana Company. As a result of regular hurricanes and incessant warfare, the province was often forced to go without this subsidy for years, and the metropolis lived in a state of perpetual bankruptcy. Also, as a marginal and underdeveloped province, Florida received the dregs of military and naval forces. When they actually filled their posts [plazas], the Third Battalion of the Infantry Regiments of Santiago and the Hibernia Regiment from Cuba were described as cowards, deserters, incorrigibles, and ne’er-do-wells.

To make matters worse, massive native depopulation as a result of enslavement, disease, warfare, and overwork created vacuums of space that the Spanish administration struggled to fill throughout both of its tenures. In fact, most of the province’s history was defined by a three-pronged military pressure: Indian nations to the West, Anglo-American forces to the north, and European forces to the south. After plantation agriculture was introduced to the peninsula during the British tenure, the Spanish government had to contend with internal agitators of Anglo and protestant extraction. All of these obstacles inspired the colonial government to encourage the unrestricted importation of African slaves (even though this importation was extraordinarily minor in comparison with other colonies, especially before 1763) and the continued enfranchisement of free black militias and independent black homesteaders.


To conclude, Black Society in Spanish Florida is a comprehensive history, woven together with personal narratives of dynamic historical figures who helped to shape “interest-based communities” against tremendous odds. Readers will learn about Francisco Menendez, who ran away from slavery and served as the captain of the Fort Mosé militia for more than forty years. They will learn about Felis Edimboro, who worked as a maidservant but also hosted balls and dances for the black community on the upper floor of her house on St. George Street. And they will learn about Jorge Biassou, the Haitian revolutionary leader [caudillo] who drank regularly, practiced vodun, dressed in military regalia, and relocated to St. Augustine with an entourage of twenty-five personal attendants. Lastly, while the demise of Spanish Florida is an unfortunate story of military violence, forced relocation, legal disenfranchisement, and historical erasure, Landers is sensitive to end her work on a positive note. After regaling her readers with contemporary advancements in public history, she assures us that the experiences of black individuals in colonial Florida are “neither anonymous, lost, nor irretrievable.”

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.

While other historians might concentrate on the shocking brutality of the domestic trade, Johnson focuses on its intimate, perverse, and fragile psychology. The antebellum slave world fused people into an “unstable mutuality,” where all parties were constantly evaluating one another through a “visual grammar,” and manipulating each other through careful behaviors. Slaveholders, for instance, “made their selves out of slaves.” Only the market had the power to grant them “full participation in the political economy of slavery and white masculinity.” Ironically, it was through black reproduction that slaveholders passed on the legacy of white patriarchy, and it was through slavery that white families achieved (and constantly battled for) leisure, paternalism, gentility, honor, and status. By alleviating work, black slaves even had the power to make slaveholding women “white” according to prevailing social standards.

Johnson describes the process of “necromancy” by which traders dismantled slaves in the coffles (by exploiting their humanity) and then repackaged their bodies in jails, auction houses, pens, and showrooms. Sometimes, slaves were literally sold on the verge of death from ailments like consumption, scrofula, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Nonetheless, traders dressed them in new clothes, plucked their gray hairs, blackened their skin, oiled their bodies, tallowed their hair, hid their scars, cleaned their teeth, fattened their bodies, coached their speech, forced them to exercise, and, on occasion, even paid them incentives to sell themselves. In short, these slaves “were forced to perform their own commodification.” All the while, naïve buyers and contracted appraisers fondled their breasts, inspected their gums, teeth, and genitals, and asked them probing questions about their health and history; in the parlance of the day, these buyers were looking for the “likely” slaves that would fulfill their fantasies.

In the cotton kingdom, white slaveholders were measured by their ability to judge black slaves in the market, and so they lived in constant fear of being dishonored by an “imprudent” decision. Southern planters dreamed that their neighbors judged their success based upon the quality of their slaves, and so their lives became an ongoing attempt to “live through the stolen bodies of their slaves.” In this paradox, “relations of white slaveholders depended upon the actions and opinions of their black slaves.” For example, when buyers sued traders according to redhibition laws (buyer’s protection rights), doctors carried slave testimony into the courtroom as evidence against bad masters. Slaves that were sick, worked to death, committed suicide, spoke poorly of their owners, or were excessively beaten stood as damning evidence against the quality of a slaveholder. In one encapsulating quote, Johnson concludes that slaveholders “were not masters of the system. The system was the master of them.”

Typical of his three-dimensional approach, Johnson demonstrates that traders, buyers, and slaves all read somatic signs differently. While slaves saw bodily scarring as evidence of mistreatment and violence, buyers saw scars as indicators of recalcitrant behavior, and traders saw scars as an obstacle to salability. Nonetheless, slaves used songs, stories, family names, and religion to create (and constantly recreate) common cultures with complete strangers along the dusty roads, cramped steamboats, enclosed slave pens, and torrid plantations that defined their experience. But they also lived in profound psychological fear about whom they could trust, and so they constantly estimated their peers, often reproducing societal stereotypes. New plantation slaves judged the quality of a master based on the condition of his old slaves. Sometimes slaves even invoked the logic of southern planters, like the paternalist mutuality of a broken promise, in order to manipulate or prevent their sale. Overall, the logic of “the chattel principle,” a phrase coined by the ex-slave J.W.C. Pennington, demanded that slaves do whatever they could in order to avoid both physical deaths in the killing fields of the Lower South, as well as “psychic deaths” in the ideology of racial domination.

Overall, traders exploited the humanity of their slaves in order to get them to cooperate; buyers fantasized about erasing the humanity of their slaves, reducing them to smiling faces on a field and improving numbers on a ledger column; finally, slaves cherished their humanity, guarding it closely, but sharing it when their circumstances demanded. Most importantly, each of these parties gave concrete cultural meaning to an economy of people that defined the antebellum south. In Soul by Soul, Johnson has traced the physical and psychological journey of slaves, traders, and buyers throughout the annual season of the interstate slave trade, occurring after harvests in the late summer and fall. In doing so, he has masterfully revealed the tangled web of perspectives through which “the history of the slave trade was daily made.”

Review of The Black Middle by Matthew Restall

MATTHEW RESTALL. The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 456. $29.95.

cover for The Black Middle

The Black Middle is the twelfth book by the colonial Latin Americanist and current Professor of History, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University, Matthew Restall. It is the first work to undertake the history of Africans and people of African descent in Yucatán—a peninsular province of New Spain—during its colonial era, approximately 1541-1829. Borrowing the “black middle” thesis from historians like Philip Morgan, Restall positions “Afro-Yucatecans” as social, economic, and political intermediaries between Mayas and Spaniards. Organized in thematic chapters with engaging historical anecdotes, drawn from extensive research, and packed with tables, maps, notes, and sources, The Black Middle is a path-breaking regional work with profound implications for the greater history of the Caribbean.

Restall uses works like Breve Historia de Yucatán by Sergio Quezada as foils. Despite including ninety-seven sections, Quezada makes no mention of the African presence in colonial Yucatán. According to Restall, six factors have contributed to this invisibility: growing prejudice, the pace of miscegenation (mestizaje), the gradual and relatively-uncontested decline of Yucatán slavery and the slave trade, postcolonial migrations, changes in racial terminology, and inherent source problems. Nonetheless, recovering Afro-Yucatecan history is imperative because genetics have revealed modern residents to have significant West-African ancestry. This revelation underpins the salient conclusion of The Black Middle: that present-day Mayans must be reinterpreted as Afro-Mayas.

The Black Middle is an introductory work that strives for comprehensiveness. Restall scoured archives in Spain, Mexico, and the United States from 1994-2006. He has cited inquisition files, manifests, slave-trade licenses, wills, testaments, probate proceedings, mortgage claims, marriage and parish records, cedulas, notary documents, census records (matriculas from 1688 and 1700), employment contracts, probanza, cartas, and more. For English perspectives, he has emphasized William Dampier and James Cook; and, with proficiency in both Maya and Nahuatl, he has referenced indigenous material.

Restall uses the dichotomy of slave-society/society-with-slaves—recently articulated by Ira Berlin—to frame his conclusions. Unlike the British colonies of the Caribbean and North America, the Portuguese colonies of Brazil, and Mexico before 1660, Yucatán was not a society based on racialized, plantation slavery. While the origins of Afro-Yucatecans resided in the Middle Passage, labor was filled by natives who worked rotations on Spanish estancias and haciendas. Small numbers of Africans trickled into Yucatán throughout the period—first from Campeche and then from Belize—but their numbers never outpaced the Mayas, notwithstanding a demographic collapse of nearly 90%.

Afro-Yucatecans predominantly settled in the “colored crescent,” a northwestern region. Slaves served as emissaries, skilled workers, domestics, and status symbols. Free Afro-Yucatecans worked as farmers, hunters, overseers, supervisors, foremen, artisans, and militiamen. The “hostility-harmony dialectic” describes the range of relationships between Afro-Yucatecans and natives in Mayan villages, urban cofradías, and along the camino real. These took on various contexts, ultimately resulting in the co-mingling of bloodlines. By emancipation, mulattos greatly outnumbered negros. Overall, the middling, “ambiguously-located” position of Afro-Yucatecans is reflected in colonial Mérida, where the African parishes of Santa Lucía and JesúsMaría were located halfway between Mayan barrios and Spanish courtyards.

Restall concludes that Spanish ethnocentrism was not synonymous with modern racism; the sistema de casta was fluid, and Afro-Yucatecans were Spanish-speaking (often literate) Christians judged based on their quality (calidad) as opposed to their phenotype. Although prejudice was widespread, Afro-Yucatecans were baptized, given Spanish names, and provided access to institutions (like the pardo militia) of upward social mobility. Some, like Sebastián Toral, even became full-fledged conquistadores who successfully petitioned the Spanish crown for salary.

The Black Middle is an exceptional monograph; but, its full potential has yet to be revealed. For example, Restall has suggested how the Afro-Yucatecan experience was shaped by conflicting empires on the Yucatán-Belizean border. Now scholars must anticipate the day when these claims are combined with other regional works, like Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers, to illuminate greater truths about the circum-Caribbean. Such a synthesis, which recaptures the geographic orientations of the early-modern world in order to rewrite the colonial history of the black-Caribbean experience, will be well received.

Reflections on DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis

The 2010, WTTW-Channel 11 (otherwise known as Chicago PBS) documentary DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis endeavors to present over two centuries of African-American history in Chicago, from the settling of the Afro-French trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable at the mouth of the Chicago River around 1790, to the presidential victory speech of Barack Obama in November, 2008, at Grant Park. Needless to say, this is an ambitious task. At a length of exactly two hours and sixteen minutes, the documentary succeeds in packaging black-Chicago history for its public audience, but it also falls prey to problems associated with deciding when to adhere to dominant narratives and when to create a new narrative by introducing stories that are local and unexpected.

A certain degree of loyalty to the national narrative is important. For example, it is always enlightening to remember that figures with a major national impact, such as Ida B. Wells, Emmett Till, Fred Hampton, Langston Hughes, and perhaps Robert Sengstacke Abbott (founder of the oft-cited black newspaper, The Chicago Defender), were once based here in the city. Likewise, a certain degree of local character is extremely important. In this respect, the documentary succeeds in profiling several black institutions—namely, the Provident Hospital, an institution for the practice of black medical professionals, and the Quinn Chapel A.M.E, described as the longest-standing African-American congregation in the city. Speaking generally, this tension between national narrative and local character is not unique to DuSable to Obama. Rather, it is a struggle that is somewhat inherent to all historical interpretations, especially those regarding histories of minority groups.

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