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L’histoire atlantique de part et d’autre de l’Atlantique – Journée d'études organisée par Cécile Vidal le 24 mars 2006 à l’EHESS, Paris
Gunvor Simonsen

Moving in Circles: African and Black History in the Atlantic World

[19/09/2008]

Résumés

Cet article porte sur l’évolution de l’histoire de la diaspora africaine dans les cinquante dernières années. Il met en évidence une focalisation successive sur les survivances africaines, puis sur de grands principes culturels profondément enracinés et à nouveau sur les transferts culturels concrets d’Afrique aux Amériques. Ce mouvement circulaire peut s’expliquer par un ensemble d’éléments caractéristiques de l’histoire de l’Atlantique noir ou africain. Parmi eux, on note en particulier un manque d’attention à la périodisation et au changement. Il s’est également avéré extrêmement difficile de conceptualiser l’Afrique et l’Amérique en mettant en exergue simultanément leur unité et leur diversité culturelles. Enfin, le champ a eu trop souvent tendance à tirer des conclusions générales sur l’identité africaine aux Amériques à partir de données matérielles. L’article suggère qu’une méthode prometteuse pour surmonter ces difficultés consiste à développer la recherche sur des individus et sur leurs trajectoires au sein du monde atlantique.

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  • 1  For two examples of how the Atlantic world has been conceptualized see David Armitage, “Three Conc (...)

1The history of the around 12 million Africans who crossed the Atlantic Ocean from the early sixteenth to the late nineteenth century is well placed within the field of Atlantic history. This is not only due to the fact that Africans crossed the Atlantic in great numbers – until 1820s constituting the largest group of new immigrants in the Americas – but also caused by the genuinely interregional and transnational conceptualisation of the Atlantic world that characterizes the field of Atlantic history. Atlantic history with its focus on the movement of people across imperial and national borders, offers a possibility of placing Africans and their descendants in the Americas at centre stage1.

  • 2  For examples of works structured by a focus on colonial empires, see Robin Blackburn, The Overthro (...)

2The analytical strength of Atlantic history lies primarily in the fact that it is not tightly linked to European national historiographies. In contrast, other important approaches to the study of transatlantic connections, such as colonialism, imperialism and new world slavery, tend to rely on the framework provided by European states and empires. Here, the prefix of a European state is used to structure and delimit the historical narrative. Often such approaches include Africa and Africans as subordinate elements in their narrative. Africans appear as the building blocks of empire, as colonial labourers, or as subjects of colonial agency, but they are not the central focus of the analysis. This is of course perfectly legitimate. All historical writing operates by cutting and excluding elements in order to delimit a field of inquiry. And indeed, European imperial or national histories can be productively combined with an Atlantic approach. However, what is often lost in these British, French, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, and Portuguese Atlantic histories is an understanding of the complex history of Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic world2.

3There can be little doubt that the concept of the Atlantic as an organic space of connections and flows between three continents is a valuable optic through which to study African migration and diaspora culture. However, Atlantic history does not solve all our problems. Like other histories of the Atlantic world, the trouble lies in the prefix. Conceptual difficulties, empirical challenges and to a certain extent political frontlines therefore emerge as historians add a prefix to their Atlantic narratives.

  • 3  Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, Boston, Beacon Press, 1990 [1st ed. 1941].
  • 4  Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Cambridge, Harvard University (...)

4Put shortly, the question for historians studying Africans and their descendants in the Americas is a question of whether to work with black Atlantic or African Atlantic history. Historians must decide whether the historical actors they seek to understand are best described in terms of their African culture or through their position as slaves and blacks in the regimes of racial slavery in the Americas. The debate over this question has influenced the study of black/African Atlantic history since the 1940s when Melville Herskovits published his seminal work The Myth of the Negro Past (1941)3. The controversy was still present in the early 1990s when John K. Thornton published Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (1992) and Paul Gilroy came out with The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993)4. Today, in the early 2000s, the schism between the black Atlantic and the African Atlantic is still alive and kicking. Indeed, since the publication of Thornton’s work in 1992 participants in the controversy seem to forward their arguments with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.

  • 5  See for example Edward Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820, Oxford, (...)

5Historians focusing on the black and the African Atlantic share a common interest in understanding change and continuity in the lives of Africans in the Americas. The leitmotif for many has been the study of what happened to enslaved Africans when they came to the Americas, in particular what cultures Africans brought with them and shaped as they arrived and survived in the rigid labour regimes of new world slavery5. This shared interest has not, however, generated consensus. Two opposing assumptions dominate the field. The first assumption centres on the presence of continuity between Africa and the Americas. Here, the Atlantic Ocean is presented as a bridge allowing Africans to hark back and reuse specific African experiences in their new lives in the Americas. In contrast, the second assumption posits the middle passage as a traumatic break, a fundamental rupture that removed Africans from the specificity of their earlier lives. For adherents of this second assumption, focus is directed towards the way enslaved Africans changed as they arrived in the Americas.

  • 6  Jack P. Greene, “Beyond Power: Paradigm Subversion and Reformulation and the Re-Creating of the Ea (...)
  • 7  C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, New York (...)

6The intensity of the debate over these two contrasting assumptions can in some measure be explained by the historiographical development of the fields of African American and pre-colonial and early colonial West African history. Black/African Atlantic history begins in radical politics and scholarship. Its genealogy stretches back to the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s and the subsequent establishment of graduate programmes in African American history, such as for instance the programme for Atlantic History at Johns Hopkins University created in the early 1970s. At Hopkins, the academic staff included major experts on African as well as African American history such as Sidney W. Mintz, Richard Price, Franklin W. Knight and Philip Curtin6. And these scholars had predecessors. The work of historians such as Eric Williams with Capitalism and Slavery (1944), C.L.R. James with The Black Jacobins (1938), and Melville J. Herskovits with TheMyth of the Negro Past(1941) each relied on and elaborated a notion of an integrated transatlantic world7.

  • 8  Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, pp. xxx and 299.

7Many of these scholars were driven, more or less explicitly, by concerns with the difficulties faced by the descendants of Africans in the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe. Herskovits, for instance, wished to provide policy makers with proper scientific knowledge that would enable them to solve the racial inequalities characterizing the US of the 1940s and 1950s8. This concern with the present, the idea that historical enquiry has a direct bearing on today’s world, has added vigour to the field of African diaspora history, but it may also explain the intensity that sometimes characterizes the debate.

  • 9  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past: A Caribb (...)
  • 10  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, p. 44

8One of the most important texts in the debate concerning Africans and their descendants in the Americas was written more than 30 years ago by the two anthropologists Sidney Mintz and Richard Price. In 1976, they published a short piece with the title An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past: A Caribbean Perspective. The reception of this piece in the historical community is worth a longer study. Here it suffices to note that the Anthropological Approach was a highly creative attempt at providing a fresh model of analysis in a situation, where an earlier focus on concrete African retentions and survivals had led to a dead end. Mintz and Price wanted to present a model of analysis of African American culture that was not mechanically focused on retention and the existence of concrete survivals such as specific magic rituals, motor habits and lexicons. Instead they argued for a strong engagement with processes of change as these occurred in the Americas. In a truly essayistic spirit they concluded that few of their ideas were “proved or even certain”9. The test, they argued, of their contentions “should rest more with the tasks of serious historical and anthropological research, and far less with their persuasiveness on logical, ideological, or sentimental grounds”10.

  • 11  Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, pp. 1-32 and 54-85.

9Mintz and Price were criticizing and creatively building on the work of Melville J. Herskovits. In The Myth of the Negro Past Herskovits had provided a substantial critique of earlier scholarship concerning African Americans. Herskovits showed how scholars in a tight knit academic community and through a web of intertextual references had sustained the misconception that African Americans had been won over by a more sophisticated Anglo-American culture. It was a myth, Herskovits argued, that black Americans had no past on which to rely when they sat out to build new communities in North America. To counter earlier scholarship, Herskovits argued that West Africans shared a fairly homogenous culture and he showed how this culture had been transferred to North America through a series of what he termed survivals. Survivals found in language, religion, music, and family structure. Herskovits, among other things, demonstrated the existence of such survivals by pointing to parallels between the culture of African Americans and West Africans11.

  • 12  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, pp. 1-2.
  • 13  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, pp. 7-10

10The Mintz and Price thesis was based on two assumptions about the initial encounter between Africans and Europeans in the Americas that contrasted with Herskovits’ ideas. First, they argued that European colonists had greater opportunities to establish institutions than had African slaves. Therefore it was easier for Europeans to reproduce their culture. Secondly, they maintained that enslaved Africans did not have a shared culture comparable to that of European colonists. “A primary contrast”, they wrote, was that between “the relatively homogeneous culture of the Europeans in the initial settlement of any New World colony, and the relatively diverse cultural heritage of the Africans in the same setting”12. Instead they described African arrivals as heterogeneous “crowds”, isolated individuals who would only form a community when they began to establish new institutions13. Together these assumptions led to the conclusion that Africans underwent a fast, almost instantaneous process of creolisation. In the face of new world slavery, Africans’ former backgrounds meant very little.

  • 14  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, p. 5.

11Mintz and Price were not out to deny the importance of an African heritage in the Americas. They wanted, however, to move away from the study of concrete retentions and were highly sceptical of the idea that such retentions indicated direct continuities with an African past. Instead, they argued, it was possible to identify the persistence of shared cultural values by focusing on cultural systems and patterns. In the face of the alleged ethnic diversity among enslaved Africans, Mintz and Price tried to “save” Africa by moving to a higher level of abstraction. They argued that what was African about black culture could be found in “unconscious ‘grammatical’ principles”14. These principles united otherwise diverse West and West Central African cultures and gave them a measure of coherence and homogeneity.

  • 15  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, pp. 27-4 (...)

12The Mintz and Price solution to the question of cultural persistence and transformation was thus based on moving from the specificity of concrete survivals to an emphasis on the underlying cultural structures shaping the lives of Africans and their descendants in the Americas. Cultural formation, as they presented it, should not be studied through a focus on the conscious participation of Africans and their descendants. Mintz and Price wrote about patterns, forms, and systems. They believed that African American culture operated through principles that all shared, and therefore did not reflect upon. Some of these principles, Mintz and Price suggested, could be observed in the operation of aesthetic ideals, religious rites and kinship practices, among others15.

  • 16  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Persp (...)

13From its essayistic beginnings An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past became a canonical text within African American history. What began as a tentative research agenda was transformed into an authoritative and foundational text.This change of status is illustrated by the confident and slightly pompous title the text carried when it was republished as The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective in 1992. Now the description of how African American culture was born, had taken precedence over the methodological suggestions contained in the approach Mintz and Price advocated16.

  • 17  Stephan Palmié cited in Paul E. Lovejoy, ed., Identity in the Shadow of Slavery, London, Continuum (...)

14As the Mintz and Price approach spread, the abstraction inherent in an emphasis on unconscious structures sometimes became a way of glossing over history, of failing to answer the question of how creole “syntheses” were in fact achieved17. The high level abstraction reduced West and West Central Africa to one entity containing broad cultural principles and in turn African Americans were sometimes reduced to a sort of hyper-anthropological subjects. They were described as the performers of general cultural patterns and forms which again pointed to underlying principles. Nevertheless it has proven very difficult to demonstrate the existence of such principles through historical analysis.

  • 18  Gary Nash, Review of Philip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint. Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Ch (...)
  • 19  Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcoun (...)
  • 20  Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, pp. 534, 551 and 553.
  • 21  Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, p. 555

15The problem has been particularly evident in relation to the question of African American kinship and family structures. Kinship was, as mentioned, one of the elements in which the continuation of an African structural-cultural principle in the Americas was hypothesized by Mintz and Price. It has not, however, been easy to show the specific African influences on the kinship ties developed by Africans and their descendants in the Americas. Even the best historians have reached an impasse. An illustrative example of the problem is provided by Philip D. Morgan’s Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry (1998) which synthesises more than twenty years of intense research18. Morgan, among other things, sets out to assess “the possible African influences” on the emerging kinship systems of slaves in North America19. Looking at kinship elements such as marriage age and sibling bonding, he underlines that these may have reflected African customs20. According to Morgan, there is no, however, evidence to show that “African influence was fundamental to African American familial development”21. Morgan relies on Mintz and Price in his analysis of kinship, and therefore he also adopts some of their weaknesses. It is difficult, if not impossible for historians to prove the existence of an unconscious principle. Indeed, testing African influences in this way only provides a positive result for kinship practices that can be easily identified, such as for instance, polygyny. The negative answer to the question concerning African influences on black kinship systems in North America, in other words, seems given from the premise of the analysis.

  • 22  David Eltis, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein, The Trans-Atlantic Slave (...)
  • 23  David Eltis, David Richardson, and Stephen D. Behrendt, “Patterns in the Transatlantic Slave Trade (...)

16During the last ten years or so, historians have begun to doubt the assumption that Africans came to the Americas as crowds and were united by a set of shared African cultural principles. One reason why this question has been reopened is the work on the transatlantic slave trade carried out at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. The resultant Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database records 27,233 slave voyages, which is about two-thirds of all voyages crossing the Atlantic from 1519 to 186722. The database provides a new overview of the slave trade and it has allowed David Eltis, among others, to argue that “the distribution of Africans in the New World was no more randomized than was its European counterpart”23. Indeed, the large structured dataset of the database made it possible to link particular American regions to specific points of embarkation and larger West and West Central African regions. These newfound empirical insights questioned the notion that Africans arrived in crowds and had to start from scratch in the Americas. Therefore, the database made it possible to envision that specific African cultures had a concrete impact on cultural development and change in the Americas.

  • 24  John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, pp. xiv and 183-205.
  • 25  Patrick Manning, “Africa and the African Diaspora: New Directions of Study”, Journal of African Hi (...)

17Another important historiographical development which signalled a move away from the notion of a fast creolisation process was provided by John K. Thornton in Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680. Building on the insight generated in the field of pre-colonial African history, Thornton depicted a West and West Central African cultural landscape characterized by regional entities rather than by variety and divisions. Concretely, he suggested that West and West Central Africa could be divided into seven cultural groups on the basis of linguistic similarities as well as commercial and political integration24. Thornton’s cultural map of West and West Central Africa was somewhat in between Herskovits’ homogenous West African culture and the infinite variation claimed by Mintz and Price. Thornton thus synthesized early modern African regional histories and enabled a new dialogue between scholars of the diaspora and of Africa proper25. This time, focus was on highlighting those elements of African American life that showed how specific regional backgrounds informed the life of Africans and their descendants in the Americas.

  • 26  See for instance Paul E. Lovejoy, “The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, (...)
  • 27  Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery. A History of Slavery in Africa, Cambridge, Cambridge (...)
  • 28  See Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery; and the individual contributions in Paul E. Lovej (...)

18Exploring concrete ethnic links and continuities between Africa and the Americas has been on the historiographical agenda for some years now. Often these endeavours are contrasted with and expressly written against the creolisation model suggested by Mintz and Price in 1976. Some historians even characterize themselves as revisionists implying that they are engaged in a paradigmatic shift in African American studies26. The construction of ethnic links between Africa and America is led by historians such as Paul E. Lovejoy, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Michael A. Gomez and James H. Sweet. These historians share a common interest in the notion of “nation”. One of their main assumptions is that the references made by contemporaries to African “nations” offer a starting point for an understanding of the specificity of the links entertained by Africans in the Americas to their former homelands. For these historians, ethnicity was a meaning-creating and -shaping structure that guided thinking, behaviour, and group formation in the Americas27. In the Americas, life for Africans and their children was shaped, they argue, in relation to an outside referent, a specific African homeland. Drawing on Thornton’s cultural zones and even dividing these into smaller ethnic designations, historians have begun to disentangle the meaning of these ‘nations’ in Africa and the Americas28.

  • 29  James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa, pp. 1-9
  • 30  James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa, p. 229.
  • 31  Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging our Country Marks.

19In their more programmatic statements, the revisionist historians profess to a view of culture as containing both continuity and change29. James H. Sweet working on West Central Africans in fifteenth- to eighteenth-century Brazil, to take one example, writes about transformation and creolisation, but he argues that these were slow processes and involved intra-African exchanges rather than exchange between Africans and Europeans30. Likewise Michael A. Gomez in Exchanging our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (1998) suggests that the transformation of an identity based on African ethnicity to one based on race was a gradual and extended process31.

  • 32  Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging our Country Marks, pp. 51-53.

20In general, however, revisionist historiography focuses on continuity rather than change. Historians have shown that African identities were important for much longer time than presumed by Mintz and Price. Moreover they have argued that change occurred as intra-African dialogue and only more sporadically through exchanges with Europeans. The revisionists have, however, been plagued by some of the same methodological problems characterizing earlier searches for African survivals. They have been tempted to demonstrate continuity by turning plausible connections into proven facts.  To give one example: in his interesting work on North America, Michael A. Gomez argues that the Bambara of Senegambia transferred martial expertise from Africa to the Americas. This argument is based on the parallel between the military skills of the Bambara in Senegambia and their American reputation for rebelliousness32. However, to sustain the argument and turn the assumption of a transfer of martial skills into a plausible argument, it would have been necessary to provide examples of Bambara performing their martial competences in the Americas. There is no getting away from the fact that the continuation (and change of) African culture in the Americas is best documented by a focus on how people mobilized and performed their diverse cultural proficiencies.

  • 33  Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, pp. 1-19

21The revisionist historians would probably benefit from leaving aside their salutary aspirations. The titles of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links and James H. Sweet’s Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770 sound awkwardly therapeutic, even redemptive. After all, one might ask who does not want to restore broken links, and who can be against the recreation of shattered identities. A strong challenge to this vision of African diaspora history has come from Paul Gilroy in his work The Black Atlantic. Modernity and Double Consciousness. Here Gilroy explores the relationship nineteenth- and twentieth-century Anglo-black intellectuals had to Western enlightenment thinking. He argues, to put it roughly, that black elites forged a counterculture to modernity as they moved around the Atlantic world. For Gilroy it is movement, not heritage or traditions that determined how black people saw themselves in the Atlantic world. Movement was the key to shaping an ambivalent consciousness of being at one and the same time included in and excluded from the enlightenment project33.

  • 34  Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, “Rewriting the African Diaspora: Beyond the Black Atlantic”, in African Affai (...)

22Gilroy’s argument has received critical reactions, but he cannot easily be brushed aside. The critics have noted that Gilroy does not deal with Africa as a concrete continent of places and peoples and does not look into the historical connections between Africa and America34. Despite these faults, Gilroy’s work points to the fact that some African diasporas underwent significant changes that rendered African origins less distinct and specific. Gilroy maps a community of people – descendants of Africans – whose lives were intimately linked to notions of race and who developed a particular double-edged relation to the modern world.

  • 35  One example is Philip D. Morgan, “The Cultural Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade: African R (...)

23The historiographical development of African American, African diaspora, African Atlantic or black Atlantic history (the field has many overlapping names) has almost come full circle. At present the study of cultural change and persistence is returning to a more Herskovitsian mode with its benefits and pitfalls. There are still dissident voices, but they do not take up much space in the academic debate35. This circular movement in the concepts and premises shaping African American history should, however, give rise to some concern. It is not difficult to imagine that the revisionists will loose ground in the face of a reinvigorated creolisation school in ten-twenty years time; giving us all a new ride in the merry-go-round debate of continuity versus change.

24It seems as if African diaspora history is trapped in a catch 22 on several fronts. Here I mention four. First, the conception of West and West Central Africa is clearly central to the study of Africans in the Americas. When Africa is conceived as consisting of a diversity of cultures and peoples (as Mintz and Price argued) then the African past is turned into a shared, intangible principle in the Americas. When Africa is depicted as consisting of clearly separated cultural regions (as Herskovits and later Thornton argued) then it is possible to describe linkages between Africa and the Americas with a higher degree of specificity. However, historians of Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic world have yet to develop ways in which they can work with specificity on both sides of the ocean. Although they have moved a long way by focusing on cultural areas, these areas can also be said to engender an analysis which glosses over local diversity and relies on structural similarities to carry home the argument of transfer. The division of West and West Central Africa into several cultural areas, therefore, does not entirely solve the methodological problems involved in basing conclusions concerning African diaspora culture on the existence of parallels between regions in Africa and the Americas.

  • 36  Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Boston, Beacon Pr (...)
  • 37  For Moravian attention to African culture see Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, Historie der cari (...)

25Second, there seems to be a need to integrate knowledge about the archival practices characterizing European colonial states and agents in the study of African American history. Archival power, to use a term adopted from Michel-Rolph Trouillot, silences the past; and this silence cannot be erased by insisting on more data. Instead, considerations about the censoring practices characterizing colonial agents need to be part of the historical narrative36. In general, it has been hard for historians of North American slavery to move beyond ethnicity as a label, whereas historians of colonial Brazil have found it easier to point out how Africans and their descendants reused and construed ethnic belongings in the Americas. Such differences may in part be explained by the particular historical trajectories of each region. However, they may also be the result of the inquisitive interests of certain colonial agents. It is no coincidence that information about African ‘heathen practices’ are found in the archives of religious authorities and missionaries, such as the Moravian Brethren and the Catholic inquisition, and much less so in the records produced by secular courts, plantation managers and colonial administrators37. Censorship and violence operated in the production of sources concerning Africans and their descendants. The fact, therefore, that there are few (or many) references to links (real and imagined) between Africa and Africans and their descendants in the Americas is not enough to guarantee the validity of historical conclusions.

26Thirdly, although change and continuity has been at the very core of the discussion between African Atlanticists and black Atlanticists, there is still room for a more developed conceptualisation of change and periodisation in the African/black Atlantic world. If the change from African to black did not take place at once, then when did it happen? The need to answer this question is central to an attempt at clarifying the terms of the debate, and it is one of the real challenges provided by Paul Gilroy to the revisionist historians. As shown above, two notions of change dominate the field of African diaspora history. Either creolisation was a rapid process or it was extended, even deferred. New ways of conceiving change are emerging, most importantly the notion that Africans underwent a process of Africanisation in the Americas. The two main doctrines of change still dominate the field, however. To move beyond these, more attention must be paid to periodisation and new conceptions of time need to be developed.

  • 38  Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, Historie der caribischen Inseln Sanct Thomas, Sanct Crux und Sa (...)
  • 39  Svend Erik Green-Pedersen, “The Scope and Structure of the Danish Negro Trade”, Scandinavian Econo (...)

27The cultural development of African Caribbean culture in the Danish West Indies in the late eighteenth century provides an example of the kind of questions that can engender a better understanding of change and periodisation in the history of the African and the black Altantic world. In the 1760s, the Moravian missionary C.G.A. Oldendorp described the existence of an African Caribbean community engaged in the performance of specific African cultural practices in the Danish West Indies38. Observers in the 1780s and 1790s did not, however, provide similar descriptions, despite the fact that more Africans were imported into the islands in this period39. Historians, therefore, still need to figure out if the recording practices of European observers had changed, if the African Caribbean community had changed, or if both had changed. It is through such exercises that a more finely grained understanding of time and the rhythms of change in the African diaspora can emerge.

  • 40  I borrow the notion of a “depth model” from the literary critic Frederic Jameson. He uses it for a (...)
  • 41  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, p. 28.

28Finally, it is worth pointing out that revisionists and adherents of Mintz and Price often operate with a depth model of analysis40. Under the surface of empirical evidence, there is, they seem to believe, a true core of African meaning: either as a principle or as a shared ethnic identity. This way of thinking about historical analysis is perhaps most obvious in the case of Mintz and Price who believed that “delving below the surface of social forms” would allow them to reach conclusions about African American culture41. But revisionists have also been tempted by such surface-depth thinking. When they move from the surface of ethnic labels to the depth of ethnic identity without providing evidence of how they got there, they imagine that there is a core, an identity that can be inferred from descriptive evidence. To go beyond such ways of reasoning, we need more attention to the ways in which Africans and their descendants performed their memories, used them and reused them to structure the ordinary as well as the exceptional elements of their life.

  • 42  See Paul E. Lovejoy, ed., Identity in the Shadow of Slavery, pp. 1-29. Gwendolyn M. Hall puts her (...)
  • 43  Randy J. Sparks, The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey, Cambridge, Ha (...)

29Historians of the Atlantic world have many suggestions about how to proceed. One of the most promising has been made by Paul E. Lovejoy. He proposes to focus on single individuals and trace their Atlantic trajectories42. Although he does not refer to the microhistorical approaches developed by historians of early modern Europe, he appears to be advocating a similar methodology. Already, work that has down-scaled the unit of analysis has shown that it can be a way out of high abstractions and parallelism. Randy Sparks’ The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey(2004), Jon F Senbach’s Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World(2005), and Nathalie Zemon Davis Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds(2006) are good examples. By detailing the trajectories of their main characters these historians manage to create a narrative where sentiments of belonging figure as one out of a series of elements conditioning the Atlantic actors they study43. Moreover, ethnicity, or the homeland, on this micro-scale looses some of its idealized connotations. With regard to questions of cultural persistence and transformation, the reduction of scale enables historians to offer a thorough contextualisation of the characters they seek to understand – and in turn the chance to depict what concretely motivated Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic world.

30A smaller scale of analysis, such as the biography, appears to be an effective escape from the circular whirls of the historiographical development African diaspora history. The small scale will often allow us to work with specificity on both sides of the Atlantic and it can dissolve the methodological difficulties emerging from the various understandings of cultural homogeneity and diversity in West and West Central Africa described here. A narrow focus also enables a finer reading of evidence, acute attention to how sources were produced, and systematic confrontation between sources. Such a focus therefore helps validate historical interpretation of elusive phenomena such as self-perception (or presentation), identity and the use of past and memory.Moreover, the juxtaposition of microhistorical studies promises to give a better starting point for understanding change and identifying shifts and periods in African diaspora history. It is in the lives and acts of single men and women that ‘Africa’ gained and lost its meaning. And finally, the small scale offers a way of reducing the reliance on the questionable links created between empirical surfaces and meaningful cores. The small scale allows the zooming in on agency and performativity in the lives of Africans and their descendants and therefore such studies can help to sidestep the interpretative difficulties involved in moving from empirical surfaces to meaningful depths. Altogether, to conclude, a renewed focus on the detailed reconstruction of the trajectories of single Africans and their descendents in the Americas is at present one of the most promising ways of dismantling the catch 22 of African Atlantic and black Atlantic history.

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Notes

1  For two examples of how the Atlantic world has been conceptualized see David Armitage, “Three Concepts of Atlantic History”, in David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, pp. 11-27; Bernard Bailyn, The Idea of Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2005.

2  For examples of works structured by a focus on colonial empires, see Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776 - 1848, London, Verso, 1988; Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery. From the Baroque to the Modern 1492-1800, London, Verso, 1997; Wolfgang Reinhard, La vieille Europe et les nouveaux mondes. Pour une histoire des relations atlantiques, Stuttgart, Jan Thorbecke Verlag,2005; Elizabeth Mancke and Carole Shammas, eds., The Creation of the British Atlantic World, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

3  Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, Boston, Beacon Press, 1990 [1st ed. 1941].

4  Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993; John K. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

5  See for example Edward Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971; Peter H. Wood, Black Majority. Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1760 through the Stono Rebeliion, New Work, Knopf, 1974; Gwendolyn M. Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

6  Jack P. Greene, “Beyond Power: Paradigm Subversion and Reformulation and the Re-Creating of the Early Modern Atlantic World”, in Interpreting Early America: Historiographical Essays, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 33

7  C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, New York, Vintage Books, 1963 [1st ed. 1938]; Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1944; Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past.

8  Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, pp. xxx and 299.

9  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past: A Caribbean Perspective, Philadelphia, Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1976, p. 44

10  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, p. 44

11  Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past, pp. 1-32 and 54-85.

12  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, pp. 1-2.

13  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, pp. 7-10.

14  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, p. 5.

15  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, pp. 27-42.

16  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective, Boston, Beacon Press, 1992, p. xii

17  Stephan Palmié cited in Paul E. Lovejoy, ed., Identity in the Shadow of Slavery, London, Continuum, 2000, p. 17.

18  Gary Nash, Review of Philip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint. Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry, William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 56, n. 3, 1999, pp. 613-616.

19  Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1998, p. 530.

20  Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, pp. 534, 551 and 553.

21  Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, p. 555

22  David Eltis, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade [electronic ressource]: A Database on CD-Rom, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999; David Eltis, “The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment”, William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 58, n. 1, 2001, pp. 17-46.

23  David Eltis, David Richardson, and Stephen D. Behrendt, “Patterns in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1662-1867. New Indications of African Origins of Slaves Arriving in the Americas”, in Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Jr. Gates, and Carl Pedersen, eds., Black Imagination and the Middle Passage, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 29.

24  John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, pp. xiv and 183-205.

25  Patrick Manning, “Africa and the African Diaspora: New Directions of Study”, Journal of African History, vol. 44, 2003, p. 503.

26  See for instance Paul E. Lovejoy, “The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion under Slavery”, in Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, II, vol. 1, 1997; Gwendolyn M. Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2005, pp. 49-50.

27  Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery. A History of Slavery in Africa, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983; Paul E. Lovejoy, ed., Identity in the Shadow of Slavery; Gwendolyn M. Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana; Gwendolyn M. Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas; Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1998; James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-1770, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

28  See Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery; and the individual contributions in Paul E. Lovejoy, ed., Identity in the Shadow of Slavery.

29  James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa, pp. 1-9

30  James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa, p. 229.

31  Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging our Country Marks.

32  Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging our Country Marks, pp. 51-53.

33  Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, pp. 1-19

34  Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, “Rewriting the African Diaspora: Beyond the Black Atlantic”, in African Affairs, vol. 104/414, 2005, pp. 35-68. See also the work by Lorand J. Matory, Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2005. Matory depicts a completely different black Atlantic when he traces the concrete links between the Nago nation in Bahia Brazil and the Yoruba in Lagos Nigeria. In Matory’s account, African agency is seen as crucial for an understanding of the diaspora as well as the homeland (pp. 38-72).

35  One example is Philip D. Morgan, “The Cultural Implications of the Atlantic Slave Trade: African Regional Origins, American Destinations and New World Developments”, Slavery and Abolition, vol. 18, n. 1, 1997, pp. 122-145.

36  Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Boston, Beacon Press, 1995, pp. 52-53.

37  For Moravian attention to African culture see Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, Historie der caribischen Inseln Sanct Thomas, Sanct Crux und Sanct Jan. Kommentierte Edition des Originalmanskriptes, Gudrun Meir, Stephan Palmié, Peter Stein, and Horst Ulbricht, eds., Dresden, Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2000. For a similar Catholic sensitivity see James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa. For the lack of mention of African culture among plantation staff, see for example Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2004; Gunvor Simonsen, “Slave Stories: Gender, Representation and the Court in the Danish West Indies, 1780s - 1820s”, Ph. D. dissertation, Florence (Italy), European University Institute, 2007.

38  Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, Historie der caribischen Inseln Sanct Thomas, Sanct Crux und Sanct Jan.

39  Svend Erik Green-Pedersen, “The Scope and Structure of the Danish Negro Trade”, Scandinavian Economic History Review, vol. 19, n. 2, 1971, pp. 149-197; “The History of the Danish Negro Slave Trade, 1733-1807: An Interim Survey Relating in Particular to its Volume, Structure and Profitability and Abolition”, Revue Française d'histoire d'Outre-Mer, vol. 62, 1975, pp. 196-220.

40  I borrow the notion of a “depth model” from the literary critic Frederic Jameson. He uses it for an entirely different purpose in a discussion of the difference between modern and post-modern art. Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review, vol. 146, 1984, pp. 61-62.

41  Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past, p. 28.

42  See Paul E. Lovejoy, ed., Identity in the Shadow of Slavery, pp. 1-29. Gwendolyn M. Hall puts her faith in large quantitative material structured by relational databases recording ethnic labels ascribed to or claimed by Africans. See Gwendolyn M. Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas.

43  Randy J. Sparks, The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2004; Jon F. Sensbach, Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2005; Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels: A Sixteenth-Century Muslim Between Worlds, New York, Hill and Wang, 2006.

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Gunvor Simonsen, « Moving in Circles: African and Black History in the Atlantic World », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 19 septembre 2008, consulté le 16 juin 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/nuevomundo/42303 ; DOI : 10.4000/nuevomundo.42303

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Gunvor Simonsen

Copenhagen University, Denmark

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