University of Georgia Press

Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900

Richard S. Newman, Patrick Rael, and Manisha Sinha, Series Editors

Published by: University of Georgia Press

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Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900

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African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry

The Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee

Philip Morgan

The lush landscape and subtropical climate of the Georgia coast only enhance the air of mystery enveloping some of its inhabitants—people who owe, in some ways, as much to Africa as to America. As the ten previously unpublished essays in this volume examine various aspects of Georgia lowcountry life, they often engage a central dilemma: the region’s physical and cultural remoteness helps to preserve the venerable ways of its black inhabitants, but it can also marginalize the vital place of lowcountry blacks in the Atlantic World.

The essays, which range in coverage from the founding of the Georgia colony in the early 1700s through the present era, explore a range of topics, all within the larger context of the Atlantic world. Included are essays on the double-edged freedom that the American Revolution made possible to black women, the lowcountry as site of the largest gathering of African Muslims in early North America, and the coexisting worlds of Christianity and conjuring in coastal Georgia and the links (with variations) to African practices.

A number of fascinating, memorable characters emerge, among them the defiant Mustapha Shaw, who felt entitled to land on Ossabaw Island and resisted its seizure by whites only to become embroiled in struggles with other blacks; Betty, the slave woman who, in the spirit of the American Revolution, presented a “list of grievances” to her master; and S’Quash, the Arabic-speaking Muslim who arrived on one of the last legal transatlantic slavers and became a head man on a North Carolina plantation.

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Almost Free

A Story about Family and Race in Antebellum Virginia

Eva Wolf Sheppard

In Almost Free, Eva Sheppard Wolf uses the story of Samuel Johnson, a free black man from Virginia attempting to free his family, to add detail and depth to our understanding of the lives of free blacks in the South.

There were several paths to freedom for slaves, each of them difficult. After ten years of elaborate dealings and negotiations, Johnson earned manumission in August 1812. An illiterate “mulatto” who had worked at the tavern in Warrenton as a slave, Johnson as a freeman was an anomaly, since free blacks made up only 3 percent of Virginia's population. Johnson stayed in Fauquier County and managed to buy his enslaved family, but the law of the time required that they leave Virginia if Johnson freed them. Johnson opted to stay. Because slaves' marriages had no legal standing, Johnson was not legally married to his enslaved wife, and in the event of his death his family would be sold to new owners. Johnson's story dramatically illustrates the many harsh realities and cruel ironies faced by blacks in a society hostile to their freedom.

Wolf argues that despite the many obstacles Johnson and others faced, race relations were more flexible during the early American republic than is commonly believed. It could actually be easier for a free black man to earn the favor of elite whites than it would be for blacks in general in the post-Reconstruction South. Wolf demonstrates the ways in which race was constructed by individuals in their day-to-day interactions, arguing that racial status was not simply a legal fact but a fluid and changeable condition. Almost Free looks beyond the majority experience, focusing on those at society's edges to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of freedom in the slaveholding South.

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The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader

Kari J. Winter

As a young man, John B. Prentis (1788–1848) expressed outrage over slavery, but by the end of his life he had transported thousands of enslaved persons from the upper to the lower South. Kari J. Winter’s life-and-times portrayal of a slave trader illuminates the clash between two American dreams: one of wealth, the other of equality.

Prentis was born into a prominent Virginia family. His grandfather, William Prentis, emigrated from London to Williamsburg in 1715 as an indentured servant and rose to become the major shareholder in colonial Virginia’s most successful store. William’s son Joseph became a Revolutionary judge and legislator who served alongside Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and James Madison. Joseph Jr. followed his father’s legal career, whereas John was drawn to commerce. To finance his early business ventures, he began trading in slaves. In time he grew besotted with the high-stakes trade, appeasing his conscience with the populist platitudes of Jacksonian democracy, which aggressively promoted white male democracy in conjunction with white male supremacy.

Prentis’s life illuminates the intertwined politics of labor, race, class, and gender in the young American nation. Participating in a revolution in the ethics of labor that upheld Benjamin Franklin as its icon, he rejected the gentility of his upbringing to embrace solidarity with “mechanicks,” white working-class men. His capacity for admirable thoughts and actions complicates images drawn by elite slaveholders, who projected the worst aspects of slavery onto traders while imagining themselves as benign patriarchs. This is an absorbing story of a man who betrayed his innate sense of justice to pursue wealth through the most vicious forms of human exploitation.

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Christian Ritual and the Creation of British Slave Societies, 1650–1780

Nicholas M. Beasley

This study offers a new and challenging look at Christian institutions and practices in Britain's Caribbean and southern American colonies. Focusing on the plantation societies of Barbados, Jamaica, and South Carolina, Nicholas M. Beasley finds that the tradition of liturgical worship in these places was more vibrant and more deeply rooted in European Christianity than previously thought. In addition, Beasley argues, white colonists' attachment to religious continuity was thoroughly racialized. Church customs, sacraments, and ceremonies were a means of regulating slavery and asserting whiteness.

Drawing on a mix of historical and anthropological methods, Beasley covers such topics as church architecture, pew seating customs, marriage, baptism, communion, and funerals. Colonists created an environment in sacred time and space that framed their rituals for maximum social impact, and they asserted privilege and power by privatizing some rituals and by meting out access to rituals to people of color. Throughout, Beasley is sensitive to how this culture of worship changed as each colony reacted to its own political, environmental, and demographic circumstances across time. Local factors influencing who partook in Christian rituals and how, when, and where these rituals took place could include the structure of the Anglican Church, which tended to be less hierarchical and centralized than at home in England; the level of tensions between Anglicans and Protestants; the persistence of African religious beliefs; and colonists' attitudes toward free persons of color and elite slaves.

This book enriches an existing historiography that neglects the cultural power of liturgical Christianity in the early South and the British Caribbean and offers a new account of the translation of early modern English Christianity to early America.

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Contentious Liberties

American Abolitionists in Post-Emancipation Jamaica, 1834-1866

Gale L. Kenny

The Oberlin College mission to Jamaica, begun in the 1830s, was an ambitious, and ultimately troubled, effort to use the example of emancipation in the British West Indies to advance the domestic agenda of American abolitionists. White Americans hoped to argue that American slaves, once freed, could be absorbed productively into the society that had previously enslaved them, but their “civilizing mission” did not go as anticipated. Gale L. Kenny’s illuminating study examines the differing ideas of freedom held by white evangelical abolitionists and freed people in Jamaica and explores the consequences of their encounter for both American and Jamaican history.

Kenny finds that white Americans—who went to Jamaica intending to assist with the transition from slavery to Christian practice and solid citizenship—were frustrated by liberated blacks’ unwillingness to conform to Victorian norms of gender, family, and religion. In tracing the history of the thirty-year mission, Kenny makes creative use of available sources to unpack assumptions on both sides of this American-Jamaican interaction, showing how liberated slaves in many cases were able not just to resist the imposition of white mores but to redefine the terms of the encounter.

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Diplomacy in Black and White

John Adams, Toussaint Louverture, and Their Atlantic World Alliance

Ronald Angelo Johnson

From 1798 to 1801, during the Haitian Revolution, President John Adams and Toussaint Louverture forged diplomatic relations that empowered white Americans to embrace freedom and independence for people of color in Saint-Domingue. The United States supported the Dominguan revolutionaries with economic assistance and arms and munitions; the conflict was also the U.S. Navy’s first military action on behalf of a foreign ally. This cross-cultural cooperation was of immense and strategic importance as it helped to bring forth a new nation: Haiti.

Diplomacy in Black and White is the first book on the Adams-Louverture alliance. Historian and former diplomat Ronald Angelo Johnson details the aspirations of the Americans and Dominguans—two revolutionary peoples—and how they played significant roles in a hostile Atlantic world. Remarkably, leaders of both governments established multiracial relationships amid environments dominated by slavery and racial hierarchy. And though U.S.-Dominguan diplomacy did not end slavery in the United States, it altered Atlantic world discussions of slavery and race well into the twentieth century.

Diplomacy in Black and White reflects the capacity of leaders from disparate backgrounds to negotiate political and societal constraints to make lives better for the groups they represent. Adams and Louverture brought their peoples to the threshold of a lasting transracial relationship. And their shared history reveals the impact of decisions made by powerful people at pivotal moments. But in the end, a permanent alliance failed to emerge, and instead, the two republics born of revolution took divergent paths.

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Eighty-Eight Years

The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777–1865

Patrick Rael

Why did it take so long to end slavery in the United States, and what did it mean that the nation existed eighty-eight years as a “house divided against itself,” as Abraham Lincoln put it? The decline of slavery throughout the Atlantic world was a protracted affair, says Patrick Rael, but no other nation endured anything like the United States. Here the process took from 1777, when Vermont wrote slavery out of its state constitution, to 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery nationwide.

Rael immerses readers in the mix of social, geographic, economic, and political factors that shaped this unique American experience. He not only takes a far longer view of slavery’s demise than do those who date it to the rise of abolitionism in 1831, he also places it in a broader Atlantic context. We see how slavery ended variously by consent or force across time and place and how views on slavery evolved differently between the centers of European power and their colonial peripheries—some of which would become power centers themselves.

Rael shows how African Americans played the central role in ending slavery in the United States. Fueled by new Revolutionary ideals of self-rule and universal equality—and on their own or alongside abolitionists—both slaves and free blacks slowly turned American opinion against the slave interests in the South. Secession followed, and then began the national bloodbath that would demand slavery’s complete destruction.

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Enterprising Women

Gender, Race, and Power in the Revolutionary Atlantic

Kit Candlin and Cassandra Pybus

In the Caribbean colony of Grenada in 1797, Dorothy Thomas signed the manumission documents for her elderly slave Betty. Thomas owned dozens of slaves and was well on her way to amassing the fortune that would make her the richest black resident in the nearby colony of Demerara. What made the transaction notable was that Betty was Dorothy Thomas’s mother and that fifteen years earlier Dorothy had purchased her own freedom and that of her children. Although she was just one remove from bondage, Dorothy Thomas managed to become so rich and powerful that she was known as the Queen of Demerara.Dorothy Thomas’s story is but one of the remarkable acounts of pluck and courage recovered in Enterprising Women. As the microbiographies in this book reveal, free women of color in Britain’s Caribbean colonies were not merely the dependent concubines of the white male elite, as is commonly assumed. In the capricious world of the slave colonies during the age of revolutions, some of them were able to rise to dizzying heights of success. These highly entrepreneurial women exercised remarkable mobility and developed extensive commercial and kinship connections in the metropolitan heart of empire while raising well-educated children who were able to penetrate deep into British life.

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Finding Charity's Folk

Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland

Jessica Millward

Finding Charity’s Folk highlights the experiences of enslaved Maryland women who negotiated for their own freedom, many of whom have been largely lost to historical records. Based on more than fifteen hundred manumission records and numerous manuscript documents from a diversity of archives, Jessica Millward skillfully brings together African American social and gender history to provide a new means of using biography as a historical genre.Millward opens with a striking discussion about how researching the life of a single enslaved woman, Charity Folks, transforms our understanding of slavery and freedom in Revolutionary America. For African American women such as Folks, freedom, like enslavement, was tied to a bondwoman’s reproductive capacities. Their offspring were used to perpetuate the slave economy. Finding loopholes in the law meant that enslaved women could give birth to and raise free children. For Millward, Folks demonstrates the fluidity of the boundaries between slavery and freedom, which was due largely to the gendered space occupied by enslaved women. The gendering of freedom influenced notions of liberty, equality, and race in what became the new nation and had profound implications for African American women’s future interactions with the state.Published in cooperation with the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Program in African American History

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Flush Times and Fever Dreams

A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson

Joshua D. Rothman

In 1834 Virgil Stewart rode from western Tennessee to a territory known as the “Arkansas morass” in pursuit of John Murrell, a thief accused of stealing two slaves. Stewart’s adventure led to a sensational trial and a wildly popular published account that would ultimately help trigger widespread violence during the summer of 1835, when five men accused of being professional gamblers were hanged in Vicksburg, nearly a score of others implicated with a gang of supposed slave thieves were executed in plantation districts, and even those who tried to stop the bloodshed found themselves targeted as dangerous and subversive. Using Stewart’s story as his point of entry, Joshua D. Rothman details why these events, which engulfed much of central and western Mississippi, came to pass. He also explains how the events revealed the fears, insecurities, and anxieties underpinning the cotton boom that made Mississippi the most seductive and exciting frontier in the Age of Jackson.

As investors, settlers, slaves, brigands, and fortune-hunters converged in what was then America’s Southwest, they created a tumultuous landscape that promised boundless opportunity and spectacular wealth. Predicated on ruthless competition, unsustainable debt, brutal exploitation, and speculative financial practices that looked a lot like gambling, this landscape also produced such profound disillusionment and conflict that it contained the seeds of its own potential destruction. Rothman sheds light on the intertwining of slavery and capitalism in the period leading up to the Panic of 1837, highlighting the deeply American impulses underpinning the evolution of the slave South and the dizzying yet unstable frenzy wrought by economic flush times. It is a story with lessons for our own day.

Published in association with the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Program in African American History. A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication.

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