- Africa and the Americas: Interconnections during the Slave Trade
The "discovery" and subsequent conquest of America was a multifaceted and complex process; untangling its intricacies and ramifications is the goal of an exciting field of history known as Atlantic history. The implicit assumption underlying this scholarship is that the conquest of America was not only a European invasion, but an African one as well. The African slaves the colonizing powers brought with them to the New World transformed the American and African societies in several ways. These transformations are proof that the Atlantic world is not just a mere abstraction invented by scholars but rather a tangible construct that allows us to explore the political, economic, social, and cultural impact of colonization and slavery. The volume under review marks an important contribution to the growing literature as it places the slave trade (ca. 1600–1850) at the center of analysis. The focus on the slave trade places emphasis on "a series oftransatlantic cultural, demographic, and social exchanges that shaped" both Africa and the Americas (p. 3). Thus, the Atlantic world involved a set of exchanges that flowed from Africa to the Americas and vice versa.
The essays in this collection (which were originally presented at a conference held at York University in October 2005) can be loosely divided into three parts, which correspond to the circular nature of the slave trade itself. First, departing from Africa, the first essay takes a demographic look at the national origins of the slave trade (that is, which European powers were most active and at what times). David Eltis, Stephen Behrendt, and David Richardson demonstrate the primacy of Portugal in the slave trade, basing these findings on data from the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. Given that most of the essays [End Page 454] in this collection focus on western Africa and its relations—through the slave trade—with Brazil, this insight should not surprise many. However, the national origins of the slave trade reveal later conflicts regarding questions of "ethnic identity, religion, and creolization"—questions that greatly impacted the creation of the Atlantic world. After setting this empirical groundwork, the next set of essays in this first section explores the impact of the slave trade through the prism of religion (candomblé). The use of religion is revealing as it throws into relief the tenuous and conflictive process of identity formation. In other words, religion provided cohesive bonds that enabled diverse multiethnic nations to deal with the harsh realties they were faced with. This insight cannot be overstated enough; the slaves that were brought to the New World were a heterogeneous group that differed from each other in ethnicity and class.
The ways in which Africans adapted, not only to their European oppressors but more importantly to other Africans, despite these cultural and ethnic differences, brings the reader to the second stage of the slave trade: the slaves' daily lives in the Americas. The essays in this section of the book are more comparative in scope and outline the ways in which slave communities altered and created new attitudes and belief systems that were informed by a combination of their African heritage and the realities they faced in the Americas. In her essay, Jane Landers argues that the governance of the earliest maroon settlements "drew on familiar African models of kinship while eighteenth-century groups adopted more modern organizational forms and elected creole leaders" (p. 173). Similarly, Terry Rey examines the Haitian revolution by exploring the role of Kongolese religious prophecy. Rey argues that in order to understand the role of religious prophecy, we must first understand what he calls "root experiences" (p. 215). These religious root experiences, in turn, informed the actions of such revolutionary leaders as Makandal, Macaya, and Romaine-la-Prophétesse. Rather than being influenced by European doctrines of natural and human rights, Rey shows that African religious experiences (in the form of prophecies) were used to make sense of—and...