- An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia, and: Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora
In 1999, Alison Games suggested in Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA, 1999) that patterns of migration to the New World reflected economic opportunities. Games’s influential [End Page 183] study focused primarily on voluntary European migration, but her premise nonetheless offered a new way of looking at Atlantic history. Two new books by Stephanie Smallwood and Marie Tyler-McGraw expand upon the study of migration and commercial markets by emphasizing the involuntary migrations of Africans and African Americans.
It is important to note here some distinctions between voluntary and involuntary migration, and between voluntary and involuntary labor, and the implications these distinctions have for understanding the connection between migration and economics. As discussions of early fishermen by Games (Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic, Cambridge, MA, 1999) and Peter Pope (Fish into Wine, Chapel Hill, NC, 2003) suggest, these voluntary migrations were not always intended to produce permanent settlements, especially among the earlier migrants. In contrast, involuntary migrations were the result of efforts to develop and sustain permanent economic structures. Both Smallwood and Tyler-McGraw provide important illuminations of these economic structures.
In Saltwater Slavery, a title that alludes to “salt waters,” the African–Creoles’ derisive nickname for their newly arrived counterparts, Small-wood retraces the middle passage from the creation of Euro–Africans through the trans-Atlantic voyage itself. She compellingly demonstrates how slavery shifted from Afro–European commerce to a keystone of American commerce: her penultimate chapter is appropriately titled “Turning Atlantic Commodities into American Slaves.” While Games deconstructed the influence of economics on European migration, Small-wood explains that the American marketplace was different from the African marketplace: a difference between “wholesale buyers of people” and “commodifiers of labor” (153). Smallwood’s conclusions about the American slave market are very much in line with previous works, such as Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul (Cambridge, MA, 2001). Economic interests drove the slave trade, but these economic interests were obviously not those of the migrants.
Temporally, Marie Tyler-McGraw’s An African Republic picks up where Smallwood leaves off. Tyler-McGraw’s study begins with the abolitionist impulses of the American Revolution and continues into the nineteenth-century politics of the American Colonization Society (ACS). The migration back to Africa sought by colonizationists certainly had economic motivations. Those who advocated the creation of an African republic asserted that such a republic represented the best opportunity for free blacks to be truly free, but in reality this argument was specious [End Page 184] at best (2). The republican ideologies of the Revolution made slavery problematic, yet the very notion of free blacks presented a threat to those whose entire livelihood had been built on the backs of slaves. Free blacks were perceived as even more of a threat after Gabriel’s Rebellion.
Tyler-McGraw describes the colonization movement as a sort of “valve” permitting “white Virginians to live with the intensifying contradictions of slavery and liberty” (7, 11, 14). She explains her decision to focus on the ACS in Virginia by asserting that emigration was most beneficial both to free black and white Virginians and because the state was a “pivotal geographic point between emancipation and those who sought to maintain slavery” (3). However unrealistic, the goal of removing free blacks was, it represented both a means to alleviate the immediate fears of insurrection and a means to resolve some of the rising differences between the North and South over the issue of slavery.
Under colonization, slave owners were to be compensated as slaves were emancipated, theoretically resolving the complaint that cessation of slavery represented a deprivation of the slave...