- Captives and Voyagers: Black Migrants Across the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World
The history of the British Atlantic world is largely a story of black migrations. According to historian Alexander Byrd in his thoughtful and engaging text Captives and Voyagers: Black Migrants Across the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World, it is a story that includes both free and forced migration away from and towards the West African coast: "In the years spanning 1630 to 1780, more than two and a half times as many Africans arrived in Great Britain's Atlantic possessions as did Europeans, and in the critical near century from 1700 to 1780, more than four times as many Africans as Europeans departed their homelands for British colonies" (2). Byrd opens his scholarly intervention on the coast of West Africa in 1787. He begins with the story of free settlers or voyagers, many of whom are members of London's poor, black population, that have journeyed to Sierra Leone from England to found a new British settlement. Before he completes their story, Byrd shifts his attention in order to juxtapose this migration against the forced movement of captives—enslaved Africans from the Bight of Biafra to Jamaica in the same year. In doing so, Byrd dramatizes the social relations, which emerge out of the circular mobility of black bodies, in order to complicate Atlantic world history. Byrd carefully describes and imagines the histories of men and women who, in some circumstances, chose to move and, in other instances, were forced to move. The result of these continual movements is the creation of varied cultural experiences and encounters that work to produce "black migrant society" (10). It is a society that operates diasporically both within and against British imperialism.
Byrd divides his historical intervention into two parts: the captives from the Biafran interior and the voyagers to Nova Scotia and later Sierra Leone. These parts are dissected further into chapters that loosely aim to contextualize historically the site of origin, to trace the physical movement away from the site of origin, and to examine the resulting cultural production at the final destination. Part 1, "Captives," journeys to the Biafran interior and examines the origins of "the thousands of slaves who perished, passed through, or were integrated into the social fabric of Old Calabar, Bonny, and Elem Kalabari" (17). The historical record suggests that many are Igbo. However, Byrd argues that though Igbo was used often to describe the ethnicity of African slaves on eighteenth-century plantations and aboard ships bound for the Americas, it is a misnomer. Though it is a term with multiple meanings, including foreigner and stranger, its origins and significance as a viable ethnic category mark "a social imperative born of migration—in particular the violent, alienating dislocation that characterized slave trading in the Biafran interior" (18). Byrd [End Page 228] explains that the Igbo nation is a "New World" construction born out of social encounters between captives and voyagers on the West African coast that, according to Byrd, must be interrogated.
Using Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative as evidence of the prominence and New World nature of the term, Byrd emphasizes that the acculturation processes that prepared the recently enslaved for their journey through the Middle Passage demanded the production of a new category. The linguistic and cultural diversity of the peoples brought together for the purposes of enslavement required the new forms of social interaction. Byrd makes clear that this naming is not solely an attempt to create community among the enslaved. It is also bound within the needs of the slave traders who wanted to expedite the movement of bodies in order to increase their profits. As a result of a forced homogenization, this renaming documents the interplay of violence and trauma that characterized this forced migration. Thus, the emergence of an Igbo nation coincides with the traumatic loss or absence of a particular ethnic past. As Byrd continues to unpack this point, he provides accounts of the physical and emotional violence that occurred during the Middle...