Working the Diaspora: The Impact of African Labor on the Anglo-American World, 1650-1850, and: Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions (review)
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Keywords

Creoles, Atlantic world, Caribbean, slavery, slave trade, free people of color

Working the Diaspora: The Impact of African Labor on the Anglo-American World, 1650-1850. By Frederick C. Knight. (New York: New York University Press, 2010. Pp. 240. Cloth, $48.00.)
Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions. By Jane G. Landers. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. 340. Cloth, $29.95.)

Frederick Knight and Jane Landers depict blacks in the Atlantic world as active agents who shaped the historical trajectory of the Anglo-American colonies. Working the Diaspora shows that African labor skills and knowledge were important factors in the African slave trade in the southern mainland North American and Caribbean Anglo-American colonies. Africans in the Anglo-American colonies were able to retain much of their indigenous culture and influenced the development of Anglo-American slavery. Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions explores the history of Atlantic Creoles and their ability to use their unique skills to negotiate a better life as slaves and to take advantage of the tumultuous [End Page 339] world created by the American, French, and Haitian revolutions to pursue their freedoms. Both books reveal that the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were critical periods in the history of slavery in the Black Atlantic, even as that institution came under assault during the Age of Democratic Revolutions.1

Frederick Knight's Working the Diaspora is a thought-provoking study of African slavery and culture in the southern mainland North American and Caribbean Anglo-American colonies. Although historians long have noted that English colonists sought slaves from specific African tribes for their labor skills, few have emphasized the ways African slaves were attractive laborers because of their "African knowledge" of tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton cultivation. In other words, Anglo-American slave-holders in the region Knight studies respected labor skills and knowledge that particular tribes brought to their plantations, and wanted them to transplant their African culture to Anglo America. Drawing upon the works of historians such as Peter Wood as well as anthropologists, Knight examines material culture and traditional primary sources to demonstrate the ways African slaves retained indigenous traditions and customs in the New World. Factors such as high slave mortality and the slaveholders' continued desire for particular Africans revitalized African culture in southern Anglo-American colonies until the demise of the international slave trade in 1808.

Knight also argues that slaves adapted their African cosmology to life in the New World, especially as they understood the natural world. More than just transplanting African labor and knowledge to cultivate particular staple crops, slaves drew upon an African epistemology to make sense of their new life in the Anglo-American colonies. One of the longstanding debates among scholars of African American culture centers upon the degree to which the slave trade emaciated African culture. Some [End Page 340] historians maintain that the slave trade and New World slavery were so brutal that they destroyed any vestige of African culture, and the system of slavery itself shaped the black American experience. Other scholars argue that as brutalizing as the Middle Passage and slave trade were, certain cultural systems such as African religious beliefs survived this horrific experience, becoming the foundation of a more syncretized African and American slave culture.

Knight clearly aligns with the latter argument. He advances this contention further by illustrating the ways slave owners were invested in the retention of African customs. While historians such as Peter Wood, Charles Joyner, and Philip Morgan have also maintained that black slaves practiced African culture and social systems in the colonial Lowcountry, their scholarship portrays planters as passive agents in this process, and African retention was largely the result of a black demographic majority and planter absenteeism. In contrast, Knight persuasively demonstrates that slave owners actively encouraged their slaves to practice African culture as they believed this translated into a skilled labor force, efficient worker productivity, and financial profit for the plantation economy.

Where Knight provides an exciting interpretation about the ways Africans shaped slavery in the Anglo-American colonies at the height of the slave trade, his argument about the retention of...