- From Africa to Brazil: Culture, Identity, and an Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600–1830
The field of Brazilian-focused Atlantic history has grown tremendously in the last 20 years, yet much of the work has continued to focus around the well-worn paths leading to Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, Bahia. Walter Hawthorne’s carefully researched study of the slave trade between the areas around the ports of Cacheu and Bissau in Upper Guinea and the Brazilian north—mostly Maranhão around the port of São Luís—sheds light on a little-studied corner of that history. Although Hawthorne offers background on the settlement and expansion of plantation agriculture in Maranhão, most of his study focuses on the period after 1755, when the formation of the Company of Grão Pará and Maranhão stimulated the growth of the slave trade in that region.
Hawthorne’s central focus is on the question of identity as slaves moved from freedom to slavery in Africa, and then across the Middle Passage through the port of São Luís to the plantation regions of Maranhão. His central thesis is that the slaves were able to transfer some of their cultural heritage and sometimes reconstruct some of their practices, despite coming from a diverse range of different ethnic groups and polities. Although this thesis is not new in Atlantic World studies, it is still refreshing to see it so well argued with such thorough and deeply analyzed evidence.
The book is divided into two parts. The three chapters in the first part examine the geographies and histories of Maranhão and Upper Guinea. These chapters also look at the slave trade and how it functioned, focusing extensively on the African side. Here, Hawthorne demonstrates that the relatively small and fractured political culture of the region, along with the desire for iron, were the reasons that the suppliers of slaves were able to produce captives from an area surprisingly close to the coast. With these conclusions Hawthorne challenges the widely accepted conclusions of Walter Rodney and Boubacar Barry, who have argued that interior warfare and jihads, especially Fula aggression on the Futa Jallon plateau, led to the upswing in slave exports from the interior.
The three chapters of the second part of the book examine the lives of captives from Upper Guinea on the plantations of Maranhão as they worked (mostly in the production of rice and cotton), formed relationships with one another, and expressed their spiritual lives using the foundation of shared traditions brought from Upper Guinea. In each of these chapters, Hawthorne presents evidence that challenges earlier scholarship, such as his challenge of the “black rice thesis” in his chapter on work. Overall, Hawthorne is able to argue convincingly that the slaves from Upper Guinea, despite coming from and continuing identification with discrete ethnic groups, worked together to rebuild their lives, families, and communities.
Despite the fact that the overall thesis mirrors that of much current Atlantic World scholarship, the examination of an understudied region has enabled Hawthorne to [End Page 122] challenge much of the accepted knowledge about that region, which reminds the reader of the danger of generalizing about an area as large and diverse as Africa and a historical phenomenon as complex as the slave trade. Almost every chapter of the book is able to re-contextualize or challenge assumptions about slavery and the slave trade in the regions under study. Hawthorne makes his arguments by drawing from extensive manuscript sources in Africa and Brazil, the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, and his personal knowledge of both regions.
The book is enhanced by the fact that the author has spent a significant amount of time in both regions. In fact, the second half of the book contains photographs taken by the author that illustrate the lifeways of contemporary Guinea-Bissau. Although there may be a danger in using such material for historical documentation, Hawthorne uses the evidence to good effect. In addition to...