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  • Working the Diaspora: The Impact of African Labor on the Anglo-American World, 1650-1850
  • Candice Goucher
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. 240 pp. $48.00 (cloth).

This book goes a long way toward giving enslaved African labor deserved recognition for having shaped the Atlantic world. Coerced labor had previously been thought to be materially poor and to have contributed nothing more than physical strength and stamina to American- or European-dominated enterprises. This view is clearly insufficient to describe the complexities of African contributions in the Atlantic world. Working the Diaspora demonstrates that Africans brought critical skills and knowledge, often introducing new crops, foods, and technologies to the capitalist world in the making. While this thesis is not entirely new, Knight's book broadens the discussion beyond the focus on a single crop (as in Judith Carney's Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas, Harvard University Press, 2001) and beyond the impact on agriculture alone (Edda L. Fields-Black's Deep Roots: Rice Farmers in West Africa and the African Diaspora, Indiana University Press, 2008).

Knight explores the possibilities of African contributions to the production of indigo, tobacco, cotton, and a number of other artisan activities, including metallurgy and weaving. He begins his narrative in Africa. Chapter 1 describes the material lives of West and West Central African societies that provided labor to the Anglo-American world between 1650 and 1850. Too-brief mention is given to the complexities of these interactions, leaving readers to their own devices in answering questions about the importance of African experience in crossing boundaries and establishing networks of exchange relevant to success in the labor diaspora that eventually extends across the Atlantic. Maps outline a strategy to provide links between the West African and Central African regions of the continent and enterprises in Anglo-American colonies from South America, across the Caribbean, to coastal North America. Chapters 2 and 3 examine African contributions to Atlantic world agriculture, emphasizing rice, cotton, tobacco, and other crops. Chapter 4, the only chapter with illustrations, focuses on African-derived indigo and textile production, especially as established in South Carolina. Chapter 5 looks at nonagricultural activities and the contributions of African tanners, fishers, woodworkers, miners, and metallurgists. The sacred dimensions of African labor are well documented across sub-Saharan Africa. For the discussion in chapter 6, Knight jumps to the antebellum South, while African-Caribbean worlds may have yielded as much if not more evidence of African ideological foundations. [End Page 607]

These are important first steps in describing the impact of African labor, but they do not carry readers to their final destination. Missing is a nuanced understanding of the impact of African coastal interactions prior to the Middle Passage. What were the processes of transfer? How did African laborers translate collective control over technologies to their individual advantages? African labor also participated in growing crops to support Atlantic trade, from which they gained new crops and technologies. Ships provided more than transport of the unwilling migrants. They were also sites of transformation, exchange, and technology transfer. Gendered notions of male and female roles were derived from agriculture and sometimes altered as a consequence of the Middle Passage. Onboard ships there were ample opportunities for further cultural transformations and exchanges that could prove to be mutually beneficial and multidirectional. And many possible contributions to the Atlantic world are simply not mentioned, among them charcoal making and salt production.

An imperial framework sometimes casts a shadow over Knight's analysis. Africans were polyglots, and both slaves and slave owners traveled widely in the Atlantic and Caribbean, crossing linguistic and imperial boundaries. Slaving ships often moved between the Senegambia and the Guinea coasts in search of human cargoes and supplies. At the end of the eighteenth century, migrants from the French island of St. Domingue, anticipating and then experiencing the Haitian Revolution, scattered across the Atlantic from Trinidad to the American South, thereby confounding definitions of separate Francophone and Anglophone experiences. Likewise, the movements of slave owners into parts of the...