- Assumed Identities: The Meanings of Race in the Atlantic World
In this small collection of essays edited by John D. Garrigus and Christopher Morris, several historians of North America, South America, and the West Indies explore the significance of racial identity in the early modern Atlantic world. While the collision of European, African, and Native American people and cultures in the centuries after Columbus's arrival in the Americas launched a spectacular series of events, none was more significant than the invention of race. This volume demonstrates how the social and cultural construction of race in the Americas was a long and complicated process that varied widely across time and space.
Following a brief introduction by Franklin W. Knight, John D. Garrigus unearths new evidence on the 1790 revolt in French Saint-Domingue led by Vincent Ogé, an extraordinarily wealthy free man of color. A reading of Ogé's interrogation in the colonial capital in January 1791 leads to a number of conclusions regarding both the revolt and its most prominent leader. Among them is that Ogé's racial, social, and colonial identity was and remains ambiguous. Historians have long debated his racial heritage, while Garrigus is more interested in determining his role in the revolt as a political or military leader primarily. In both cases, the transcript provides clarification. [End Page 853]
Rebecca Goetz examines legal and religious texts from seventeenth-century Virginia to demonstrate how European settlers used baptism to solidify their identities as white Christians and those of the African people they held in captivity as black slaves. Troubled by the theological debate concerning the practice of enslaving Christians, Virginia lawmakers began restricting Africans' access to the holy sacrament. Ironically, these actions occurred not long after settlers had left the door to baptism wide open for Native Americans whom they intended to conquer. Though Indians and Africans struggled to comprehend the meaning of baptism, both tried to exploit the sacrament to "build their own communities and also to gain a place in English society" (p. 56). However, in the end white settlers proved deft manipulators of the initiation right as well as the constantly evolving relationship between race, religion, and freedom in British North America.
The acquisition of British identity among colonists in the British West Indies is the subject of Trevor Burnard's essay, which proves this was no easy task given metropolitan Britons' views. Britons agreed with Benjamin Franklin, who in Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1751) drew sharp distinctions between Britain's West Indian and North American colonies and their people. Race played a crucial role in this determination, as the presence of Native Americans and Africans in the West Indies made white settlers of these islands appear less British to metropolitans unfamiliar with these dark-skinned strangers. Here, the editors' decision to eschew illustrations throughout the volume proves costly. The reality of interracial mixing coupled with stark differences in the economy, culture, and climate of Britain and the West Indies ensured the difficulty of any settler of British descent claiming Britishness.
Sidney Chalhoub tackles the problem of enforcement of the British law of 1831 that prohibited the African slave trade in Brazil. Brazilian authorities ignored the law and, like other economic and political elites throughout the Americas, made a mockery of the British effort to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. This comes as no surprise to anyone knowledgeable of slavery and the slave trade in nineteenth-century America. Nevertheless, Chalhoub illuminates the extent to which slaveowners' defense of their illegal actions led to the classification of all Brazilians of African descent as either slaves or potentially enslaved people. This made freedom even more precarious for black Brazilians than it had been prior to the passing of the law.
The final essay, by Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hébrand, is a study of an enslaved black woman in Saint-Domingue known as Rosalie and her descendents in Cuba, France, and Louisiana. Rosalie was a Saint-Domingan...