- Captives & Voyagers: Black Migrants across the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World
Unlike some catchy and overreaching academic book titles, the title of this book explains its contents and approach fairly well. It quickly engages the reader [End Page 322] in an unusual journey, discussing Africans as transatlantic sea voyagers beyond the traditional narrative of enslaved Africans sailing west to work on slave plantations in the Americas. Free Africans sailed back across the Atlantic to Africa as well. Alexander Byrd focuses first on the British slave trade from the Bight of Biafra to Jamaica. He touches on the internal African slave trade, mainly among the Igbo, then on conditions on the transatlantic slave ships, relying partially on pilots’ logs. His discussion of slave life in Jamaica is based heavily on correspondence between plantation managers and absentee owners. This first section is so depressing that Byrd seems ready to embrace the concept of total deculturation and ongoing depersonalization of African slaves first propounded by Stanley Elkins in 1959. These concepts are hard to justify, especially in Jamaica where the mountainous topography allowed for significant communities of runaway slaves, and in light of the American Revolution and the slave revolt in Haiti, which certainly undermined white power.
The rest of the book, in fact, refutes this strange revival of the Elkins thesis. It discusses Black loyalists freed for fighting for Britain during the American Revolutionary War, as well as the enslaved women and children who fled into British lines, hoping for and sometimes receiving their freedom, at least formally. Tracing the origins of these runaways in the Book of Negroes, Byrd finds that they were overwhelmingly Southern. Some were sent to London, where they swelled a small community of the Black poor. The rest were sent to Nova Scotia, where they were promised free land, which they rarely received. Many of the Black poor of London eagerly tried to improve their lot by signing up to settle in Sierra Leone, where they were once again promised free land. Free Blacks from Nova Scotia followed, also seeking relief from the poverty which could be nearly as devastating as slavery. Their deadly sea voyages, and the toll of disease both during these voyages and after landing, rivaled mortality on slave trade voyages sailing in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, Byrd documents their high motivation and collective organization under the worst of circumstances.
This book has many strengths, including its stunning research. It tries hard, and sometimes succeeds, at following the lives of the enslaved as human beings rather than as merchandise reduced to dry statistics, while explicitly acknowledging the limitations of its sources. The writer does, however, display Anglophone self-absorption. At least he does not call the British Atlantic the “Black Atlantic,” but to state that Jamaica was “the hemisphere’s most extensive slave society” (63) strains credibility. What of Brazil? St. Domingue/Haiti? I am confident, however, that in the near future this brilliant young historian will take off his blinders and at least gaze at the rest of the Atlantic World.