- Captives and Voyagers: Black Migrants across the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World
The transatlantic migrations between the Bight of Biafra and Jamaica that resulted in the enslavement of tens of thousands of African men and women, and those that brought black settlers to Sierra Leone in the late eighteenth century, do not necessarily represent obvious sites of comparison. However, by coupling the violent, catastrophic, and ultimately transformative nature of these two migration streams, Alexander Byrd offers a fresh perspective on the ways in which black bodies in motion defined the shifting parameters of slavery and freedom in the British Atlantic world. The first half of Byrd's story details the experiences of captives moving from West Africa who endured what he describes as a long middle passage, from the interior to the coast, into the bowels of slave ships, before confronting a seasoning process in Jamaica that aimed to ready black migrants for bondage in the local sugar-producing plantation economy. The final chapters of the book are devoted to the sojourns of black voyagers moving to West Africa seeking to enhance the conditions of their liberty. Byrd rightly acknowledges the stark differences between these two movements, particularly [End Page 190] as it relates to the status of the migrants and the sheer magnitude of people involved. However, he is careful to note that the conditions of migration that took black settlers to Sierra Leone were indeed by-products of those that brought enslaved West Africans to Jamaica. Most importantly, his study demonstrates how these overlapping cycles of movement collectively allowed black migrants to engender a British Atlantic world in which they forged identifications and communities that challenged the institution of slavery and the denial of black freedom that buttressed its existence.
Central to Byrd's analysis is how the process of migration—marked by the circumstances surrounding departure, movement, arrival, and settlement—functioned as the crucible through which black migrants cultivated relationships with one another and responses to the impositions of white power. In one of his most compelling arguments, Byrd contends that the Igbo identifications in the Americas were not transplants of something that would have existed in any coherent form in the Biafran interior. Rather, he insists that this diasporan ethnicity was forged through "affinities of language, cosmology, politics and philosophy" that were tested by "the centripetal exigencies of violence and suffering that defined the ordeals of enslaved men and women from the Biafran interior" (p. 32). Treading the generative path of Saidiya Hartman's Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (1997), which highlights the ways in which the terror, privation, and dislocations of slavery shaped acts of self-making and the formation of ethnic identifications, Byrd takes the reader on the inhumane journey from the Biafran interior to the littoral towns of Bonny, Elem, and Old Calabar and spends an entire chapter outlining the terms of the harrowing imprisonment that enslaved Africans endured aboard slave ships. There, in the quotidian routines of violence, death, disease, confinement, scarcity, and the power of whites to impose order and discipline on black bodies, Byrd finds that Igbo identifications crystallized in such a way that articulated the melancholia, suffering, and exile that was part and parcel of the process of enslavement. In making this argument, Byrd rethinks the terms of long-standing historiographical debates about the extent to which elements of local so-called African cultures survived the middle passage. Subsequently, his interpretation challenges historians to consider the role of migration—and in the case of the slave trade, its attendant dislocating affects and effects—in shaping the cultural transformations that defined what it meant to become African in the Americas.
Once in Jamaica, Byrd finds black migrants confronting a seasoning process marked by forms of brutality and degradation akin to those [End Page 191] experienced during the middle passage. Despite offering only a cursory nod to the gendered terms of violence and exploitation that would have certainly...