- From Africa to Brazil: Culture, Identity, and an Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1830
In his new book, Walter Hawthorne, a specialist in the precolonial history of Guinea-Bissau, examines the contribution of enslaved Africans from Upper Guinea to the formation of colonial economies and cultures in the Amazon region of Brazil. Carefully researched and written in admirably clear and uncomplicated prose, the book follows the slaves with their cultural baggage as they were moved from their home communities to the ports of Cacheu and Bissau in Africa, experienced the Atlantic Middle Passage aboard Portuguese vessels, and worked and rebuilt their lives in northeastern Brazil.
The African slave trade to Amazonia was small by most standards. It only really started after 1750, when the Portuguese Crown decided to stimulate the fledgling plantation sectors of northeastern Brazil through the rapid introduction of enslaved Africans. Over the course of the next century, some 150,000 slaves [End Page 261] were shipped from Africa to Amazonia, representing less than three percent of the total slave trade to Brazil, by far the largest receiver of African labor in the history of Atlantic slavery. But this relatively minor branch of the inhuman traffic was remarkable for the degree of cultural homogeneity of the enslaved. Half of all slaves arriving in Amazonia originated from the Guinea-Bissau region. But what is more, from an examination of a large number of postmortem inventories recorded in Maranhão, detailing the ethnic identities of the slaves of deceased property owners, Hawthorne concludes that most slaves shipped from Cacheu and Bissau came from within a 10-mile radius of these two ports (Chapter 1). This shows that Africans sold into the Atlantic slave trade did not always originate from regions far inland, as is commonly assumed in studies of the slave trade. More important, these findings suggest that through the slave trade, the histories of Amazonia and the small region of Guinea-Bissau were intricately connected.
Although the region of Guinea-Bissau was ethnically very diverse, its inhabitants shared a common culture, which included a deep knowledge of rice farming and a set of core religious beliefs. Hawthorne argues that, as Upper Guinean slaves from different ethnicities tried to reconstruct their lives in Amazonia, they built mostly on these regional cultural forms instead of their more specific ethnic identities. Demonstrating the impact of Upper Guinean cultures on rice cultivation (Chapter 4), approaches to family life (Chapter 5), and religious and healing rituals (Chapter 6) among the Amazonian slave population, Hawthorne adds nuance to the well-known creolization theory of Mintz and Price.1 Whereas the latter posit that African slaves never traversed the Atlantic as groups and therefore had to form new, creole cultures in the Americas, the Upper Guinean case shows that occasionally slaves did share a culture that they could draw upon to rebuild their lives in the New World. Hawthorne claims that in social spheres that planters did not control, such as family life and religion, slaves were able to re-create Africa to some degree.2
To readers who know Hawthorne's first monograph,3 parts of the new book will be familiar, in particular the chapter on slave production, in which he analyzes the response of Guinea-Bissau's rice farming communities to the potentially destructive forces of the Atlantic slave trade (Chapter 2). His earlier argument that these communities produced slaves locally—by kidnapping and raiding their neighbors as well as enslaving small numbers of their own people—and sold them to Europeans to obtain iron for making agricultural tools and weapons to defend themselves against other slave raiders, finds confirmation in the Maranhão postmortem inventories. Many slaves exported to Amazonia indeed originated from the rice farming communities inhabiting the coastal swamplands around Cacheu and Bissau. Besides following these slaves on their involuntary journey to Brazil, the book also offers new insights about processes of enslavement and the conduct of trade in Africa.
Chapter 2 has a fascinating section on the role...