- Reinterpreting the Atlantic World
Atlantic Studies is a multi-disciplinary field, as is exemplified by Lisa Lindsay and John Wood Sweet’s recent edited collection, Biography and the Black Atlantic; Cécile Vidal’s edited volume, Louisiana: Crossroads of the Atlantic world; William Pettigrew’s Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the politics of the Atlantic slave trade; and David Lambert’s Mastering the Niger: James MacQueen’s African geography & the struggle over Atlantic slavery. This is a disparate set of books—two edited collections and two monographs, one political and one geographic. Each book offers unique contributions in content and methodology to the field of Atlantic studies. Together these texts enhance our social, geographic and temporal framework of the Atlantic world and reveal creative and exciting sources and methodologies.
Biography and the Black Atlantic is an important response to the quantitative studies of the Atlantic slave trade that proliferated in the last forty years. While quantitative studies were necessary to underscore the scope and magnitude of the tragedy of the Atlantic slave trade, the very humanity of those people was often lost in these studies amid the presentations of numbers.
This edited volume is also an integral part of the many texts written using the framework of and in response to Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic introduced in his 1993 seminal work, The Black Atlantic. Like Gilroy, the authors in Biography and the Black Atlantic seek to understand Black experiences unmoored from national identities and specific geographies. They convincingly place conversations about Black identity and experiences in a historically complex frame of analysis. Although discussions of culture that were central to Gilroy’s analysis do not feature prominently in this compilation, the biographies are an important tool for moving beyond Gilroy’s Britain–United States nexus. As an example of the geographical breadth of this compilation, the essays of Martin Klein, Lisa Lindsay and Roquinaldo Ferreira deal with West Africa; Jon Sensbach’s essay spans the Dutch Caribbean and Germany; and the people in Rebecca Scott and Jean-Michel Hébrard’s essay circulate between the French Caribbean, Spanish Caribbean, Louisiana and Europe.
Biography and the Black Atlantic extends Gilroy’s concept of the Black Atlantic in other important ways. First, the biographies are not just of elites. The lives of women, slaves and former slaves are recovered in these pages. Moreover, the text extends the temporal scope of analysis. Whereas Gilroy was predominantly concerned with the modernity of the early twentieth century, the biographies presented here are set in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Black Atlantic. Finally, Gilroy placed a great deal of emphasis on the exile and domination in which Black culture emerged in the Atlantic world. The contributors to Biography and the Black Atlantic challenge the hegemonic power of the slave system in shaping Black identity and experience. For example, David Dorr saw his naysayers as “mere obstacles to bypass on the journey to manly independence” (171). Though in some ways the chapter about Dorr exemplifies Gilroy’s concern with the focus on Black masculinity in Atlantic studies, his narrative nevertheless offers a valuable critique of the limits of “slave” identity.
The authors in the twelve-chapter edited collection dealt admirably with two important issues. Their first challenge was evidentiary. Blacks in the Atlantic world had limited ability to write and preserve their personal histories. Consequently, some of the contributors to Biography and the Black Atlantic used fragmentary primary documents to reconstruct the lives of Blacks in the Atlantic world. For instance, Jon Sensbach relied on Moravian church records to construct a narrative of eighteenth-century Dutch-speaking former slave Rebecca Protten. Cassandra Pybus did the same...