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  • Africans in the Old South: Mapping Exceptional Lives across the Atlantic World by Randy J. Sparks
  • John Sweet (bio)
Africans in the Old South: Mapping Exceptional Lives across the Atlantic World. By Randy J. Sparks. ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. 224. Cloth, $26.95.)

In this book, Randy Sparks offers a series of case studies of women and men who traveled from West Africa to the American South—and sometimes back again—in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Sparks does not claim these individuals were typical or representative. [End Page 468] Rather, he argues that their extraordinary stories, reconstructed through meticulous research and careful analysis, illuminate a range of possibilities, strategies, and identities that would otherwise remain obscure. The result is an engaging study that enriches our understanding of the transatlantic slave trade, the American South, and the Atlantic world.

The first two chapters explore the experiences of members of two mixed-race slave-trading families who moved to South Carolina in the eighteenth century, building on their transatlantic commercial networks. One of these stories revolves around Elizabeth Cleveland, who was born on the coast of Sierra Leone in the mid-eighteenth century to an English father and an Anglo-African mother. In the polyglot world of coastal slave traders, Elizabeth enjoyed a privileged and cosmopolitan upbringing and was sent to Liverpool as a teenager for schooling. In 1764, when she was twenty-five, she embarked on a slave-trading ship full of captives destined for South Carolina. Using capital from her Afro-English family and their connections to the South Carolina elite, Cleveland proceeded to buy up a series of valuable plantations, integrated herself into the world of the local gentry, married a British surgeon, and, after he died during the American Revolution, managed her extensive holdings with considerable skill. As contemporaries noted, she occupied a "curious and anomalous" position in the new republic—accepted by many elite South Carolinians as "white" by virtue of her wealth, kinship ties, education, and (presumably) her light complexion, but shunned by others because of her African ancestry (34). Indeed, we know Elizabeth Cleveland's story in large part because when she died in 1808, a bitter dispute developed over her considerable estate—a battle that, because of the state's racist laws, ended up turning on whether she was classified as "white."

Next, Sparks turns to the story of another Anglo-African slave-trading family who moved to South Carolina: the family of English-born slave trader John Holman and one of his African wives, Elizabeth, who, along with several of their children, moved to South Carolina in the aftermath of the Revolution. For most of their lives together both Elizabeth and their children were his slaves, though he ultimately secured their freedom. Mobilizing far-flung social networks, traveling back and forth across the Atlantic, and making strategic marital alliances, members of the Holman family strove to develop a transatlantic slave-trading and plantation enterprise. Ultimately, though, they faced a less welcoming Anglo-American elite than the Clevelands had a generation earlier and their slave-trading venture was thwarted by the abolitionist measures of 1808.

In subsequent chapters, Sparks focuses on Africans who arrived on southern shores not as free members of elite families, but as captives who [End Page 469] were forcibly separated from their kin, transported as cargo, and sold as slaves. These examples add to the all-too-small number of individual stories we can tell about individual Africans who were caught up in the brutal, dehumanizing dynamics of the transatlantic slave trade. The evidence in these cases is often fragmentary and tantalizingly incomplete. Sparks tells the story of a "Mr. Johnson" who was kidnapped as a child in the 1790s, was enslaved in Georgia, eventually escaped, and in the 1830s told his story to northern abolitionists—a story that included an account of a gruesome murder of a slave girl by her owner in the middle of a dinner party. Sparks recounts the tumultuous tale of a man who came to be known as Dimmock Charlton—a man who, if his own account is to be believed, was taken captive as a...


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