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  • Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade by Sharla M. Fett
  • Scott Heerman (bio)
Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade. By Sharla M. Fett. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. 312. Cloth, $35.00.)

Sharla Fett's splendid book on illegally enslaved Africans is at once readable and accessible, while making several key contributions to scholarship on slavery, the slave trade, and emancipation in the nineteenth century. The book will interest a wide cast of scholars and would be appropriate for advanced undergraduate students. Before a few years ago there was relatively little scholarship on the slave trade after its abolition took effect in 1808, and historians have actively been working to fill the gaps in our knowledge. Fett is one of them, and her most recent book helps fill a crucial one. The book offers a tight chronology, mostly between 1857 and 1861, and traces the experiences of roughly eighteen hundred captive African slaves on four vessels: the Echo, Wildfire, William, and Bogota. All four vessels embarked from Africa and were intercepted on the high seas, whereupon the human cargo was detained in various U.S. ports and the [End Page 650] would-be slaves were returned to apprenticeship, and eventually freedom, in Liberia. While Fett's narrative and argument are confined to a handful of ships over a few short years, the book is anything but narrow.

Fett uses this history to offer different ways to conceptualize slavery and freedom in the wider Atlantic world. First among these is her framework for understanding the captives' harrowing journey. During the nineteenth century, African shipmates like those on the Echo, Wildfire, William, and Bogota were typically called "liberated Africans," or emancipados, to mark their movement from slavery to freedom. Yet Fett's story confounds this simple binary and offers a careful history of enslaved people's experiences after their capture, detention, and repatriation. Fett prefers the term "recaptured Africans," which emphasizes "the constraints of death and suffering, containment and racialization, that African shipmates endured" (4). With this conceptual innovation, Fett analyzes the liminal zone that recaptured Africans occupied, and brings a deep knowledge of slavery in West Africa to bear on the history of emancipation in the Americas. The result is an erudite transnational history of the complexities of human bondage and emancipation.

A second key conceptual contribution is the way in which Fett's study of the slave trade informs the history of U.S. slavery. Often, historians separate the Atlantic trade in African captives from the history of plantation production in the U.S. South. Yet Fett convincingly shows that slave smuggling "exerted a significant impact on nineteenth-century U.S. public debates and popular culture" (6). She situates the politics of slavery globally, highlighting that the 1850s was a period when slavery retreated in newly independent Latin American nations and in the British and French Caribbean, while also seeing an unprecedented reinvention that birthed new plantation complexes in the U.S. South, Cuba, and Brazil. The simultaneous abolition and expansion of slavery shaped debates over race and racial hierarchy, which in turn propelled the rise of scientific racism and theories of polygenesis to justify the institution of slavery.

By examining the experiences of these recaptive Africans, Fett unearths new dimensions of this history. She does the bulk of that work in chapters 2 and 3. First she looks at the slave trade tourism at Fort Sumter, which brought paying tourists into close contact with the recaptives. Next, in chapter 3, she offers a careful reading of print culture. Looking in particular at Harper's Weekly, De Bow's Review, and other prominent publications of the time, she shows how recaptives' experiences in detention provided fodder for proslavery ideologies. In this way it becomes evident that the politics of race and slavery went beyond the halls of Congress and the statements of lawmakers, into popular print and culture. [End Page 651]

After opening chapters that set out the contours of the illegal slave trade after 1808, the second half of the book focuses on...


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