- A Curse upon the Nation: Race, Freedom, and Extermination in America and the Atlantic World by Kay Wright Lewis
This is an important book that sheds light on contemporary dilemmas.
For almost nine decades following the launching of the successful revolt against British rule in North America in 1776, the anticolonial rebels and their successful republican project endured what could easily be termed "low-intensity conflict" in the form of resistance by the enslaved and uprisings by the Indigenous—often aided by London and related external foes—not to mention anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon conflict. Yet what Kay Wright Lewis focuses on in A Curse upon the Nation is not just resistance by the enslaved but also the oft-expressed desire to "exterminate"—her unearthing of the repeated use of this term is itself remarkable—this troublesome property, along with their real and imagined allies among "Free Negroes." At the same time, Lewis adroitly shows that the intended victims were not exactly dormant and in their attempt to escape oppression and persecution were not necessarily opposed to exploring their own liquidating enterprise, targeting their tormentors.
In some ways, this worthy book tracks the conclusions presented in Carl Paulus's The Slaveholding Crisis: Fear of Insurrection and the Coming of the Civil War (2017), and, indeed, the two can be read together profitably. Both suggest that the U.S. Civil War, with its massive bloodshed, should be seen not as a rupture from the past but, instead, as a simple escalation of what had been occurring in any case. The author seeks to trace this genocidal trend back to the colonial era, beginning with the brutal suppression of the Irish, then the North American Indigenes. With subtlety and sympathy, she limns the genocide against the Indigenous beginning in the early seventeenth century—including the Paspahegh, Chickahominy, Pamunkey, Doeg, Nanzemond, Portobacco, and Patawomeck—and the many ethnicities that were liquidated.
She continues the downgrading and devaluation of Nathaniel Bacon and his eponymous 1676 rebellion against colonial rulers, who were thought not to be moving in a sufficiently aggressive fashion to eliminate the original inhabitants of this bountiful land. Page after page, the author tells the bloodthirsty story of how an alleged "empire of liberty" was created by [End Page 302] dint of the ouster of the Westos, Savannahs, Apalachees, Lower and Upper Creeks, Yamasees, and Tuscaroras, not to mention the Narragansetts, the Mohegans, the Pequots, the Lenni Lenapes, the Shawnees, and the Senecas.
Lewis crosses the Atlantic and takes a look at war in Africa, with many warriors winding up enslaved in North America and the Caribbean, this perilous status emerging as a result of their being on the losing side in African wars and being sold to rapacious slave dealers. Those arriving on these shores, she argues, arrived with "military skills" honed in "Central Africa, from the Congo-Angola region to the island of Madagascar" (38). Thus, she explains, "Africans in the diaspora used their military backgrounds to foment insurrections and revolts across the Atlantic World. They attempted to kill whites to free themselves and their families from enslavement, while whites enacted internecine violence against blacks to maintain or reinstate enslavement" (59).
Like Paulus, Lewis emphasizes the Haitian Revolution, which "served as a sober reminder of the powerful capacity of the African military forces that white Americans might face among their own slaves in rebellion. White fears were not without cause, as [Jean-Jacques] Dessalines did encourage those enslaved in Martinique and other parts of the diaspora to rebel" (73). Thus the electrifying events in Hispaniola from 1791 to 1804 can fairly be said to have inaugurated a general crisis of the entire slave system—including in North America—that could only be resolved with this system's collapse, notably after independent Haiti pushed London toward abolition and then allied with this power against independent—and slave-owning—Texas. This slave power's retreat into the arms of Washington and relinquishment of...