- Tropical Freedom: Climate, Settler Colonialism, and Black Exclusion in the Age of Emancipation by Ikuko Asaka
In this important study of black migration, racial displacement, and colonization efforts between 1780 and 1865, Ikuko Asaka details the ways that formerly enslaved peoples' migration within North America and their transnational displacement was based on settler motivations and determinist justifications that black peoples were "best suited" for labour within tropical climates. "Versions of the doctrine that 'blacks naturally belong in the tropics,'" Asaka writes, "operated on multiple levels on free black populations, serving not only to justify their dislocation to tropical regions but to legitimate their peripheral economic and social positions in the metropoles and on continental frontiers" (p. 22). Throughout, she closely examines efforts in the mid-nineteenth century—and famously, Abraham Lincoln's efforts during the American Civil War—to send emancipated and contraband black populations to foreign tropical climates. Supported by an archival study of provincial and abolitionist newspapers; official correspondences between colonial officers in Canada, Britain, and the United States; company papers prepared by the Sierra Leone Company; government records from the Maritimes; and historical writings from prominent abolitionists such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Asaka concludes that black people were incentivized to emigrate to foreign tropical regions such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, the West Indies, and Panama, or denied land ownership in the western United States in order to safeguard white settlement, development, and domination over indigenous territories in North America.
Thinking with the work of Canadian critical geographer Katherine McKittrick, Asaka theorizes the history of black peoples in North America as a "geographic story"—that is, one that cannot be fully understood without understanding the complex patterns of black migration in the late eighteenth and early-to-mid-nineteenth centuries, as well as the layered forces of white supremacy impacting such movement. Foregrounding the histories of black migration during the period, as well as mid-nineteenth-century colonization attempts, Asaka discusses the ways that discourses of black freedom figured as a "geographic condition marked by racial difference and climatic character" (p. 3). Here, she shows, black settlement opportunities were eclipsed by white desires to hold viable land in temperate regions and to segregate black people onto lands that were hot, demanding, and exploited [End Page 217] backbreaking labour for white controlled or owned companies. Throughout the book, Asaka takes care to detail the histories of segregation, internal displacement, and economic discrimination in Canada, as well as racialized limitations imposed upon black peoples who emigrated to tropical regions. This analysis highlights the biological determinism that undergirded Canada's historical racism with its insistence that black life was suitable for work and survival elsewhere. Her book, she writes, is ultimately about how "tropicality became a discourse for [black] freedom" (p. 7).
As a theoretical underpinning in her book, Asaka also aims to "acknowledge the intersections between black freedom and settler colonialism" in order to resituate black migrants in Canada and the United States in discussions of settler dynamics throughout North America (p. 17). Here, her timely work joins a significant scholarly body of writings about the relationship between slavery, emancipated black peoples, and settler colonialism in North America. "In thinking about freedom and settler colonialism," Asaka writes, citing a fraught, much discussed 2005 article by Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua, "one should keep in mind that aspirations for landholding by the emancipated were 'premised on earlier and continuing modes of colonization of indigenous peoples'" (p. 18). Here, a close reading of subsequent writings by Rinaldo Walcott (2014), Nandita Sharma and Cynthia Wright (2008), Jared Sexton (2016), Frank Wilderson (2010), and younger scholars such as Sandy Hudson (2017) over the last decade would be both useful and generous in providing a more nuanced analysis of black life and land ties in Canada and the United States. While Asaka refers to Tiffany King, she overlooks the import of King's contributions in articulating the primacy of "settler colonialism's anti-black modalities," where critiques of "black people as settlers" have been raised...