Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Matt D. Childs, and James Sidbury
In 1763 a young enslaved man who went by the name Gustavus Vassa went to sea in the British Caribbean. Like most sailors, he soon began to engage in petty commerce to make a bit of money. Over the next four years he built up his small savings by transporting goods from one island port and selling them in another. Around 1767 he invested all of his savings in limes and oranges that he took on a voyage to Santa Cruz (present-day Saint Croix). When the ship arrived in port, probably at Frederiksted, he and a friend lit out for the city to sell their fruit. Almost immediately “two white men” stopped them and openly stole their three bags of fruit. The two young slaves pleaded for the return of their trade goods, but the robbers “not only refused to return” the citrus, they cursed their two victims and threatened “to flog” them as well if they did not leave them alone. Thus, at the “very minute of gaining more by three times than” he had ever had “by any venture” in his “life before,” the young enslaved petty merchants was “deprived of every farthing” he “was worth.” Port cities created opportunities for enslaved Africans, but they also held dangers.
Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, lived an amazing life in the Black Atlantic. According to his 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself, he was born in 1745 in a small Igbo village called Essaka. Kidnapped as a young boy, he was sold into American slavery. More fortunate than most victims of the slave trade, he ultimately won his freedom and became an antislavery advocate and author. His account of enslavement, the Middle Passage, his life as a slave, and his careers as a free man offers the most powerful first-person account of eighteenth-century slavery to be found in English. Not surprisingly, scholars of eighteenth-century race and slavery use it in discussions of almost every aspect of eighteenth-century black life in the English-speaking world.
And why not? Equiano/Vassa’s story lives up to its title—it is, indeed, an “Interesting Narrative.” He offers chilling descriptions of being snatched from Essaka with his sister, of being separated from her while traveling to the African coast, and of being purchased by slavers and shipped to America. Once in the New World he was sold to a Virginian and then to a ship captain, after which he traveled throughout the Caribbean, North America, and Europe, going as far east as Smyrna in the Ottoman Empire. He fought on a Royal Navy man-of-war alongside his owner during the Seven Years War. He converted to Christianity in England. Sold back to America, he worked and made money for his owner while engaging in petty commerce on his own account. Finally, despite numerous efforts by whites to defraud him like the one on Santa Cruz, he saved enough to buy his freedom. As a free man he worked as a sailor, a barber and personal servant, and as an overseer. By the time he decided to write his autobiography, he had lived a life well worth telling, a life many would and did want to purchase as text. His Interesting Narrative was a best seller.
That broad range of experience also helps explain the Narrative’s appeal to scholars. Equiano/Vassa went so many places, he interacted with whites and blacks throughout so much of Britain’s Atlantic empire, he recounted so many fascinating stories that his autobiography can seem like a gold mine for people searching for all-too-rare points of entry into the ways that slaves understood their world. Of course that very variety of experience raises questions about how to use evidence from the text. No one has ever pretended that Equiano/Vassa’s life as a slave resembled that of most victims of the Atlantic trade, but relatively little attention has been paid to the prominence of cities in his story.
Though he spent a few weeks as a slave in rural Virginia, and a few months as an overseer on the Mosquito Coast of present-day Nicaragua, he reported precious little experience on plantations, the institution that dominated the lives of most American slaves. Instead, most of his time was spent either in ports or on ships sailing between ports. He tells stories of his time in London and of visits to ports in France, Portugal, and Spain. The list of American cities he spent time in is almost too long to list: Basseterre (St. Kitts), Charleston (South Carolina), Kingston (Jamaica), New Providence (the Bahamas), Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), Plymouth (Montserrat), and St. Pierre (Martinique). Equiano/Vassa’s Interesting Narrative reveals a network of black sailors, craftsmen, stevedores, and laborers who worked in the port cities of the Atlantic World, providing much of the labor and expertise that lubricated Atlantic commerce.
While no one would suggest that cities should replace the plantation as the primary site for making sense of Atlantic slavery, the essays in this volume, when read together, make a strong case that we need to pay much more attention than we have to the black urban Atlantic that played such a central role in Equiano/Vassa’s life. While the Interesting Narrative provides occasional glimpses of enslaved Africans and people of African descent working, and playing, and worshipping, and suffering brutal exploitation, these essays look in much more concentrated ways at the texture of black urban life in Atlantic cities. This collection provides a series of detailed case studies of black life in different Atlantic ports—one in Europe, three in Africa, two in Brazil, two on the Spanish American mainland, and three in the Caribbean—as well as an essay discussing slave pilots who worked Atlantic ports. By placing the activities that Equiano saw throughout the Atlantic within their specific urban contexts, these studies provide a rich and diverse sample of the ways Africans and African-descended people experienced urban life during the era of plantation slavery. The essays center collectively on the eighteenth century, though they range from the sixteenth to the nineteenth. Together they reinforce and enlarge upon a point that David Northrup makes in his contribution to this volume when he points out that the historiographies of African slaving ports and American slave-importing points not only are asking some of the same questions, but also are beginning to reach similar conclusions about the nature of cultural adaptation and change among the victims of the Atlantic slave trade. That is not to say that blacks throughout the urban Atlantic experienced the social and cultural upheaval of slaving in the same way. It is to say, however, that the essays in this volume fit with much of the new literature on the Black Atlantic in suggesting new directions in our understandings of the cultures of the African diaspora. Over the past decade it has become apparent that long-standing debates about creolization and African cultural survival must give way to more flexible understandings of cultural change and persistence.
Especially after the middle of the seventeenth century people of African birth or descent became increasingly numerous residents of British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese port cities and of American ports, even those that served nonplantation hinterlands. They became or remained demographically dominant in African ports and in the towns and cities of the plantation Americas. This was in part, but only in part, because free and enslaved blacks became increasingly important maritime workers, so Atlantic ports included uncertain but significant numbers of transient black sailors enjoying shore leave while the ships on which they served loaded and unloaded cargoes. In addition, blacks worked in domestic service, in the many crafts necessary to support transoceanic commerce (blacksmithing, sail making, carpentry and other woodworking, etc.), and in the nonartisanal work that took place around docks, where they served as stevedores, carters, sex workers, boarding house keepers, and day laborers. Many slaves in the urban Black Atlantic negotiated the right to hire their own time, enhancing their autonomy and winning the right to participate in the Atlantic commercial system, often acting as agents on their masters’ behalf in addition to marketing some of their own goods and services. Self-hired slaves had a much better chance of acquiring sufficient money to purchase their freedom, though opportunities for manumission varied in different imperial legal regimes. Africans did not come to dominate artisanal and day labor positions in all cities, though they dominated them in some, but they established an urban presence throughout the Atlantic World.
This collection of essays brings out the stark contrasts but also commonalities that marked the urban Black Atlantic during the early modern period. In terms of contrasts, the African merchants and others born in Ouidah and Luanda covered in chapters by Robin Law and Roquinaldo Ferreira lived there by choice. Some of these merchants traveled back and forth across the Atlantic—especially the South Atlantic—choosing to live in Brazil or Portugal at various times. Others sent children to be educated in England, France, or Brazil. Less wealthy free people of African descent—sailors and craftsmen who lived outside of Africa—also exerted some control over where they lived, though their choices were certainly more constrained than those of wealthy African merchants. But the vast majority of Africans living in European or American ports had been involuntarily drawn into those urban centers either directly or indirectly by the transatlantic slave trade that from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century transported eleven million enslaved Africans throughout the Black Atlantic. Many of the black people living in eighteenth-century Lisbon or London, in Kingston or Le Cap, in Rio or Bahia, but also in Ouidah and Luanda, were victims of slaving. Like most people living in the early modern Atlantic, they had grown up in villages with profoundly local conceptions of identity, but they had been yanked out of them and thrust into a frightening new urban milieu.
In this regard their experiences were not different in kind from those of the majority of victims of the Atlantic trade who ended up on plantations, but the urban setting made a difference. First, in most Atlantic cities, enslaved Africans found themselves in black communities that dwarfed even very large plantations. As James Sweet points out, slaves did not constitute a large percentage of eighteenth-century Lisbon’s nearly two hundred thousand people, but the city was home to some ten thousand enslaved Africans. Of course Lisbon was a very large city, but the much smaller Kingston, Jamaica, held roughly seventeen thousand slaves among its almost twenty-seven thousand people in 1788, and Saint Domingue’s modest Le Cap in the 1780s was home to about ten thousand slaves (out of a population of fifteen thousand). Even towns serving peripheral plantation hinterlands included sizable enslaved populations: seventeenth-century Cartagena had between three and four thousand enslaved residents (compared to twenty-five hundred whites), and the tiny and newly founded fall line port of Richmond, Virginia, with fewer than fifteen hundred total residents in 1784, was home to more than six hundred slaves. When one remembers that these were geographically constrained eighteenth-century walking cities, it becomes apparent that notwithstanding the relative absence of large individual urban slaveholders or specifically demarcated slave quarters, urban slave communities were substantially larger than plantation communities.
Did the size of Black Atlantic cities matter? It did in a number of ways, and the authors to this volume have studied in detail some of the locations that would be classified as “capitals” of the Black Atlantic for the size of their enslaved and free populations. As is clear in the case studies that follow, cities afforded those victimized by slaving in Africa and slavery in the Americas the opportunity to overcome the dislocation caused by enslavement and coerced migration by creating new communities. Some communities defined themselves through claims to shared places of African origin, in some cases to quite specific places and in others to a single slaving port or language group. Some communities defined themselves through shared religious belief. Some through shared occupations, or shared commitments to collective responsibility for medical and burial costs. The bigger the city, the larger its population of African and African-descended people, the more regular and the more reciprocal its connection with ports on the other side of the Atlantic, the deeper the well of cultural resources available to dislocated slaves in the city seeking to find or forge a new community within which to embed themselves. Urban centers from Luanda, Freetown, Ouidah, and Lisbon, to Rio and Bahia, to Kingston, Havana, and Le Cap, to Cartagena and Mexico City all offered what modern Westerners value as cosmopolitanism—urban settings in which different mixes of African, American, and European peoples lived side by side.
This forceful mix of involuntary African migrants enslaved by European colonial powers produced examples of syncretic cultures that are often celebrated today as examples of globalization and transnationalism. However, one must not be lulled by the similarity to qualities valued in twenty-first-century Western culture into thinking that “cosmopolitanism” was a welcome thing. Catholic brotherhoods with explicit ties to a single African ethnic group welcomed others to their celebrations and sometimes looked beyond their ethnic “kin” for members and beliefs. Africans of various backgrounds who lived in Lisbon turned to bolsas de mandinga in order to ward off dangerous forces. The Atlantic slave trade ripped men and women out of their local cultures, leaving them to coalesce as best they could and create new communities that would give meaning to their existence. The African urban Atlantic was a world of forced cosmopolitanism and desperate cultural adaptation. Blacks in these cities did not choose cosmopolitan ways of life or values, and the processes through which they developed them exacted brutal and inhumane costs. Those involuntarily swept into the black urban Atlantic responded creatively to those costs in ways that continue to enrich the myriad synthetic cultures of the Atlantic basin today.
Cultural Change in the Urban Black Atlantic
The chapters in this volume shed light on some of the common dynamics that influenced these processes. First, they show time and again that however absolute a master’s legal power over a slave might have been—and that, of course, varied in different slave regimes—in actual eighteenth-century cities in which the goal of slave owners was to benefit from slaves’ labor, domination came through negotiation coupled with brute force. To be sure the parties to these negotiations brought very different resources to the table, and masters never relinquished the threat of violence or the threat to sell recalcitrant bondsmen away from the relative liberty of the city. But urban economies required skilled workers, and they rewarded those who were responsive enough to markets to reallocate labor as needed. As noted earlier, many masters responded by putting the onus on their slaves by allowing them to hire their own time and find their own work. If this was a good bargain for urban slaveholders, and it certainly was, it also provided opportunities for urban slaves’ desperate and creative attempts to improve their own condition. In return for doing that work well and making money for their owners, urban slaves enjoyed much greater autonomy both at work and when not working.
Cities, then, were far from being in the stranglehold of elites. Early modern state power was tenuous, shallow, and weak. Terms like “conquest” and “slavery,” with all their latent and explicit references to European dominance over Indians and Africans, can obscure as much as they illuminate. They are abstractions reinforced by a historiography that relies on the paperwork left behind by lay and clerical European settlers and imperial bureaucracies. Extant archives register the everyday operations of the various local and imperial state powers and therefore register their aspirations of mastery and sovereignty rather than the complicated and endlessly negotiated on-the-ground realities of life in the Americas.
Cities were less the epicenters of colonial power than they were borderlands within the heart of the colonial project. The violence that characterized the Atlantic, violence characteristic of colonialism throughout the world, was itself the reflection of the limits of the state’s control. The best model to capture the power dynamic of the Atlantic World is one that highlights each locale (urban and otherwise) as networked and self-organizing. European hegemony in Afro-American cities was tenuous indeed. Take Cartagena, analyzed by Jane Landers in this volume. The Caribbean port city was surrounded by hinterlands dominated by maroon communities. How did masters maintain control over city slaves if they could easily flee to the hinterlands? Jane Landers shows that palenques (runaway slave communities that exhibited an element of permanency and encampment) used the city of Cartagena, and in turn the city used them. Maroons raided the city’s outskirts for staples and women, they built alliances and engaged in rivalries with neighboring Indian nations, they maintained networks of support with urban slave populations, they drew on the sacred expertise of urban Catholic priests to tend the palenques’ spiritual needs, and ultimately they negotiated with and won recognition from imperial authorities as “cities” of their own. As a result, maroons living in the palenques acquired standing as subjects of the king and fully enfranchised vecinos. The maroon villages near Cartagena were in fact microcosmic “African cities,” teeming with peoples with wide-ranging genealogical origins that stretched from Senegal to Angola. These towns became spaces of ethnogenesis, polyglot African towns led by a representative authority, usually a king. As such, these settlements traded recognition within the imperial order for a promise to support that order by returning runaway slaves and participating in provincial defense.
Blacks in other Atlantic cities followed analogous paths, though the local variations are as important as the similar themes. For example, the black quarter of Lisbon became known as Mocambo to reflect the Angolan and Congo population that populated the city. “Mocambo” is a Kimbundu word for a hideout and was commonly used by masters and slaves in Brazil to refer to maroon communities. According to James Sweet, Lisbon’s Mocambo, like those of other Atlantic cities, played complicated and contradictory roles within the larger social order. It sometimes protected fugitives escaping from the interior, and it probably included freed colored people and slaves engaged in a broad range of urban occupations, from day laborers to artisans to washerwomen to prostitutes, who hired their time and lived away from their owners. Blacks gathered at night on street corners and crossroads in Mocambo to perform religious rituals like burying mandiga bags. Household slaves were privy to the private behavior of their masters and occasionally denounced them to the Inquisition for impiety. This was just one way that blacks manipulated the regime of composite sovereignty of the city: they also escaped authorities by seeking refugee in the church when accused of street crimes. Lisbon, like Cartagena, offered enslaved and free Africans and people of African descent tools that they used to increase their social and cultural autonomy.
Mexico City offered another set of variations on the theme as the chapter by Nicole von Germeten shows. In 1615 Afro-Mexican cofradías organized a rebellion that was nipped in the bud, showing that even ecclesiastical authorities found it difficult to control the cofradías. The aborted uprising began with a procession of fifteen hundred cofrades, whose brotherhood was linked to the Mercederians, parading the body of a dead woman slave. They pelted the archbishop’s palace and the Inquisition with stones, showing a clear lack of respect for their ecclesiastical superiors and eliciting a brutal response. The authorities ultimately hanged thirty-five conspirators, six of whom they quartered while still alive; the remaining twenty-nine were posthumously decapitated. The black cofradías exercised their autonomy most dramatically by appointing women to positions of authority over the organizations’ communal property. African women even participated in acts of public flagellation among penitential cofradías, violating standard practices of Iberian sodalities. The self-governing aspect of these black organizations was reflected in their finances. Cofradías would collect fees to maintain burial and health services provided to the members, and they retained control over the fees and fines that members paid and the benefits that the organization bestowed. Some of these activities fell within the parameters of the Church’s expectations and of the norms governing Iberian cofradías, but others did not, revealing the ways that blacks in Mexico City used the institutional structures provided by the Church to increase their collective autonomy.
The religious sodalities of Havana, there called cabildos, operated in similar ways, though perhaps because Cuba’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade continued for so long, the cabildos’ ties to African places of origin remained more specific much later than was the case in Mexico. The chapter by Matt D. Childs shows that enslaved and free people of color in Havana joined together in cabildos that were often tied to specific places of African origin, and that they worked in them and through them to organize their resistance to slavery. But he goes beyond that here by exploring the more routine ways that Havana’s cabildos fostered the communal lives of the city’s black residents. Syncretic rituals and beliefs emerged in the different cabildos, as they adjusted first to slavery and then to the decision of Havana’s authorities to move them out of the heart of the city. This did not stop their commitment to communal support and cultural survival. In fact, by moving the cabildo houses beyond the city walls, authorities inadvertently seem to have increased their autonomy by making them less susceptible to constant surveillance. Removed from the center of Havana, the African cabildos came to play an even more central role in black Havana’s cultural and political life.
Approved institutional structures authorized by the Catholic Church were not always necessary for Africans and their descendants to build fraternal structures. The French in the port city of Le Cap in the colony of Saint Domingue did not encourage the creation of cabildos and cofradías among African slaves as was common in the Iberian Atlantic. Nonetheless, even without the Church’s institutional support, the African and African-descended residents of Le Cap built analogous organizations. In the absence of institutional support, the records through which their activities can be reconstructed are inevitably sketchy, but David Geggus’s analysis of those scarce records reveals that slaves congregated along ethnic lines in established places on the outskirts of the city. On Sunday market days when the thirty-five hundred slaves of Le Cap were joined by fifteen thousand others from surrounding plantations, the slaves would gather along ethnic lines, each with their own self-appointed authorities and pools of money that took care of their dead and infirm. Different ethnic groups wore different sashes and garments and gathered in distinct quarters: La Providence, La Fossette, and Petit Carénage. Scholars too easily conceive of cabildos and cofradías as institutions introduced to African American cities by Spanish Catholic corporatism. No doubt that is partially true, but Geggus’s discovery of these unincorporated organizations in Le Cap combined with the emergence of analogous organizations among free black people in the very different world of northern U.S. port towns strongly suggests that the Spanish institutional framework simply allowed slaves’ adaptation of the various and widely shared West and Central African secret society traditions to find their way into the historical record.
Africans and African-descended people in Cartagena illustrate the similarity between what happened in Le Cap and the standard narratives of ethnic “survival” in Spanish America. Slaves in Cartagena, as in Le Cap, gathered in the outskirts of the city in designated places along ethnic lines, as some of the evidence gathered by Jane Landers suggests. The city council, through ordinances, repeatedly sought to regulate the rowdiness of these meetings, to no avail. Some had formal cofradías that offered institutional loci for their communities, but the Araras of Cartagena had no cofradía or cabildo of their own. Nonetheless, during the seventeenth century, they began electing a king who was responsible for, among other things, collecting dues to pay for burying the dead. This self-organized and self-governing brotherhood differs little from those of Le Cap. And if both differ in interesting ways from cofradías that were formally endorsed by the Church, those differences may have more to do with the ways they interacted with white authorities than with the ways they developed internal senses of community.
Different variations on these themes played out in African Atlantic urban places that are often seen as distinct from these European-dominated hubs of the Atlantic trade. The principle of autonomy and self-organization of African urban communities can be seen in the religious choices of the ninety-four thousand recaptives of Freetown, Sierra Leone, who are the subject of David Northrup’s chapter. Most joined Methodist or Baptist churches rather than the established Anglican Church, opting to control their own autonomous parishes. Slaves in Luanda lived in sensalas, separate makeshift quarters. The state exercised little control over these neighborhoods, where thieves and smugglers organized rackets and thrived, as Roquinaldo Ferreira elegantly shows. This is reminiscent of Le Cap’s Petite Guinee, ostensibly the quarter of the city where slaves for hire lived, but also home to those escaping their masters, as illustrated by a single raid in which authorities found two hundred runaways in 1785. The point is not that all of these cities were the same. They were not, but they shared some important structural characteristics that created opportunities for blacks victimized by the Atlantic slave trade to carve out economic, social, and cultural niches within which they could shape their own lives and the lives of these cities.
Enslaved and freed black Brazilian sailors and merchant factors traveled back and forth across the Atlantic in ways that created an inordinately strong ongoing and reciprocal network of communication between the black communities in Brazil and the slaving ports of Africa. This also created remarkably autonomous black individuals, but such autonomy was not limited to mariners in the Luso-Atlantic. Consider enslaved pilots who guided boats into British American harbors and who are the subject of Kevin Dawson’s study. Pilots held one of the highest positions open to slaves for hire in the port cities of the Black Atlantic because pilots’ skills made them particularly valuable. Enslaved British pilots were sometimes manumitted when they used their skills to save vessels and crews, and at other times they accumulated enough money through their work to buy their freedom. Their navigational skills conferred unusual power over crews in moments of danger. The safety of cargo, property, and crews was in the hands of pilots, and crewmates and captains chose to treat them with the respect accorded to officers. The case of pilots and their privileges in the British Caribbean suggests a world of autonomous networking and limited but significant self-governance in urban slave societies and even rural ones. The case of Rio de Janeiro’s barbeiros, a combination of healers, blood letters, and hair dressers, as recounted in Mariza de Carvalho Soares’s chapter, also exemplifies the autonomy acquired by some urban slaves. As slaves for hire, barbeiros were frequently sent as surgeons on ships, visiting ports in Africa and India.
African slaves often sought to organize themselves along distinct ethnic lines. Different ethnicities sometimes gained dominance over specific trades, sometimes cohered in identifiable neighborhoods or quarters, and sometimes lay claim to specific urban locations for worship. Ethnic patterns changed and evolved, taking different meanings over time and place, so, as has become increasingly clear, it is a mistake to fall into the creolization/survivalist dichotomy by looking for either the straightforward transmission of group identities across the Atlantic or the construction of entirely new identities in the Americas. Meanings varied from city to city as well as over time, so that being Hausa in Bahia was not the same as being Hausa in Freetown, and neither corresponded exactly to being Hausa in Hausaland. Nor, however important ethnicity was, did it rule out alternative, more centripetal forms of identity and identification. Parallel to the centrifugal forces of ethnic identity there stood mechanisms of cohesion that informed pan-ethnic identities. Ethnic identities could and did form in tandem with racial (or pan-African) identities, however much it might seem that there must have been tensions between the two processes.
The complicated interplay among these forces, as Robin Law’s chapter suggests, appeared in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ouidah, one of the main slave ports of West Africa, which alone exported over one million enslaved Africans. Different ethnic groups, some of long-standing and some of more recent formation, lived together in different neighborhoods. Ouidah was divided into twelve quarters, and its governing structure was remarkably similar to those that prevailed in early modern European composite monarchies. It was a part of the kingdom of Dahomey, which comprised peoples of various ethnicities who pledged allegiance to the same king. Like many early modern European commercial entrepôts, Ouidah reflected the multiethnic character of its kingdom as well as the cosmopolitan reach of its mercantile connections—in this case, the slave trade. It housed merchants from England, France, Portugal, Brazil, Madeira, Angola, and even Goa. Certain ethnic groups were associated with specific skills and trades: enslaved and free canoe men came from the Gold Coast a region, which had a very well-established tradition of coastal trading. Gold Coast slaves also served as soldiers. The multiethnic African character of the city was reflected in the multiple deities and temples, most of which catered primarily but not exclusively to followers who shared an ethnic origin. Ouidah did not have the kind of secret societies that often cut across ethnic division and contained the centrifugal force of ethnic rivalries by mediating among factions when differences arose in other West African slaving ports. That is not to say that Ouidah lacked any centripetal force. The port’s complicated relationship with and resistance to Dahomey did much to unify the different groups.
In nineteenth-century Sierra Leone, British efforts to curtail the slave trade created a laboratory in which the processes of ethnogenesis stimulated by Atlantic slaving played out under unusually watchful eyes, as analyzed in the chapter by David Northrup. Between 1815 and 1850 Sierra Leone received ninety-four thousand recaptives from the English navy during interdiction of the slave trade. Recaptives claimed fragmented identities along ethnic and linguistic lines, with over 160 languages recorded among the Africans taken to Sierra Leone. A sense of being “African” developed among some elites. Yet the populace developed subcontinental, new identities out of the bewildering mix, and they helped forge identities that continue to shape African politics today: Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Coromantee, Calabar, Kongo, Mozambique, Paupa, and Mandingo. Emerging ethnic communities created mutual aid societies, called “companies,” which behaved much like mutual aid societies in the Americas, working to preserve dances, music, festivals, and other customs from their homelands through a process of collation and compromise. Some of these cabildo-like institutions elected kings of their own. Old African religions coexisted with Christianity as well as with Islam. A Yoruba identity emerged in Sierra Leone as part of the diaspora and was later taken to the original Yoruba homeland by emigrants, not unlike returns of Yoruba migrants from Cuba and Brazil to Yorubaland in the nineteenth century. The same thing happened with the Igbo of the Niger Delta. But if many of these ethnic identities quickly came to understand themselves as “traditional,” they were syncretic from the start. Their leaders often joined Methodist and Baptist churches that had been introduced to Freetown by the founding communities of “Nova Scotian” black refugees. The recaptives used English-language prayer books while developing new skills such as literacy in missionary schools. A Christian, creole identity emerged alongside and in conjunction with more specific ethnic identities.
Brazilian cities like Bahia that maintained close connections to Africa witnessed and participated in similar processes as João Reis’s contribution persuasively shows. From 1801 to 1866 Bahian merchants imported 415,331 slaves, 88 percent of whom came from West Africa, most enslaved in the wars waged by the kingdom of Dahomey on its neighbors and the collapse of the Oyo Empire due to civil war. West Africans in Bahia were originally referred to as “Mina,” but over time enslaved Bahians differentiated among Jejes, Nago, and Hausa. Free colored and self-hired enslaved members of these ethnic communities organized spatially in residential settlements, and ethnically homogeneous labor gangs laid claim to different corners of the city (cantos). Ethnic communities could bridge the urban-rural divide, creating vertical and horizontal systems of economic integration by monopolizing the production and distribution of certain commodities and services. Ethnic groups sometimes organized savings pools (juntas de alforria) to help enslaved members purchase manumission, and these newly freed people would pay high interest rates to the group, helping to perpetuate the cycle of manumission within the group. In the case of the Hausa, the pools also helped defray the cost of Muslim garments and health care for members. Ethnic groups also organized in sodalities, despite the effort of Catholic authorities to open them to blacks of all ethnicities. Cofradía ethnicity was determined by those in positions of leadership; the cofradía itself, however, often admitted individuals from other ethnicities, though it limited them to subordinate positions. Ethnic groups also gelled around communities of religious initiates dedicated to worshiping ancestral spirits through spiritual possession cults, now known as Candomblé. The Jejes organized around Vodun, the Nagos around the Oriza, the Hausa around Bori, and the Angolan around Nkisi. Houses of worship organized around ethnic lines, in turn, occupied distinct locations in the outskirts of town. Yet despite the attempts to pair ethnic communities with specific religious practices, hybridity marked the beliefs of the enslaved and free population of African descent in Bahia. For example, the Nago cult to Oriza borrowed from Jeje Vodun practices and institutions. Even rebellion took on an ethnic dimension. The Muslim Hausa led their own in multiple uprisings between 1809 and 1814. By the 1830s it was Yoruban Muslims who were leading revolts as their numbers increased in the city. Brazilian-born slaves, in turn, developed a separate creole identity, distinct from their African parents, and refused to join rebellions or mingle with new Africans.
In Rio, as in Bahia, some artisanal work was dominated by slaves of a particular ethnicity. Barbeiros, for example, became firmly associated with Minas, Angolans, and Benguelans, as Mariza de Carvalho Soares’s chapter shows. This association was enforced by guild regulations that reflected the barbeiros’ determination to retain ethnic control of their craft. In keeping with the patterns found in Bahia, Lisbon, and Havana, ethnically defined sodalities played an important role in the barbeiros’ attempt to exert control over their lives in Rio. They joined a sodality devoted to Nossa Senhora dos Remedios, as well as organizing a distinct militia corp. The fascinating if fragmentary evidence of the barbeiros’ methods of bleeding and cupping patients in Brazil provides glimpses of the ways that knowledge of healing practices crossed the Atlantic and the ethnic lines of identification among black Brazilians. Roquinaldo Ferreira’s discovery that Luanda merchants sold Central African leeches to Rio provides even more details on the medical practices that linked the port cities of the Black Atlantic in the eighteenth century.
These processes of Africanization and creolization did not exclude—and may even have encouraged—the circulation of individuals across ethnic and racial lines in ways that further hybridized these urban communities. Slaves of crown officials crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, connecting black communities in various Atlantic ports. Merchants of various nationalities also brought slaves into different port cities, sometimes visiting and sometimes settling in new locations and always enhancing the trans-imperial circulation of ideas. The barbeiro slaves of Rio were hired out to serve on ships that went out for months sailing the oceans and visiting various ports. Luanda also had highly mobile slaves for hire who frequently went to sea. Others were sent into the Angolan interior by their merchant masters, serving for months or even years as factors. In Le Cap’s hinterland black coachmen enjoyed great mobility, and some, most famously Toussaint Louverture, would later become leaders of the Haitian Revolution. In the case of the Portuguese Atlantic, the very centralization of the Inquisition in the metropole meant that trials of Brazilian slaves took place in Portugal, thus taking troublesome slaves to the metropole. Free colored merchants in Salvador, Ouidah, Rio, and Luanda brought residents of Brazil and Africa into regular, ongoing contact. These essays illustrate why it no longer makes sense to see the processes we have called creolization and those we have conceived of in terms of cultural survival in tension with one another.
The Experiences of Africans in the Urban Black Atlantic
The essays are organized into four thematic sections. In the first section, titled “African Identities in Atlantic Spaces,” David Northrup, Robin Law, and João Reis analyze the social and cultural dynamics of Freetown, Sierra Leone, Ouidah in present-day Benin, and Bahia, Brazil. They tell very different stories about these different cities, but each sheds light on the way that African ethnic identities that were, until recently, often treated by scholars as “traditional” or recreating “traditional cultures” were in fact products of slaving in the Atlantic World. This does not, of course, make them less authentic, real, or African. Instead, it reveals them to be, like all collective identities, the product of history, and in the cases of Ouida and Freetown, it underscores the influence of the Atlantic economy and the Atlantic slave trade on the cultures of Africans who were not taken from the continent.
The second section, titled “The Sources of Black Agency,” consists of essays by Matt Childs on Havana, Cuba, David Geggus on Le Cap, Saint Domingue, and Trevor Burnard on Kingston, Jamaica. Each of these cities is, of course, on a Caribbean island, but each was also controlled by a different European imperial power. Given the similarity of their socioeconomic histories—each, in the period covered in these essays, was the port for a booming sugar-producing hinterland—they provide an opportunity to contemplate the effects of different imperial regimes on the local cultures of the African diaspora. The essays reveal real and important differences: Africans in Havana came together in formally organized sodalities, and the institutional strength they gained through the Church both influenced their forms of religious devotion and provided them with a secure foundation in the city (and the historical record). Africans in Le Cap lacked such formal institutions but organized themselves in similar ways, though presumably their organizations were more tenuous; they are certainly less well documented. Only the scantiest evidence of such organization has turned up in Kingston, though there are hints that analogous things were occurring. Read together, these three essays do more than provide fascinating and much-needed analyses of black life in three of the Caribbean’s most important cities; they raise crucial questions about the ways that different imperial cultural and legal regimes influenced the avenues available to victims of Atlantic slavery, and they remind us how important it is to distinguish between how such regimes changed what happened on the ground and how they changed what found its way into official records.
The third section, “Urban Spaces and Black Autonomy,” brings together four essays that highlight the ways urban social relations expanded opportunities for black agency. In Jane Landers’s discussion of the complex relationships between maroons living outside of Cartagena and residents—black and white—within the city, in Kevin Dawson’s discussion of enslaved pilots’ remarkable record of self-assertion and financial success, in Roquinaldo Ferreira’s unpacking of the extraordinary social relations in Luanda, and in Mariza de Carvalho Soares’s discussion of the barbeiros of Rio, this section provides a series of snapshots of the kinds of urban relations that historians of North American slavery once thought rendered urbanization incompatible with slavery. The essays do far more, however, than prove once again that slavery was an adaptable institution that could flourish in cities. They highlight the range of ways that different people of different ethnic backgrounds and possessing different kinds of skills worked within the constraints posed by slaving and slave regimes to forge meaningful communities and collective identities.
The final section of the book, “Black Identities in Non-plantation Economies,” comprises two essays examining black life in cities somewhat removed from the plantation complex. That is not, of course, to say that they were not a part of it; they were. But neither James Sweet’s Lisbon nor Nicole von Germeten’s Mexico City served either as a major slaving port or as the central urban place for a plantation hinterland. Nonetheless, African and African-descended people played important roles in each city, and they responded to what they found in each city in ways that are analogous to developments in African cities and to ports that served plantation America. They bring the collection to an appropriate conclusion by emphasizing the ways that African and African-descended people living in cities throughout the Atlantic World participated in a similar array of cultural processes.
Cities in the Black Atlantic
Atlantic slavery was driven by what historian Philip Curtin in 1990 labeled the “plantation complex.” The overwhelming majority of the West and Central African victims of slaving who were sold into the Americas ended up on plantations, usually sugar plantations. There are, then, good and obvious reasons that scholarship on slavery in the Americas has focused on rural places and experiences. These essays do not, and are not intended to, suggest that Atlantic cities should replace plantations as the focus of slave studies. They do, however, suggest that historians of Atlantic slavery, at least of slavery in places other than Brazil, may have paid less attention to cities than they should have, and that they may have been too inclined to focus on the very real differences between urban and plantation slavery rather than on the links between them. Atlantic port cities in the era of the slave trade became sites of cultural incubation, bringing together peoples of different African and European identities and creating conditions in which they lived, worked, worshipped, fought, and died in close proximity. It was in these cities that the complex and contentious collision of the peoples of Africa, America, and Europe who created the Atlantic World were most intense and persistent.
It was probably in American port cities, as Trevor Burnard points out in his discussion of Kingston, Jamaica, that most enslaved Africans definitively experienced one of the transformations that defined plantation slavery. It was there, when they were taken off ships and sold to buyers in the slave market, that most must have begun to perceive a decisive move from a familiar if often horrific system of slavery in which those who lost their places in locally recognized lineages became nonpeople, to a system of slavery in which people became commodities. It was there that disoriented victims of the Middle Passage must have begun to face what historian Walter Johnson has labeled the “chattel principle.” The essays in this volume clearly support arguments made by scholars like Vincent Brown who have rejected attempts to explain what happened after sale by invoking the concept of social death. Faced with the devastation of losing their places in their Old World communities, enslaved Africans set about creating new communities in which they could reestablish themselves among the socially living. Most of course had to do most of this work on the plantations to which they were sold, but it began in the African and American ports, and those ports became cultural hothouses, where the cultural processes found throughout the African Atlantic occurred faster and with more intensity.
Throughout much of Iberian America the Catholic Church supported fraternal organizations that those victimized by the slave trade used to build and reinforce local communities. As David Geggus shows, urban slaves facing similar challenges without that institutional support responded in similar ways. Trevor Burnard has not reported similar responses in Kingston, but at the risk of reading too much into a snippet of evidence, it is worth noting that Olaudah Equiano/Gustavus Vassa’s report that the slaves of Jamaica gathered on Sundays to dance “after the manner of their own country.” It is at least possible—even probable—that enslaved Jamaicans living in Kingston forged the same kinds of informal sodalities that enslaved Saint Dominguans living in Le Cap built. And it seems likely that in both of these places, as became clear in Havana during the Aponte Rebellion and Cartagena with connections to maroon communities, these urban institutions maintained connections to enslaved people in the countryside, serving as crucial sites for the development and transmission of syncretic cultural traditions.
In this way the urban Black Atlantic played a disproportionately important role in the development of the cultures and identities of the diaspora. As has become increasingly clear, and as is underscored in David Northrup’s essay on Freetown and Robin Law’s on Ouidah, the urban Atlantic also provided the cultural hothouse in which what we now consider the traditional cultures of West Africa grew. That the genealogy of Yoruba identity reaches back to both of those non-Yoruba African cities as well as to Bahia in Brazil underscores the role that Atlantic cities and their African and African-descended residents played in creating the world in which we live.
Excerpted from The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade by:Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, Matt D. Childs Copyright © 2016 by Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, Matt D. Childs. Excerpted by permission of University of Pennsylvania Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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