The Author’s Corner with Benjamin N. Lawrance

Benjamin Lawrance holds the Barber B. Conable Jr. Endowed Chair in International Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology. This interview is based on his new book Amistad’s Orphans: An Atlantic Story of Children, Slavery, and Smuggling (Yale University Press, January 2015).

JF: What led you to write Amistad’s Orphans?

BL:I first started thinking about Amistad’s Orphans when a colleague showed me a letter from a former child slave, Ka’le, to President John Quincy Adams. I was struck by the language used and the appeals to justice. At the time I was working on a project on contemporary child trafficking in Africa. Many NGO reports use free child slave stories to catch the attention of the reader. So I began to wonder what other letters existed from child slaves, written as children. And the answer appeared to be, very few. So I returned to the very family story of the trial of the survivors of La Amistad. And I decided that a children’s story needed to be told. As an African historian, it piqued my interest to try to retell a classic 19th century American tale with the insights of African and Atlantic history. And, to my surprise, no one had tried to do that.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Amistad’s Orphans?

BL: Amistad’s Orphans argues that the role of African child slaves in the illegal slave trade has been significantly underestimated and their experiences misunderstood because all too often the 19th century is framed as an “Age of Abolition.” Not only were children a critical and highly desirable constituency of nineteenth-century Atlantic slave-trading networks, but a reappraisal of their participation also compels us to recognize that the inception of abolitionism in the Atlantic marked the beginning of an age of child enslavement.

JF: Why do we need to read Amistad’s Orphans?

BL: Amistad’s Orphans is a deeply personal story of six childhoods and how the largest forced migration in human history had profound consequences for the lives of children. I follow the journeys of six African children to illustrate the broader experience of African child enslavement and mobility during the early to mid-nineteenth century. These six lives, although single threads, are woven into a collective narrative, and via their pain, suffering, and survival, we begin to understand the African child slave experience. Reading Amistad’s Orphans will make you realize the centrality of children to the massive illegal trafficking enterprise undergirding the trans-Atlantic trade.

The title of this book, Amistad’s Orphans, is provocation to rethink the relationships, strategies, and experiences of slave children whose identities are too often determined primarily by their status as slaves. In order to uncover the lived experience of children more broadly, six lives are united into one imagined slave ship family. The six children shared many experiences, first and foremost the process of being bereft of family by their enslavement as children. As an analytical term—a dynamic definition, if you like—“orphan” emerges from actively and intentionally bringing into conversation the experiential insights bequeathed by six remarkable historical survivors: Mar’gru, Kag’ne, Te’me, Ka’le, Covey, and Antonio. 

My book is an experiment in what Rebecca Scott and Jean Hébrard have described as “micro-history in motion,” insofar as a carefully chosen event, or set of personalities viewed at the ground level, reveals broader regional dimensions. At its most expansive, Amistad’s Orphans demonstrates that when our attention is directed away from adults and toward the qualitatively different experiences of African slave children, a prevailing wisdom about the nineteenth century begins to lose its luster. The details of the children’s lives, contextualized with a wide spectrum of diverse evidence from the epoch, support two general, mutually situated, observations. Not only did slave traders actively seek children in increasing numbers during this period, but also child enslavement provided both slave producers and consumers with specific capacities not afforded by adult slaves to avoid detection and continue their illicit economies. Dispensing with the misidentification of the epoch as an age of abolition reveals the early nineteenth century as the beginning of an age of child enslavement.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

BL: I fell in love with history in high school in Australia. I had two amazing teachers who brought the worlds of Thucydides and Herodotus and the trench warfare of WWI to life, and I realized how important it is story study, understand, and reflect on the past. I first became enmeshed the history of US slavery as an undergraduate, and perhaps the most influential book for me at that time was CLR James’ Black Jacobins. First and foremost though I consider myself a legal historian and anthropologist. I learned the value of legal studies from several superb graduate mentors.

JF: What is your next project?
BL: I’m working on several new projects that reside at the intersection of history, anthropology, and sociology. I’m examining the historical experience of forced marriage in Africa and beyond, and I am looking at the lives of people who can’t prove their identity or citizenship, or who face the threat of deportation throughout the globe. Perhaps the most famous example in US history is the story of Wong Ark Kim, which, like the Amistad case, also went to the Supreme Court.
JF: Can’t wait to read about it, thanks Benjamin.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner