Sean Kelley is Professor of History at the University of Essex. This interview is based on his new book, The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare?
SK: I wrote the Slave Ship Hare as an experiment of sorts. Starting with the best possible documented Africa-America connection (the Hare’s purchase and sales records), I wanted to see if I could “test” some of the going theses regarding African cultures in the Americas. What inspired me to do this was a previous book I wrote on Texas in which discussed the illegal slave trade during the 19th C. I had been able to document the presence of Africans on Texas plantations but couldn’t document their origins (though I had my suspicions). So for my next book I figured I start with the connection and see what I could find out about their lives in America. Secondarily, I thought a microhistory on the slave trade would be a good way to introduce students to the topic and issues of the field.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare?
SK: The central argument is that the forced transportation of Africans to colonial SC was structured in such a way as to facilitate the elaboration of specific cultures and identities (Mande, in this instance) in the New World, at least for the migrant generation. The process of “creolization,” as scholars term it, was a slow one that occurred over a generation or two.
JF: Why do we need to read The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare?
SK: As I say at the start of the book, three out of ten migrants to colonial America came from Africa. It’s a truism that the Puritan Great Migration of the 17th century had a shaping influence on American history and culture, but it involved about 20,000 people. About 17 times that many people came from Africa, and about 100,000 from Upper Guinea, but we know much less about them. Of course, historians know a great deal about slavery, but oddly enough both the process of the slave trade and the experience of newly arrived Africans remains only poorly understood. I hope to illuminate both issues.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SK: I decided to become a historian after spending the first two years of my undergraduate career as an International Relations major. IR felt unsatisfying, and I suddenly realized that all of my spare time was spent reading American history. It dawned on me that I’d be happier if I simply majored in my hobby. I have never regretted the decision.
JF: What is your next project?
SK: My next project is a book on American involvement in the transatlantic slave trade from 1644-1867, basically the whole thing. And by “slave trade,” I’m speaking of ships sailing from American ports and carrying Africans to various parts of the New World, not (in most cases) of ships carrying Africans to North America. (These were two separate trades, for the most part.) It turns out that American vessels carried 306,000 Africans to the New World, mostly to the Caribbean, a figure that rivals the ca. 388,000 who were brought to N. America.
At the same time, I’m collaborating with an international group of scholars to collect, transcribe and make available online what we’re calling “testimonies” by Africans from the era of the transatlantic slave trade. Conventional wisdom holds that there are fewer than one dozen “narratives” by Africans, but if you expand the definition “narrative” to include shorter documents and third-person accounts, there are many more. We have almost 1,000 now.
JF: Thanks, Sean!