The Slave Societies Digital Archive

Slave Ship

Over at The Conversation, Vanderbilt historian Jane Landers writes about her work on the Slave Societies Digital Archive.  Here is a taste:

This archive, which I launched in 2003, now holds approximately 600,000 images dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Since its creation, the archive has led to new insights into African populations in the Americas.

The Slave Societies Digital Archive documents the lives of approximately 6 million free and enslaved Africans, their descendants, and the indigenous, European and Asian people with whom they interacted.

When searching for and preserving archives, our researchers must race against time. These fast-vanishing records are threatened daily by tropical humidity, hurricanes, political instability and neglect.

The work is usually challenging and sometimes risky. Our equipment has been stolen in several locations. Soon after we left the remote community of Quibdó, Colombia, a gun battle erupted in the surrounding jungles between the government military forces and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, better known as FARC. It’s no wonder that one of our team members called what we do “guerrilla preservation.”

This hard work has allowed us to discover more about the lives of slaves in the Americas. For example, the Catholic Church mandated the baptism of enslaved Africans in the 15th century. The baptismal records now preserved in the Slave Societies Digital Archive are the oldest and most uniform serial data available for African-American history.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Molly Warsh

WarshMolly Warsh is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh.  This interview is based on her recent book American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700 (Omohundro Institute/University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Baroque?

MWI began working on a history of the early modern pearl trade as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. The project evolved and grew over the years, but the aspect of the story that hooked me at the beginning—the lived experience of the people who dived for pearls, traded them, and wore them—is what kept me passionate about the book until the very end. It was never a great love of pearls that drove me (although I like them!). Rather, it was a deep curiosity about people and the contours of their lives.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Baroque?

MW: Patterns of pearl cultivation and circulation reveal vernacular practices that shaped emerging imperial ideas about value and wealth in the early modern world. Pearls’ natural diversity and their subjective beauty (the word “baroque” is the English version of the Spanish term barrueca, used by taxation officials in the Caribbean fisheries to describe a misshapen pearl) posed a profound challenge to the imperial impulse to order and control, underscoring the complexity of the early modern world and informing the later use of the word “baroque” as a metaphor for unbounded and irregular expression.

JF: Why do we need to read American Baroque?

MWWell, I have to say that the book is full of good stories. But beyond that, I would like to think that it offers a valuable perspective on how embedded in global context the Americas were from the very beginning, and also how so many different people, in all walks of life and all over the globe, shaped and were shaped by the evolving parameters of the early modern world. American Baroque is a book about pearls, but it is really a book about people and the fundamental independence of thought and action, even in the most constrained circumstances. Pearls offer a glimpse of people around the globe both caring for and exploiting one another and the natural world and its products. In doing so, they shaped emerging ideas about the nature and value of subjects as well as objects—in short, about the nature of empire.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? (Of if you are not an American history, how did you get interested in the study of the past?)

MWI wear a lot of hats now—world historian, historian of the Caribbean, historian of the Iberian imperial sphere, but I still consider myself an American historian on a deep level. People raise their eyebrows when say that, but it is true: I am someone who is deeply interested in the history of the Americas in the broadest sense of the term. I first fell in love with American history as a kid growing up on Boston. That love was cemented by wonderful history teachers at my public high school in Cambridge, MA and then by fantastic professors in college at Cornell. It wasn’t until I went back to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, after living in Madrid for several years, that I switched my focus from colonial British North America to the entangled histories of the continent and the world.

JF: What is your next project?

MWI’m calling my new project Servants of the Season: Itinerant Labor and Environmental Flux in Historical Perspective. The title is pretty self-explanatory. In a nutshell, I’m interested in the types of impermanent and semi-permanent arrangements that characterized people’s engagement with the world of work beyond the familiar categories of slavery and freedom. I’m particularly intrigued by how fluctuations in the natural world shaped these types of agreements, either coerced or voluntary. The project is still in its early stages, but I think I’m going to take a very broad approach to this new book and consider historical phenomena from circa 1500 to the present day.

JF: Thanks, Molly!

The Author’s Corner With L.H. Roper

RoperL.H. Roper is Professor of History at the State University of New York at New Paltz.  This interview is based on his recently edited book The Torrid Zone: Caribbean Colonization and Cultural Interaction in the Long Seventeenth Century Caribbean (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write The Torrid Zone?

LHR: In 2012, I began a correspondence with Laurie Wood (now at Florida State) in which we lamented both the perennially secondary position the Caribbean occupies in our understanding of ‘colonial America’ and the particular lack of a comparative treatment of the history of the region’s colonization by Europeans.  We decided to do something about this state of affairs and we began recruiting ‘partners in crime’.  Happily, there are a number of young and talented historians who are working on the Caribbean whom we were able to recruit along with several ‘seasoned veterans’.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Torrid Zone?

LHR: The agendas and behavior of Native people had a significant effect on Caribbean history well into the eighteenth century. The Torrid Zone, particularly by virtue of the global extension of the personalities involved in its colonization and their conceptions of society and politics, constituted a fully representative, but not especially distinctive, manifestation of the sensibilities at work in European overseas colonization.

JF: Why do we need to read The Torrid Zone?

LHR: The contributions are filled with insights on the history of the seventeenth-century Caribbean generally and of places such as Jamaica and Suriname particularly.  Since this region constituted the primary target of European interest in the Western Hemisphere at this time, it is impossible to have helpful understanding of the expansion of European interests, including the colonization of North America, or the cultural interactions that this expansion generated—and the effects of these phenomena—without some knowledge of what went on in the Torrid Zone.  The essays also shed helpful light on the networks of merchants and political figures—operating both in the Caribbean and outside of it—who managed European operations in the region and who extended their social and political influence elsewhere.  Readers will learn a good deal about the Native agendas and responses to European activity in the Torrid Zone as well.

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

LHR: Although I was trained nominally as an American historian, I regard myself primarily as a historian of the expansion of overseas European (particularly English) interests and of the cultural interactions this generated.  While I was in graduate school during the ‘Pleistocene Era’, it dawned on me that the best way to comprehend ‘early American history’ was through a better understanding of the social and political worlds in which overseas traders and colonizers operated, from which colonists (and colonizers) derived their worldviews, and with which colonists (perhaps to a surprising degree) maintained close social, political, and economic associations.  This view has only strengthened over the course of my career.

JF: What is your next project?

LHR: I hope to begin work on two (having just finished two books in the past year).  The first is a further investigation of English involvement in the ‘Guinea trade’ and the other is an examination of the European colonization of the region bounded by the Connecticut and Susquehanna Rivers and Chesapeake Bay between 1636 (the founding of the Connecticut colony) and 1741 (the Treaty of Lancaster).

JF: Thanks, Louis!

The Author’s Corner with Randy Browne

51HQEW4XcnL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Randy Browne is Assistant Professor of History at Xavier University. This interview is based on his new book, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean?

RB: In graduate school I knew I wanted to study the history of slavery—and I thought I was going to write a dissertation about slave resistance in the American South. But two things happened that led me down a different path. First, as I turned my attention toward the wider Atlantic world, I was struck by the demographic differences between slavery in North America and the Caribbean and especially by just how deadly Caribbean plantation societies were. As historians have long known, most Atlantic slave societies were death traps; slave populations outside of the U.S. did not reproduce themselves, and slaveowners relied on the transatlantic slave trade to replace slaves they worked to death. But what, I wanted to know, did this demographic reality mean on the ground, for enslaved people’s day-to-day lives? The second thing that happened was that I came across a remarkable series of legal records—the reports of British Crown officials known as fiscals and protectors of slaves—from nineteenth-century Berbice (part of what is now Guyana) in which enslaved people themselves described their world, the challenges they faced, and their relationships with one another and their enslavers. It didn’t take long for me to realize that enslaved people were primarily concerned with trying to find ways to survive—which was extraordinarily difficult given the conditions they faced. Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean is my exploration of what the unrelenting struggle for survival looked like.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean?

RB: I argue that for most enslaved people the central problem was not how to resist or escape slavery but how to survive. I also argue that using survival as a lens changes they way we understand enslaved people’s social relationships, cultural practices, and political strategies. 

JF: Why do we need to read Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean?

RB: In my view, there are two major reasons to read my book. First, taking the problem of survival as the starting point challenges readers to reconsider some of their assumptions about slavery, power, and enslaved people’s agency. In particular, it offers an alternative to the domination and resistance framework that has predominated for decades—a framework that makes two problematic assumptions: (1) that the organizing principle for enslaved people’s politics was the struggle for “freedom” and (2) that slaves’ lives are best understood by focusing on their conflicts with enslavers. Instead, what I show is that most enslaved people recognized that escaping slavery was unlikely and were therefore preoccupied with the challenge of survival. Foregrounding survival also reveals that the power relationships of Atlantic slavery were much more complex than we often imagine. Enslaved people fought their oppressors, of course, but they also navigated complex and fraught relationships with one another that were at least as important. In the end, I hope readers will realize, like I did, that the story of enslaved people’s resistance to slavery and the story of their struggle to survive intersected but were not the same.

The other thing I hope readers take away from the book is an appreciation for the human stories that I reconstructed from the remarkable archive that distinguishes Berbice from most slave societies, where the voices of ordinary slaves are so much harder to find. Taken together, the records of the Berbice fiscals and protectors of slaves are the single largest archive of first-person testimony from enslaved people in the Americas. And rather than focus on a handful of exceptional characters, they document the day-to-day lives of hundreds of enslaved people from virtually every possible background. These stories reveal, in astonishing and often painful detail, the world that enslaved Africans and their descendants confronted, their hopes and fears, and their efforts to survive horrific conditions.

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

RB: Even before college, I knew that I wanted to study and maybe teach history one day. As an undergraduate at Eckerd College, I got very interested in the history of slavery and especially the American South, which is what I thought I was going to focus on when I arrived at the University of North Carolina for graduate school. But as soon as I came across the sources I describe above, I knew I had to shift gears and focus on Berbice. I quickly fell in love with Caribbean and Atlantic history and never looked back.

JF: What is your next project?

RB: I’ve started work on a history of slave drivers—enslaved men appointed by plantation managers or planters as supervisors—throughout the Caribbean. I got interested in the complicated social and political role of drivers while writing my first book (which has a chapter devoted to drivers) and want to build on what I learned to take a wider approach to these crucial go-betweens, who haven’t received nearly as much attention as they deserve. I’ve found some very exciting records from Cuba and Jamaica already and am casting a wide net—so feel free to send any sources my way!

JF: Thanks, Randy!

Some Historical Context for the U.S. Response to Puerto Rico


As historian Marc-William Palen reminds us, Puerto Rico has always been in a “precarious position within the U.S. body politic.”  The history of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico is indispensable to understanding the U.S. response to Hurricane Maria.

Here is a taste of Palen’s Washington Post piece: “Decisions more than a century ago explain why the U.S. has failed Puerto Rico in its time of need.”

The decision made in the late 19th century to make Puerto Rico a colony without the full political equality of statehood is now crippling the island’s ability to recover from Maria. The Trump administration’s initial enforcement of the Jones Act, which restricts foreign ships from entering Puerto Rican ports, and the indifference of many Americans toward the plight of Puerto Ricans were born out of this nearly forgotten turn-of-the-century imperial decision. Americans must reconcile and rectify their imperial legacy, or Puerto Rico will continue to suffer.


Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Trevor Burnard

Trevor Burnard is Professor and Head of School at the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. This interview is based on his newest book, Planters, Merchants, and Slaves: Plantation Societies in British America, 1650-1820 (University Of Chicago Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Planters, Merchants, and Slaves?

TB: This book was written in a very short period but is the fruit of many years of reflection. I wanted to understand and then explain how what I call the large integrated plantation system first developed in Barbados in the middle of the seventeenth century was eventually taken up in other British American slave societies (from Maryland to Demerara) and why it was so economically successful and socially monstrous. The book is more about planters and merchants than slaves but the experience of enslaved people is at the heart of the book nevertheless. I wanted, as in previous works, to show what exactly enslaved people were up against, especially during the African period of slavery before abolitionism placed some constraints on planters’ behaviour. I also wanted to show just how rich and powerful plantation societies were, especially before the American Revolution divided British America in two. I encourage readers to think of early America as not just the thirteen colonies but also as including many Caribbean (and Canadian) colonies and to consider how American history looks like if viewed from somewhere like Jamaica (where I have done most of my empirical work). I thought about just doing a book on Jamaica but I wanted a wider audience – one that included scholars interested in Atlantic, Caribbean, and British history as well as historians of early America.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Planters, Merchants, and Slaves?

TB: The large integrated plantation system, containing hundreds of enslaved persons and a small white managerial class, was difficult to establish, mainly because it was hard to persuade sufficient white men to do the hard work of disciplining slaves, but once established proved remarkably successful, becoming the most important economic and social institution in early America. The American Revolution, which divided the plantation world between America and the British Empire, has masked just how important this institution was but if we are to understand the making of the modern world, we have to understand the peculiar world of the plantation.

JF: Why do we need to read Planters, Merchants, and Slaves?  

TB: Three reasons. First, by looking at the history of colonial British America in an Atlantic rather than an American perspective and recognising that British America is spatially different from the later USA gives us a quite different perspective on what is America. Second, a wide ranging and empirically grounded examination of plantation societies shows us not only that the system of slavery that sustained plantation agriculture was essential to the prosperity of British America but also that the plantation was not regressive but progressive and surprisingly modern, especially in techniques of slave management. Third, we need to recognise that this system brought enormous economic and political benefits to planters, merchants and many ordinary white people and that these benefits were explain why most whites supported slavery for economic reasons even besides racial dislike of Africans and a shared belief in white superiority.

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

TB: I like to be called an American historian rather than, say, a Caribbean or even an Atlantic historian but I look at America obliquely, as one does as a foreigner. I study American history before the USA developed and am especially interested in those parts of America that did not become part of the USA. I am a New Zealander by birth who was from undergraduate days interested in understanding provincial identities in the settler colonies, including colonial British America. I did graduate studies in America before teaching in Jamaica, New Zealand, England and now Australia. I still find the processes which helped develop made the colonies of British America fascinating but I come to my area of study as someone who has little  interest in modern America (though I like to visit) and who sees colonial British America always through the perspective of an interested outsider. I see the establishment of the USA as both accidental and not altogether positive and American history in the colonial period as way more interesting and transformative than modern American history. I write my works as an outsider who is more attuned to Britain and the Antipodes than to the USA. I wish the USA well but my work is, unsurprisingly given my background, not written with any ambition to say anything about contemporary America. One thing I hope readers will think if they read my book is that American history can look differently when written from Melbourne or London or Kingston

JF: What is your next project?

TB: Next year I publish a book with the University of Pennsylvania Press, out in June, which is linked to the topics in Planter, Merchants, and Slaves. It is called The Plantation Machine: Atlantic Capitalism in French Saint Domingue and British Jamaica, 1748-1788 and is co-authored with John Garrigus.

JF: Thanks, Trevor!