“My Folly makes me ashamd and I beg you’ll Conceal it”

st croix harbor

I love teaching this letter.  In his first extant piece of writing, Alexander Hamilton writes from St. Croix to his childhood friend Edward Stevens in New York City.  He reveals his ambitions, but is ashamed that he has them.  There is a lot to unpack here.  It also works very well when paired with Hamilton’s reflection on the 1771 St. Croix hurricane.

Dear Edward,

 

This just serves to acknowledge receipt of yours per Cap Lowndes which was delivered me Yesterday. The truth of Cap Lightbourn & Lowndes information is now verifyd by the Presence of your Father and Sister for whose safe arrival I Pray, and that they may convey that Satisfaction to your Soul that must naturally flow from the sight of Absent Friends in health, and shall for news this way refer you to them. As to what you say respecting your having soon the happiness of seeing us all, I wish, for an accomplishment of your hopes provided they are Concomitant with your welfare, otherwise not, tho doubt whether I shall be Present or not for to confess my weakness, Ned, my Ambition is prevalent that I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station. Im confident, Ned that my Youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. Im no Philosopher you see and may be jusly said to Build Castles in the Air. My Folly makes me ashamd and beg youll Conceal it, yet Neddy we have seen such Schemes successfull when the Projector is Constant I shall Conclude saying I wish there was a War.

Yours

Alex Hamilton

Some Thoughts on the Opposition to the 1619 Project

1619

We introduced readers to The New York Times 1619 Project in this post.  It now looks like there are some people who do not like the newspaper’s attempt to observe the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.  Here are a few examples:

I am not surprised by any of this.  I knew there would be push-back when I read that The New York Times was framing the 1619 Project as an attempt to “frame the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and, placing the consequences of slavery, and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

I wonder if any of the aforementioned tweeters have read the essays in the 1619 Project.  Most of them probably stopped after they read the words “frame” and “true founding.”

Historians, of course, have been bringing slavery to the center of the American story for a long time–more than half a century.  The 1619 Project reflects this scholarship and takes it to its logical conclusion.

Frankly, the 1619 project is excellent.  Americans need to wrestle with the legacy of slavery.  I hope teachers will use it in their classrooms.

Newt Gingrich is completely wrong when he says that “if you are an African American slavery is at the center of what YOU see as the American experience, but for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on.” Gingrich is an embarrassment.  (I am especially tough on him because he has a Ph.D in history).

So what were some of those “other things going on?”

Edmund Morgan, of course, showed us that American freedom has always been intricately linked to American slavery.  Pennsylvania farmers in the so-called “best poor man’s country in the world,” pursued their “American” dream by supplying grain to feed West Indian slaves in the British sugar colonies.  As historians Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and others have taught us, slavery fueled capitalism and American economic growth.  Even those living in the free-soil north benefited from the wealth generated by slave labor.  As Robert Parkinson argues in his recent book, the racial fears of American patriots had something to do with the way they understood the Revolution.  In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I trace the history of race and the legacy of slavery in shaping an evangelical approach to political life.  And we could go on.

But there is plenty of room at the “center” of the American story for native Americans, women, working people, white people, and many others.  We can’t forget, for example, that Western ideas, as articulated in some of our founding documents and by people of Christian faith, provided the impetus for the abolition of slavery.

History is messy and complex.  We should make every effort to remember our past.  And now is the time to remember the significance of 1619 and the central role that slavery and racism has played in the making of America.

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!

The Author’s Corner with James Delbourgo

619ROeDHlSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgJames Delbourgo is Associate Professor of History of Science and Atlantic World at Rutgers University. This interview is based on his new book, Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum (Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Collecting the World? 

JD: My first book was on electricity in colonial North America and I wanted to see what the pursuit of science looked like from a completely different angle. When I learned that Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum (1753), had been in Jamaica and made natural history collections there, I was fascinated. What was the future founder of the world’s first national public museum doing in the Caribbean and what were the links between slavery and the origins of that museum? I was never taught this in school and thought many readers would be interested in the answer. I was also fascinated by the idea of a universal collection and a museum that aspired to contain every kind of thing in the world. We live in an age where universalism is often critiqued and mistrusted but the early modern era and the origins of museums were powerfully inspired by notions of the universal.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Collecting the World?

JD: One argument is that collecting things always involves collecting people: there is no such thing as “a collector” in the sense of an isolated individual and Sloane relied on worldwide networks to accumulate the thousands of objects which the British Museum was created to house. The second is that Sloane is vital for understanding the complex legacy of the Enlightenment: out of slavery and imperialism emerged the first articulation of an ideal of universal free public access to museums and their collections, an ideal we still cherish and must defend today.

JF: Why do we need to read Collecting the World?

JD: It is the first book to tell the full story of how the world’s first public museum came into being, and shows how that enlightened institution owes its origins to slavery and imperialism, while also championing Sloane’s legacy in calling for universal access to museums and knowledge. Sloane is a compelling contradiction and defies easy categorization: he embodies the relationship between enlightenment and imperialism and his collections embody the great global collision of peoples that took place in the long eighteenth century. It’s also a story about universal knowledge and the dream of total information, and what their pursuit actually entailed. This dream is familiar to us today through digital technology and the internet, but Sloane’s house in eighteenth-century London — where he sought to assemble a universal museum — is an important to precursor to this ongoing ideal of somehow collecting the entire world in a single place. Finally, it’s a book that connects several historical subdisciplines — from the history of science to the history of the African diaspora — and urges us to move beyond academic specialization to tell richer, more complex stories for a broad reading public.

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

JD: I was completing my first year as an undergraduate student at the University of East Anglia in the UK and wrote a seminar paper about Abraham Lincoln’s theory of the union for Professor Dan Richter who was visiting professor that year. It was a liberating experience to try to understand someone else’s thinking in a completely foreign time and place. As one wit has quipped, all the best stories are true. I once explained my work to a member of my family, who listened carefully and then replied, “But you really live in the past then?” Yes.

JF: What is your next project?

JD: I have several current research interests which include the history of collecting; global & Atlantic histories of science especially in the early modern period; and the transport of key objects from around the world into various museum collections.

JF: Thanks, James!

What Constitutes a Historical Document?

Mount VernonAHA Today, the blog of the American Historical Association, is featuring the work of several history graduate students who will be writing regular posts throughout the summer.  I am thrilled to see that one of the students chosen to write for the blog is Erin Holmes, a Ph.D candidate in early American history at the University of South Carolina.  I got to know Erin and her work a little bit during my one-month residency as a visiting scholar at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.  When I arrived Erin was in the midst of a longer six-month fellowship devoted to work on a dissertation on 18th-century plantation landscapes in Virginia, South Carolina, and Barbados.

In her first post at AHA Today, Erin reminds us that the primary documents historians use to tell stories about the past do not have to be words on paper.

Here is a taste:

In 1953, L.P. Hartley wrote that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Historians and lay readers alike are familiar with the idea that the past is a different place, but often lose sight of the word “place” in that discussion. Like any other place, we can travel to the past. Most often, we do this through the written word. We read primary sources that introduce us to foreign cultures and practices that once existed in the very location (sometimes down to the exact longitude and latitude) we do today, albeit in a place—a historical context encompassing geography, culture, and more—that would be utterly alien.

“Visiting the Past and the Places in Between” is based on my belief that history is inherently place-based and that historical analysis is strengthened by comparison. We attach ourselves (to varying degrees) to the places we come from, the places we live, and the places to which we travel. Among the richest resources for historians of the early modern period seeking thick descriptions of long lost people and places are travel narratives. These accounts are fundamentally the product of comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar, and to some extent historians produce our research questions from the same cloth. Pairing travel narratives with existing (or archaeological) historic structures, as well as expanding the definition of a “historical document” to include landscapes and buildings, provides an entry point to the past that can allow us to not only answer those questions, but to push them further.

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!

The Author’s Corner with Colleen A. Vasconcellos

Colleen Vasconcellos is Associate Professor of Atlantic History at University of West Georgia. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788–1838 (University of Georgia Press, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788–1838?
CV: It actually began as my master’s thesis at East Tennessee State, a project that examined the experiences of enslaved children in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I wanted to continue that as part of my doctoral dissertation and I expanded my focus to include the experiences of the children who were bought, sold, and born on Atlantic plantations. Unfortunately enslaved children for the most part have been lost within the traditional treatments of Atlantic World slavery, treatments that categorically depict the enslaved as victims or voiceless statistics. As a result, they largely remain silent players in the annals of history. When you do see them appear in the narrative, you see them largely as statistics or as part of a conversation on infant and child mortality, slave women, or slave families. Their story is lost within another story. However, their story is one that is worth telling, and that’s what I really wanted to do. 
 
What I have found is that enslaved children were anything but silent, and that becomes increasingly obvious when one enters the archives and begins searching for them. I wanted to find enslaved children’s place and voice within that larger narrative on slavery as a whole in an effort to bring their experiences to the forefront and help them step out of the shadows of the periphery. No matter their location, enslaved children performed a myriad of tasks on the estates in which they lived, ranging from fieldwork to domestic servitude. Whether African-born or creole, these children lived in an environment that constantly reinforced their status as chattel, a status defined by the nature of their work itself. What I wanted to do was focus on them as children, and specifically as children who struggled for survival in a world that refused to acknowledge and protect their childhoods. And I wanted to examine the various ways in which enslaved children as a whole coped with the hardships of slavery and the realization that they were slaves by considering how they developed physically and psychologically within the plantation complex.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica?

CV: By focusing specifically on the changing nature of slave childhood in Jamaica, I consider how childhood and slavery influenced and changed each other throughout from 1788 to 1838, with the abolitionist movement standing as the main catalyst for change. I argue that while the value of enslaved children shifted from burden to investment and then back to burden during specific periods of the abolitionist movement, their childhoods were always contested and redefined by the children themselves and the slave community as a whole.

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica?

CV: I think the book is important because it tells the story of an overlooked childhood. They were incredibly important to abolitionists, planters, and especially to the slave community. Yet, not so much to historians. This book rectifies that by exploring children’s experiences as slaves through the lenses of family, resistance, race, status, culture, education, and freedom we can see that. Enslaved children symbolized financial stability to planters, but they also symbolized hope and freedom for enslaved and apprenticed adults during this period in Jamaican and Atlantic history. Furthermore, these children were historical agents in their own right. They performed the same tasks as the adults who worked beside them. They suffered the lash just as severely as adults. And they were just as malnourished, if not more, than enslaved adults. They were fighters. They burned crops, broke tools, ran away, and tried to harm their owners. They resisted their status as slaves just as loudly as adults, and they carved out their own place for themselves in that community. This book focuses on their agency and gives them the voice they deserve.

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

CV: I’m actually not an Americanist. I’m trained as an Atlantic historian and I teach courses on the Atlantic World, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, as well as the African Diaspora. However, as an Atlanticist, I do focus on the connections of the wider Atlantic world, so I see the influences that American history had on Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe and vice versa. 


Fun bit of trivia though…I originally planned on pursuing the American track in my doctoral program at Florida International University. However, I took a Florida and the Caribbean class during my first semester at FIU and absolutely fell in love with Caribbean history. After that, there was no going back. I majored in Latin American and Caribbean History, and minored in African History.
JF: What is your next project?

CV: For my next project, I’m interested in examining the last voyage of the slave ship Wanderer. This ship brought a cargo of about 300-400 boys to Georgia in 1858, and it is the last documented slave ship to do so in American history. Most histories of the Wanderer have focused on the court case that debated the legality of the voyage, but I want to examine the nature of the voyage itself. Where did the boys come from? How does this voyage differ from other voyages that carried mostly boys or African youths, and how does this enhance our knowledge of the illegal trade and the experiences of children in the trade as a whole. It’s not going to be an easy history, and I’m not really sure if I can do what I hope to do, but I’m going to give it a shot.

JF: Can’t wait to hear about it. Thanks Colleen!

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

Facebook Post of the Day

From Christopher Jones, Ph.D candidate in early American history at the College of William and Mary:

I’m currently transcribing the journal of Isaac Bradnock, a Methodist missionary in the British West Indies, from December 1802. Without fail, he abbreviates “Christ” as “Xt” and “Christian” as “Xtian.” And he doesn’t even mention the word “Christmas” (or “Xmas”) in his entry for December 25.

Why does Isaac Bradnock hate Christmas?

🙂