Books Read

This week’s readings focus on the African Diaspora in Latin America, particularly during the colonial and early national periods:

Miller, Joseph Calder. Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

This comprehensive (to put it mildly, at 692 pages) book discusses the slave trade from the Portuguese colony of Angola. Miller states in the preface that he methodologically “settled for the privilege of eclecticism that historians sometimes claim,” after noting that readers may notice that the book contains “world-systems theory, Marxism, liberal economics, anthropology, and probably other things as well.” This statement gets at how comprehensive this book is, looking at all aspects and nodes of the system that made the slave trade possible, and how that changed over time. It is truly an Atlantic history; although its focus (and Miller’s main area of study) is West-Central Africa, Miller includes sections on Portugal and Brazil.

Miller begins by laying out the geography and peoples of West-Central Africa, then discusses economic and political systems in that region, including how slavery functioned. One of the central themes is that West-Central African rulers found wealth in people, particularly in control of people. He then discusses the changes the Atlantic slave trade wrought. Like other authors, particularly David Eltis in The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, Miller shows how Europeans tapped into a preexisting system of slavery and integrated it into the Atlantic economy. People could become slaves through wartime capture, conviction for criminal activity, settlement of debt, as refugees from climactic issues, and at times through outright kidnapping. The Portuguese demand for slaves for the sugar plantations and, later, gold mines of Brazil, however, super-charged these processes. Rulers of West-Central African polities, in exchange for trade goods, looked for more people to enslave, drawing an ever-expanding area into the global economy. Trade goods were valued for their use, and rulers often distributed them as a way to bring people into their networks. Rulers were picky about whom they would keep as their own slaves and whom they would sell; they typically sold young men away (the better not to contest their rule) and kept women; sex ratios in some regions became increasingly imbalanced. At the same time, rulers found themselves undermined as others entered the slave trade, and as people increasingly became exchangable commodities.

As Miller points out, Angola remained a “white man’s grave” through this period, so the people in charge of the trade in the interior came from African polities. At the ports of Luanda and Banguela–the areas actually controlled by Portugal–Luso-African merchants largely controlled the trade and, through the late 18th century, actually owned the slaves from the time their captors (or, often, a couple of buyers down the line) brought them to port until Brazilians disembarked and sold them. This was largely because of high mortality. After the late 18th century, Brazilian merchants assumed ownership–and thus risk, albeit a declining risk–during the voyage. A small number of Portuguese and Brazilian merchants lived in Luanda, but often not for long (whether through departure or mortality).

Miller then has smaller sections about slavery in Brazil and then Portuguese control of the trade. In each section, he also discusses the end of the slave trade in the early 19th century, and briefly brings the story to the time of European colonization. His conclusion ties the story together, focusing on how illness and mortality was the hallmark of the entire trade, and its implications. He shows how differing economic systems and valuations–Europeans valued precious metals, Africans valued people–tied together to make this trade so large.

Although this book largely focuses on economics, Miller is careful not ever to lose the human element. He continually reminds the reader that he is discussing real human lives. The economic analysis of this trade in humans never diminishes its impact on the lives of individuals.

Reis, João José. Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Reis uses a large slave uprising in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil in 1835, and the resulting trials, to draw a social portrait of the slave population of the region at the time. For me, this book nicely complemented two books I read in my Global Power and Local Culture in Early Latin America class: Stuart Schwartz’s Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550-1835 (which, as the title implies, traces Bahian slavery until this rebellion) and Richard Graham’s Feeding the City: From Street Market to Liberal Reform in Salvador, Brazil, 1780-1860, which focuses on the food trade. Reis first sets up the atmosphere of Bahia at the time of the rebellion, discussing how economic stagnation and an extremely hierarchical society helped breed rebellion, particularly as Brazil separated itself from Portugal; as Graham discusses more in-depth, the separation was largely peaceful except for in Bahia, where Portuguese forces held out in the city of Salvador for a year while Brazilian forces besieged them. Reis then focuses on revolts both by free people and by slaves leading up to the conflagration in 1835.

Next, Reis discusses the revolt itself. The revolt was short-lived; it took place literally overnight. But its sheer size is what made it memorable. Trials ensued, and through those records Reis was able to create a profile of the rebels. The rebels were mostly slaves and some freed people who were born in Africa. As both Schwartz and Kathleen Higgins (in “Licentious Liberty” in a Brazilian Gold-Mining Region: Slavery, Gender, and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Sabará, Minas Gerais) both discuss as well, through the mid-19th century Brazilian slaves were largely African-born. High mortality rates meant the slave population never reproduced itself (unlike in the present-day United States, the one place where that happened), and second-generation slaves received their freedom much more frequently than first-generation. Additionally, many of the rebels came from the Nago and Hausa ethnic groups, and followed Islam. Other ethnic groups resisted in different ways; for example, Angolans tended to flee to maroon communities. Throughout the book, Reis shows how ethnic and religious identity largely survived the Middle Passage. He also draws a profile of their occupations. Finally, Reis discusses the backlash, which included increased religious suppression and new, strict laws controlling the movements of freed people of African descent.

This book is particularly valuable for showing just how much ethnic and religious identity survived the Middle Passage. Hierarchies and differences existed among slaves. Slaves bonded with people from their own regions and their own ethnic and religious groups. In other words, the enslaved population in Bahia was not simply an undifferentiated “African” mass.

Bryant, Sherwin K, Rachel Sarah O’Toole, and Ben Vinson. Africans to Spanish America: Expanding the Diaspora. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012.

In this book, I read the three essays comprising Part 1:

  • Leo J. Garofalo, “The Shape of a Diaspora: The Movement of Ibero-Africans to Colonial Spanish America”
  • Frank “Trey” Proctor III, “African Diasporic Identity in Mexico City to 1650”
  • Rachel Sarah O’Toole, “To Be Free and Lucumí: Ana de la Calle and Making African Diaspora Identities in Colonial Perú”

Like Reis, these three readings focused on identity among those enslaved in Africa and their descendants, albeit, in this case, in Spanish America. Garofalo points out just how early in the development of the Atlantic world there were Africans and people of African descent in Spain and Portugal, and how important they were in staffing ships, working on sugar plantations in the Atlantic islands, and expanding the Iberian empires in their early days. Proctor then explores Africans in Mexico City, noting how, as others have described, the 17th century was the heyday of the slave trade to Mexico. He finds an interesting phenomenon: While Reis points to the continuity of African ethnic identities, Proctor describes the formation of new–but not completely new–identities. Using marriage records, he shows that Africans–enslaved, freed, and born free–tended to associate with and marry people from their same general regions, people with whom they might not have been ethnically associated in Africa but with whom they did become ethnically associated in Mexico. O’Toole, meanwhile, focuses on the will of Ana de la Calle, a freed woman originally from the area near the Bight of Benin who used the word “lucumí” in her will–a term usually associated with enslaved people from her region. O’Toole then deconstructs the term Ana de la Calle used to describe herself, and takes cues from her social position–she had accumulated some degree of wealth. O’Toole thus shows how, in the smaller African diaspora that existed in Perú, certain identities tended to remain, but perhaps not to the same degree as in other places.

Tying Things Together: Discussion Topics

Ethnic Identity

The big question present in all three books (albeit not as strongly in Miller). How did Africans and people of African descent in the Americas describe and think of themselves? To what degree did circumstances in the Americas change how these people perceived themselves? How did outsiders perceive them? What were geographic differences in this process? For example, did the larger African and African-descended population in Brazil, particularly around Bahia, make for greater ethnic differentiation than in Mexico and particularly in Perú?

Comparative Slavery in Latin America

These books hint at regional and chronological differences. How did slavery and freedom evolve differently in different parts of Latin America? After the Global Power and Local Culture in Early Latin America class and a colonial North America class, and these readings, I feel much more versed in Brazilian and British American slavery than slavery in Spanish America. I’ll look forward to discussing these regions comparatively, and to bringing in the African side of the Atlantic into the story with Miller. What drove the trade on each side of the Atlantic? Why did it wax and wane in particular regions when it did?

Resistance and Accommodation

Reis focuses on resistance among the enslaved, particularly rebellion, and how ethnicity shaped responses to slavery. Miller, meanwhile, shows resistance before the enslaved even boarded ships. Yet, many enslaved people understandably did not take the risk of rebellion. How do these articles and books show degrees of resistance, accommodation, and assimilation?

The Bigger Picture

How did Africans and people of African descent fit into the larger pictures of each of these regions? As Dr. Bristol’s and other books raise, Mexico had a huge influx of African slaves in the early 17th century. Yet their role in the society tends not to be so well-known.

World-Systems Theory

Last week we discussed world-systems theory in light of Stern. I’d like to discuss more, particularly in regard to Miller. How does the world system of the slave trade he shows fit into the wider world economic system, particularly with regard to Asia, as John Tutino discusses in his Making a New World?

The Shadow of Freyre

Reis and Miller do not address the shadow of Gilberto Freyre’s theories on slavery and paternalism nearly as directly as Higgins and Schwartz do. Yet they both, particularly Miller, contradict Freyre in showing that slavery was extremely exploitative, even if certain paternalistic elements mitigated it to a slight degree. What is the continuing influence of Freyre in the historiography now?

For next week…

Next week’s topic is commodities. I am reading:

  • Gootenberg, Paul. Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
  • Lane, Kris E. Colour of Paradise: The Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2010.
  • Soluri, John. Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.