Guest Post: Keeping the “Human” in the Humanities

Hannah Bailey is a PhD candidate in History at the College of William & Mary, where her research examines the interconnectivity between developing notions of race and the expansion of the African slave trade in the early modern French Atlantic. This is her second guest post at The Junto. Be sure and read her earlier post on French archives and entangled histories here

SAM_1925As someone who is also leaping into an entirely new historiography in preparation for dissertation writing, I could commiserate with Casey Schmitt’s brilliantly astute post on the costs and benefits of comparative projects. It can be terrifying to move from a historiography with which one is relatively comfortable to, as she puts it, “a [new] field where innumerable scholars have dedicated entire careers.” I took one undergraduate class on West African history (which was a survey course that occurred five years ago), and yet my dissertation focuses heavily on early modern histories of West Africa and the Atlantic networks of knowledge (and ignorance) that shaped them. The body of exemplary secondary source material on West Africa is vast, and working with it for the first time is more than a little daunting.

When I find myself feeling overwhelmed, I often take a break from secondary sources and return to the primary ones that got me excited about the project in the first place. One of my favorite questions to ask fellow historians is, “What is one of the primary sources that reminds you of the importance of your project?” Put another way, “What is the source that you find so compelling that it keeps you going when your scholarly energy starts to flag?” In just such a moment of flagging energy a few weeks ago, I paged through photos of a document from the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, France, dated March 2nd, 1700. In the document, André Brüe, the commander of the Compagnie Royale du Sénégal, detailed the capture of a vessel called the Anna off the coast of Senegambia. Included among the inventory of things found on board the vessel was one type of item for sale that I had forgotten in the time between when I took the picture of the document in August and now: human beings.

Among the “goods” found on board the captured ship were sixty adults, and a handful of infants who apparently weren’t old enough to be listed as individuals. I’m sure many of you have already experienced this at least once, but for those who haven’t, holding an inventory of human beings in your hands is an otherworldly experience. It reminds you just how much of a foreign country the past can be. French company officials listed the names, ages, and distinguishing physical characteristics of the sixty enslaved Africans in this inventory. Zaoudou, a boy who was listed as being ten years old, was blind in one eye. Dulsa, another boy, was still a toddler at age three. A fifty-year-old man named Ajagara had white hair. Niguenne, a thirty-eight-year-old woman, had nine missing teeth and a nursing baby when she was sent to Saint-Domingue; so did Singua, who was twenty-eight. Five of the people under the “Women” section were listed as “girls”; the youngest was Canan who was five.

As someone who reads about enslaved people more days than not, I admit that it’s surprisingly easy to become desensitized to what I’m reading. I can’t always think about the fact that millions of people—real, living, actual people—were forced from their homes and sold to someone else who controlled their labor (and many other aspects of their daily existence) for the rest of their lives. I know that many other historians and anthropologists are guilty of the same desensitization, consciously or unconsciously. Therefore, I’m grateful for documents like this one. Canan was five, and I have no clue what happened to her. I can read and write about what she and the fifty-nine others in this inventory probably went through, but I’ll never know for sure. However, I do know that these people existed, and that, at least for a while, the very people trying to dehumanize them as slaves were forced to confront their individuality. There is power in that.

I find this document compelling not because I feel the need to reassert the humanity of people like Singua and Zaoudou. As far as I’m concerned, they never lost their humanity, and it’s not mine to restore to them anyway. Walter Johnson illustrates in his article “On Agency” that, if I believed I could restore their agency through my history alone, then I would be guilty of “practicing therapy rather than politics,” with my work, of using it to “make [myself] feel better and more righteous rather than to make the world better or more righteous.”[1] This document about the capture of the Anna energizes me because it reminds me that real, living, individual people inhabited the broad Atlantic world that often feels so historiographically daunting. The people who were captured aboard the Anna in 1700 inspire me, and their nearly unknowable life stories simultaneously remind me of what history can do and its limitations. They keep me going. How about you? What sources inspire you to keep writing and researching?


[1] Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History, 37, no. 1 (Autumn 2003): 113-124, 121.

4 responses

  1. Nice reminder, Hannah, of the people in our history. While I’m not a professional historian, I have taken a few master’s level history classes in order to hone my research skills. Now I’m an author of historical and paranormal fiction. What excites me and reminds me of the daily lives of people is walking through period housing, specifically wandering the streets of Charleston, SC, or Williamsburg, VA. Or placing my hand on the very staircase handrail that George and Martha Washington, and many others, must have used at Mount Vernon. Seeing the dimensions of the rooms and the furniture reminds me of how much we, as a society, have changed in our expectations of personal space versus shared space.

  2. I’ll answer your original question, Hannah. The manuscript that sticks out in my research is a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Edward Coles, written circa 1815, at Princeton University. Jefferson explains why he will not help Coles in his efforts to free the slaves, citing his advanced age – and when reading it I was thinking, “I’m holding a letter that Thomas Jefferson held!”

  3. Pingback: Welcoming The Junto‘s newest members « The Junto

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