“Trans-American Crossings” Conference Recap

Over the weekend, an international group of scholars met on the campus of Brown University to participate in a conference focused on various forms of enslaved migrations throughout the Americas from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Sponsored by the Omohundro Institute and the John Carter Brown Library, the meeting represented the fifth in a series of conferences about the transatlantic slave trade that have been organized by the OI.

For anyone who couldn’t make it to Providence[1], the panels were live-tweeted and can be found #TransAmCrossings. While the tweets of my colleagues give a great sense of the flow of the conversations over the weekend, what follows here are some of my reflections on the broader questions and themes that drove intellectual exchanges during and after the panels.

The organizers, Alex Borucki from UC Irvine, Jennifer L. Morgan from New York University, and Greg E. O’Malley from UC Santa Cruz, solicited papers that addressed a wide range of questions regarding enslaved migrations and the resulting panels cohered around a core set of questions: what role did kidnapping and rendition have in the enslaved experience? How should we think and write about the way the slave trade interacted with science and medicine – both of the enslavers and the enslaved? What did various slave trades throughout North America and the Caribbean look like and how did individuals experience them? How did indigenous peoples in the Americas become victims of slavery and where can we find their archival presence?

As we listened to and discussed the geographically and chronologically diverse papers, several themes emerged.[2] A panel on kidnapping highlighted the vulnerability of free and enslaved people in different places and societies – a vulnerability that manifested itself in daily terror and dislocation for communities of color. The papers examined not only how and when people were kidnapped but its psychological impact as well – eloquently demonstrating how historians can use the archive of enslavers to get at the mental and emotional experiences of the enslaved.

Much of the conference discussion also focused on the question of numbers. After all, conference attendees got a preview of the changes coming to slavevoyages.org using research on slave trading voyages within the Americas that will give historians a better sense of where enslaved people were forcibly transported after surviving the Middle Passage. Panelists and commentators challenged the utility of numbers in narrating the enslaved experience, while others argued for the need to establish quantity and scale in order to understand the contours of slavery in the Americas. Scholars of indigenous slavery discussed how quantitative methods prove especially difficult as a result of the ways in which enslaved indigenous people disappear from the records or were never recorded in the first place.[3]

More than anything, discussion over the weekend focused on archival methods, silences, and transparency about what we can know while working in the sparse records that remain. Panels and participants discussed how to read the archive of the enslaver for the experience of the enslaved. And several papers presented the narratives of individuals whose archival traces raised many questions and provided few answers. Several papers showed how, for some regions and people, the boundaries of our discipline must be expanded to truly explore the lives of enslaved people – by using ethnohistory, ethnobotany, medicine, and epidemiology to illuminate what the written record has left silent.

It seems cruel to summarize in such a broad way the intellectual conversations that emerged from this conference for those who could not attend. For everyone who was there, I hope this forum invites further discussion, albeit of the digital variety. And, while I’m sure many of us left the conference with as many questions as answers, I have no doubts about the vibrancy, creativity, and energy of this field moving forward. And, perhaps it’s best that we spend some time lingering over the questions that remain unanswered or unanswerable.


[1] I’m looking at you, American Airlines.

[2] I’ve decided to leave out the names of the participants as I discuss the ways their work shaped the conversations over the weekend – I don’t have their permission to share their paper’s findings and my views on what their papers meant for wider conversations are, of course, my own.

[3] See the January 2017 issue of Ethnohistory for more on indigenous slavery and the archive.

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