Manufacturing Bodies: A Review of Slavery at Sea

slavery-at-seaWriting a book review a day after Karin Wulf’s entertaining analysis of what makes for a good review might be hubris at its worst, or simply bad timing. And, while I will never have the expertise, style, and prose that made Annette Gordon-Reed’s review of Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution so good, I do hope this review will explore the central ideas of Slavery at Sea in anticipation of a Q&A between the author and The Junto’s own Rachel Hermann tomorrow. Stay tuned for that!

In the introduction of her new book, Assistant Professor of History and African and African American Studies, Sowande’ Mustakeem, writes that, “not all slaves endured the transatlantic passage in the same way.” That statement serves as the driving force behind an unflinching exploration of the “multiplicity of sufferings” endured by aged, infirm, and infant Africans carried across the Atlantic and into slavery. Despite the simplicity of that premise, Mustakeem’s concise monograph exposes how the focus on young and able-bodied African men as the predominant population of captives held in slave ships overshadows the experiences of the “forgotten” of the transatlantic slave trade. As a result Mustakeem’s narrative lingers on the painful details of what she describes as “a massively global human manufacturing process” that commodified the bodies of young and old, healthy and infirm, female and male (9). Continue reading

Lies and Half Truths in the Archives

calico-jack-rackhams-pirate-flagAs a historian of piracy, I suppose it was inevitable that my research summaries would end up reading like bad monologues for a late night comedy act. Like this tidbit from the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla: “1618 four Frenchmen appeared before the governor of Santo Domingo accused of piracy by the Spanish patrolmen who caught them on the island’s coast. The governor interrogates the four men through a translator. One of the men admits that, to survive, they occasionally went pirating on the high seas, but that they never stole anything from the Spanish. The governor then asks him where they got their ship, to which the men admit that they may have stolen one thing from the Spanish.” Ba dum tsshhh, cue the rimshot and laughter from my friends as I relate the story over beers later that evening. Continue reading

The Global and the Hemispheric

Slavery's CapitalismIn their introduction to Slavery’s Capitalism, Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman write that the accumulation of scholarship about early American economic development necessitates “a fundamental rethinking of American history itself” (2). And, for someone who works on the seventeenth-century Caribbean, those words nonetheless resonated with debates very current in my own field of research. In 2011 – the same year that the conference that resulted in Slavery’s Capitalism was held – Latin Americanist John Tutino declared that, “We face a fundamental rethinking of the rise of capitalism” in response to the work of individuals like Dennis Flynn, Arturo Giráldez, and Kenneth Pomeranz. For Tutino, a global perspective on the development of capitalism amends the “enduring presumptions … that capitalism was Europe’s gift to the world,” and “historically antithetical” to places like Spanish America and the Caribbean.[1] Beckert and Rockman recognize in their description of Dale Tomich’s “Second Slavery” the importance of new scholarship in “weaving together transnational and imperial frameworks, the history of capitalism, and the study of slavery as a profit-seeking enterprise” (11).  Continue reading

Review: Steven Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration

Steve Pincus, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders’ Case for an Activist Government (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

At a time when political events seem to place the very meaning of American democracy under the microscope, it is perhaps unsurprising that so many recent works have looked to re-evaluate the American Founding. Books focusing on the mid-1770s in general have included Kevin Philips’s 1775, Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes, & Our Sacred Honor, and Joseph Ellis’s American Quartet. Recent books that have looked more specifically at the Declaration of Independence itself include Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration. Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause, too, has called for a re-evaluation of what motivated those who fought for Independence, though his work calls for a much less celebratory conclusion. Such a list demonstrates the importance of the mid-1770s to America’s national identity. With The Heart of the Declaration, Steven Pincus throws his hat into the ring, too.

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Review: Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk

Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic WorldNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

A silk worm begins wrapping itself round in a cocoon, encasing itself in its fiber. Faceless hands unravel the cocoon, turning it into a single linear thread, the thread then woven together with other linear threads unraveled by other faceless hands until all the threads, warped and wefted, form a connected fabric. Finally, completing the circle, a woman poses for a portrait, wrapped up in yard upon yard of silk, another body encased and shrouded.

It’s a fitting prologue and introduction to Zara Anishanslin’s Portrait of a Woman in Silk, a study in—literally and figuratively—the threads that connected and constructed the eighteenth-century British Atlantic Empire. Anishanslin’s book is not quite like any book that I’ve ever read before. It meanders—but with purpose: from Spitalfields Market in London, to an imagined college in Bermuda, to a parlor in Lancaster crowded with soldiers and military waggoners; from the inner mechanics of the loom, to the symbols within Milton’s Paradise Lost, to the aesthetics of colonial orchards and gardens; from cultural to intellectual to political to spatial to economic to material history. It defies traditional sub-disciplinary designations by design. Anishanslin’s ambitious first book draws inspiration from leading figures in material culture studies—Robert Blair St. George, T. H. Breen, Richard Bushman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and others—but also draws inspiration from book historians like Robert Darnton, from economic historians, from religious historians, and from historians of transatlantic intellectual and epistolary networks. Continue reading

Men of La Mancha

don-quixote-book-coverIn a certain village of vast early America, whose name I do not recall, a book fell open. Then another. And another. By 1860, many generations’ worth of American readers had imbibed the two-volume work of Spain’s early modern master, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote, or, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha (1605). Cervantes’ metafiction of a mad knight-errant, often hailed as the first Western novel, bustled and blistered with originality. Continue reading

Autumn Reads

the-country-school

Winslow Homer, “The Country School,” 1871

Looks like #VastEarlyAmerica just got even vaster—and that’s a good thing. Here’s our fall preview of new titles. Please share your books/finds in the comments! Continue reading