The World In Which Equiano Lived (HUM470)

Above: Gustavus Vassa AKA Olaudah Equiano

Part ONE:


Black Atlantic

Atlantic World

Oceanic Revolution

Commercial Revolution


Age of Revolution

Mercantile Capitalism




Maritime Culture and the Black Atlantic

“the Oceanic Revolution”: the opening of the Western Hemisphere to exploration and colonization was a world historical event. The central figure of this revolution was the sailor.

Adam Smith: “the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.” (Wealth of Nations).

Within 25 years of Columbus’s expedition the world had been circumnavigated. (or, perhaps that task was already accomplished by Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch and Ming era Chinese admiral, who is said to have done so between 1421 and 1423, roughly one century before Magellan’s voyage. China undertook long-distance trade to ports as far as East Africa, Southeast Asia, etc until 1433, when government policy changed).

A new sense of space: the ocean no longer an obstacle but a conduit. The oceanic interconnection of continents. The “ocean world”– a world rendered accessible by the ability to travel on open waters.

Sea power was the instrument by which empires sprang up, grew, and consolidated.

The shift of sea-going trade from the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean to the Atlantic/Pacific. This was the event that catapulted Europe beyond its Afro-Asian neighbors.

In 1300 the Islamic and Mongol Empires were larger and wealthier than any political formation in Europe. With the opening of the antipodes, that would change.

14th century CE: the Empire of Mali is at its height.

1325 CE: Tenochtitlan has roughly 250,000 inhabitants.

1300s: caravans crossing the Eurasian landmass spread the Black Death. 60 million Chinese die. Europe loses one-third of its population. This catastrophe was one reason Europeans sought oceanic trade routes. By the 15th century, Europe and China are rebounding.

The decimation of Africans and American indigenes by microbe/sword, and their enslavement, acted as a kind of affirmative action for Europeans.

European powers were enriched, and consequently grew more potent. (ex. The silver mines of Potosi funded military conquest, capitalized the early stages of industrialization, etc. Between 1500 and 1800 85 % of the world’s silver came from S. America, half of which ended up in China via the route from Acapulco to Manila. This influx of wealth urbanized China and gave Europeans access to sophisticated goods, producing an integrated global economy based on Atlantic/Pacific trade routes. Spain’s successful colonization of the Americas was thus predicated not only on control of the mines of Peru and Mexico, but on the economic expansion of China.)

Those who would contest their claims to the wealth of the Americas (Native Americans) were weakened enormously.

As the demand for African labor grew, littoral Africa– drawn into a web of political and economic relations that often pitted Africans against one another, its population depleted–  was also rendered vulnerable to European plans for dominance.

Oceanic exploration also had a profound impact on different forms of knowledge. New peoples, unfamiliar cultural formations and ways of organizing society, led to a new typologies of human difference, new methods of categorization, the rise of Race as a term describing not simply national/cultural differences, but variations that were seen to be somatic (in/of the body) and ineradicable. Theories of monogenism/polygenism. In other words, the oceanic revolution resulted in a kind of proto-anthropology.

The Black Atlantic

“Black Atlantic refers not to a clearly defined region or specific period, but to a multidimensional and trans-cultural space characterised more by movement and networking than by particular sites. Paul Gilroy sees the Atlantic Ocean as a negative continent that makes it possible to trace lines of social, historical and cultural connection between the Americas, Africa and Western Europe.”

The African Diaspora not only uprooted Africans and hurled them in all directions under conditions of enslavement, but profoundly impacted the character of western modernity itself. The Black Atlantic, as a space of hybridization and creolization, and as a lens through which to view the inceptions of modernity, encourages us acknowledge the fundamentally blurred outlines of identitarian concepts such as race, culture, and nation.

Modernity itself was built with both free, waged labor and unfree, unwaged labor. This is to say that the moment we live in right now is as much a product of the African diaspora and the Commercial Revolution as any other point since the 18th century. Corporations which used slave labor still exist in the US: Drummond Coal and US Steel (USX).

The Atlantic World, a product of the Oceanic Revolution, determined by the Commercial Revolution of trans-Atlantic trade, is also the world of the Black Atlantic, a space of cultural encounter and exchange. Looking at the history of the Americas under this rubric broadens our understanding of what would become the United States by inserting it into a larger geographical, political, economic, and cultural system.

This is a critical gesture: a method of “worlding” the history of the United States, locating its development within a larger, more complex frame of forces and conditions. As such, it is a direct attack on the cliches of American exceptionalism.

Crititcal method #2: The Chronotope

This is how the Soviet literary critic, M.M. Bakhtin, described the chronotope:

“We will give the name chronotope [literally, ‘time space’] to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature….we are borrowing it for literary criticism almost as a metaphor [almost but not entirely]. What counts for us is the fact that it expresses the inseparability of space and time [time as the fourth dimension of space].

“In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.”

Anthropologist James Clifford, picking up this thread for his own purposes, writes:

“The chronotope is a fictional setting where historically specific relations of power become visible and certain stories can ‘take place’ (the bourgeois salon in nineteenth-century social novels, the merchant ship in Conrad’s tales of adventure and empire).”

To understand these remarks we need to acknowledge that there can be neither space without time nor time without space.

Now push it further: conceive of space not as abstract, as in geometry, nor as dead and endless as in the expanse of the universe. Space, in the sense we will be using that term, is social; it is produced by human activity. The space of the dance floor, for instance, is created by the rhythmic motion of the dancers’ bodies. The road as a space is constructed by the movement of vehicles.

But we have to tweak Bakhtin’s definition of the chronotope just a bit more: the chronotope, for our purposes, will be a space that symbolizes, embodies or stands in for the power relations which define the historical period– that is, the 18th century.

Paul Gilroy: “I have settled on the image of ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa, and the Caribbean as a central organising symbol…. The image of the ship– a living, micro-cultural, micro-political system in motion– is especially important…. Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artefacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs.”

Sailors and Slaves

(drawn from Linebaugh and Rediker’s Many Headed Hydra)

St. Patrick’s Day uprising planned in a waterfront tavern. Conspirators included Irish, English, HIspanic, African, and native American men and women. predominantly wage laborers (soldiers, sailors, journeymen) and slaves.

“During their deliberations, David Johnson, a journeyman hatter… swore that ‘he would help to burn the town and kill as many white people as he could.’ John Corry, an Irish dancing-master, promised the same as… did John Hughson” the tavern’s owner “and many others, a large number of African-Americans among them.” The conspirators executed their plan, “burning down Fort George, the Governor’s mansion, and the imperial armory, the symbols of Royal Majesty and civil authority, the havens and instruments of ruling-class power in New York. They did not succeed, as evidenced by the 13 burned at the stake, the 21 hanged, and the 77 transported out of the colony as slaves or servants” (cf the Townsend Act?) “The corpses of two of the hanged dangled in an iron gibbet on the waterfront as a lesson to others. As the bodies decayed in the open air, observers noted a gruesome, yet instructive, transformation. The corpse of an Irishman turned black and his hair curly while the corpse of Caesar, the African, bleached white. It was accounted a ‘wondrous phenomenon’” (225-6).

What does this anecdote signify?

That the details of the history of the “Age of Revolution”, especially in the Atlantic World,  portray a situation that defies easy categorization and the familiar, flat narrative of the years leading up to the American Revolution as a series of misconceived colonial economic policies resisted by tax-loathing merchants. “Here we have ‘white’ Europeans pledging themselves to the destruction of ‘the white people’ of NY, by which they obviously meant the rich people. Here we have… a many-sided rising by a diverse urban proletariat– red, white and black, of many nations, races, ethnicities and degrees of freedom.”

This is the secret history of the period, one characterized by “points of contact, overlap, and cooperation”– a situation in which affinities were not always what might be expected, where people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and languages worked and lived together. The Atlantic World was polyglot, multi-ethnic and working-class. The workers of its economy were longshoremen, sailors, chandlers’ assistants, prostitutes, waitresses, rope-makers, etc.

“sailors and navvies of the mercantile powers… formed the mass of 18th century waged labor” (229).

In other words, the accumulation of capital and the broadening of European empires required an international working-class to ply trade routes and keep them free from interference.

The seaman was the key figure of the transformation of the Atlantic World. It was on his back, and on the backs of the enslaved, the waged, and indentured, that England’s “commercial revolution” would occur, priming conditions for the Industrial Revolution. Before the industrial looms of the factories were built, drawing in millions and transforming them from peasants to proletarians, the work of waged laborers, slaves, and sailors would initiate capitalist accumulation, centralization, and consolidation.

Sailors were among the first workers of this new economic order, an order in which labor itself, the ability to perform certain tasks, became a commodity.

As trade increased, so did the merchant fleet. Because trade and warfare were (and indeed still are) intimately linked, the Royal Navy also expanded. The need for sailors sharpened accordingly, though that demand was not often met because of reluctance on the part of potential seamen. If wages were low, the mortality rate was high: “almost half of those pressed in the 17th and 18th centuries died at sea.” Impressment grew in frequency.

What distinguished the sailor (“tar”) from others? He spoke a unique language, full of technical terms, foreign words, unusual syntax, distinctive pronunciation and curses. He usually wore “wide, baggy britches, cut a few inches above the ankle and often made of a heavy, rough red nap. The breeches were tarred as a protection against the cold, numbing wetness. He frequently wore a checked shirt of blue and white linen, a blue or gray ‘fearnought’ jacket, gray stockings, and a Monmouth cap. Some of his apparel he might well have made for himself, so deft was he with needle and thread after years of mending sails at sea. Always making clever use of common places, the seaman used bits of hardened cheese or ‘ye Joints of ye Back-Bone” of a shark as buttons on a jacket” (Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea).

His face would generally be prematurely wrinkled due to constant exposure. He would probably have tattoos made by “pricking the Skin, and rubbing in a Pigment,” either ink or, more likely, gunpowder. The average tar in the mid18th century was 27 years old and had gone to sea in his late teens or early twenties.

“Some were younger sons of yeomen and poor farmers, men who had migrated to the cities in search of work and finally found it on the docks. Some, perhaps, had been dispossessed of land by enclosure. Others had been picked up by press gangs, and once forced to acquire the skills of maritime labor in the Royal Navy, decided to work as merchant seamen. Still others were rural folk who had been drawn to the sea by the lure of high wages during wartime.”

sailors and slaves “were two of the rowdiest” groups in the British colonies. Each group “engineered their own cycles of rebellion during the course of the 18th C” (230).

Sailors were a large part of the militant resistance of the years preceding the Revolution. “They played a major part in a great many of the patriot victories between 1765 and 1776. Seamen led a series of militant riots against impressment between 1741 and 1776, and… their legacy was acknowledged by both Tom Paine… and Tom Jefferson, both of whom listed impressment  as a major grievance and spur to colonial liberation.”

Established forms of rebellion on the eve of the Revolution: portside riots, mutiny, piracy, work stoppage, desertion.

Seamen rioted twice in Boston in 1741 (ex. “300 seamen armed with ‘axes, clubs, and cutlasses’ attacked the commanding officer of the Astrea”) twice in 1745 (on one occasion “two seamen [were] hacked to death by the press gang”). “Seamen also animated crowds that attacked the Royal Navy and its minions in Antigua, St. Kitts, Barbados, and Jamaica throughout the 1740s.”

1747: Commander of the HMS Lark “commenced a hot press in Boston. A mob, initially consisting of 300 seamen but ballooning to ‘several thousand people’, quickly seized some officers of the Lark as hostages, beat a deputy sheriff and slapped him into the town’s stocks, surrounded and attacked the Provincial Council Chamber, and post squads at the piers to keep naval officers from escaping back to their ship. The mob was led by laborers and seamen, black and white, armed with ‘clubs, swords, and cutlasses’; the ‘lower class’, observed Thomas Hutchinson, ‘were beyond measure enraged’.”

the political background of this uprising was an Act which forbade impressment in the Sugar Islands, a protection that sailors and other laborers demanded for their own, “each  Claiming a Right to the same Indulgence” (Knowles in Linebaugh). Antipathy for impressment “filled the Minds of the Common People… with not only a hatred for the King’s Service but a Spirit of Rebellion”

Here we see direct resistance to unjust authority, a fact not lost on Sam Adams, who “used the Knowles Riot to formulate a new ‘ideology of resistance, in which the natural rights of man were used for the first time to justify mob activity’. Adams saw that thte mob ‘embodied the fundamental rights of man against which government itself could be judged’. But the self-activity of some common tars, ‘zealous abetters of liberty’, came first. Their militant resistance produced a major breatkthrough in libertarian thought that would ultimately lead to revolution.”

The Knowles Riot, “led by ‘armed Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and others”, was only one moment in a chain of working-class rebellions in seaports from Charleston to New York to Bristol to the West Indies. The claim of “rights”– inchoately articulated– practiced by these workers was eventually worked out– theorized, articulated– as “‘right’ by law”.

1763: “‘Armed bobs of whites and Negroes repeatedly manhandled captains, officers, and crews, threatned their lives and held them hostage for the men they pressed’”.

1765: 500 “‘seamen, boys, and Negroes’ rioted against impressment in Newport,RI.

1767: a mob of armed whites and blacks attacks Capt. Jeremiah Morgan in a press riot in Norfolk, VA.


First Maroon War of Jamaica (1730-1740); slave rebellions in Danish Virgin Islands, Dutch Guyana (1733); slave plots and conspiracies in the Bahamas (1734), Antigua (1735-6), Guadeloupe (1736-8). The Stono Rebellion (1739).

“The movement toward rebellion among African-Americans accelerated after 1765”: “‘black freedom struggles on the even of white independence’ intensified as slaves seized the new opportunities offered by splits between imperial and colonial ruling classes. Running away increased… by the mid 1770s, a rash of slave plots and revolts” increased anxieties. Risings in New Jersey, South Carolina, New York, Boston, Maryland, Virgina, North Carolina.

Many escaped slaves and African freemen sought employment in Northern ports for their relative anonymity and impersonal wages. Work as seamen, laborers. “By the middle of the 18th century, slaves dominated Charleston’s maritime and riverine traffic, in which some 20 percent of the city’s adult male slaves labored.”

Jeffrey J. Crow: black pilots “were a rebellious lot, particularly resistant to white control”

Mob character of protests against the Stamp, Townshend, Quartering, Tea and ‘Intolerable’ Acts. The dangers of popular revolt. Crowds have their own psychology, their own dynamic. Once the mob has been invoked, how will it be dissolved?

Linebaugh and Rediker argue that “most of these mobs were interracial in character, and… these potent if temporary unions of free waged and unfree unwaged laborers were instrumental in winning many of the victories of the revolutionary movement”

For example: “‘disorderly negroes, and more disorderly sailors’” riot against the Stamp Act in Charleston, SC. Months later in the same city, slaves assemble crying “Liberty!”, which leads the authorities to post an armed guard for two weeks.

Tarring and feathering, a practice intended to injure and intimidate Imperial officials, was  drawn from maritime customs (EXPAND).

Sailors were present at the King Street Riot (Boston Massacre), the Golden Hill and Nassau Street Riots. Part of the reason for open conflict was the disparity in wages between soldiers and sailors. John Adams called the crowd fired upon by British forces “‘a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish Jack Tarrs’”.

Seamen participated in the Boston Tea Party.

These were individuals who refused to observe the rules of deference proper to their station. Sailors and slaves and servants, energized by and energizing “the Spirit of Rebellion” were what Louis Althusser might have called “bad subjects”– people who failed to behave according to their status, who did not fully believe in the status that had been accorded them. In other words, these saucy boys and malcontents were “uppity”. Such a levelling, radically egalitarian impulse has, over time, been absorbed into and domesticated by US culture, where millionaires who like BBQ and “casual Fridays” are the norm.

A subculture made up of those Adams described above, who often spent their free hours together in taverns and grog shops, at street fairs or dancing cellars, or in locations such as Philadelphia’s Hell Town. Such places were seen by officials as providing “opportunities for the most loose, debased, and abandoned wretches amongst us to cabal and confederate together” a situation that might and in fact did produce “horrid and execrable conspiracy”. Together with the army and the militia, the politicized mob was one of the most significant mass organizations of the revolutionary period. After Cornwallis surrendered, however, the colonial elites who led the revolution were quick to disavow the anarchic energies of apprentices, slaves, and sailors. Sam Adams, for instance, assisted in authoring the Mass. Riot Act of 1786. Even at the moment that working-class dissent was bringing political tensions to a boil, the real face of rebellion was being airbrushed from history: Paul Revere’s celebrated engraving of the Boston Massacre seems to have ignored the presence of Nipmuck-African-American runaway slave Crispus Attucks.


The word slavery comes from ‘Slav’, an inhabitant of eastern Central Europe. Slavs were among millions of Central Europeans sold to destinations in the Byzantine Empire and the so-called Muslim World during the medieval era. According to at least one estimate between 1 and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates between the 1500s and the 1800s, though the majority of the enslaved were not used in agricultural production but employed in cities or on ships as sailors. Enslavement for the purposes of agriculture– one of the most brutal forms of forced labor, with the highest mortality rates– was a relatively new invention, one designed specifically for the emerging plantation economy of the Atlantic world.

“Slavery is an economic condition. The classical chattel and today’s neoslavery must be defined in terms of economics. The chattel is property, one man exercising the property rights of his established economic order, the other man as that property. The owner can move that property or hold it in one square yard of the earth’s surface; he can let it breed other slaves, or make it breed other slaves; he can sell it, beat it, work it, maim it, fuck it, kill it. But if he wants to keep it and enjoy all of the benefits that property of this kind can render, he must feed it sometimes, he must clothe it agains the elements, he must provide a modicum of shelter. Chattel slavery is an economic condtion which manifests itself in the total loss or absence of self-determination.”

George Jackson to Fay Stender, 4/17/70

A slave is an object, a commodity, a unit of currency. It is the opposite of a human being because it lacks, as Jackson notes, any autonomy.

The word Negro is of Portuguese origin and enters the English language in the mid 16th century (1555), as the African slave system was in its first stages of development. Unlike “Moor” or “African” it effectively deracinates those it purports to describe, reducing individuals with a history and homeland to a color. Over time, slavery became intimately tied to race: in 1500 Africans/those of African descent represented  a minority of the world’s slave population. By 1700 they were a majority.

The impact of the slave system on Africa was disastrous and caused massive changes in social life, weakening institutions such as the family, clan, village, etc. The loss of men led to polygamy, the “offshoring” of production such as weaving de-skilled many over the course of generations (in 1500 Portugal imported West African textiles. By 1600 it exported them to Africa).

1619: The Dutch ship White Lion arrives in Jamestown with 20 African slaves.

1640s: The Dutch introduce sugar crops to Barbados and the Leeward Islands.

1663: Charles II grants a charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England. This corporation will become main conduit for English slave traffic until 1698 when Parliament passes an act allowing “free trade” in slaves. British/French slave trade operates as a monopoly through chartered companies who supply slaves to their own colonies and sell the surplus to the Spanish, who rarely engage directly in the traffic in humans.

1749: From an anonymous pamphlet published in London:

“The most approved Judges of the Commercial Interests of these Kingdoms have ever been of the opinion that our West-India and African Trades are the most nationally beneficial of any we carry on. It is also allowed on all Hands, that the trade to AFrica is the Branch which renders our American Colonies and Plantations so advantageous to Great Britain: that Traffic only affording our Planters a constant supply of Negro Servants for the Culture of their Lands in the Produce of Sugars, Tobacco, Rice, Rum, Cotton, Fustick, Pimento, and all other our Plantation Produce: so that the extensive Employment of our Shipping in, to, and from America, the great Brood of Seamen consequent thereupon, and the daily Bread of the most considerable Part of our British Manufactures, are owing primarily to the Labour of Negroes; who, as they were the first happy instruments of our raising our Plantations: so their Labour only can support and preserve them, and render them still more and more profitable to their Mother-Kingdom. The Negroe-Trade therefore, and the natural consequences resulting from it, may be justly esteemed an inexhaustible Fund of Wealth and Naval Power to this Nation.”

Between 1791 and 1801 the British Caribbean imported 1,401,000 slaves, twice as many as New Spain. Jamaica took 662,000 betweeb 1701 and 1810; the Leewards 301, 900; Barbados 252,000. Between 1518 and 1870 probably 10 to 15 million Africans were taken to the Americas. Of that number perhaps one million died before they even left shore.

The Caribbean had the highest morality rates: in Barbados between 1712 and 1768 200,000 slaves were imported but the population increased by only 26,000.

The Middle Passage refers to the second stage of the triangular trade route from Europe to Africa to America to Europe.  The triangular cruise usually lasted 12 months. “A ship would sail from its home port in England (Gravesend, Bristol, Liverpool) with a cargo of trade goods– woollen or cotton cloth in bright colours, firearms and other weapons, tools, pots and pans, and trinkets. The run down to the Coast might take two, three, even four months. Arrived off the Coast, negotiations began, usually through resident middlemen, most of whom were Portuguese, for slaving the ship. Slaves might  be picked up in small lots here and there; or more commonly assembled in hulks, or in barracoons ashore. All this trading might take months.  Meanwhile, trade goods were landed in payment, water barricoes filled ashore, and temporary decks constructed by the ship’s carpenters. On these extra decks the slaves were to travel, lying prone all night and most of the day, for there was no room to stand upright, except during periods of exercise on deck.” After the voyage, the ships would often discharge their human cargo to be “refreshed” with food and fresh air in order to be more attractive at market.

Cruises of the African coast were deeply unpopular with sailors. The possibility of death from disease was high. Ships were often anchored offshore for months at a time until they filled their holds. One reason this process took so long was because slavers always desired a human cargo that spoke many different languages, which would make slave mutinies more difficult. (ex. the Eagle Galley, 1704; the Henry, 1721; the Elizabeth, 1721; the Ferrar Galley, in which 300 slaves rose up and killed the captain, were subdued, but mutinied twice more before arriving in Jamaica. There are 155 documented slave mutinies in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, though it is likely that as many as two or three times as many mutinies occurred).

“Beware and take care

Of the Bight of Benin;

For one that comes out,

There are forty go in.”

4 thoughts on “The World In Which Equiano Lived (HUM470)

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