The Black Atlantic (220/303)

Here is some background to our discussion about Afrofuturism, taken from a lecture I gave a couple of years ago.

Maritime Culture, America, and the Black Atlantic

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

Deep water exploration 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.

In Spanish America the confluence of people of different backgrounds led to the what came to be known as the Casta System. Out 4 main racio-cultural groups– Peninsular (European born in Spain); Criollo (European descent, born in America); Indio (indigenous); and Negro (African descent)– came a plurality of “mixed” possibilities.


This, in distinction to British North America, where the racial divide tended to be simplified to a Black/White binary according to the “one drop rule” (principle of hypodescent). Of course, as time passed, new groups came to the Americas, especially people from China and the Philippines. See, for example, this chronology of Asians in America


The Black Atlantic

With the key concept Black Atlantic Paul Gilroy to a space of cultural and social flows, one produced by motion and encounter. The Atlantic Ocean, conceived of as a kind of “negative continent,” is the site of tremendously productive socio-cultural ferment: new identities, musics, idioms, gestures, cuisines, spiritual practices, etc. emerge from the Black Atlantic. The traditions and dispositions of Africans, Europeans, and Americans converge and syncretize, producing new possibilities.

A corollary of the Black Atlantic might be the Columbian Exchange.

Toussaint L’Ouverture, a key figure of the Black Atlantic.

From The Black Jacobins (pdf) by CLR James:

The writer believes, and is confident the narrative will prove, that between 1789 and 1815, with the single exception of Bonaparte himself, no single figure appeared on the historical stage more greatly gifted than this Negro, a slave till he was 45- Yet Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint and even that is not the whole truth.

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.


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.

From a letter by George Jackson to Fay Stender, 4/17/70:

“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.”

A slave is an object, a commodity, a unit of currency. It is the opposite of a human being (a subject) 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 and 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, and village. Among the consequences of the Trade were a rise in polygamy, due to the loss of men, and the “offshoring” of production such as weaving as a result of an influx of cheap European textiles. This trade imbalance ultimately led to a process of “de-skilling” 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.

From A Short History of the West Indies by J.H. Parry and P.M. Sherlock:

“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.”

Diagram of a the hold of a slave ship:

Barracoons, where kidnapped Africans were held prior to sale.

Many kidnapped or captured Africans were forced to travel for weeks or months in coffles to the coast.

The branks: this device was a form of punishment which originated in medieval Europe and was first used on female “scolds.”