Atlantic Slavery: An Eternal War (Review)Historians in the News
tags: slavery, books, Atlantic Slave Trade
Julia Gaffield is associate professor of history at Georgia State University. She is the author of Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). She is writing a biography of Jean-Jacques Dessalines (under contract with Yale University Press).
Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard University Press)
Manuel Barcia, The Yellow Demon of Fever: Fighting Disease in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Slave Trade (Yale University Press).
When Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti’s independence from France in 1804, he proclaimed: “Eternal hatred to France, that is our cry.” Dessalines anticipated that Haitian independence and sovereignty—and therefore Haitians’ freedom from enslavement—would come under siege. “Swear at last,” he urged his fellow citizens, “to pursue forever the traitors and the enemies of your independence.” He understood that Haitian abolition and independence would not end the sprawling warfare of the Atlantic World.
For centuries, white people had waged war against Black people in the transatlantic slave trade, on plantations, and in port cities throughout the Atlantic. This war took many forms. Enslavers attacked the enslaved using tactics that ranged from militaristic violence to neglect and harsh labor and living conditions that fostered disease.
Because of this, the end of legal slavery—as Dessalines knew—did not signal the end of the Atlantic war of slavery. “Anti-black militarism,” historian Vincent Brown argues, “is probably as important a legacy of American slavery as dispossession and racial exclusion.”
The recent protests have made clear that histories of slavery and colonialism are urgently relevant and that histories of resistance, rebellion, and revolution are still ongoing. It is not random that in 2020 the Black Lives Matter movement combines protests against police violence with outrage at the disparity in susceptibility to and deadliness of COVID-19 for Black people. Both violent state surveillance and disease risk and treatment are deeply rooted in the rise and fall of Atlantic slavery.
The pervasiveness of antiblack racism in our 21st-century society highlights the need to study the sprawling roots of the invasive system that white people created to grasp and maintain power. This system took the form of a deliberate war against the lives of Black people across the Atlantic World.
Distinct theaters of this war are revealed in two new books. In Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, Vincent Brown asks us to reconsider slavery societies as battlefields and the era of the early modern Atlantic World as a period of extended diasporic war.
Meanwhile, in The Yellow Demon of Fever: Fighting Disease in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Slave Trade, Manuel Barcia examines the war’s “contact zones”—for example, slaving ships as well as “barracoons,” where traders held enslaved people before and after their journey across the Atlantic—and how these spaces were ripe for the spread of disease.
The inequality of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade, these two books show, is evident in warfare and in health care. This power dynamic persisted after abolition and clearly shapes our current world. Brown and Barcia show that the “business of war” and the business of slave-trade abolition were critical to the expansion of European empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. While Brown studies what readers might immediately recognize as “warfare,” Barcia shows that the violence of illness in the illegal transatlantic slave trade during the 19th century was also a way that the “War of Atlantic Slavery” continued during the age of abolition.
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