Thursday, June 30, 2022

African Founders

David Hackett Fischer has followed up Albion's Seed with African Founders: How Enslaved People Expanded American Ideals.

Summary: If you found Albion's Seed valuable (I did), you will probably find this likewise valuable. However, his picture here is much less clear, because it is much more complex. You will very likely find it interesting too, and on that score I say "read it."

He looks at more regions:

  • New England, Hudson Valley, Delaware Valley
  • Chesapeake Virginia and Maryland, Costal Carolina Georgia and Florida, and Lousiana, Mississippi and the Gulf Coast
  • Western Frontiers, Maritime Frontiers, Southern Frontiers

Within each region, slaves came from different parts of Africa, depending in part on internal African politics. For example, one Bamana ruler fighting other Bamana clans decided he didn't want to kill his captured fellow-tribemen, so he made slaves of them and sold them as far away as he could. The result was a surge in Bamana slaves. (Most slaves went to the Caribbean or South America; relatively few to the current USA.)

African cultures varied as much or more than European ones did. With written records so scarce, it would be very hard to compare the various cultures as they were circa 1600-1700; Fischer only touches on the obvious ones like the Kru (watermen and fishermen, in great demand as pilots). I think the origin of the Jonkonnu celebration (p445 in the hardcover edition) might be a melding of wassail and the way Poro society boys are supplied: dancing masked spirits with an entourage visit the villages and collect food and other goods for the boys in the Poro bush school.

Sidenote: When US servicemen built an airfield in Liberia during WWII, they apparently had a Santa one Christmas, and Liberians on the other side of the fence devised their own Santa on the local "begging devil" lines. Santa Claus boys come round with a shrouded and masked dancing figure. They play (mostly percussion) and sing and explain Santa's tale of woe and ask for funds to help him get back home.

Louisiana was one of the places where the law and practice differed dramatically. The laws required humane treatment--it was one of the most feared places for slaves. And yet it was also one of the centers of freeman culture, and the freemen and slaves maintained strong connections.

... two African women owned by the Ursilines. Both woment were assaulted by a drunken soldier named Dochenet, and severely wounded with a bayonet. Dochenet had earlier commited crimes against other slaves ... The Ursilines' Reverend Mothers Xavier and Magdalene refused to press charges against him, saying that "they would prefer to lose their negresses rather than do anything against charity toward their fellow men." Louisian's Superior Council was less forgiving, and more protective of the slaves. It ordered Dochenet to be hanged.

Slave drivers were responsible partly for making sure the slaves worked, but also for resolving disputes between slaves. In some places the slave owners were terrified of their slaves, and in a vicious cycle treated them badly enough too make them more dangerous. In others, many masters didn't care what slaves did at night so long as they showed up for work.

But you're probably asking: what were the "Expanded American Ideals?"

I wouldn't have picked that subtitle.

It would be more accurate to say something along the lines of "changed American cultures." In some times and places the slaves and freemen and "half-slaves" (like serfs owing fealty) quickly picked up on how the legal system could work for them, and in many places where they couldn't were still able to pry loose some customary rights. Aspects of different African cultures and technologies came with them and merged with Indian and European ones. In many of the cases he documents, the new culture was pretty much limited to the black slaves, but things like new boat designs spread more widely. Mutual aid groups formed. Individuals earned prominence and respect.

Fischer gives a good sense of how much experience varied across regions. Explaining how it varied with ethnicity is probably too hard to explore in adequate detail (too much information was lost)--but some cohorts of slaves were captured warriors and brought over their attitudes and training.

On the downsides, he is a bit repetitious: in a short section he'll say the society was diverse, give the section's example, and then say it again. He overuses "unimaginable." Somebody told him "black" was supposed to be capitalized these days, and "people of color" loses the distinctions they made between mulattoes and quadroons and octaroons--which was kind of important in Louisiana, although the one-drop rule makes it useful in other regions.

There's lots of history, some to cheer for and some to deplore. Slavery was never unanimously supported: Oglethorpe tried to forbid it in founding Georgia and the Quakers were split but eventually came out in consensus opposition. As slaves became freer or free there was usually an outbreak of intense racism that hadn't been nearly so conspicuous before.

I spent some time following up on some of the footnotes--I've a few more I want to look through still--which is why this is a bit late.

Read it