Saturday, September 12, 2015

Central Africans & Atlantic Creoles

Linda Heywood and John Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

In Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, Linda Heywood and John Thornton build on Ira Berlin’s influential “Charter Generation” thesis. Berlin argued that the first generation of enslaved people brought to Anglo-Dutch settlements in the early seventeenth century were Atlantic Creoles originating from centers of trade in the Caribbean and West Africa. As cosmopolitan residents of the Atlantic, these Charter Generations managed to carve out opportunities for themselves that would not be open to subsequent “Plantation Generations” as American colonies shifted from societies with slaves to slave societies.[1] Heywood and Thornton argue that Berlin was right about the existence of a creole Charter Generation, but wrong about where they came from and the extent of their influence. They demonstrate that West Central Africa is a much more likely candidate for the source of Atlantic Creole culture and contend that the Charter Generation’s early arrival and homogeneous culture enabled it to exert an outsized influence on the subsequent development of African American culture. In a powerful but flawed book, the first claim is more convincing than the second.

In six chapters Heywood and Thornton trace the emergence of Atlantic Creole culture, establish West Central Africa as its source, and attempt to demonstrate its continuity in the Americas. Chapter one shows that the overwhelming majority of enslaved people in Anglo-Dutch colonies before 1640 were from Angola, brought by Anglo-Dutch privateers preying on Spanish and Portuguese shipping. The following three chapters centering on West Central Africa constitute the heart of the book. Chapter two demonstrates the significant religious and linguistic homogeneity existing across West Central Africa and describes early Portuguese contact with the kingdoms of Kongo and Ndongo. The Kongo
Miguel de Castro, Kongo's ambassador to the Netherlands, 1641
elite’s early adoption of Christianity would serve as a primary vehicle of creolization. Chapter three explores the wars in West Central Africa that produced tens of thousands of slaves. Though Portugal did not have the power to independently dominate Ndongo, it found allies among the Sobas chafing under Ndongo’s rule, unleashing decades of intense warfare. Heywood and Thornton show that many of the regions producing the highest numbers of war captives were also areas of extensive creolization. In chapter four, they trace the growth of an Atlantic Creole culture as it was expressed through religious practices, naming, musical forms, and material culture.

These three chapters on the West Central African context make an intriguing and mostly convincing case that cultural mixing and warfare in Kongo, Ndongo, and the surrounding region was sufficient to create a large population of enslaved Atlantic Creoles. Yet the authors do not do enough to answer potential objections. As James Sweet argued in his review in New West Indian Guide, Heywood and Thornton do not sufficiently address the possibility that actions of West Central Africans represented political machinations in pursuit of Portuguese favor more than cultural mixing.[2] More troubling, at times in the narrative creolization seems little more than a synonym for assimilation. These chapters are brilliant and fascinating, but still leave the true extent of creolization open to a substantial range of conjecture. 

The final two chapters shift to the Americas. Here the source material is much thinner, a fact Heywood and Thornton acknowledge but do not satisfactorily overcome. Names and baptismal records reveal that many Africans in the Americas continued to practice Christianity and use Portuguese names in common with those of West Central Africa. But the meaning of a baptism or name is speculative. At times it is not clear whether it represents an act of continuity with Atlantic Creole culture or an act of assimilation or political convenience. Heywood and Thornton spend a significant amount of chapter five tracing settlement patterns in an effort to show that Atlantic Creoles, though constituting very small percentages of the population, had contact with each other and thus could perpetuate their culture. Here too the evidence is thin, and the authors are reduced to claiming that three Africans together in the Americas (three!) constituted a “cultural community” (242). Robert Desrochers noted this weakness as well in his review for the Journal of American History.[3]  

The last chapter of the book delivers a significant payoff as the authors apply their findings to the longstanding historiographical debate on early European attitudes toward Africans and the emergence of racial slavery. They argue that Europeans had complex--rather than wholly negative--attitudes toward Africans. More than that, they show how European attitudes toward Africans in general cannot necessarily be applied to the Charter Generation. Both polls of the traditional debate—the cultural interpretation of Winthrop Jordan and the economic argument of Eric Williams—centered Europeans. Heywood and Thornton shift the discussion by centering Africans. Perhaps the decisive variables in the early malleability of slavery in the Americas were neither cultural nor economic forces centered in Europe, but the unique characteristics of the enslaved people themselves. The authors go so far as to argue that the Charter Generation of Atlantic Creoles was more culturally similar to Europeans than to Plantation Generation Africans (293).  As a result, a disproportionate number of them gained freedom and economic success that would become atypical in later generations.  

Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas makes a clear and substantial case that a creolized culture rooted in West Central Africa provided the great majority of enslaved people in early Anglo-Dutch settlements. It less successfully demonstrates that this Charter Generation formed the foundations of African American culture. Such a hypothesis is plausible, but the precise mechanisms by which this occurred, and the evidence for it, are only thinly referenced here. The book ultimately tells us much more about the fascinating interactions of Portuguese and West Central Africans than it does about the “foundation of the Americas.” Yet the book stands as a significant achievement for its African chapters alone and is a decisive contribution that future scholars of Africa, the Atlantic World, and American slavery will dare not ignore.   

[1] See Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
[2] James H. Sweet, Review of Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, in New West Indian Guide (83) 2009: 124-127.
[3] Robert E. Desrochers, Jr, Review of Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, The Journal of American History (95) 2009: 1128-1129.

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