An Atlantic of Abolitionists
In my JER essay, “Africa and the Early Republic: Comments” I suggested three ways that the fields of African and American history could benefit from each other: borrowing methods; sharing ideas about the postcolonial experience; and thinking about West Africa and the early United States as part of an entangled system. One of the ways I’ve tried to put this “entangled systems” approach into practice has been in my understanding of abolitionism.
In the essay, I pointed out that the “Atlantic World” has been at the forefront of this kind of entangled-systems scholarship. This is a result of decades of work in Atlantic history that have pushed back against a unidirectional narrative of influence flowing from Europe to the Americas. Sometimes trends started in the colonies and flowed back to Europe (see the whole Age of Revolutions!). Sometimes two movements operated simultaneously, and were in discussion with each other, but had quite different results (for instance, the evangelical Great Awakenings). Sometimes parallel processes were at work but they were talked about so differently at the time that only a historical eye can draw the common threads (like settler colonialism). And Atlantic history has pushed our understanding of abolitionism from a national (or even sub-national) story, to an Anglo‒American one, to one that emphasizes the role that the Black diaspora played in shaping and circulating arguments against slavery.
In my forthcoming book, I use the examples of Futa Toro’s withdrawal from the Atlantic slave trade, Uthman dan Fodio’s declarations against selling Muslims into the Atlantic slave trade, the American Continental Assocation’s nonimportation of slaves, and 1794 and 1800 Slave Trade Acts to rethink the underlying causes of anti-slave trade sentiment. Is it interesting that these boycotts in West Africa and the U.S. both drew on moral justifications? Does it tell us something that they all banned the Atlantic slave trade but left exceptions for domestic slave trading and for slave ownership? Were they boycotting the Atlantic slave trade because they actually thought it was morally wrong, or because it was one aspect of a wider set of commercial or political grievances?
My “entangled systems” suggestion isn’t necessarily about looking for the communication of tactics or arguments from one part of the Atlantic to another—it would be a stretch to argue that what’s happening in Futa Toro has a discernible influence on politics in Philadelphia, so the comparison would not work in the same way that other scholars have traced connections between West Central Africa and Haiti, for example. Instead, the chronological simultaneity I advocate for in the final section of the JER essay is an approach that says “these things were all happening at the same time: What does that tell us about what they share, and what they might all be reacting to?”
Looking at the emergence of anti-slave-trading arguments in West Africa in the late eighteenth century has forced me to redefine my own understanding of the emphasis of early antislavery activism in the U.S. and around the Atlantic world. By looking at boycotts of the Atlantic slave trade in parts of West Africa and the U.S. in the same frame, by suggesting a common objection to the Atlantic slave trade as the starting point, I hoped to force myself to think about what was actually different between the two places and about what might be shared. In the case of these Atlantic slave-trade boycotts, I argue that the American and West African revolutionary governments were reacting to a shared political and economic crisis stemming from their connections to the Atlantic consumer revolution, which manifested in a moral critique of the spread of certain types of unacceptable commerce. The shared explosive growth of the Atlantic commercial system prompted a shared moral backlash at its excesses.
A view of these revolutionaries’ declarations against the Atlantic slave trade that includes West Africa reminds us of the centrality of grievances with the Atlantic slave trade specifically. Enslaved people were leading revolts against their enslavement throughout the Atlantic world, including in West Africa. But the decision by the revolutionary governments of the U.S. and West Africa to target the Atlantic slave trade was something different, intended to “prove the most speedy, effectual and peaceable measure” for calling out the misrule and moral decline of the regimes they opposed by exercising their power as consumers. Futa Toro would not trade Muslims for cloth, rum, and other goods; American citizens would not sell their liberties to Britain for the ability to buy Atlantic luxuries. A perspective that puts West Africa and the U.S. into the same frame draws into focus the relationship between morality and consumer politics, and the centrality of that relationship in shaping the successes of anti-slave-trade campaigns. Looking at these simultaneous moments of government action against the Atlantic slave trade can also remind us that there were no foregone conclusions in the fight against the slave trade or enslaved labor. As the revolutionary moment passed, this anti-slave-trade zeitgeist unfolded in dramatically different ways in the kingdoms, republics, Caliphates, and empires of the Atlantic world.
 E.g., Julius S. Scott, The Common Wind (New York, 2018); Betty Fladeland, Men and Brothers (Urbana, IL, 1972); Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral Capital (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006); Johnhenry Gonzalez, Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti (New Haven, CT, 2019); Enrique Rivera, “The Political Economy of Anti-Slavery Resistance: An Atlantic History of the 1795 Insurrection at Coro, Venezquela,” PhD diss. UCLA, 2019.
 The connections between West Africa and the Americas are vast, and those explored by historians range from language to politics to scientific knowledge to food and more, e.g., Sara Johnson, “ʻYour Mother Gave Birth to a Pig’: Power, Abuse, and Planter Linguistics in Baudry des Lozière’s Vocabulaire Congo,” Early American Studies 16, no. 1 (2018), 7‒40; James Sweet, Domingo Àlvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill, NC, 2011); Christina Mobley and Judith A. Carney, Black Rice (Cambridge, MA, 2001); James La Fleur, Fusion Foodways of Africa’s Gold Coast in the Atlantic Era (Leiden, 2012).
 The Continental Association, Oct. 20, 1774.
12 June 2020
About the Author
Bronwen Everill is 1973 Lecturer in History at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge.
Recent Contributions to the JER
Africa and the Early American Republic: Comments (Summer 2020)