“The question remains, however, as to how the petitioners learned about the Somerset decision and coartación. Last month, I wrote about how many black Bostonians were literate and engaged with the print culture of the eighteenth century. As one of the most important legal decisions regarding slavery in Anglo-American law, Somerset received significant coverage in the American press. Indeed, it would have been hard to avoid reading about the case after it began circulating around the Atlantic world in the summer of 1772. Slaves and free blacks reading about Somerset could not help but be energized by the decision and understand it as an important legal precedent for freedom and a catalyst for their own local struggles.
“As Douglass saw it, technological development enhanced political work. Steamships brought news from Europe in as few as fifteen days, which struck him as an immediate kind of knowledge that allowed a localized movement to exert a broad and seemingly instant influence. “A revolution now cannot be confined to the place or the people where it may commence, but flashes with lightning speed from heart to heart, from land to land, till it has traversed the globe.” News of France’s revolution moved “like a bolt of living thunder,” and cast “a ray of hope” into the dark corners of “American slave pens” inspiring the oppressed to join a struggle against tyranny in its diverse manifestations. Maritime technology, electric wiring, and print culture gave France’s revolution that broad power. Douglass’s own commentary made the revolution an Atlantic phenomenon, as he framed it as an attack on American slaveholders. “Thank God for the event! Slavery cannot always reign.”
We are living in the world Douglass invoked, defined by instantaneous communication, uncontainable ideas, and the complicated power of technology…”
“In all fairness to historians who have taken this position in their either implicit or explicit discussions of black geographies, the insistence on seeing un-enslaved fugitives in the confusing and contradictory space of the “bush” stems from a similar insistence that spills out from the documentation of runaway communities. In the context of the Portuguese empire, for example, by the 1650s those who were employed as slave catchers were known as “capitães do mato” a term that is often literally rendered in English as “bush captain”. 5 The name itself was not employed consistently across the Portuguese empire and thus other names for the slave catchers emerged as well by the 1680s. Yet, these names also locked runaway communities into a geographical wilderness. Thus the “capitães das entradas dos matos” were “captains of the entryway into the bush,” a phrase that seemed to consider the “entryway into the bush” to be the very the boundary between rational civilization and uncharted wilderness. Thus by locating black subjects in undeveloped, unmapped areas, black subjects are themselves naturalized as irrational and underdeveloped by archival sources.”
“One evening, on a road in Jamaica, a soldier belonging to the “Mulatto Company” made his evening rounds. He came upon a black man in the woods. The soldier called for his attention. Receiving no answer, he killed him…”
If your summer travels take you to Louisiana, be sure to visit Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana (about forty miles from New Orleans). See below for #ADPhD Founder and Curator Jessica Marie Johnson’s reflection on her visit last February….
“Each statue represents a person. Most represent one of the thirty odd men and women who experienced slavery in Louisiana as a child and was interviewed by Works Progress Administration investigators in the 1930s as an elder. A handful represent a child who labored at the plantation site at some point in its history, a child with a story we now know.
Each child has a name. They have identities and histories. They are neither nameless nor voiceless, as so many subaltern historical subjects are, particularly in histories of slavery. They have already spoken. The statues and everything they represent also give lie to the presumption that the enslaved left no stories, no words worth mentioning or remembering. Or believing.
By choosing to engage the visitors through a historically African-American church filled with statues of enslaved children, Ibrahima Seck, the Director of Research, does more than memorialize the original interviewees and enslaved members of the Haydel/Whitney Plantation site. Seck and the Whitney staff force us to enter the plantation by walking past, watching, and being watched by enslaved themselves. The figures act as artifacts of and portals into the words and lives of residents of Louisiana who experienced slavery, who engaged Writers’ Project interviewers as experts in their own lives. Confronted with their familiars, we are challenged to take them seriously as the only experts that matter. As intellectuals in their own right and masters of their own words and worlds.
This is the visitor’s introduction to the Whitney Plantation and Slave Museum…”