Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Author's Corner with Gregory O'Malley

Greg O'Malley is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This interview is based on his book Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

JF: What led you to write Final Passages?

GO: In graduate school I hoped to study the interaction of African and European people (and especially cultures) in colonial America. But as I tried to learn which African peoples and cultures landed in particular American places, I kept stumbling across discrepancies between data on slave populations in certain colonies and data on the slave trade. For example, by the American Revolution, only Virginia and South Carolina had larger enslaved populations than North Carolina, yet very few slave ships had arrived in North Carolina from Africa. So how did slaves get there? Like many scholars, I figured there was probably a small intercolonial traffic that dispersed Africans between the colonies. It was only when I got tripped up by such a missing link in the historiography of the coerced migration for the third or fourth time that I realized it might be a significant topic for research. Once I started combing port records for such intercolonial shipments, I found that this trade dispersing African captives after their initial arrival in the New World was vaster than I had even imagined—and that it was even bigger across imperial borders than it was between British colonies. So the short answer is that I wrote Final Passages to improve our understanding of who went where in the African Diaspora.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Final Passages?

GO: Most simply, the argument is that hundreds of thousands of African people endured another phase of the slave trade after surviving the Middle Passage across the Atlantic, but the book goes beyond simply tracking the importance of such trade for the spread of slavery. Final Passages shows that individual traders and imperial strategists exploited the intercolonial trade (and the high demand for slaves throughout the Americas) to facilitate commerce in other commodities, entangling the profits of all manner of trade with the profits from buying and selling enslaved people.

JF: Why do we need to read Final Passages?

GO: Legacies of slavery continue to haunt American society, and I think it is vital to reckon with that troubling past. American culture has a tendency to be self-congratulatory, and our interest in slavery reflects that. To the extent that most Americans consider slavery at all, the focus is on the Civil War as a war that ended slavery or on the Underground Railroad as a triumph over slavery. Those histories are of course important, but it’s also vital to wrestle with the painful reality that slavery worked—that certain segments of American societies profited mightily from their exploitation of enslaved people. Final Passages is important in this regard because it highlights an overlooked aspect of that profitable exploitation. Slaveholders forced slaves to work, of course, but traders also exploited slaves as commodities for exchange. And that exploitation of slaves’ commodity value extended beyond the prices paid for them. Labor shortages in the New World left many land owners desperate for workers, so many general merchants found that having enslaved people to sell brought planters (or even whole empires) to their table; and once such customers were buying slaves, they would engage in other trade as well. Traders saw slaves as a unique commodity, not for their humanity, but for this ability to facilitate commerce. Their profits from trading all manner of goods were contingent upon their buying and selling of people. Confronting that aspect of the system is crucial for understanding what was gained at the expense of enslaved people’s freedom.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

GO: I pursued an undergraduate history degree with no intention of a career in the field; I just wanted a liberal arts education. I then went to work at an internet startup during that brief moment, ca. 2000, when internet startups were new and exciting—and mostly unprofitable. The particular company I worked for was failing to make money designing the first digital textbooks for college courses. I ended up managing the history product line, facilitating meetings between historians and our programming whizzes, trying to help the historians understand what our technology had to offer and help the programmers understand what the historians wanted to accomplish pedagogically. It was a fun job for a recent college grad with a history B.A., but I gradually realized I was much more interested in what the historians at the table were doing than I was in the internet economy. So I headed to grad school. I chose early America because I’ve always been fascinated by Americans’ struggles with the multicultural nature of their society. In the colonial era, the foundations for those struggles were laid.

JF: What is your next project?

GO: I’m not entirely certain, as I’m still kicking the tires of several possibilities. But one idea that I’m excited about would explore the remarkable growth of the enslaved population of North America. Historians have long struggled to explain why enslaved populations elsewhere needed constant replenishment through the slave trade, while a relatively small number of people delivered to North America grew to such a large population by the Civil War. Explanations have focused on harsh conditions in the Caribbean (in terms of labor and disease), but I see demographic growth in North America as the anomaly requiring explanation. Slavery was also harsh on the mainland, and infant mortality was appalling, so why did the population grow so dramatically? I plan to explore a multi-pronged answer that examines age and gender patterns in the slave trade, slaveholding practices in North America, and a problematizing of the numbers themselves with an eye to who was counted as “negroes” in early America. While the logic of the “one drop rule” in American understandings of race leads us to interpret those labeled as “negroes” as people of African descent, the ancestries of enslaved people were often more complicated. In other words, the slaves in the U.S. by the time of Civil War were not entirely descended from the 450,000 African people who arrived via the slave trade. The host population was larger but has been partly obscured from American memory.

Thanks Greg!

And thanks to Allyson Fea who facilitated this edition of The Author's Corner!