Monday, May 4, 2015

The Author's Corner with Colleen A. Vasconcellos

Colleen Vasconcellos is Associate Professor of Atlantic History at University of West Georgia. This interview is based on her new book, Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788–1838 (University of Georgia Press, May 2015).

JF: What led you to write Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica, 1788–1838?

CV: It actually began as my master's thesis at East Tennessee State, a project that examined the experiences of enslaved children in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I wanted to continue that as part of my doctoral dissertation and I expanded my focus to include the experiences of the children who were bought, sold, and born on Atlantic plantations. Unfortunately enslaved children for the most part have been lost within the traditional treatments of Atlantic World slavery, treatments that categorically depict the enslaved as victims or voiceless statistics. As a result, they largely remain silent players in the annals of history. When you do see them appear in the narrative, you see them largely as statistics or as part of a conversation on infant and child mortality, slave women, or slave families. Their story is lost within another story. However, their story is one that is worth telling, and that's what I really wanted to do. 
What I have found is that enslaved children were anything but silent, and that becomes increasingly obvious when one enters the archives and begins searching for them. I wanted to find enslaved children’s place and voice within that larger narrative on slavery as a whole in an effort to bring their experiences to the forefront and help them step out of the shadows of the periphery. No matter their location, enslaved children performed a myriad of tasks on the estates in which they lived, ranging from fieldwork to domestic servitude. Whether African-born or creole, these children lived in an environment that constantly reinforced their status as chattel, a status defined by the nature of their work itself. What I wanted to do was focus on them as children, and specifically as children who struggled for survival in a world that refused to acknowledge and protect their childhoods. And I wanted to examine the various ways in which enslaved children as a whole coped with the hardships of slavery and the realization that they were slaves by considering how they developed physically and psychologically within the plantation complex.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica?

CV: By focusing specifically on the changing nature of slave childhood in Jamaica, I consider how childhood and slavery influenced and changed each other throughout from 1788 to 1838, with the abolitionist movement standing as the main catalyst for change. I argue that while the value of enslaved children shifted from burden to investment and then back to burden during specific periods of the abolitionist movement, their childhoods were always contested and redefined by the children themselves and the slave community as a whole.

JF: Why do we need to read Slavery, Childhood, and Abolition in Jamaica?

CV: I think the book is important because it tells the story of an overlooked childhood. They were incredibly important to abolitionists, planters, and especially to the slave community. Yet, not so much to historians. This book rectifies that by exploring children’s experiences as slaves through the lenses of family, resistance, race, status, culture, education, and freedom we can see that. Enslaved children symbolized financial stability to planters, but they also symbolized hope and freedom for enslaved and apprenticed adults during this period in Jamaican and Atlantic history. Furthermore, these children were historical agents in their own right. They performed the same tasks as the adults who worked beside them. They suffered the lash just as severely as adults. And they were just as malnourished, if not more, than enslaved adults. They were fighters. They burned crops, broke tools, ran away, and tried to harm their owners. They resisted their status as slaves just as loudly as adults, and they carved out their own place for themselves in that community. This book focuses on their agency and gives them the voice they deserve.

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

CV: I'm actually not an Americanist. I'm trained as an Atlantic historian and I teach courses on the Atlantic World, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, as well as the African Diaspora. However, as an Atlanticist, I do focus on the connections of the wider Atlantic world, so I see the influences that American history had on Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe and vice versa. 

Fun bit of trivia though...I originally planned on pursuing the American track in my doctoral program at Florida International University. However, I took a Florida and the Caribbean class during my first semester at FIU and absolutely fell in love with Caribbean history. After that, there was no going back. I majored in Latin American and Caribbean History, and minored in African History.

JF: What is your next project?

CV: For my next project, I'm interested in examining the last voyage of the slave ship Wanderer. This ship brought a cargo of about 300-400 boys to Georgia in 1858, and it is the last documented slave ship to do so in American history. Most histories of the Wanderer have focused on the court case that debated the legality of the voyage, but I want to examine the nature of the voyage itself. Where did the boys come from? How does this voyage differ from other voyages that carried mostly boys or African youths, and how does this enhance our knowledge of the illegal trade and the experiences of children in the trade as a whole. It's not going to be an easy history, and I'm not really sure if I can do what I hope to do, but I'm going to give it a shot.

JF: Can't wait to hear about it. Thanks Colleen!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner