Mohammed Ali Ben Said (a.k.a. Nicholas Said) of West Africa traveled five continents in over 20 years, spoke seven languages, served royalty and diplomats, fought for the victorious Union Army in the U.S. Civil War, and wrote his life story in his own words. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, he settled in Alabama, where his narrative and the paper trail for his life ends, but where the research for my Transatlantic Africa book began. Transatlantic Africa: 1440-1888 retold the story of transatlantic slaving through the lived experiences and intellectual history of Africans who lived through it. In that way, uncovering Mohammed’s story was fortuitous because Mohammed was an African, a Muslim, and an enslaved or indentured person for most of his remarkable life. Through this polyglot and world traveler, I imagined how I might place captive African experiences in global and local context, and highlight the multiple ways in which Africans like Mohammed were ensnared and shaped by the processes of transatlantic and localized forms of slaving. Having crossed the Sahara Desert, Mediterranean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean, Mohammed’s story represented, at first glance, the mechanisms of enslavement, the various social and political contexts from which captives and captors were drawn, the global flows of captives and the wealth they produced, and how Mohammed and fellow Africans understood transatlantic slaving in Africa and its diasporas. For all these insights Mohammed’s extraordinary story provided, it left an equal amount of questions. These questions became the legs of my research, conveying it along an exploratory journey.
How representative was Mohammed’s remarkable story? I began the research process with this question. I could have also done the same with a flexible hypothesis: Mohammed’s story would have thematically resonated with that of most captive Africans. Whether beginning with a question or supposition, either had to be “cooked” in as many ways as possible before digging deep for the conditions that shaped the contents of that question. And so, I cooked the initial question several ways: if his story was representative, to what extent? Was his story more salient for Muslims or did it apply to a broader, more diverse swath of individuals? If his story was not representative, how much of an exception was it? Would this limit rather than enlarge its insights? Cooking my initial question or supposition allowed me to stretch my thinking, reach into areas and gaps not so obvious, and in so doing provide boundaries for what I could and could not accomplish with the time and resources at my disposal. In other words, “cooking” forced me think about and settle on a time frame, geographical scope, and what kinds of relevant sources I could access within these limits. Having limited my chronology to 1440 to 1888 and my geography to the major slaving regions in Africa and in the diasporas spawned by transatlantic slaving, I then searched far and wide, vacuuming all known primary source accounts produced by captive Africans. Even though I was fluent in a few languages, I frequently tapped other scholars more expert in areas and fields for help with source materials. We all need help when we have reached the limits of our unique talents. Successful research, then, is never the product of one person.
If questions are the legs of research and limits keep us on track, then when do we know if we have reached the finish line in our research? Historians, or those who view history as a method, are interpreters and not creators of source materials, and so they must reply on what people in other historical moments left behind. In parts of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds I explored, and in some of their languages and libraries, I found a wealth of African narratives of enslavement. In others, such as Brazil, I found one or two narratives. These uneven research results, true for most research, must be explained, forming a major part of what historians do—interpretation. Though we are always interpreting or making sense of our source materials while we research, this is not yet the “deep dive” into the specifics of each source and how it fits into the broader tapestry of materials collected. Using the principles of saturation and redundancy, I terminated the research phase when I could not find additional narratives and when my collected and diverse set of sources began to reinforce the study’s major themes, already set out in my “cooked” questions. Now, it was time for me to make sense of my sources, both individually and in conversation with each other, using a set of historical literacy habits.
By historical literacy, I am mean utilizing habits of all the senses, and not simply the mind. I also mean critically rethinking that category of time and human experience called the past, which is to start with this premise: events did not have to turn out that way, why that way and not another? Using this premise as a launching pad for interpretation forced me to ask historicized questions of the sources, linked to my study’s themes, but also to source my sources. Sources have a history, and it is just as important to analyze the contents of sources as it is to interrogate who, how, when, where, and why the source was created. This twin interpretation of content and the context of source materials is what I mean by deep dive. And in this submerged world of exploration, historians are detectives, taking no source at face value and using the habits of the senses: thinking, hearing, listening, and reading critically. For instance, I thought about the transatlantic slaving world in the two-volume narrative of eighteenth century captive-turned-abolitionist Equiano Olaudah, but I also wanted to hear the myriad of sounds on the slave ship or plantation, listen to what he said but why he did not say much about how he personally felt, and read how in different circumstances he might have casted himself as an African, a sailor, an indentured, an explorer, or an abolitionist. Having done this for the narratives selected for use—for not all materials gathered will be utilized—I then settled on organizing my interpretations, contextual data, and major themes in preparation for writing.
Though I wrote Transatlantic Africa in three months, this was only possible because of my research, through which I felt even more competent because I achieved fluency with the sources. Writing without this sense should be avoid. While writing, I realized, as we all do, there were wonderful discoveries made alongside questions I was unable to answer. This is the nature of research and perhaps should always be the case because it provides room for other researchers to find their Mohammed Ali Ben Said and the journey awaiting them.