Charles Ball (1781? – 1840s?) was born on a tobacco plantation in Maryland, eventually purchasing his legal freedom and serving as a naval officer in the war of 1812. Ball spent much of his live laboring and being sold and resold—and captured and re-enslaved—on plantations in South Carolina and Georgia, before resigning himself to Pennsylvania to escape recapture. While in South Carolina, Charles witnessed and participated in a funerary ritual brought from Africa. Since almost all enslaved Africans took death and funerary rites seriously, dedicating funds toward and undertaking such rites as community affairs, the funerary ritual Charles observed has therefore wider significance for understanding the continuity and transformation of African cultures in the Americas.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Mohammed Ali Ben Said 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. 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.
The Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is the culmination of decades of archival research and international collaboration among scholars, led by David Eltis and colleagues. Though the data for the book are available online for free (www.slavevoyages.org), the repackaging of that data into 189 visually stunning maps and nine tables, complemented by some forty-two vignettes, has earned the creators of the Atlas a vast amount of praise and numerous awards. Like the human genome project, which focused on DNA sequencing through international collaboration and pooling of data, the Atlas is a testament to the value of collaborative effort, and book reviewers and endorsers have called it “monumental,” “marvelous,” “superb,” “sophisticated,” “erudite,” “groundbreaking,” and of “immeasurable value.” It is possible that the Atlas’s accolades, however, may inspire too much self-congratulation and not enough humility toward the human lives transformed into data sets. Both the genome project and the Atlas are based on decades of research, but both also have limitations. The genome project, for example, has identified most genes, but the sequencing is not fully understood; we know comparatively little about the full functions of their proteins, and the human genome of most individuals remains uniquely unmapped. The Atlas, likewise, has mapped the economic contours of transatlantic slaving using available data, but there is a great deal of missing data; it cannot account adequately for the first century of slaving or for the illicit and contraband commerce in African bodies around the so-called Atlantic world. More important, its arithmetic methodology cannot represent the lost potentials of African lives. The sense of finality suggested by the authors of the Atlas or their public relations team should not, therefore, be accepted unconditionally.
While searching online at the start of the new year, I came upon a blog maintained by a PhD history student at one of the University of California schools. Interested in Atlantic history and “slave ethnicity,” this student displayed an historiographical essay, probably written for a class, in which the future historian wrote, “Even more dogmatic are such scholars as Kwasi Konadu, who has argued that Coromantees were essentially the early modern precursors to modern Ghanaians, joined together by a ‘shared genetic culture.’” Curious, I emailed the student, who responded, “I meant to quote your phrase ‘shared (genetic) language.’ I have changed the quote, and I also rewrote the sentence to reflect that my opinions are coming from Rucker’s reading of your work.” Less an apology and more a confession, I briefly contemplated this student’s essay and response, and wondered, more broadly, if this is the kind of scholarship Atlantic history—and its stepchild, black Atlantic history—inspires, and to which it aspires. Rather than accept the received wisdom of the academic grapevine, I kept gossip and book reviews at a distance while I carefully read Walter Rucker’s Gold Coast Diasporas with the seriousness it deserved, making marginal notes from the acknowledgement to the bibliography during the spring semester. This book sets out to examine “the formation of the Gold Coast diaspora from the 1680s to the 1760s,” identifying “the early decades of the eighteenth century [as] a period when Coromantee and (A)mina ethnic groups formed in the Americas” from Akan, Gã, Adangme, and Ewe speakers originating in Africa’s Gold Coast (p. 23). Using sociologist Orlando Patterson’s well-worn notion of “social death” and historian Michael Gomez’s “ethnicity to race” paradigm, Rucker argues, “Gold Coast Africans reinvented, redefined, and transformed Gold Coast cultural materials and deployed them in unprecedented ways in the Americas,” informed by a “commoner consciousness” and new notions of masculinity and womanhood (p. 9). This review assesses the validity of Rucker’s case study through an examination of the sources used and the reading practices or interpretive techniques employed, and suggests some implications for African history/studies and diasporic African history/studies.