Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Geoffrey Plank's "Atlantic Wars"

Geoffrey Plank is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire; Rebellion and Savagery: The Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the British Empire; and An Unsettled Conquest: The British Campaign Against the Peoples of Acadia.

Plank applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Atlantic Wars: From the Fifteenth Century to the Age of Revolution, and reported the following:
Page 99 opens with a law passed by the colonial assembly of Barbados in 1676 banning New Englanders from bringing indigenous American war captives to the island to be sold as slaves. The assemblymen argued that a recent influx of enslaved indigenous Americans, captured during King Philip’s War, had posed an intolerable security risk. They warned that if this branch of the slave trade continued, “greater mischief may happen to this island than from any Negroes.” Page 99 continues:
The moral and pragmatic arguments over the sale of indigenous war captives grew louder in the English colonies following King Philip’s War. Nonetheless the practice continued for several decades. In Charleston, South Carolina, English colonial officials and slave traders paid indigenous warriors for war captives who were subsequently sold abroad as slaves. The Carolina economy relied on slave labour, but the colonists preferred to purchase Africans and send indigenous American captives away. Historian Alan Gallay has estimated that before 1715 the number of indigenous American captives the colony sent overseas exceeded the number of enslaved people the colonists brought in from the Caribbean and Africa. Some indigenous Americans targeted for capture and sale in South Carolina voluntarily sought exile overseas to avoid enslavement. In 1711 a Cuban ship captain named Luis Perdomo carried 270 indigenous men, women and children from Florida to Havana. These exiles were fleeing Yamasee warriors who intended to sell them in Charleston. Perdomo reported that he left behind hundreds of other indigenous people, perhaps as many as 2,000, who had wanted to sail to Cuba to escape the South Carolina slave market. He said he would have brought more of them to safety and freedom “had he had the vessels.”

Perdomo believed that his ships offered some indigenous people in Florida a way to escape danger. The families he assisted, and others who pleaded for his help, hoped that by crossing the water they could place a barrier between themselves and their attackers. Ironically the Virginians and New Englanders who sent war captives to the Caribbean professed a similar aim, to put a distance between themselves and their adversaries and use the ocean for protection. Refugees who crossed the Atlantic to escape religious persecution in Europe thought about the vastness of the sea in a similar way, as did European imperial officials who sent rebels and other convicts to the Americas as bound labourers. The ocean could separate antagonists, but in most cases, rather than diminishing conflict, crossing the ocean or shipping people overseas only transformed the perception of warfare by moving violence beyond the horizon. The African military leaders who took captives and sold them into the transatlantic slave trade had many of the same incentives that motivated the Virginians and New Englanders who sent indigenous Americans to the Caribbean. The slave trade was a business, and large fortunes could be made marketing and exploiting captives, but in the early modern era shipping captives away was also an increasingly pervasive feature of warfare.
Page 99 provides a clear introduction to several of the central concerns of my book. It illustrates the value of studying Atlantic history by recovering dramas that can be revealed only by looking at different Atlantic regions together. Page 99 contains narratives linking New England with Barbados and South Carolina with Cuba. It broadly identifies dynamics simultaneously operating during the early modern period in Africa, Europe and the Americas. In concrete terms, the page emphasises the pervasive, transformative influence of ships on warfare around the Atlantic. The first third of my book is devoted to this theme.

Another aim of my book is to present Atlantic history in as non-hierarchical a manner as possible, not only assessing the motivations and actions of imperial leaders, colonists and slave traders, but also considering events from the perspective of their allies in Africa and the Americas and those they pursued and fought, such as the indigenous American refugees who pled with Perdomo for transportation to Cuba. Considering the refugees’ perspective highlights the formative impact of warfare on life around the Atlantic. Military action exposed whole communities to slaughter, dispossession, forcible removal, enslavement and exile. The impacts varied, often for example distinguishing men from women, children from adults, indigenous Americans from Africans, Europeans and European colonists. But wars were also communal experiences creating opportunities for cooperation among diverse groups of people from different shores, like Perdomo and his crew and the families they carried across the Florida Strait. Warfare did not simply divide people. It also, sometimes in horrifying ways, brought them together.
Learn more about Atlantic Wars at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue