"Keenly attuned to shifting political currents" / Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions [book review]

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Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions

No subject has historians of the Atlantic slave trade more ready to fistfight than the endless debate over agency. The pushback by social historians against previous narratives centered on slavery’s deterministic and dehumanizing effects has opened up new narratives that describe how slaves carved out and defended spaces within slave societies to develop kinship networks, build cultural institutions, and practice various forms of day-to-day resistance.

Some would argue, however, that to focus too much agency deemphasizes the very real limits that slave societies placed on the lived experiences of slaves in the Americas. As the field has increasingly added more moving variables—changes over time, regional variations, comparative studies of different slave societies—the question of agency has become more nuanced, if not altogether more precarious.

Increasingly, historians of the Atlantic slave trade are aware of how agency operates like a double-edged sword: granting some agency while keeping others oppressed; presenting the space for minor victories while removing larger revolutionary possibilities from the bargaining table.

In her insightful book Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions, Jane Landers skillfully balances the agency question. Building on Ira Berlin’s previous scholarship on Atlantic creoles, Landers explores this hybrid and incredibly plastic group of individuals because they had both privileged roles in their own specific social orders and were “keenly attuned to shifting political currents.”

These Atlantic creoles crossed back and forth between national and imperial boundaries as soldiers, artisans, and refugees and often had access to critical political information. Further, Landers argues that these Atlantic Creoles “were critical to the balance of power” and with their initiative and agency “shaped the course of international events, as well as local responses to them.” Often caught between slave and citizen, Landers shows how the Atlantic creoles understood and took advantage of the interstices within the Atlantic world empires.

Grounding her research in previously unused Spanish language sources in Cuba and early modern Spanish North America, Landers focuses her narrative on specific Atlantic Creoles like Prince Whitten, Georges Biassou, and Jorge Davison as they correspond with local authorities and the imperial center in Spain; she also identifies when these creoles appear in court records, runaway slave advertisements and the correspondences of slave owners.

Through her analysis of these sources, Landers shows that her key protagonists saw themselves more beholden to royalist and imperial forces in distant metropoles, which often rewarded their military service and loyalty, over local authorities who were often suspicious of their rootlessness.This was especially true in the American South as South Carolina and Georgia increasingly became a closed slave societies following the American Revolutionary War.

By taking war seriously, Landers adds to a growing conversation on how slaves understood and took advantage of war’s liberatory potential. Landers shows that historians must not only understand how eighteenth century intellectual discourse on universal manhood rights informed as much by specter of Saint-Domingue as the writings of Thomas Paine, but also grasp the importance of the actual service of slaves in the various eighteenth century conflicts. The Atlantic creoles in Landers’ narrative identified that demonstrating their loyalty to the crown meant future claims towards citizenship could be made.

Choosing the wrong side could have negative consequences; when Georges Bissou sided with the Spanish in the Haitian Revolution, he and his compatriots were forced to flee the island and seek asylum in Florida. While the Spanish empire could be a useful ally in the late eighteenth century, the 1790 Treaty of Paris gave slaveowners in the American South authority to go into Florida to retrieve runaway slaves. In one of her most interesting analytical turns, Landers shows how when these creole soldiers were then enlisted in a battle against maroon colonies made up of former slaves and Seminole Indians when these maroon colonies were seen as untenable by both the United States and the Spanish empire.

Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions provides a valuable contribution to the study of empire in the early modern Atlantic world. Where many works focused in this period simply focus on the inner-workings of one empire or show when political conflicts or market forces bring different powers into conflict, Landers provides a well-documented account of people who moved or communicated across multiple imperial borders. The Atlantic Creoles in her work actively participate in the conflicts and intellectual discourses of the Age of Revolutions in ways that articulate the alternative spaces available to those who could take advantage of the fluid social and political boundaries of that particular historical moment.

Most importantly, Landers’ work engages, if only obliquely, the agency debate in a realistic, albeit still sympathetic manner. Her Atlantic Creoles are at times on the side of social justice and collective empowerment; in other moments they are opportunistic and short-sighted in their alliances. This intervention is critical for historians of other social movements who must understand both the positive and ignoble motives of the groups that they study. As future scholars continue to study the world of the Atlantic Creoles, Landers’ work should serve as model for how to carefully balance the heroism of our historical subjects with the various societal limitations they faced in their lives.