Review- Scott, “The Common Wind”

Julius Scott, “The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution” (2018) – This one says it was published in 2018, but it had a pre-published life of its own, I’m told, going back to the eighties as a dissertation that historians working on various aspects of the Atlantic world would consult and tell each other about, a sort of underground classic. Why it didn’t get published before Verso picked it up in 2018 is beyond me, especially if there was demand for it among historians. Certainly other, less important, dissertations get published frequently (I should probably see about publishing mine, speaking of which…)

Anyway, one can call “The Common Wind” a social history of ideas, or perhaps more properly of the social life of information. The fastest information moved at the end of the eighteenth century was the speed of sail. And yet, people at the most degraded bottom rung of society — the slaves in the sugar islands and plantations of the Caribbean basin — found out about international news with surprising alacrity and consistency. This became especially true as the news got spicier with the French Revolution and the beginnings of the modern abolitionist movement in Britain, and still more urgent with the outbreak of the revolution in St-Domingue. Despite the best efforts of white authority, slaves found out about — and were inspired to action by — all of these.

According to Scott, sailors and city-dwellers made up the lifeblood of information exchange in the Caribbean basin at this time. Had the technology been more commonly available in the eighties when this was written, perhaps we could have gotten some network charts, but the picture Scott paints is vivid enough anyway. The New World colonies were largely designed at the time to be unsustainable on their own, especially the sugar islands of the Caribbean. Whether through trade with solely the “mother country” or experiments with free trade later in the eighteenth century, the islands and other colonies could not survive without outside intercourse, and were useless to the European colonizers without bringing their products to the international market.

This posed a problem for the slaveholders and authorities of the Caribbean basin, isomorphic from Virginia to Venezuela: how to control the flow of people, goods, and information in such a way as to make their colonies sustainable, but not endanger their delicate social orders resting on massive populations of slaves. They needed trade, and the things that came with it: ships, ports, sailors, cities, in a word, mobility, but mobility threatened them. It soon became a commonplace that urban slaves were unreliable and that sailors were threats to public order, carriers of threats ranging from drunk and disorderly conduct to political subversion.

Scott presents us with a kaleidoscope of efforts to suppress the threat of mobile and often master-less people to the social order of various parts of the Caribbean. Panicky governors from Spanish, French, and English colonies all passed laws restricting the doings of sailors and urban slaves, banning blacks and sometimes people and ships altogether from places seen as “infected” by subversive ideas (especially France once the Revolution broke out), trying to reign in the very active Caribbean press, and so on and on. Scott gives us a picture — limited by the sources but still fascinating — of the lives of masterless black and brown men and women largely through their interactions with the legal and fact-finding apparatuses set up by colonial governments.

None of the efforts to hem in the word of revolution worked. Information still moved, and Haiti especially lived on as an inspiration to blacks and a bogeyman to whites. In the end, the master class had to rely on blunter tools: terror for the black masses, crippling debt and control of trade (with inevitable, and inevitably dashed, hopes of economic development) for Haiti itself. Similar networks of information would form to pass on abolitionist news and sentiments throughout the slave societies that continued to develop, linking Deep South plantations to abolition movements centered in New England (and old England) through chains of correspondence. These, like the Caribbean ones Scott uncovered, eventually came down to mobile, risk-taking slaves, freedmen and other poor people of the plantation lands. Without them and their ability to distribute information in multiple directions, abolition — and revolution — are just ideas. ****’

Review- Scott, “The Common Wind”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s