Microhistories of the Illegal Slave Trade and the Old South

AHA Session 138
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Liberty Suite 3 (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
James Sidbury, Rice University
James Sidbury, Rice University

Session Abstract

This panel uses microhistories of three cases linked by illegal enslavement in the Old South that open a window onto the 19th-Century Black Atlantic World. and illuminate the Old South's connections to Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. The life narratives presented here also offer fresh insights into the varied experiences of Africans in the Old South. The Atlantic World paradigm is most often applied to the Early Modern period, but these cases suggests that the temporal boundaries of that world should be pushed forward into the 19th Century. Following Africans as they move through the Atlantic reveals a world of great complexity, irony, and adventure. The slave trade, both legal and illegal, is one thread running through the lives of the individuals presented here, and while historians have analyzed the legal slave trade extensively, much less work has been done on that illegal trade. Much of that trade went to Cuba, and Gulf ports including Mobile and New Orleans were heavily involved in the traffic. But Africans were more than slaves, and their Atlantic experiences were far more varied than the historical narrative often reveals. These cases show Africans and African Americans working to restore their families and struggling to win their freedom against overwhelming odds and against the backdrop of the illegal slave trade. Their stories reveal the complexity of the African Atlantic World, the movement of African men and women around it in ways that challenge our perceived notions of that experience, their shifting identities, and the dangers that confronted them there. These life narratives reveal a complex set of social relationship and hierarchies, and illustrate the construction, maintenance and performance of race, gender, and identity across space and time.

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