Maritime Voyages in the African Atlantic: Narratives of Return and Reunion from Cuba and Brazil

AHA Session 274
Conference on Latin American History 64
Monday, January 6, 2020: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Riverside Ballroom (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Yuko Miki, Fordham University
Yuko Miki, Fordham University

Session Abstract

This panel explores the idea of return to Africa and reunion within the African diaspora across three subsequent centuries. What relationship has African identity, birthplace, or association played in the lives of mobile Cubans and Brazilians from the colonial era to the postcolonial decades of the 1970s and 1980s? The panel focuses on men and women who took to the Atlantic Ocean or Caribbean Sea for distinct but connected reasons: for personal or national sovereignty, for escape from a harsher reality in the place left behind, to establish oneself or one’s nation as a force to be reckoned with. Scholars of the African diaspora, of maritime history, and of histories of gender and masculinity will find much to offer in this panel.

Elena Schneider’s paper, “’Negros fugitivos”: Black Mobility in Eighteenth-century Cuba and the Caribbean’” traces the movements of enslaved men and women away from and into Cuba in the eighteenth century. Unbound by imperial spheres of influence, the actors in “Negros Fugitivos” moved in British and Spanish spaces to carve out as much freedom for themselves as possible in an environment defined by enslavement. Mary Hicks’s “’Going to their Own Country:’ Enslaved Maritime Labor and the Bahian Transatlantic Slave Trade” moves the panel ahead one century, examining the curious case of enslaved African-born Brazilian seamen who traveled back and forth to the West African coast on slave ships, working in various capacities on African land and on the ships themselves. Much as the African-descended people escaping away from and into Cuba used their mobility to find some sovereignty, so too did these Brazilian seamen take advantage of their perceived expertise on Africa to improve their situations. The third paper, “Reversing the Middle Passage: Cubans’ Voyage Back to Africa in the Revolutionary 1970s and 1980s” by Anasa Hicks, jumps ahead to the twentieth century to consider the experiences of Cuban men and women who fought in Africa’s liberation wars. Explicitly framed as compensation for Cuba’s participation in the slave trade, Cuban military aid was essential to victory in several African independence wars, most notably Angola’s. The paper explores the experiences of the men and women who travelled to Africa, many (if not most) of whom had African ancestry. Were they, like their eighteenth- and nineteenth- century counterparts, trying to find freedom in the context of control by the revolutionary state? Or were they exporting the freedom that the revolution had given them to African people that were fighting for their own?

This panel explores change and continuity over three centuries. It asks to what degree strategies to garner more freedom or control changed from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. It asks what role Africa—as an ethnic identifier, a literal destination, or both—played in the lives of Brazilian and Cuban people as they travelled across and within the Atlantic. The panel promises to inspire a fruitful conversation about black mobility, individual sovereignty, and subaltern methods of operating inside and outside of empires.

See more of: AHA Sessions