Revolutionary Lives of the Atlantic

Jane G. Landers, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); 352 pages; ISBN 978-0674035911 (paper).

• December 2011

Jane G. Landers’s latest work, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions, echoes the conceit that C. L. R. James offers at the end of The Black Jacobins: “There is no drama like the drama of history.”1 By examining the lives of Africans and their descendants, Landers constructs a history that is energized by individual and collective action, geographic movement and promises of freedom. Atlantic Creoles were polyglot actors defined by their mobility and dexterity on the political stage. By carefully reading their political climate, Atlantic Creoles simultaneously helped to configure the revolutionary politics between 1760 and 1850 while striving for freedom. Undoubtedly, Atlantic Creoles is first and foremost historical scholarship. Yet the merit of this work rests not only on its contribution to the vibrant regional history surrounding the Caribbean and southern locales of North America. In addition to analyzing intriguing personal histories of Atlantic Creoles, Landers is attuned to spaces of social interaction, formations of political identity, and the power of narrative exchange—all of which make Atlantic Creoles a rich and useful work to consider across disciplines. 

Atlantic Creoles brings together individuals of various backgrounds: “Some were born enslaved; others were always free. Some were literate, urban, and propertied, while others rose out of more degraded circumstances” (14). Moving from lower North America to Saint-Domingue to Cuba, Landers tracks a cast of Atlantic creoles that includes Juan Bautista (formerly Big Prince) Whitten, Georges Biassou, Abraham of the Seminole nation, and Gabriel Dorotea Barba. Landers harmonizes this “diverse but connected cohort” (4) of voices by drawing on Spanish archives where “loyal Africans and Indians as imperial subjects” had a “legal personality, and therefore a voice” (7). Many Atlantic Creoles professed their allegiance to monarchs and adroitly maneuvered within their military corporate structures defending when necessary the rights and privileges granted to them via their membership in legal, religious, and military systems.

As a consequence of their royalist sympathies and their seemingly reactionary politics, some of these creoles lost a spotlight in the revolutionary history of the Atlantic. Take, for instance, Georges Biassou, whose portrait graces the book’s cover. Landers writes that Biassou “has been supplanted in public memory by his former aide, Toussaint Louverture” (56). While the latter “is the best-known figure of the [Saint-Domingue slave revolt],” Landers reminds us that it is Biassou who played a central role in initiating the revolt. Biassou’s military career and his alliances with the French and Spanish crowns are reexamined within the context of how he and his followers managed rights and privileges afforded to them by the monarchy. Autonomy and social identity were not necessarily defined in terms of republican notions of “freedom.” For Atlantic Creoles like Biassou, corporate identity and social status were configured in relation to the “centuries-old legal, religious, and social constructs” of the European monarchies (233).

What makes Atlantic Creoles stand apart from related works, like Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra (2000), is Landers’s focus on black militiamen. “These men,” she avers, “were eyewitnesses and participants in many of the most important military contests of their day. They had access to a wide range of political information, both printed and oral” (143). Here, I am reminded of Paul Gilroy’s powerful discussion in The Black Atlantic (1993) of the ship as a symbol and a micropolitical, microcultural unit in motion. Landers discusses the very lives that traverse the ocean and land. Black militiamen, as literal political units, played an integral role in the diaspora of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary ideas. The knowledge gained from travels and encounters made these men important nodal points in an intricate network of information. As Landers observes, these militiamen were known for their prowess. Their previous experiences often coalesced when units were mixed. In 1812, for example, various revolutionary experiences came together on the grounds of Spanish Florida. Landers writes, “On this one Atlantic frontier, men who had fought in the American Revolution, the Saint Domingue slave revolt, spin-offs of the French Revolution, spin-offs of the French Revolution, the Indian Wars, and Cuban slave uprisings were joined in one polyglot unit” (112).

Although the chapters of Atlantic Creoles are organized geographically and each chapter showcases specific individuals, Landers deftly illustrates how these experiences were intertwined and not necessarily geographically bound. Shared military service and marriages brought some Atlantic Creoles together. For example, Biassou’s military heir and brother-in-law married the daughter of another prominent Atlantic Creole, Juan Bautista Whitten. Whitten was, like Biassou, a “model Atlantic Creole” and his military career spanned the American, French, Haitian and Latin American revolutions (15). Lieutenant Whitten, escaping his enslavement in Georgia, found refuge for himself and his family in Spanish Florida. When Biassou and veterans from his Santo Domingo auxiliaries arrived in Florida to guard St. Augustine from maroon and indigenous communities, Whitten joined the troops under Biassou’s command. From chapter to chapter, genealogical roots and Atlantic routes connect individuals and their relatives in an elaborate network of Atlantic Creoles.

Landers not only examines these creoles who actively sought freedom but also demonstrates how the recovery of these lives illuminates surrounding lives and, in effect, multicultural communities of the Atlantic. The protagonists of Atlantic Creoles were deeply embedded and invested in their respective societies. Gabriel Dorotea Barba is a representative figure of the free black Cuban bourgeoisie “whose fortunes would rise during the Age of Revolutions as they repeatedly defended the interests of Spain in Havana and abroad” (139). Landers uses Barba as a conduit to examine the cultural practices and social organizations in Havana. Beyond his military experiences in Florida during the American Revolution and in the Bahamas fighting the British, Barba was active participant in local affairs. In fact, this barber and military captain founded a school in Havana for children of color (154). Using Barba as a point of reference, Landers describes the public spheres where “men like Barba demonstrated their civic values and piety” (144). Two forms of cultural and religious gatherings specifically discussed are cofradías and cabildos de nación. The former were officially sanctioned Catholic institutions and often associated free blacks with social mobility. The latter was an institution that derived from meetings of enslaved Africans in Havana and their activities practiced “in the free time allotted on Sundays and other feast days for traditional drumming and dance” (145). By weaving quotidian and communal scenes with large-scale, intercontinental conflicts, by moving back and forth between the local and the global, Landers narrates a history that is as kinetic as her protagonists.

Loss, however, looms ominously in the background. Though many of the voices of Atlantic Creoles are heard, some ventriloquized through their letters reprinted in the book, there are still silences. For example, in their pursuit of freedom Atlantic Creoles seemed to only have two options: fraternal or paternal bonds of loyalty. Whether upholding republican notions of fraternity or pledging unwavering allegiance to the fatherly figure of God and the king, female voices are faint—and in some ways lost—in the deluge of this revolutionary history. This is not a fault, though, of Landers’s work. Rather, this history leaves readers wondering whether or not it is possible to recover the silenced voices. Is it possible to resurrect other lives from the archives? Clearly, as Landers demonstrates, the lives of these Atlantic Creoles cast light on the communities surrounding them. What else can we learn from the textual fragments of their stories?

Perhaps for now we are left to imagine. Atlantic Creoles left me with a sense of the power of narratives and local tales. For example, as Whitten enters St. John’s Parish, he moves into a space saturated with stories. Whitten walks through a place of past revolt and local slaves could tell “tales of flight and resistance” (23). Or consider the alternative stories of possibility, mobility, and freedom that were circulated in the Atlantic world through the dispersion of military units like the Black Auxiliaries of Carlos IV. Through the sartorial pageantry of military leaders, or through the very presence of military units, Atlantic Creoles symbolized “the sometimes contradictory strands of revolution, counter-revolution, and social change” (235). These legendary creoles, no doubt, shaped local and global narratives of the Atlantic world.

 

Kristina Huang is a doctoral student studying English literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and an instructor of literature at City College. She has also contributed to Social Text’s online blog. Her academic interests include Atlantic studies, Masculinity studies, and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature.

 


1 C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1989), 365.

 

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