Historical Trans-Atlantic slave trade networks: A reflection

Over the Christmas holidays I’ve been reading the historical novel ‘New York‘ by Edward Rutherfurd – the book charts the development of the city right from its first settlers through a series of characters. Early on in the book there is talk of the trans-atlantic slave trade and it reminded me of a reflection on the issue I wrote some time ago.

Trans-atlantic Geographies

The trans-Atlantic slave trade lasted for over 300 years intimately connecting four continents through networks of trade, labour and communication. The creation of these networks ‘played a fundamental role in the creation of American societies and exercised a central role in the modern histories of Africa, the Americas, and Europe’ (Clark, 2005). Traditional maps (like those below) of the slave trade highlight the networks created by the movement of people and goods between Europe, African and the Americas but fail to recognise the vast complexity of networks constructed, and the multitude of actors involved. The analysis of the Atlantic slave trade using a network approach allows a deeper understanding of social, economic and political processes involved.

Map of Atlantic Slave trade routesSource: Socialist Worker Online

Figure 1: Map of Atlantic Slave trade routes
Source: Socialist Worker Online

Figure 2: Routes of the Central Americas

Figure 2: Routes of the Central Americas
Source: African-American Studies Archive

Miles Ogborn (2005) suggests that there are three geographic epistemologies suitable for Atlantic studies: the survey (which takes an overview for a long period of time and focuses on the comparison of places), the network (which focuses on the mechanisms and processes involved) and the trace (which focuses much more on individual experiences).  While Ogborn recognises that for an effective analysis there essentially needs to be elements of all three approaches, he does recognise the importance of networks in the construction of the imperial Atlantic world. Looking at the Atlantic slave trade as a web of networks allows an insight into the ‘changing web of social relations and material connections between people, places and objects that bound together the margins of the Atlantic and bounded the ocean itself’ (Ogborn, 2005: 381).

Networks can be seen as a set of ongoing process, in this case not just the transportation of slaves and goods, but as a process of subordination and the generation of an empire. In an article be Law and Mol (2008) the act of boiling pigswill is shown to be a political technique where networks were essentially providing a boundary between poor and the more affluent countries. This practice was linking different places, but not reducing inequalities. In this case, the slave trade was a set of process by which the rich white Europeans had power over the poor African populations, and used them for their own benefit when they had been transported to the Americas’ The slave trade and the practices involved (raiding African nations, keeping slaves in imprisonment, forced labour on plantations) were all political techniques used to benefit those in power.

These networks were constructed and maintained by a variety of human and non-human actors. Typical studies of the slave trade highlight the importance of explorers in discovering destinations, merchants for providing capital and goods, the sailors for sailing ships, as well as plantation owners, slaves and slave owners, but many fail to recognise how there are further connections in these networks. Beyond the materialities of the Atlantic ships and their immediate destinations, it was the consumers of the products traded, and the owners of household slaves which produced demand for Atlantic network practices to be maintained. Much like consumers in the modern world drive supermarkets to import goods.

It should be recognised that these networks wouldn’t exist without their non-human actors, the ships that transported sailors, slaves and goods were vital parts to construction and longevity of trans-Atlantic networks.

Miles Ogborn (2002) examines movement of letters during voyages made by the East India Company and highlights how the letters involved were used to construct relationships between places and create a network of imperialism. More importantly it becomes recognised that these letters are not static objects in the networks and therefore their role in network construction and maintenance needs detailed analysis.  For the Atlantic slave trade one of the most important non-human actors was the ship itself, without it the connections between continents would have failed to exist.  Beyond this, the ship itself was a site for further hierarchical networks which would have great impacts on links in the networks at a larger scale.  The importance of the ship has been addressed by Marcus Rediker (2007) in The Slave Ship which provides an in-depth account of various experiences of the life on the ship and gives an insight into the political activity and various levels of power onboard.  Ogborn describes the ship as a material, accounting and political space (2005: 165), this is clearly evidenced by the literature describing the various struggles which occurred onboard and at ports between different actors (Rediker, 1987, Linebaugh and Rediker, 2000). In a similar way, Lambert et al, highlights that it is the sea ‘not only connects bodies of land, but also connect with each other’ (2006:480). With these ideas in mind the possibilities of what to include as important actors in networks are endless and there is a lot of potential for analysis of the relationships between objects, humans and non-humans in the network processes.

Networks, providing ‘flows that link sites’ operate at a variety of scales from the global linking of continents to the internal hierarchical networks onboard a slave ship or at a dock (Escobar, 2001:169).The hierarchies of power to be found on board ship provide a basis for those to be found throughout the Atlantic networks i.e. a process by which there is subordination of lower classes and a discipline programme for appropriate actors.

The analysis of network construction can also be useful when looking at disputes that arose during this period. The Atlantic networks of the slave trade allowed the mixture of races, ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds. It also allowed the ‘connections, inter-relations, and circulations that made up the many riots, mutinies and rebellions’ witnessed during this time period Featherstone (2005:388).  The networks produced this type of political activity, particularly with those deemed as the working class (Rediker, 1987). By taking the definition of Atlantic networks as ‘the multiple and overlapping material, cultural and political circuits and flows that traversed the Atlantic and bound different places together through different relations of power, it is possible to understand how the network approach can be extremely useful in understanding social, cultural and political issue raised through the development of the slave trade.

A summary of some of the actors and connections involved in Atlantic slave trade networks and how they constitute relations of power are summarised in Figure 3.This short discussion has aimed to highlight how the Atlantic slave trade involved a multiplicity of complex and embedded networks, and how an analysis of the production of these networks allows an insight into the social, cultural and political issues of the era.

Slave trade

It’s a simple way of thinking about these networks, but still effective.

I decided to post this reflection for a number of reasons – mainly as I had recently re-discovered it on my hard drive, but also because it’s quite a good example of how geography and history interconnect. I’m often faced with students who argue that what they are learning is ‘history’ and not ‘geography’ – I’d like students to realise that pretty much anything can be viewed from a geographical perspective.

References and Further Reading

  • Clark, A. (2003) ‘The Atlantic Slave trade revisited’,  Journal of Third World Studies. Spring.
  • Escobar, A (2001) ‘Culture sits in its place: reflections on globalism and subaltern strategies of localization’ Political Geography 20:139-174.
  • Featherstone, D. (2005) ‘Atlantic networks, antagonisms and the formation of subaltern political identities’, Social and Cultural Geography 6(3):387-404.
  • Lambert, D., Martins, L. Ogborn, M. (2006) ‘Currents, vision and voyages: historical geogrpahies of the sea’, Journal of Historical Geography 32:479-493.
  • Law, J. and Mol, A. (2008) ‘Globalization in practice: on the politics of boiling pigswill’, Geoforum 39:133-143.
  • Linebaugh, P. and Rediker, M. (2000) The Many-headed hydra, Verso: London.
  • Ogborn, M. (2005) Editorial: Atlantic Geographies’, Social and Cultural Geography 6(3): 379-385.
  • Rediker, M. (2007) The Slave Ship. John Murray: London.
  • Rediker, M. (1987), Between the devil and the deep blue sea. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

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