Forum on The Common Wind: In Honor of Julius S. Scott

Marlene Daut's picture

Forum on The Common Wind
In Honor of Julius S. Scott

(Image courtesy of Elizabeth A. Fenn, private collection of Peter H. Wood)

This forum is a celebration of the long-awaited publication of Julius S. Scott’s The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution by Verso Press in November 2018. In these short contributions, which have been written by scholars at various stages in their careers, and whose works have influenced or been influenced by Scott's own, we glimpse the historiographic revolution sparked by his landmark 1986 dissertation. However, the stories contained in these posts relate not only to the lessons about historical method and scholarly rigor that we have all learned from Scott's important breakthrough. These are also tales of mentorship (both being a mentor and being mentored), collegiality, and ultimately, friendship. This forum will continue throughout the month of January 2019, and we hope our readers will add their voices to the conversation via the discussion list here on H-Haiti.

Table of Contents: 

Marlene L. Daut and Julia Gaffield, Editors' Introductions

Peter H. Wood, "'Doing Real Research'--How Julius Scott Hooked a Marlin"

Martha S. Jones, "I Once Crossed the Atlantic with Julius Scott"

Laurent Dubois, “Listening In: Lessons from The Common Wind

Anne Eller, "Beyond a Revolution: The Common Wind at a Nadir"

Edgardo Pérez Morales, "Stories and Concepts from The Common Wind"

Jean Hébrard, "Réseaux de circulation et biographies connectées dans le monde atlantique à l’âge des révolutions"

James F. Dator, "Brutus, The Common Wind, and the Search for the New Land" (added 9 January 2019)

Alexander X. Byrd, "Julius Scott and 'The Common Wind': Teaching and Learning Black History" (added 23 March 2019)

Brandon R. Byrd, "The Incessant Common Wind" (added 19 April 2019)

Editors' Introductions:

Marlene L. Daut (University of Virginia)

The moment I heard the title of Julius Scott’s famous dissertation I was intrigued. “A Breathing of the Common Wind: The Sea, Politics, and Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution,” of course, references an 1802 poem by William Wordsworth, “To Toussaint Louverture:"

Thou hast left behind

Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;

There's not a breathing of the common wind

That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;

Thy friends are exaltations, agonies,

And love, and man's unconquerable mind.

As a literary critic, I was familiar with the poem as a tribute to black martyrdom, partly because Harriet Beecher Stowe had used these lines for an elegy to the eponymous hero of her 1856 abolitionist novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. In Julius Scott’s work, however, the “common wind” is a metaphor for the dizzying world of sailors and ships and the rumors, innuendos, and anecdotes of slave revolts and rebellions they carried to port during the Age of Revolutions. Scott’s use of the storied phrase to describe how such conversations made their way into the newspapers of the day not only changed my reading of Wordsworth’s poem, but gave me the confidence to assert that the myriad US newspaper stories I was reading that praised Haitian sovereignty were important exactly because they diverged from fear-based readings of nineteenth-century reactions to the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. The affirmation of Haitian independence to be found in many newspapers in the early national United States, for example, contradicted the US government’s official policy of non-recognition. And reading early nineteenth-century northern US newspapers through the lens of a “common wind” that promoted the recognition of Haitian independence across the Atlantic World made it impossible to believe that Haiti suffered a unilateral bad press after the Revolution that has persisted into the 21st century. In fact, as I have elsewhere written, “if we examine the complicated dialogic interactions between early Haitian political writers and the northern US newspaper press in the first two decades of Haitian independence, we find that the idea of Haiti as a powerless ‘apparent state’,” and of its isolation in the world system, “emerge as concepts of more recent date.”

The importance of a work of historical scholarship might be measured not solely by the new information about the past it offers, but by the new way of thinking that it inaugurates and the new questions it permits us to ask. The Common Wind pushed me to look for a more complete story about post-independence Haiti's position in the nineteenth-century Atlantic World, and I hope now that the next generation of scholars will find the same sense of encouragement and inspiration by engaging with Scott’s long-awaited book.

Julia Gaffield (Georgia State University)

The Common Wind was foundational for my graduate studies in so many ways. When I arrived at Duke University in 2007 to study nineteenth-century Haiti, I learned that some of my mentors had been Julius Scott’s mentors, and that my advisor, Laurent Dubois, had even been one of his students. Scott’s methodology and way of seeing the archives were normative in this context. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic Worlds were ones of connections and movement, and the intellectual contributions of the enslaved to these worlds were foundational to revolutionary change. I ended up doing dissertation research on Haiti in seven different countries. Although, my topic was quite different from Julius’s, I heeded the call that the world was listening to and interacting with the Haitian Revolution. I learned that they continued to do so after the Declaration of Independence.
Another way that Julius shaped my graduate studies was through the community that has formed around his historiographical intervention. In 2008, the University of Michigan organized a conference, "The Common Wind: Conversation in African American and Atlantic Histories." Many of the participants were invited to bring along some of their graduate students, and I was lucky to be one of them. This was a way of ensuring that the community spanned generations.
This H-Haiti forum reflects that community and its continued urgency. The joy with which the contributors responded to our invitations to contribute reaffirms the longstanding vibrancy and collegiality that Julius and his work has inspired.
In a recent article in Time, Vincent Brown noted that as a dissertation The Common Wind “was a work so exciting, original, and profound that young history graduate students used to pass it around like an underground mix-tape, inspiring an entire generation to create a new field of knowledge about the past." It is perhaps exactly because for all these years it remained a dissertation that the community around it has been so strong and well-bonded. Its recent publication by Verso offers the opportunity not only for its continued historiographical and methodological relevance to circulate beyond the Atlantic World of the Haitian Revolution, but also for the community to once again expand, and for the generosity and joy that swelled in the wake of The Common Wind to drift to the four corners of the globe.

"Doing Real Research" – How Julius Scott Hooked a Marlin
By Peter H. Wood (Duke University, emeritus)

For aspiring historians, finally arriving in the field and tackling primary sources in dusty archives usually represents a memorable moment.  Few things are more exciting–except perhaps when you are a mentor back home in the ivory tower, recalling that feeling and eagerly awaiting the first word from a gifted, well-prepared graduate student undertaking that same initial deep dive.  Such a moment came for me at Duke in February 1982, when I received a postcard of Jamaican cane fields from Julius Scott. 

The recent publication of Scott’s book, The Common Wind, prompted me to recall that spring and rummage in my files.  Julius was pursuing his informed hunch that “masterless men” aboard eighteenth-century ships–though little known and rarely discussed–may have been active players in the West Indies during the Age of Revolution.  “Peter–” he wrote with enthusiasm from Kingston, Jamaica, two weeks after his arrival, “I finally made it to the Caribbean… and am enjoying my stay both within and outside the archives.  As you can see, the ‘curse of Cain’ is still very much in evidence in this part of the world.”

After months of preparation in North Carolina, Julius had reached the realm he had been reading about.  Now he was traveling back in time: “this morning for breakfast I was treated to salted cod—the same way it’s been prepared here for over two centuries (delicious!).”  Best of all, after plunging into the British Vice-Admiralty records for the 1790s, he could already report: “The research end looks promising.  It’s all there–ships, destinations, passengers, crews, from all over the hemisphere…a cross section of the commercial/communication network that ties the region together in the period of the Haitian Revolution.”

Knowing Scott’s gift for understatement, I could read his excitement between the lines.  The invisible networks that he had suspected were beginning to appear.  Like an astronomer who predicts some phenomenon that no one else has seen or imagined, and then spots it through a telescope, Julius was getting his own first confirming glimpses.  Never one to shout “Eureka,” he closed on a casual note: “I’m learning a lot about cricket and West Indian politics–just as C. L. R. James would have predicted.  I’ll be in touch.  J.”

By April, Julius had moved on to Haiti.  From Port-au-Prince, he wrote me a five-page letter on lined yellow paper, looking back on his research stint in the Jamaica Archives.  He confessed he was finding it “difficult to be away from friends and family,” and he admitted to his “unrealistic expectations going in” as to how much ground he could cover in two short months.  But his initial optimism remained, especially regarding the Vice-Admiralty records.  

“So what have I learned so far?”  Wading through “piles and piles of court papers” regarding seized ships, Scott was most struck by “the oral examinations which the Court made of various people on board.  In addition to examining the ship’s master, various members of the crew, and passengers, quite often the Court took an interest in Black seamen aboard these vessels, and examined them,” always noting race and nationality. Reading through stacks of “so-called ‘preliminary examinations,’ these seamen…come to life.”  The documents gave “a good sense of… the life of a merchant seaman,” and reading them closely was “kind of like cutting away a cross-section of inter-island networks of communication and contact.”

Julius reported that he had already found “many, many revealing episodes which I hope will constitute the basis if not the ‘smoking gun’ for the kinds of networks I’m trying to demonstrate.”  After several pages of rich details, he added: “So, as you can see, doing real research (finally) has got my mind working at last.  I’m not quite sure how all this adds up in terms of the dissemination of news of the Haitian revolution, but at least I have a clearer idea of the people I’m dealing with in terms of mobility on the seas.” 

Wrapping up, Scott admitted: “I haven’t figured all of this out yet.”  True enough.  But even then I sensed that Julius, like Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, had hooked a huge Caribbean marlin, one that would be talked about for years.  Next came the long lonely challenge of reeling in his remarkable fish, and Julius, unlike Santiago, got his marlin safely ashore.  Now he is sharing his impressive catch with the rest of us, and we are all discovering that the meat is still fresh.  Thanks to the fisherman, home from the sea.

<Back to the Top>

I Once Crossed the Atlantic with Julius Scott
By Martha S. Jones (Johns Hopkins University)

It was December 2004, and we were headed to a conference convened by Michael Zeuske at the University of Cologne. “Santo Domingo/Saint-Domingue/Cuba: Five Hundred Years of Slavery and Transculturation in the Americas” brought together historians of the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Atlantic World for two days of workshopping and discussion. You might wonder what I was doing there. Yes, I was the lone historian of North America at the table during those three days. I’d just begun to stitch together a history of slavery and freedom that was anchored in the place I knew best, Baltimore, but it had its beginnings in revolutionary-era Saint-Domingue. Where better to try out my ideas than among historians who knew more than I about Haiti and its diaspora.

The first thing to say about Julius is that his humility is disarming. As we headed from Detroit to Cologne via Amsterdam, he did little more than prod me about what I was finding in the archives. I was at that stage where every trace of the enslaved people whose lives I was recuperating had me awe-struck. So, I babbled on quite a bit, weaving facts with theories, and hypotheticals with things hoped for. Julius nodded and gently egged me on. I knew who he was, of course. We’d been colleagues and office neighbors at Michigan’s Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. I’d read The Common Wind. And I’d seen first-hand how Julius could expertly slice through work like mine at conferences and lectures. But by the way I went on during that long journey, you’d have thought that I was the teacher and he the student. Of course, only the inverse was true.

It was at some moment in the elegant conference room in Cologne, perhaps during a break, that Julius lightly quipped in my direction: “Baltimore, you know, was the northernmost port of the Caribbean.” He just dropped this, like an aside. Typically Julius. He never advertises his depth of insight. He declines to lecture, preach, or otherwise crudely impress you with his understanding. Instead, he leaves crumbs–rich, tempting, glistening crumbs–and it is up to us to follow them to the end, and then beyond. It was up to me to figure out the puzzle posed by the enslaved people who were coming into my view, who appeared caught up in forces larger than they were and then discern the story they had to tell about slavery and law in the Atlantic World.

His brief remark was also an embrace. This, too, is Julius: knowing how to welcome you, bring you in, and make you part of an intellectual community. I was no longer the outlier US historian in Cologne, there to absorb the lessons of Caribbeanists. Instead, Julius taught me that the study of Baltimore also carried lessons for those who worked on locales farther south. Even now I can see the force of his insight and still benefit from it. Just last month I had a spirited discussion with Marial Iglesias, the great historian of Cuba, who is at work on the history of the illegal slave trade. You can’t fully understand her subject if you don’t take Baltimore into account, she told me. (I’m paraphrasing Marial here and, I hope, doing her thinking justice.) I knew what she meant. Julius had held a door open for me, just long enough to let me appreciate how it swings both ways.

I’d be misleading if I left the impression that Julius is always a quiet force. He is not. Not long after we returned from Germany, I found myself in his office to talk more about my work. He sort of grilled me and I felt the heat. His office was a wonder–books, papers, and folders everywhere. His shelves were home to bound volumes alongside keepsakes–the sort of collections you can get lost in. But on this day his shelves were about to provide a lesson in historiography. If I planned to do work that linked Baltimore to the Caribbean and the broader Atlantic World, I would need to do some reading. Julius reached up and one-by-one selected texts that might help me catch up. I left that day with an armload of books and the sense that I had been generously “schooled.” I had homework to do.

Lessons from Julius endure. I’ve recently completed a book on black American struggles for citizenship, a story rooted in Baltimore. I intended it to be a domestic, US-bound study that stretched from the Constitution to the 14th Amendment. But Julius’s profound quip from years before rang in my head. Historians before me had understood Baltimore as a “middle-ground” between the North and South of the US. But there was one more angle I knew, Baltimore was also part of the Caribbean. And when I encountered a local nineteenth-century activist who had spent time as a seaman, I knew I had to pull that thread. I followed George Hackett’s story from Baltimore to Vera Cruz, Havana, Rio de Janiero, Valparaiso, and back. It turned out that the claims to citizenship being asserted in Baltimore resonated with those being made throughout the Americas. And they also entered that city on the Chesapeake Bay through figures like Hackett, who traversed the waters and the worlds that The Common Wind encouraged us to explore and understand.

I owe Julius Scott an ocean of debt, one he is characteristically too generous to let me repay. 

<Back to the Top>

Listening In: Lessons from The Common Wind
By Laurent Dubois (Duke University)

The insights of The Common Wind were so profoundly re-orienting that they have become part of our ecology as historians of the Age of Revolution and the Atlantic World. In some ways, the depth of The Common Wind’s influence works to obscure it. Scott ushered in a sweeping shift in our perspective on history by allowing us to understand thought, motion, and politics in new ways. It is now difficult for many of us to even imagine thinking historically without his insights. Until he saw what others had not seen, and documented it through his devoted work across multiple imperial spaces, languages, and scholarly and archival corpuses, that world of meaning and interpretation was largely hidden. 

This re-shaping of perspectives worked slowly: Scott’s dissertation circulated in ever-widening circles, often passed on through mentorship. It did so thanks to Scott’s riveting and lucid style of writing. His work brings angles and stories together in a way that marvelously interweaves narrative and argument. In doing so, The Common Wind forever changed our intellectual landscape. And we can now take stock of an inter-generational cartography of the impact of this striking work of history. 

For me, the insights in Julius Scott’s The Common Wind are intertwined with those he offered in conversations we had over the years of my graduate training at the University of Michigan. The reason his work has had such a profound influence on so many, including me, is because Scott offered a way of seeing the world of the Haitian Revolution–and of listening in on it–in a fashion that was quite fittingly revolutionary. 

At the core of Scott’s different approach to seeing the Revolution was the insight that its world was one of constant, swirling, and complex conversation. The archive we have inherited from that period, Scott showed, was a rich one, especially if one knew how and where to look and could resist the inertia of working within the archives of only one language, one empire, and one place. But even what was written down and then placed into the archive was just a small refraction, a set of traces, of many much larger conversations. Scott showed us that our work as historians was to understand those conversations, and to never allow our primary tool for accessing them–the written archive–to turn into an over-emphasis on the role of writing itself in the shaping of political practice and ideology. 

The question, then, was how to access as much as possible of these broader conversations? From Scott’s work, I learned to think of the newspapers of the period as one particularly useful source. Part of what was written down in newspapers was the information that had been brought into ports by travelers. Scott used these materials extraordinarily as part of The Common Wind, but he did so in part as a way of showing precisely how circuits of information worked: the ships were the vehicle and the ports were the hub of this motion. With Scott’s guidance, the way I came to see it was that port-town newspapers recorded glimpses and fragments of the many conversations–often overheard–that were constantly floating around in these spaces. Once we understand this, we can see that printed words are really only snapshots of a larger dialogue–partial glimpses of a whole world–that we can use in our attempts to reconstruct broader conversations. 

Scott has taught us to think differently about political ideas and practice, to in a a sense democratize–we might even say universalize–our understanding of how ideas emerge, are shared and honed, and ultimately become the foundation for political transformation.  

<Back to the Top>

Beyond a Revolution: The Common Wind at a Nadir     
By Anne Eller (Yale University)

In his visionary The Common Wind, Julius Scott III describes the material culture and praxis of liberation in the era of the Haitian Revolution, in so many overlapping scales that generations of scholars still scramble to heed its inquiries and linger in its wake. Scott sketches the Caribbean islands’ specific and massive importance within trans-Atlantic empires, illustrating how those forced into captivity made the explosive possibility of ending slavery in the Americas more real. Scott writes past the old paradigms by which scholars ascribed political thought to lettered groups, circumscribing enslaved people and others within the boundaries of reaction, or the mysteriously calcified category of “restorationist” resistance. Several generations of scholars overturned and dismantled imperial silences at his directive. They follow revolutionary possibility–and repression–around the Atlantic.

For all of the empirical depth and breadth of The Common Wind, the news, rumors, and revolts that Scott details defy simple quantification, for the possibility of liberation, as he shows, grew explosively in revolutionary moments. In the flurry of revolutionary communication and organization, enslaved people traveled, sometimes great distances and always at great risk. Scott writes of an unnamed man who fled Dominica in defiance of his so-called owner–through Roseau probably, or Portsmouth, perhaps–reaching as far as Charleston in newly-incorporated South Carolina. Another slave owner returned him to an uncertain fate in Dominica, and the rest of his days are unknown. The “Age of Revolutions” framework is often too state-bound and restrictive to fully account for moments like these. These contests for personal liberation, and their cost, are too pitched and enduring.

The Common Wind thus looks beyond obviously revolutionary moments. Just as a network of white slavers forcibly returned the man who absconded to Charleston, so, too did elite and subaltern networks remain intensely active in the era after abolition. In later decades of the nineteenth century, imperial authorities’ unabated and increasingly global hunger for settler peoples, subject laboring classes, and their determination to monetize Caribbean trade–part of what Scott characterizes as their “incessant maneuvering for imperial advantage”–underscore the exhortation in The Common Wind to look beyond traditional linguistic and archival divides and also beyond moments of massive documentary accretion in the archive. Regional elites’ repression efforts were at times less spectacular in the era of emancipation, fractured as they were into restrictive land laws, so-called vagrancy edicts, tariffs, carceral expansion, indenture, and franchise restrictions, among other means. Confronting sparse records in We Dream Together, I often looked to Scott for insight. Anti-Black vitriol remained dynamic and voracious. In these moments, Scott’s masterless subjects come to forecast the threats of new restrictions. The material cultures of news and resistance are less spectacular in these post-abolition, post-revolutionary years, even with the steady expansion of print culture, but they are no less compelling or critical.

With equal urgency to the early modern era, The Common Wind offers a road- and sea-map for scholars of later liberation contests. Scott urges readers to think deeply about the connection of town residents and rural dwellers, about collective reading practices, and about geographic and legal connections and interstices, which these individuals and communities might have sought out as a means of maintaining a wedge between them and planter or outside capital interests in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Small Leeward islands like Dominica, once a waystation in the eye of human trade, recede from documentary preeminence, but they endure as a critical lens to analyze the making of popular political worlds. Small-scale, intercolonial travel attracted less panic from authorities, perhaps, but it remained of keen, sometimes desperate, interest to Caribbean working people themselves at the close of the century. Scholars, heeding Scott, have already drafted magisterial hemispheric narratives about these years, finding inter-imperial connections and revolutionary palimpsests en route. Scott’s revolutionaries inhabited a stratified Caribbean in which many groups harbored grievances, fearing–or planning for–a reckoning.  These regional politics always existed, Scott argues, and he points the way to approaching the contests of the future. 

Stories and Concepts from The Common Wind
By Edgardo Pérez Morales (University of Southern California)

Professor Julius Scott likes to tell a good story. His graduate seminar on the Black Atlantic at the University of Michigan was a class that encouraged students to think with big concepts, look at huge blocks of time, and study entire continents. Such tasks can be daunting for a neophyte, especially when young scholars have the challenge to firmly grab the big themes by the monographic belt-buckles. But Julius, again, likes to tell a good story, so he encouraged us to do just that. In his seminar, I learned that it is virtually impossible to grasp those big themes unless you think about actual human beings, the actors and the makers of concepts, chronologies, and continents.
This would hardly surprise anyone who’s had the pleasure of taking his classes and reading his work. When he teaches and writes, Julius Scott never loses sight of the counterpoint between the big picture dynamics and the lived experience of individuals. I remember vividly when he walked into our seminar room with copies of Anne-Louis Girodet’s portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley, and used both of their individual stories to make us think critically about “race” and politics, or, better yet, to creatively push us into thinking about “race” as politics. In some of his other written work, Julius has tracked down escaped slaves-turned-sailors to probe the “currents of Afro-American communication;” by following the itineraries of a Spanish spy in the Lesser Antilles he has brought to light the analytical importance of “crisscrossing empires;” by focusing on the experience of Newport Bowers, he has highlighted the complex nature of a hemispheric “Afro-America;” and, finally, by narrating the hard experiences of people like the escaped slave Tom King from Kingston, Julius has demonstrated the “symbolic connection” between freedom and life at sea, even though what is left in the archives remains only an unsympathetic documentary shard.
I would like to highlight the importance of this methodology, and to propose that Julius Scott uses this approach because he recognizes that the most powerful way to make a strong argument is to tell a good story. This, in fact, may be one of the many reasons why Julius’s ideas have proved not only compelling but foundational and long-lasting. We should all, from graduate students to senior scholars, remember the promise of this approach and embrace the productive tension between global themes and specific lived experiences.
We still have much to learn from Julius’s endeavor. The Common Wind gives us a conceptual scaffolding underpinned by radical scholarship, which integrates concepts and people through powerful interpretive notions such as the “masterless Caribbean.” In No Limits to their Sway, my recent monograph on Afro-Caribbean sailors during the early Spanish American independence movements, this notion was critical for a comprehensive grasp of the subject matter. In my current work-in-progress on the problem of slave emancipation in Colombian history, I lean once again on Julius’s conceptual scaffolding. The Common Wind brings to light Afro-America’s “culture of expectation”–that “irrepressible speculation” among the enslaved that something was about to happen, that something had to happen, and that the enslaved of the world could somehow hasten the end of their captivity.
As both an Atlantic historian and an intellectual historian of the enslaved, Julius Scott gave us yet another notion that may prove fundamental as we continue to probe how slaves imagined their own emancipation. In my research on the culture of expectation among the enslaved in Colombia, I have encountered a stock of hopeful notions containing familiar images–liberating black queens and white kings–as much as unexpected legal leitmotivs–the ideal of municipal political belonging after slavery–and even providential interpretations–prophecies that the end of bondage would come from God, not from men. There is still much to be explored, and the work of Julius Scott continues to provide important clues. Most importantly, the conceptual scaffolding of The Common Wind continues to work as an exceptionally well-calibrated compass, always pointing scholars, the seasoned and the novice alike, to the right empirical path and the most meaningful interpretive horizons.

<Back to the Top>

Réseaux de circulation et biographies connectées dans le monde atlantique à l’âge des révolutions
Par Jean Hébrard (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales et Johns Hopkins University)

The Common Wind, et Julius Scott, ont été des rencontres tardives de ma vie d’historien. Je n’ai ouvert sur mon écran l’une des versions qui circulaient alors de ce travail magistral qu’au milieu des années 2000, lors de l’un de mes tout premiers séjours à Ann Arbor. Comme on peut aisément l’imaginer, ce n’est pas son auteur qui m’y incita. Ce n’était pas et ce n’est toujours pas sa manière de faire. Nous nous étions rencontrés en écoutant du jazz et nos conversations roulaient plutôt sur ce sujet. En fait, ce furent mes étudiants qui, ne cessant de parler de cet étrange samizdat, me forcèrent à  le lire. Le choc fut brutal ! Relisant aujourd’hui la version enfin imprimée, j’éprouve le même étonnement. Comment un étudiant a-t-il pu écrire une œuvre d’emblée aussi aboutie ?

Toutefois, avec The Common Wind, l’historien a plus de questions à explorer (et si possible à résoudre) que de solutions toutes faites. L’une de celles dont nous avons discuté avec les doctorants de l’Université du Michigan porte sur la manière dont Julius Scott articule ses « portraits » d’acteurs « d’en bas » avec les analyses des séries archivistiques qu’il explore avec précision et dont il tire ses arguments. 

Prenons Brutus, par exemple, dont le portrait est dressé magistralement en quelques paragraphes dès le premier chapitre. Cet « incorrigible esclave fugitif », connu pour avoir organisé des villages marrons en Jamaïque, apparaît et disparaît des lieux publics avec la même aisance que s’il avait toujours été libre et, chaque fois, fait naître l’espoir (ou la crainte) du nouveau soulèvement qui pourrait naître sous ses pas.

On peut ne voir là qu’un artifice rhétorique, une vignette d’ouverture pour un chapitre qui, par ailleurs, est charpenté de sources quantitatives et qualitatives à toute épreuve et conduit le lecteur à une conclusion sans équivoque : les femmes et les hommes considérés comme « dépendants » dans le monde colonial circulaient plus que ce que les lois les autorisaient à le faire et, du même coup, diffusaient les informations susceptibles de mettre à mal l’ordre régnant. Brutus en témoigne pour les esclaves fugitifs, comme Phebe pourrait le faire pour les femmes colporteurs (higglers), Tom King pour les esclaves-marins ou Josef Isidro Puncel pour les soldats déserteurs...

On peut aussi considérer qu’une histoire « par en bas » ne peut se contenter de rendre raison des événements politiques, économiques, sociaux ou culturels par l’action de « catégories » nées des recensements, d’actes administratifs et juridiques ou des manières de parler d’alors : esclaves, libres de couleur, pacotilleuses, petits blancs, etc. Rendre aux « dépendants » leur existence historique, admettre qu’ils ont été des acteurs aussi importants (plus ?) que les autres des événements du passé, notamment de cet « âge des révolutions » qui a retenu Julius Scott, c’est aussi leur rendre un nom et le récit de leurs vies. S’ils ne sont pas que des « illustrations » des mouvements des sociétés dans lequel ils ont été, bon gré mal gré, emportés, c’est que l’arc de leur vie n’en épouse pas toutes les courbes, qu’ils résistent par leur existence même à n’être que des exemples d’une histoire qui se ferait en-deçà et au-delà de celle-ci. 

C’est le défi que se sont donnés, ces dernières années, nombre de jeunes chercheurs travaillant sur ces « circulations » dans l’espace caraïbe ou, plus largement, atlantique. Leur lecture de The Common Wind les avait lancés à la recherche de ces réseaux cachés par lesquels se déplaçaient, avec les marchandises, les femmes ou les hommes, leurs savoirs, leurs mots et leurs idées. Et ils découvraient dans les archives, de plus en plus fréquemment, des traces cohérentes de ces vies jusque-là anonymes. Ils ne se contentaient plus de conserver dans leurs fiches les noms associés à une révolte, un jugement, un contrat, pour en faire une vignette susceptible de donner quelque chair à leur argument. Accrochés à un patronyme, parfois un simple surnom, ils retournaient aux archives pour rassembler les épisodes attendus ou improbables d’une vie singulière. Et cette dernière venait témoigner, en elle-même et pour elle-même, de la manière dont elle avait traversé ces sociétés coloniales esclavagistes, dont elle en avait épousé les contours ou, au contraire, les avait subvertis. Ainsi, les rencontres sur les réseaux « d’en bas » n’étaient plus les constructions voulues par l’historien, le point vers lequel il avait décidé que convergeraient toutes ses fiches, mais les croisements inattendus de vies prises dans leurs propres logiques, dotées de leurs propres significations.

Toutefois, une tension s’établit alors dans le jeu d’échelles auquel on a cédé. Dans l’effort pour éclairer ce qui, en un lieu plus ou moins large de l’espace social concerné, change ou refuse de changer, à qui ou à quoi confier la charge de la preuve ? Aux structures représentées par les articulations entre les grandes catégories historiographiques ou aux singularités qui éprouvent les fragilités de ces mêmes structures lorsqu’elles laissent voir comment il est aisé d’y échapper ? Le danger reste toujours de rabattre un niveau sur l’autre et, à ce jeu, c’est toujours l’individu « sans qualités » qui se plie aux exigences de la dynamique historique dans laquelle on l’a enfermé. L’arc narratif de sa vie se calque sur celui construit pour une classe sociale ou une entité politique dont la fin est déjà assignée. De ce point de vue, les vies « d’en bas » qui illustrent nos propos cèdent doublement aux dangers téléologiques de toute biographie : elles sont dépossédées de leurs errements propres et mises au service d’une fin qui n’est plus la leur.

Lorsque, Rebecca Scott et moi, nous travaillions sur Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation, nous nous sommes confrontés à ce problème sans parvenir à lui donner explicitement une réponse certaine. Comment les biographies discordantes des membres de générations successives d’une même famille peuvent-elles nous aider à comprendre la manière dont se structure, après l’âge des révolutions, une citoyenneté atlantique qui ne cesse de jouer avec les règles que les différents empires imposent à leurs ressortissants ? Que faire des discordances ? Comment éviter de les ramener à un récit unique ? Quel sens leur attribuer ?

Les discussions avec les étudiants que j’ai eu la chance de croiser à cette même époque m’ont permis d’entrevoir une piste ;1 la relecture de la version enfin imprimée de The Common Wind l’a confirmée. Comme il est possible de connecter des histoires sans se laisser enfermer dans les frontières des empires ou des nations mais tout en leur laissant la place qui reste la leur, il est possible de connecter les récits des vies singulières qui se croisent dans ces mêmes espaces. En prenant soin de laisser chacune se construire selon les déterminations successives qui sont les siennes, la tentation téléologique propre à l’une est contrecarrée par celle qui s’attache à l’autre. Les acteurs du drame ne sont plus enchaînés à l’événement que leur rencontre a permis. Chacun y contribue selon sa propre logique ou selon ses propres errements. Se dessine alors une autre histoire qui s’évade de la règle habituelle des unités historiographiques, curieusement calquées sur celles du drame classique (le lieu, le temps et l’action). Elle rend aux destins singuliers toute la force (ou la fragilité) de leur volonté. Grâce à ces « biographies connectées », le jeu d’échelle retrouve son efficacité : les macrostructures de la vie sociale ou politique révèlent leur complexité et leurs contradictions sous les coups de boutoirs (ou d’aiguille) que leur infligent les existences qui les traversent. 

1Je remercie tout particulièrement Edgardo Pérez Morales pour sa patience face à mes interrogations insistantes sur ses hypothèses à ce propos alors qu’il avançait dans sa dissertation. 

<Back to the Top>

Brutus, The Common Wind, and the Search for New Land
By James F. Dator (Goucher College)

Early in The Common Wind, Julius Scott tells us about an “incorrigible runaway” named Brutus, who escaped the workhouse in Martha Brae, Jamaica only to show up at a crop-time plantation ball in the fall of 1791. Brutus, we discover, was thrown into the workhouse for organizing “unauthorized maroon towns” in Jamaica in the 1780s. But, as soon as he escaped, Brutus got back at it, recruiting potential runaways to join him at a new “Brutus Town” only a couple months after African insurgents set Saint-Domingue’s nearby northern plains aflame. “All the Negroes know of this town,” some of the enslaved later testified to fearful authorities, who wanted to find Brutus Town and destroy it. Officials worried that if the town continued to thrive planters would not be able to keep a “single Negro from going there as they are all trying to get there.” It is with stories like these that Scott pushes his readers to rethink the history we think we know, in unrivaled, beautiful, and direct prose. 

I learned about Brutus when I was still a teenager, decades ago, when Julius patiently took me under his wing after I had transferred to the University of Michigan as an undergraduate. Like many of my students now, I was scrappy and righteous and frustrated by the lack of African American Studies at my former college. I was confident that I knew a thing or two about race and class and their relationship to world history, since I’d read myself some Walter Rodney and C.L.R. James. I had even read Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History. From where I was standing in the late 1990s, Michigan’s Center for Afroamerican and African Studies looked like the academic version of the Wu-Tang Clan—brimming with fame and genius. Wait a second, I thought in surprise as I went to register for my first slate of courses, who is this J. Scott teaching the intro class? 

What a fool I was. From Julius’s first lecture I was hooked. I shut up and listened. Still, who is this guy? I went to the library to see what I could find. There it was in the stacks, in a strange blue binding with no images on the cover or text on the back. Only the words “The Common Wind” and “Julius S. Scott III” appeared on the spine. I paged my way through the dissertation, noting all the marginalia, underlined passages, and dog-eared pages. What on earth am I looking at? It felt like I was holding some sort of secret talisman in my hands. I turned back to the epilogue and began to read. My way of seeing history had suddenly changed forever.

Ask Julius what The Common Wind is about, and he’ll humbly say it is about communication in the age of the Haitian Revolution. In my view, though, the work presents a radical theory of the historical process, one with which we have yet to fully reckon. This has to do with the way he captures the relationship between structure and agency in his writing. Julius’s subjects live at the nexus of a Braudelian scale and a Ginzburgian one. Empire, labor, and racism emerge not as reified abstractions in the book but as overlapping dynamics shaped in a lived environment. His actors remain constantly in motion. They move like the wind by sea and land. Out of this social motion they develop radical and diverse history-changing ideas. Yet, even before Africans in Saint-Domingue set the northern plains on fire, the diverse ideas and actions of the “masterless” confronted forces deep and unifying. Julius shows that with Pandora’s Box unlocked, the swirling rumors of abolition and images of the revolution amplified preexisting struggles for freedom across Afroamerica. The Haitian Revolution didn’t create the common wind. It erupted within in its gale and transformed what was already thinkable into more proof of the possible.

Brutus’s story forces us to move beyond the tendency to explain this historical process in a nationalistic or teleological way. After all, as Julius reminded me once, Brutus was not seeking to join the “authorized maroons,” whose land and freedom came at the violent expense of suppressing slave revolts. Brutus and his group were organizing a new town. Embedded in this idea—what I like to think of as the search for the new land—is evidence of both the contested nature of the freedom struggle and proof of its universal possibility. It is for this reason that The Common Wind is as prescient now as it was thirty years ago and why there is still so much more to learn from Julius’s selfless gift to all of us.   

James F. Dator is Assistant Professor of History & Africana Studies at Goucher College in Baltimore. His current book project, To See the World in a Grain of Sand, traces the early contours of archipelagic radicalism and anti-slavery in the eastern Caribbean in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

<Back to the Top>

Julius Scott, and “The Common Wind”: Teaching and Learning Black History
By Alexander X. Byrd (Rice University)

I first met Dr. Scott in the eighties. He was my first history professor. DR. Scott. History PROFESSOR.

I emphasize those words now because that is how they mattered to me then, and they mattered to me then in this emphasized way because Dr. Scott was also black: He was my first history professor, and he was also my first black professor.

In my first year at Rice, Dr. Scott’s blackness mattered to me more than I could have imagined before actually coming to college—mainly because Rice was the whitest place I had ever been since I started paying attention to my surroundings in just this way. And Rice was white in ways that sometimes made feel completely lost.

But in Dr. Scott’s class, Rice was a more comfortable place. There was a clutch of black students. There was Dr. Scott himself. And then there was the subject matter: the US civil rights movement.

By more comfortable I do not mean that that class offered a respite from what I perceived to be the special madness of my first year in college: more reading, more writing, and more demands on what it meant to read and to write than I had ever been subject to. Dr. Scott’s class offered no such respite. His civil rights course had all of that and more. And more.

By more comfortable, I mean that the course offered me a kind of belonging. A kind of esprit de corps: this work is too hard for me; this reading is too much for me; this professor is demanding a grasp of the book and a clarity of thought that rather hurts. But goddammit, I’m going to do this.

One of the reasons I was going to do it was because Scott’s course gave me my first measure of what I would later learn was intellectual excitement. My goodness, the things we read:

Stride Toward Freedom (I’m reading Martin Luther King! I knew I could listen to Dr. King, but I can read him as well!)
Alice Walker’s Meridian (What! We get to read fiction in a history class. Fiction?!)
My Soul is Rested (High. Drama.)
Look Out Whitey Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama (There are books with titles like this?!)
Civilities and Civil Rights (So this is history? This guy seems like he was there.)

And Scott was brilliant and human. I’m certain that he was nervous the first day. I was nervous my whole first year! So I appreciated that. 

But this guy also clearly had the keys to the kingdom. He talked about the author of Civilities and Civil Rights like he knew him. He also tended to say things along the order of, we were reading this book….but we probably also needed to read that book, too. I found this kind of agenda setting powerful and exciting: Yes, we were in a class, but the beginning and the end of this class were actually both beginnings.

I first saw Scott’s “The Common Wind” that semester too. In his office on the fourth floor of the Fondren Library. It sat on a sparse, black bookshelf. For a book, it was very strangely bound. And it had Dr. Scott’s name on it. I remember asking him, “You wrote that?!” Yourself?

And then he told me some things about the history of the world. Some things of which I had almost no grasp—except I thought that there might now be another way (a better way, a fuller way) to look at Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls…. I knew that choreopoem from high school, but had been puzzled by its two Toussaints.

I look back on it all now and can’t help but sigh. Despite the fact that I was black; and nearly my entire family was black; and very nearly all of friends were black; I didn’t know anything about black people.

In any case, Dr. Scott was gone at the start of the next school year, and so it fell to others to tackle my ignorance—especially a couple of phenomenal scholars of Africa and the Black Americas who landed at Rice following Scott’s departure. So, when I encountered Scott again about four years later in graduate school, I was better prepared to see the fuller course of the direction toward which he had pointed earlier.

Between the readings from the courses that Dr. Scott offered, his fantastic seminar on “The Origins of Afro-America,” the things he said when we bumped into him about campus, and my finally reading of “The Common Wind” (which I had first seen in his office all those years before), Scott proffered a vision of the African diaspora that was intellectually critical and personally empowering.

In “The Common Wind,” and in his teaching and mentoring, Scott provided a transformative view that centered black life and politics and black know-how and black tragedy. And his work centered these things at different focal lengths—in local, regional, and world history—that were endlessly stimulating and important.

Before I came to appreciate Scott’s work, I did not have a static view of the diaspora. I got diaspora. I had read Equiano’s narrative (though most of it was wasted on me at the time). I had been enthralled by the dynamic relationship between Barbados and South Carolina, and the prospect of African technological contributions to colonial economies (and by the very phrase Black Majority).

But I still had a rather limited view of the black world, which meant that my perspective of black life in western hemisphere was severely occluded because it was hardly hemispheric at all.

I remember when much of this changed for me: sitting in the reading room of the Duke archives with the university’s copy of “The Common Wind” trying to follow Scott’s argument about the growing importance of urban areas in defining and shaping the nature of Afro-American life in the late eighteenth century. Scott wrote:

While the mountains and backwoods with their maroon communities provided hope in the popular imagination regarding individual escape and collective resistance throughout the eighteenth century, the growing coastal cities nurtured the most complex patterns of mobility and presented the most vexing problems of control for all the colonial powers. Caribbean cities were more than centers of commercial exchange, population, and government; they were in a real sense centers of education. Towns provided anonymity and shelter for a wide array of masterless men and women, including but by no means restricted to runaway slaves, and they offered unique opportunities for these people to rub shoulders, share experiences, and add to their knowledge of the Caribbean world and beyond. By the 1790s, larger cities like Kingston, Cap Français, and Havana could properly be termed capitals of Afro-America, and dissidents in dozens of smaller coastal centers were engaging in the kinds of transactions which would play a crucial role in spreading the excitement of the Age of Revolutions in the Caribbean (15).

It was the phrase “capitals of Afro-America” that enthralled me. This metaphor tapped into my limited, probably overly nationalistic sense of black life in the hemisphere, and helped me to begin to see the space in its full breadth. It connected for me places and ideas that had tumbled about in my mind in a rather disconnected fashion heretofore. Scott powerfully pointed out a geography of western black life. He populated it in ways that demonstrated its genuineness. And he analyzed it in ways that underlined the perils of neglecting it.

I was persuaded by Scott more powerfully than I had been persuaded before (perhaps I should say that I was armed by Scott more powerfully than I had been armed before) that you needed to grasp the American Revolution to grasp black life in the hemisphere, and you needed to grasp black life in the hemisphere if you wanted to fully grasp the Revolution. And you actually couldn’t grasp the American Revolution if you didn’t also have a handle on the revolt in St. Domingue. And perhaps you didn’t have much of a handle on the revolt in St. Domingue if you didn’t recognize its impact in Coro; and a hold on that conflagration necessitated an understanding of its relationship to Dutch Curaçao.

Even more so, if you didn’t know what could be seen on a clear day from where, or you lacked an appreciation of winds and currents in various micro environments between Virginia and Venezuela…. Well, maybe you should know those things (you, scholar of migration to the Americas). Maybe you should appreciate those things (you, student of the American Revolution).

I found this all terribly important, but I also found it terribly satisfying precisely because of lamentations that arose from within and without the profession in the 1980s and beyond concerning the problems with taking African American and African history seriously.

Conservatives and liberals, and former liberals, too, had all warned of the bad consequences of centering black experiences. I don’t think that it is going too far to say that reasonable people feared that such work endangered the republic.

I certainly had put down The Disuniting of America feeling rather like a problem.

But the desire for a fuller, more honest, truer American history was only a danger to a certain constrained and crabbed conception of the republic.
As I slowly came to better understand what Scott had modeled and taught all those years, it became clearer and clearer to me that critics who feared for a republic that tended seriously to its blackness did not really understand the republic at all—did not understand the maddening limits and potential of the republic presently, did not understand the larger, blacker world in which it had long been ensconced.

<Back to the Top>                                                                                                                        

The Incessant Common Wind
By Brandon R. Byrd (Vanderbilt University)

(This post is adapted from remarks made at a plenary session, held in honor of Julius S. Scott’s The Common Wind, at the African American Intellectual History Society’s 4th Annual Conference)

New Hayti annoyed James Gordon Bennett, Jr. In January 1863, the New York Herald’s editor, complained that the “question of the largely increasing numbers of contrabands now entirely dependent on the United States government for support is becoming a rather perplexing one.” He thought it unwise, perhaps unlawful, to aid such “fugitives,” including the “full colony of blacks, numbering some eight or ten thousand,” formed “at a place very appropriately called New Hayti, near Newbern, N.C.”    

“New Hayti” had a different ring to George Nelson Williams. Soon after arriving in New Bern alongside hundreds of other Union troops, Williams wrote a letter to Elisha Weaver, the editor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Christian Recorder. “I am happy to inform you that I now enjoy the fragrant breezes of a Southern clime,” Williams wrote. Those breezes carried the “sacred melodies of the sweet songs of Zion.” They were reminiscent of another time and place. Although “dilapidated” by war, New Bern caused Williams to become lost “in remembrance of Port-au-Prince, Hayti, its aspect and its mixed population, and its luxuriant breezes.” 

As Julius S. Scott tells us, there’s a lot to be said about common breezes. In his pioneering study of the Age of the Haitian Revolution, Scott traces “the regional network of communication—the “common wind” which bound together the societies of Afro-America.” This network connected various port cities that could “properly be termed capitals of Afro-America.” It was the work of free and enslaved people of African descent who evaded and undermined the systems of surveillance and control that structured the slave societies of the Americas. In docks and taverns, in bustling marketplaces and dark alleys, “masterless” men and women shared “scraps of news, conflicting interpretations, elusive facts, and shifting rumors” from abroad. These thinking people spread not just information but subversive ideas about freedom, encouraged by the Haitian Revolution. 

To quote Scott, the uprising of enslaved people in Saint Domingue “provided a rallying point for would-be revolutionaries in other areas” across the Americas and became “an object of identification for Afro-Americans throughout the New World.” In Virginia, white people alleged that enslaved African Americans spoke of emulating their counterparts “in the French Island.” Black Bostonians proclaimed that the Haitian Revolution signaled the moment when “Ethiopia [would] stretch forth her hand from slavery, to freedom and quality.” Throughout the Americas, the Haitian Revolution energized what Scott aptly calls a “culture of expectation.” It became a touchstone of otherwise abstract ideas of emancipation and subsequent self-determination. 

Given its strength, the common wind was bound to continue to blow in the Age of Haitian Independence. In the epilogue to The Common Wind, Scott notes that the Haitian Revolution and the “example of Haitian freedom” occupied a critical place in the cultural memory of African Americans across the nineteenth-century. Orality and mobility were critical in affirming the importance of Haiti and its revolution across generations but print culture was too. Born in 1843, AME missionary Theophilus Gould Steward later recalled that one of the first books given to him during his childhood was “a graphic account of the struggles of the blacks of that island for their freedom and independence,” which introduced him to “the plumes and drums, swords and guns, lace and gilt, fine sayings and thrilling movements” of the Haitian Revolution. The book had “enamored [his] soul.” 

Steward’s invocation of “thrilling movements” and “enamored souls” speaks to some of Scott’s most important insights. In tracing the currents of communication that flowed during the Age of the Haitian Revolution, Scott foregrounds “social excitement” and “expectation;” anticipating a disciplinary turn to the history of emotions, he encouraged us to reflect on what exactly Black people pictured when they heard news, rumors, and stories about the Haitian Revolution and to recognize the political consciousness that informed how Black people experienced or remembered common wind that blew in Haiti and New Hayti, decades apart.

In 1863, the “fragrant breezes” on Carolina’s coast carried excited talk of emancipation. They carried the same air of freedom as Haiti’s “luxuriant breezes.” In yet another moment ripe with political excitement and possibility, African Americans identified new and urgent connections among Haiti, freedom, and Black self-determination. These connections were informed by African Americans’ earlier proclivity to, as Scott writes, “apply to their local conditions the ideas of self-determination and antislavery which the Haitian Revolution unleashed.” They were influenced by a “culture of expectation”—the imagining of possible Black futures, brought to life by Scott—and informed by the ever-present and ever-relevant example of Haitian independence.

<Back to the Top>


How to Cite: Author Last Name, First Name. "Title of Post," in Forum on the Common Wind: In Honor of Julius S. Scott. Eds. Julia Gaffield and Marlene L. Daut. (January 2019). H-Haiti Blog. <URL>

*Many thanks to Grégory Pierrot for his proofreading and copy-editing of the French.

Posted in: