Walton-Hanley on Lindsay, 'Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa'

Author: 
Lisa A. Lindsay
Reviewer: 
Jennifer Walton-Hanley

Lisa A. Lindsay. Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 328 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3112-7.

Reviewed by Jennifer Walton-Hanley (Western Kentucky University) Published on H-SAWH (September, 2017) Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla

Lisa A. Lindsay's Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa is an in-depth study of the relationship between the nineteenth-century back-to-Africa movement, race, and the institution of slavery. Lindsay uses the experiences of the Vaughan family of South Carolina as a microhistory to highlight the complexities and inconsistencies of freedom for African Americans, both those who remained in the United States and those who opted to leave in search of a better future in Africa. Spanning most of the nineteenth century, Atlantic Bonds argues that by analyzing the Vaughan family, and James Churchwill “Church” Vaughan in particular, historians glean keen insights into the political and social pressures black Americans experienced on a daily basis. For Lindsay, Vaughan's story reveals “an Atlantic world in which slavery was nearly ubiquitous and freedom was ambiguous” (p. 11).

Lindsay’s methodology is similar to that utilized by  Alan Huffman in Mississippi in Africa.[1] Huffman traveled to Africa to ascertain the fate of a group of displaced nineteenth-century African Americans and discovered that colonization had left an indelible mark on Liberia that manifested itself in a strict caste system, with Americo-Liberians (descendants of relocated freed people) firmly established at the top and native Africans relegated to the bottom. While Huffman was most interested in the modern and lasting effects of colonization, Lindsay explores the historical implications of relocation from the perspective of those who experienced it directly. Specifically, Lindsay seeks to verify the claim that Church Vaughan was able to return to Africa in the 1800s and reconnect with his father’s family who had escaped enslavement. After extensive research that included meeting with the Vaughan family genealogist and consulting hundreds of primary sources in Africa, the United States, and Britain, Lindsay definitively determines that the Vaughan family was mistaken. Church had not rediscovered his lost African relations, but had instead encountered native Africans and other transplanted black Americans. What Lindsay discovers through her exhaustive research, however, is that once Vaughan emigrated to Liberia, his extended kinship ties on both sides of the Atlantic made for a compelling analysis of the limits of freedom and the depths of slavery.

The strongest element of Atlantic Bonds is Lindsay’s analysis of American slavery and its effects on Africa, especially in Liberia and Lagos. Drawing on the American Colonization Society’s archival collection at the Library of Congress, as well as William Nesbit’s 1855 publication, Four Months in Liberia, Lindsay illustrates the strong similarities between Liberia’s labor system and the slave labor system of the United States.[2] She concludes that American settlers had wreaked havoc on Liberia by displacing its native inhabitants and in the process of settlement had created “an American-style ethnic caste system based on land dispossession and labor exploitation” (p. 101).

In her analysis of Lagos, Lindsay effectively exposes one of the great paradoxes of the relationship between slavery, race, and colonization: people of color flee persecution and enslavement in their own country, only to introduce a form of social stratification that used the same forms of exploitation to guarantee their own success. In a discussion of the similarities and differences between South Carolina and Lagos, Lindsay emphasizes how, in the aftermath of slavery (South Carolina) and in the early days of colonialism (Lagos), both regions were dealing with the ramifications of forced abolition through the efforts of the United States government and the British Foreign Office respectively. The key difference between the American South and the African West Coast was the role of white supremacy in determining the course of freedom for blacks. Lagosian colonial officials wanted black Africans to succeed, while white South Carolinians did not want success for African Americans. Even during the colonial period, she argues, Lagos was not overrun by caucasians, and therefore many of its inhabitants initially escaped the worst abuses wrought by slave owners who were bitter about the outcome of a bloody war.

Yet even without white supremacy Lagosians were not all considered equal. As Lindsay correctly notes, slavery played a significant role in Lagos’s extensive palm trade, slave ownership was a powerful and respected marker of social status, and Lagosians considered slaves a good economic investment. Lindsay’s assertion that “Lagosians of all stripes held slaves, including the recently freed themselves,” is an important element of the bonds forged between Atlantic slavery and Africa (p. 153). Lindsay demonstrates that former American slaves learned lessons in bondage that they perpetuated in their new homeland: chiefly, that society is highly stratified and those with the most power can treat those with the least in any way they deem appropriate. The perpetuation of this particular American racial ideology among displaced black Americans is key to Lindsay's assertion that labor exploitation and white supremacy were integral elements in the development of colonial West Africa and Jim Crow United States. Moreover, this phenomenon reinforces her notion that there are distinct parallels in the development of freedom in the United States and slavery in Africa.

The biggest weakness of Atlantic Bonds, however, is the way in which Lindsay incorporates the story of Church Vaughan and his familial ties into her analysis. In her introduction she argues that the Vaughan family's story shows the variations in slave experiences, as well as the limits and complications of freedom. To demonstrate this, Lindsay attempts to narrate the experiences of the Vaughan family on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, while the Vaughans in South Carolina struggled to maintain life and livelihood as freed blacks in a deeply racist slave state, Church Vaughan struggled to carve out a life for himself in Africa in a land rife with exotic diseases and limited economic opportunity. Although this narrative has merit, Lindsay's accounts are often unbalanced, and her references to the Vaughans in the United States seem to be simply another account of the expected (albeit tragic) struggles facing African Americans in the nineteenth century. There is no historical evidence that the Vaughans maintained contact with each other across the Atlantic and there is even less evidence to suggest that Church Vaughan felt a strong affinity for his American relatives. The Vaughan story would have made an excellent prologue had Lindsay used it to establish the parallels that she sees between slavery and freedom in the Atlantic world, but the almost abrupt appearance of the American Vaughans in each chapter detracts from her otherwise compelling narrative.

Atlantic Bonds is an intriguing and important look into the lasting effects of the Atlantic slave trade and the experiences of at least one African American who took advantage of the early nineteenth-century back-to-Africa movement. As such, Lindsay’s book fills an important gap in the historiography.

Notes

[1]. Alan Huffman, Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today (New York: Gotham Books, 2004; Jackson, MI: University of Mississippi, 2010).

[2]. William Nesbit, Four Months in Liberia; or African Colonization Exposed (Pittsburgh, PA: J. T. Shryock, 1855).

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=49123

Citation: Jennifer Walton-Hanley. Review of Lindsay, Lisa A., Atlantic Bonds: A Nineteenth-Century Odyssey from America to Africa. H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews. September, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49123

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