LaFay on Asaka, 'Tropical Freedom: Climate, Settler Colonialism, and Black Exclusion in the Age of Emancipation'

Ikuko Asaka
Elaine LaFay

Ikuko Asaka. Tropical Freedom: Climate, Settler Colonialism, and Black Exclusion in the Age of Emancipation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017. 304 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-6910-3; $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-6881-6.

Reviewed by Elaine LaFay (University of Pennsylvania) Published on H-Diplo (July, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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Scientific theories of race in the nineteenth century held that black men and women were constitutionally suited to labor in hot climates. As numerous scholars have shown, such biologically determinist thinking was embedded in a sprawling web of medico-legal justifications for slavery. Proslavery physicians, politicians, and laymen wielded this rhetoric to perpetuate ideologies and policies that shaped not only the geographies of black enslavement but also, as Ikuko Asaka explores in a compelling first monograph, those of black freedom.

In Tropical Freedom: Climate, Settler Colonialism, and Black Exclusion in the Age of Emancipation, Asaka explores how an array of black removal projects that followed slave emancipations over the course of the nineteenth century used this same climatic logic. Unraveling the discourse surrounding the “proper place of black freedom,” Asaka shows that at the heart of these resettlement schemes were imperial desires for black labor in climates deemed tropical (p. 91). Such schemes included, but were not limited to, working as tenant farmers in Sierra Leone, laboring on plantations in the Caribbean and parts of Central America, and becoming independent landowners or missionaries in Trinidad or Liberia. Asaka’s central claim is that these resettlement ambitions upheld the core tenet of white settler colonialism—the violent displacement of indigenous peoples—and secured uniformly white access to their stolen lands.

Yet Asaka simultaneously shows how African American and African Canadian activists rejected essentializing claims over which climates and bodies were deemed suitably matched, and thus forcefully resisted a variety of overseas removal schemes. As one black activist wryly pointed out, for instance, when slavery was legal in Canada, concerns over whose bodies belonged in which climates were strikingly less pronounced. And in the antebellum United States and Canada, black intellectuals like Henry Bibb and Mary Ann Shadd developed new theories, wielding environmental and climatic discourse to put forward alternative visions of race, gender, and citizenship. Alternately stressing economic independence, “climatic adaptability,” and gendered black mobility and domesticity, these theories of race and belonging sought to fracture climatic essentialism as well as insist on black constructions of labor and family. That this discourse cut across the US and Canada led Asaka to classify the members of this diaspora as “African North Americans.”

Asaka takes a hemispheric view in situating debates over free black belonging and citizenship, drawing on a cache of sources that span the Atlantic World from archives in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. She follows these transatlantic debates from North America into West Africa and the Caribbean and back again, and in so doing challenges historians to expand the geographic scope of settler colonialism in the nineteenth century. Moreover, by placing the discourse over black removal at the center of imperial expansion across North America, Asaka reveals that ideologies of black exclusion and settler colonialism, usually studied in isolation, were tightly intertwined.

While the plans for black resettlement did not, in fact, result in the mass migration of free blacks out of North America, Asaka is less interested in how many people actually moved. Instead, she turns our attention to the intellectual scaffolding of such plans and the array of responses from black thinkers to ask how these debates shaped the contours of a broader geography of black freedom in the Atlantic World. In doing so, she follows the development of tropical discourse from an amorphous climatic ideology to one that, by the American Civil War, was the dogma that defined the Lincoln administration’s approach to emancipation. These climatic theories operated alongside a barrage of marginalization that free black communities faced in both the US and Canada that included restriction on movement and migration into newly claimed territories and denial of political rights. While these led some free black intellectuals to advocate for migration, a majority chose to remain in North America.

The book is organized around six chapters that follow slave emancipations after the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War. Asaka begins by surveying how freedom became a geographic, racially based concept in both the US and Canada. She situates this discussion in the wake of two emancipations: one after the American Revolution and the other after the War of 1812. Both wars resulted in a robust population of newly freed people, sending federal governments scrambling to remove them to tropical countries. Asaka argues that a “shared logic of climate” undergirded geographic imaginaries of freedom that upheld tropical regions as the climate best suited for free black people (p. 9). Prevailing theories of climate and bodies shaped a white conviction that black freedom should be contained within the tropics while free whites monopolized land in the temperate zone. But at the same time, Asaka limns diverse conceptualizations of black freedom among freedpeople in the US and Canada. She shows how black imaginaries of freedom became contingent on prevailing political ideology, rooted in idealized republican virtues in the US as opposed to loyalty to the Crown in Canada.

The most important contribution of the book is its exploration of the ways in which black activists deployed gendered constructions of black mobility and domesticity to challenge the racial boundaries of settler societies in North America. Asaka reveals how debates over the place of black freedom drew not just on climatic discourse but also on tropes of intimacy. Part of the justifications for targeting free black populations for labor in the West Indies and for resettlement in Liberia rested on claims that self-emancipated people were incapable of establishing familial and domestic relations in a temperate society. In response, free black intellectuals in both the US and Canada countered with evidence of free black communities maintaining intraracial domestic and reproductive relations that conformed to standards of masculinity and femininity in the home. Asaka further examines how black activists in the US and Canada attempted to stitch narratives of slave escape into a broader settler colonial discourse of gender norms and movement. Mobility became key to black claims of belonging as Asaka illustrates with narratives of formerly enslaved men, such as Samuel Ward, that brimmed with conventional patriarchal settler themes of independent, rugged masculinity and land ownership. Free black women, such as Shadd, worked to fashion a new political subjectivity for both formerly enslaved and legally free black women that drew on tropes of motherhood and the family. Adapting white Canadian settler-immigrant literature, these women ultimately defined their migration as “family-based agricultural migration for material improvement” (p. 113). Attempts at refashioning narratives of black mobility, however, achieved little in the way of social acceptance and political rights, a testament, Asaka claims, to how fixed the category of settler became to whiteness.

Free black intellectuals also challenged prevailing scientific theories of climate and labor in their resistance to racially inscribed spaces of freedom. Advocates of free black excision from North America grouped free blacks under what Asaka terms “laborers of the West”: that is, exportable workers who carried with them the trappings of Western society as well as a vein of labor “efficiency” that would make them suitable to a plantation economy. Perceptions of innate black tropicality factored heavily into their grouping in this category and this tropicality was the argumentative thread African North American intellectuals fought most rigorously against. Black thinkers swiftly deployed ample evidence of black communities thriving not only in Canada but also in northern cities in the United States, openly criticizing the resettlement schemes that animated the uptick in climatic essentialism. Importantly, Asaka traces this discourse on freedom and tropicality into the emancipation that followed the American Civil War. The Lincoln administration considered Central America as a prospect for freedpeoples’ removal, which, in addition to frustrating British ambitions in the region, would also secure uniformly white access to free soil in the US West. But black intellectuals, including Frederick Douglass, countered by emphasizing the necessity of free black labor for the economic survival of the US South. Douglass and his allies argued that a shared “climatic adaptability” cut across humankind, including those of African descent, and based arguments of black national belonging on the value of agricultural labor in their “native land” (p. 183). But the concept of segregated black freedom in a tropical climate was by this point so entrenched that it took the refashioning of the US South as a domestic tropical region for white republicans to support the presence of free blacks in the region.

On the whole, this is an ambitious and satisfying book. Asaka balances the two focuses of her work—free black people’s understandings of their freedom and belonging, and white imperial understandings of tropicality, labor, and the spaces of black freedom—with deft organization and clarity. The book also brings together a range of subjects that make it vital to scholars who might only otherwise have a nodding acquaintance with each other: historians of black intellectual history and activism, science and medicine, and diplomacy and foreign policy, and scholars interested in the nineteenth-century politics of race and freedom more generally. In taking a transatlantic perspective on discourses of race and geography, Tropical Freedom presents new questions about the constitutive elements of settler colonialism, diaspora, and freedom in North America.

Citation: Elaine LaFay. Review of Asaka, Ikuko, Tropical Freedom: Climate, Settler Colonialism, and Black Exclusion in the Age of Emancipation. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. July, 2018. URL:

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