The historical context for Recaptured Africans: Surviving Slave Ships, Detention, and Dislocation in the Final Years of the Slave Trade lies in the activities of American ships patrolling the Atlantic Ocean to search for illegal shipments of enslaved Africans after the banning of the slave trade to the United States in 1808. From that date until 1819, “recaptives”—the label the author prefers to “liberated Africans”—were subject to the jurisdiction of state laws (4). After 1819 federal law assumed responsibility for recaptured Africans. Relatively few interceptions were carried out by U.S. vessels before the late 1850s, but between 1858 and 1862 more direct naval enforcement led to thousands of recaptives being brought under the custody of the United States. The author summarizes this background to the people and processes covered in the book in her first chapter, which explains that the focus of her analysis is a microstudy of around 1,800 recaptured former African slaves on four vessels who were intended for Cuba but brought to the U.S. instead. Specifically, the cargoes were escorted to Charleston, South Carolina, and Key West, Florida, where they attracted much contemporary publicity. Sharla M. Fett uses extensive information on these cargoes from newspapers, naval archives, ships’ logbooks, journals, diaries, and letters to reconstruct the geographical locations in the United States and Africa to which the recaptives were taken, and to examine the multiple disruptions to their lives. The richness of the information she has uncovered enables the human circumstances of these people to be examined in depth even though little of their personal testimony survives in oral or written form. Far from offering a narrow microhistory based on a case-study sample, however, the author deploys her analytical skills to embed her findings within a wide-ranging discussion of the transition from slavery to freedom in the nineteenth-century Atlantic World. Throughout the monograph, significant debates between historians are fairly raised and evaluated in relation to the primary evidence utilized. The first chapter emphasizes that the U.S. treated “recaptives first as saleable property and then as potentially dangerous foreigners designated for exclusion” (17). The remainder of the book dissects the unfortunate outcomes of the handovers and exchanges that were the lot of these rescued Africans. Fett argues that recaptivity was an extension of enslavement in Africa, and that proslavery ethnography portrayed these refugees as a permanently subordinated group suitable for public exhibition. White apologists for slavery seized upon the display of these rescued Africans to bolster racial ideologies. Chapter 3 examines the recaptives’ African background, along with their sufferings, illnesses, and attempts to carry out meaningful burial rites to honor the dead. The focus then shifts to the activities of James Pennington, a black Presbyterian minister, who, in speeches in the summer of 1860 in relation to deepening racial inequality in the United States, spoke out against the treatment of the recaptives. Pennington made eloquent pleas about the need to honor the shared human rights of the recaptives but was unable to prevent them from being shipped back to Africa. The recaptives’ ultimate destination was Liberia, established as an independent republic under American auspices in 1847 as a destination where former slaves could find freedom. The final two chapters chart the struggle for survival of recaptives sent to Liberia and their treatment there by officials of the American Colonization Society (ACS) and colonists. The voyage to Liberia was dominated by coercion from naval officers and distress on the part of the recaptives. This was virtually a repeat of the Middle Passage. The recaptives nevertheless claimed space onboard for themselves and forged shipmate networks. After disembarkation in Liberia, the ACS and the colonists labeled them “Congoes” to distinguish them “from both the migrant black American and indigenous populations” (159). Many of the rescued Africans ended up as apprentices or servants, and were subjected to control and abuse. Fett concludes that “antislavery benevolence, however sincerely embraced, nevertheless constrained recaptive futures and furthered the colonization of West Africa,” while the recaptives were isolated figures “in the uneven Atlantic geography of slavery and emancipation” (184–185). The importance of Recaptured Africans lies in its sensitive delineation of a cohort of Africans who underwent a painful journey from enslavement to recaptured status and then a return to a very different African setting than the one they had left. The author probes the interplay between the intentions and actions of naval officers, politicians, and antislavery activists in the U.S. and the agency of the recaptives themselves. The book does not wear its heart on its sleeve, but nonetheless underscores the tragic fate of the recaptives. After reading the entire trajectory of the movement of these rescued Africans, one is left with the impression that neither in the United States nor in Liberia were they ever seen as fit to be fully free people. They avoided being re-enslaved but were subjected to masters and redefined as “Congoes.” © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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