Atlantic History Atlantic Creoles
by
Jane Landers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0090

Introduction

Historians of the Atlantic world are indebted to Ira Berlin for the concept of “Atlantic Creoles,” a phrase Berlin first used in a seminal article in the William and Mary Quarterly, and then again in his fine monograph, Many Thousands Gone (Berlin 2000, cited under Atlantic Creoles in North America). Berlin defined Atlantic Creoles as Africans engaged in the evolving Atlantic world who were gifted with “linguistic dexterity, cultural plasticity, and social agility.” The key to this definition was the fluidity Berlin assigned to identity and the various ways in which he measured cultural adaptation. The Portuguese first used the term crioulo in the 15th century to designate Africans who adopted Portuguese language and some elements of European culture. Spaniards called such people ladinos (opposing those to bozales or unacculturated Africans). Spaniards most commonly used the term criollo to mean Spaniards born in the Americas, although they sometimes used all three terms—criollo, bozal, and ladino—to identify the various levels of acculturation of both Native Americans and Africans in the Americas. In the 20th century, a variety of academic disciplines began to use the term creolization. Linguists first used the term to signify changes in European languages produced in the Americas, and in 1972 American anthropologists Sidney Mintz and Richard Price adopted the linguistic model of creolization to argue that African slaves torn from their roots and scattered in the diaspora retained only basic elements of their original languages and cultures. In 1982 sociologist Orlando Patterson took that idea even further, arguing that enslaved Africans experienced a “social death.” Scholars better versed in precolonial Africa, such as Paul Lovejoy and John Thornton, among others, responded that more African culture survived the Middle Passage than the creolization school acknowledged, and they found evidence of African retentions in language, architecture, religious practice, social structure, and patterns of warfare, among other cultural forms. Historians who study Atlantic Creoles reject the older deracinated view of creolized culture as well as attempts to identify some essential and immutable African culture. Instead, they borrow from Mary Louise Pratt’s model of the contact zone: “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.” They argue that despite subordination, Atlantic Creoles living on the African coasts, in Europe, or in the Americas were able to engage in a variety of cultural, political, social, economic, and even religious systems, without an implied loss to their original cultural base. Rather than view culture as a zero-sum game, this school considers the added skill sets and experiences that altered, but did not eradicate, Atlantic Creoles’ original identities. Geopolitics and global economics propelled them through a variety of political regimes, geographies, cultures, languages, and religions that could not have but shaped them in some fashion. And although many of their peregrinations were forced, Atlantic Creoles made choices as well about how they self-identified and what they used of their background in particular situations—much as they probably did when still on the African continent. As merchants, slave traders, linguists, sailors, artisans, musicians, and military figures, Atlantic Creoles interacted with a wide variety of European and indigenous groups and helped shape a new Atlantic world system.

General Overviews

Among the interesting works on Atlantic Creoles are the narratives of former slaves who became advocates for abolition in the 18th and 19th centuries (see, for example, Sollors 2001). Works on such characters include Curtin 1967, Law and Lovejoy 2001 and Sparks 2004. The concept of the black Atlantic was first discussed by Gilroy 1993, and Scott 1986 was first to discuss the geopolitical role of free black sailors in the Atlantic world.

  • Curtin, Philip. Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans in the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967.

    E-mail Citation »

    This early work by the eminent Africanist includes narratives of well-known Atlantic Creoles from the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Olaudah Equiano, Philip Quaque, and Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Excellent for both undergraduate and graduate classes.

  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Literary scholar Paul Gilroy coined the term “black Atlantic” in this influential study of the agency and political engagement of persons of African descent who traveled the English North Atlantic after the mid-19th century.

  • Law, Robin, and Paul E. Lovejoy. The Biography of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua: His Passage from Slavery to Freedom in Africa and America. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    This important work by two eminent historians of Africa follows the Atlantic Creole Baquaqua from Africa to Brazil to New York and traces his transition from enslavement into freedom.

  • Scott, Julius. “A Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the American Revolution.” PhD diss., Duke University, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    Path-breaking dissertation based on research in French, Spanish, and Caribbean archives that first pointed to the important role of sailors of African descent in spreading revolutionary news and ideology through the circum-Caribbean.

  • Sollors, Werner, ed. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A critical edition of the original text by perhaps the most well-known Atlantic Creole, the freed African become abolitionist, with criticism and bibliography.

  • Sparks, Randy J. The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    This slim volume follows the Atlantic trails of Little Ephraim Robin John and Ancona Robin Robin John, former slave trading “princes” from Calabar who were enslaved in the Caribbean and Virginia and finally restored to freedom. Good for use in both undergraduate and graduate classes.

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