Latin American Studies Atlantic Creoles
by
Adriana Chira
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0217

Introduction

Berlin 1996 (cited under Overviews) introduced the term “Atlantic Creoles” to describe Afro-descendants whose experiences in the age of the Atlantic slave trade were not primarily defined by the plantation. According to Berlin, Atlantic Creoles distinguished themselves through behaviors that “were more akin to those of confident, sophisticated natives than of vulnerable newcomers.” They displayed “linguistic dexterity, cultural plasticity, and social agility.” The term “Creole” is supposed to denote transformations in identity through encounters across cultural difference. Berlin applied this term to a generation that preceded the consolidation of plantation systems (prior to the 18th century), even though he alluded to the possibility of using this concept spatially, too—to describe Afro-descendants living outside plantation systems as late as the end of the 18th century. Landers 1999 (cited under Overviews) took up this latter approach systematically. Scholars have since applied the label “Atlantic Creoles” broadly to cultural and political brokers who drew on repertoires from Africa, Europe, and the Americas as seamen, traders, diplomats, litigants, settlers, wives, workers, or healers. According to Berlin, the term was not meant to obscure the violence that Afro-descendants were subjected to, but to capture a historical moment when racial categories were more fluid and some could access opportunities. Berlin’s piece has a vast legacy. It drew attention to an array of Afro-diasporic experiences and emphasized the role of West Africans in the making of early Atlantic networks. Since 1996, attention to Africans in Atlantic networks has expanded. Scholars have also examined more closely how their actions and trajectories can shed light on the arc of African history, not just the American one. Yet some scholars have critiqued the term “Atlantic Creoles” for excessive capaciousness. In Ferreira 2012 (cited under 18th Century and the Age of Revolutions), Roquinaldo Ferreira argues that it obliterates the specificity of African experiences within pluralistic communities in Africa. Other scholars have critiqued it for romanticizing mobility and insertion into state apparatuses. Upward mobility for some Afro-descendants could often only come with fewer opportunities for enslaved people. Finally, the term assumes a somewhat linear identity formation. In Sweet 2013 (cited under Healing, Religion, and Science), James Sweet argues that historians too often assume that Creole Afro-descendant identities move away from African cosmologies toward Western ones.

Overviews

The main overviews remain Berlin 1996, the foundational article that lays out the analytic agenda behind this concept, and Landers 1999 and Landers 2010, which expand the use of the term spatially and temporally into Spanish America and the Age of Revolutions. Scholars working on Afro-descendant experiences beyond the plantation should also consult classics such as Gilroy 1993, which provided the groundwork for a definition of the Atlantic world that is centered on Afro-descendant experiences (a Black Atlantic). Mintz and Price 1992 provides the backbone for Berlin’s understanding of creolization, while Heywood and Thornton 2007 and Thornton 1998 argue that creolization started in West Africa. Games 2006 critiques the term for its malleability: scholars have associated it with a much broader array of meanings than Berlin had originally intended.

  • Berlin, Ira. “From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America.” William and Mary Quarterly 53.2 (1996): 251–288.

    DOI: 10.2307/2947401E-mail Citation »

    Classic article defining “Atlantic Creoles” as those Afro-descendants whose experiences of the Atlantic world could not be confined to the plantation system or defined by racializing logics. The Portuguese Atlantic was the first site for this “charter generation,” because the Portuguese relied on Luso-African intermediaries in slave trading. Briefly mentions 18th-century Florida as a site for Atlantic Creoles.

  • Games, Allison. “Atlantic History: Definitions, Challenges, and Opportunities.” American Historical Review 111.3 (2006): 741–757.

    DOI: 10.1086/ahr.111.3.741E-mail Citation »

    Methodological intervention in the field of Atlantic history. Critiques historians’ use of the term “Atlantic Creoles” for being much broader than originally intended by Berlin. Games argues that the term was supposed to refer to the generation of Euro-Africans involved in the beginnings of the slave trade.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Classic text by a literary scholar approaching the Atlantic as single analytic unit, and Atlantic slavery and the Middle Passage as modernity’s crucible. Treats Afro-descendants as agents who actively forged this space in spite of elite efforts to commodify them. Points to tension between blackness and Europeanness as a creative space that gave rise to black Atlantic traditions. Focuses on male intellectuals from the English-speaking world from the mid-19th century onward.

  • Heywood, Linda M., and John K. Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundations of the Americas, 1585–1660. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Study of the first generation of Atlantic Creoles described in Berlin 1996, which the authors trace back to West-Central Africans from the Kongo and Angola captured by the Dutch on the coast or on Spanish and Portuguese ships. Argues that creolization had happened in West-Central Africa before it occurred in the Americas, with particular attention to religion (Catholicism). Excellent coverage of West-Central African context. Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, British, and US archives.

  • Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    Social and political history of Afro-descendants in Florida during two-part Spanish rule (1565–1763, 1784–1821), showing role as colonial settlers (militia members, landowners, family-makers). A sanctuary policy for runaway slaves from Protestant colonies was instituted and increased black population; the policy ended in 1790. Afro-descendants mixed with indigenous people in Saint Augustine. Landers argues that Spanish laws of slavery offered more opportunities for blacks. Rich use of notarial, judicial, and parish records.

  • Landers, Jane. Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Uses the term “Atlantic Creoles” spatially, to describe Afro-descendants living in the borderlands of the southeastern part of North America and the Caribbean, and who gained rights through trans-imperial mobility and political savvy during the Age of Revolutions. Each chapter is the biography of a representative military figure who professed loyalty to the King of Spain. Draws on Spanish records. Addresses interactions between indigenous and Afro-descendant communities.

  • Mintz, Sidney, and Richard Price. The Birth of African American Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Classic essay on creolization. Uses a linguistic model to describe cultural change among Afro-descendants in the Americas. The cultural influences that Afro-descendants drew on were not unilaterally African or European, nor did the mixtures have a specific endpoint. It provides a heuristic for empirically based research. The work is at the center of decades-long debates about the relative role of African culture in Atlantic world exchanges. Originally published in 1976.

  • Price, Richard. “The Miracle of Creolization: A Retrospective.” The New West Indian Guide 75.1–2 (2001): 35–64.

    DOI: 10.1163/13822373-90002557E-mail Citation »

    Spirited response to critiques of the Mintz-Price creolization model, particularly to those leveled by Africanist historians. The author argues that the Mintz-Price model was never meant to provide a formula or teleology for cultural change, but rather to emphasize the importance of contextual factors in how cultures were transformed in the Atlantic world. Describes their approach to creolization as a heuristic.

  • Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Africa-centered survey of Atlantic world. Describes West Africans as agents in Atlantic trading networks. Analyzes slavery in Africa before Atlantic slave trade. Especially good coverage of West-Central Africa. Four chapters on West Africa and six on the Americas. Traces origins of creolization to West Africa and argues that Atlantic Creoles formed a smaller-sized group than Berlin 1996 described. Excellent survey for Americanists interested in West Africa. Originally published in 1992.

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