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Working the Diaspora

Working the Diaspora: The Impact of African Labor on the Anglo-American World, 1650-1850

Frederick C. Knight
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 252
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qgcdh
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  • Book Info
    Working the Diaspora
    Book Description:

    From the sixteenth to early-nineteenth century, four times more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. While this forced migration stripped slaves of their liberty, it failed to destroy many of their cultural practices, which came with Africans to the New World. In Working the Diaspora, Frederick Knight examines work cultures on both sides of the Atlantic, from West and West Central Africa to British North America and the Caribbean.Knight demonstrates that the knowledge that Africans carried across the Atlantic shaped Anglo-American agricultural development and made particularly important contributions to cotton, indigo, tobacco, and staple food cultivation. The book also compellingly argues that the work experience of slaves shaped their views of the natural world. Broad in scope, clearly written, and at the center of current scholarly debates, Working the Diaspora challenges readers to alter their conceptual frameworks about Africans by looking at them as workers who, through the course of the Atlantic slave trade and plantation labor, shaped the development of the Americas in significant ways.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4912-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    For every European who crossed the Atlantic from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, four times as many Africans made the journey. This mass, forced migration of people from Africa shaped the historical development of the New World in profound ways. Along with small farming, mining, artisan labor, cattle ranching, and fur trading, plantation agriculture stood at the core of colonial American material life and was the basis of competing European claims on the Western Hemisphere.¹ Throughout the Anglo-American plantation-based colonies, English indentured servants and Native American workers were the first to raise crops for export. Yet for a...

  5. 1 Material Life in West and West Central Africa, 1650–1800
    (pp. 13-32)

    Needed for more than brute labor on New World plantations, African workers carried agricultural and craft knowledge across the Atlantic that transformed American “material life,” a concept de-fined by economic historian Fernand Braudel. In the first volume of his monumental studyCivilization and Capitalism, Braudel underscored the significance—then overlooked by most historians—of daily material human needs and economic activities. Looking at economic production in the early modern world, he treated as subjects of historical investigation the foods people ate, the clothes they wore, the tools they used, the markets where they conducted trade, the cities they established, the...

  6. 2 Seeds of Change: African Agricultural Workers in the Anglo-American Colonies
    (pp. 33-64)

    Two generations after the British established their first permanent colonial settlement in the Americas at Jamestown, Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley “caused half a bushel of Rice (which he had procured) to be sowen, and it prospered gallantly, and he had fifteen bushels of it, excellent good rice.” Behind Berkeley’s claims about causing the development of rice worked a team of unfree labor whom he recognized for their agricultural knowledge. Indeed, Berkeley and through his writings other colonial elites realized that their slaves brought skills in rice production to the colony. The governor acknowledged, “We perceive the ground and Climate...

  7. 3 Cultivating Knowledge: African Tobacco and Cotton Workers in Colonial British America
    (pp. 65-86)

    The remains from slave quarters and burial grounds point to the role that Africans played in material production in the British American colonies. West and West Central Africans, working in the Anglo-American tobacco fields, left behind tobacco pipes that have been unearthed in the Chesapeake region and Barbados. In the tobacco colony of Maryland, slaves placed a tobacco pipe in the grave of a departed woman to take on her ancestral journey. And while tobacco had faded as an export crop from Barbados, slaves still cultivated and consumed it on a small scale well into the eighteenth century. There, slaves...

  8. 4 In an Ocean of Blue: West African Indigo Workers in the Atlantic World to 1800
    (pp. 87-110)

    Between 1740 and 1770, colonial South Carolina emerged as one of Great Britain’s principal suppliers of indigo, used foremost as a blue textile dye. In 1750, South Carolina exported approximately eighty-seven thousand pounds of indigo, which soon gained a reputation as a middle-grade commodity, next in quality to the highest grade produced in Guatemala and the French Caribbean. Between midcentury and the American Revolution, a period that coincided with an increased importation of enslaved workers from West Africa, the colony’s indigo exports expanded more than tenfold to over one million pounds per year.¹ How did this transformation happen? What factors...

  9. 5 Slave Artisans: Black Nonagricultural Workers in Colonial America and the Antebellum South
    (pp. 111-130)

    On the western coast of Africa, European merchants tapped into skilled African labor to build commercial bases and conduct trade. Ocean-bound vessels anchored offshore, and African canoemen ferried merchants and trade goods between the coast and the ships. Pieter de Marees remarked at the turn of the seventeenth century that most of the canoes were “six foot long and one and a half or two foot wide,” but some craft he described as “35 foot long, 5 foot wide and three foot high; the rear was flat, with a Rudder and benches, the whole made and cut out of one...

  10. 6 Natural Worship: Slavery, the Environment, and Black Consciousness in the Antebellum South
    (pp. 131-154)

    Working in the indigo and cotton fields, on the tobacco plantations and rice estates, in the fishing waters and cattle pastures, the majority of slaves spent most of their waking hours exposed to and grappling with the forces of nature. They daily witnessed the mysteries of seeds transforming into plants, newborn animals growing up, and rivers continuing to yield fish. They cleared forests to make way for staple crops, and they went into the forests that remained to beseech for deliverance. Under the surveillance of their masters or plantation overseers, slaves worked between the burning sun and the heavy soil,...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 155-192)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-216)
  13. Index
    (pp. 217-228)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 229-229)