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Reviews of Amistad: A Hidden Network of Slavers and Merchants

“Up to an estimated ten million Africans were forcibly removed from the continent and taken on ships bound for the New World during the course of the Atlantic slave trade. Once in the Americas, they endured a slavery that was unlike any they had ever experienced in their homeland. In an expanded English translation of his work first published in German, Michael Zeuske examines the complex network of slavers, merchants, Africans, and empires during the nineteenth century by using the Amistad as the starting point. He argues that slavery became ‘a form of capitalism in which the main capital is human bodies . . . and Africa suddenly became the beginning and the center of a history of human bodies as capital’ even as countries increasingly outlawed the African slave trade and slavery itself (12). Zeuske develops a truly Atlantic history that focuses not on ending slavery and its trade, but rather ‘increas[ing] slavery and slave dealing as well as human trafficking’ during the very period that it was being banned (10). In this way, Zeuske successfully redirects the reader to look past the thesis that describes the end of the slave trade and abolition as the norm in order to reveal what he calls the ‘hidden Atlantic.’ Zeuske’s work spans the Atlantic world in nine chapters.

“He establishes a firm foundation and background for the work with chapters 1 and 2, which weave in and out of the historical narrative of the Amistad to include the 2005 discovery of the case’s original Cuban documents, and place the study within the larger context of Atlantic and world history. Returning to the prisoner on board the Amistad in chapter 3, he examines their individual histories and backgrounds in order to provide a more complete picture of these African captives as people rather than as secondary actors in a larger discussion of slavery and international law, as is sometimes the practice with works that examine the case from a U.S.- centric perspective of the Amistad. Chapters 6 to 8, however, make the most valuable contributions. Zeuske successfully argues that for many in Cuba, for example, smuggling of slaves was a ‘way to quickly achieve a certain prosperity and even wealth’ (113). Chapter 7, entitled “Africa,” is the longest and focuses on the interactions between slave agents, dealers, and captains in Africa. Zeuske examines various areas of Africa separately.

“In one section, he demonstrates, for example, how one of the most powerful slave traffickers along the Rio Pongo used slaves as labor on nearby coffee plantations as a way to disguise his illegal slave dealings, and notes that in 1843, a Bambara king ordered that ‘almost all the 800 prisoners taken were decapitated . . . because he could not sell them to the Atlantic slave traders’ (159). As such trade was illegal during the period that Zeuske examines, documents that would provide insights are difficult to find, since any record of illicit transactions could be used against those committing such acts. He relies on sources in numerous national and local Cuban, Portuguese, and Spanish archives, such as notarial records related to shipping including customs duty lists, and actions taken against those engaging in this illegal trade. The diversity and geographic range of these archival materials allow Zeuske to create a study that truly stretches across both sides of the Atlantic, from Africa to the Caribbean, and across the Americas. The work’s strengths lie in the vivid details of the slave trade within Africa, and the various methods used by slavers to elude capture. He acknowledges that the work is not a study that examines the slave trade and slavery ‘from below’ but rather from several perspectives including that of mid-level participants such as slave ship captains and others, as well as those at the ‘top’ including slave dealers and colonial officials (ix). Yet, it is in this very middle-sector that Zeuske’s work makes its most powerful contributions, building on studies that examine the lives of slaves, such as Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007). This work is well written and thoroughly researched. The complex connections between the various actors could be clarified through the use of additional diagrams, along with the various maps and drawings, to visualize these relationships. Amistad: A Hidden Network of Slavers and Merchants adds a unique and often overlooked viewpoint from which to examine the Atlantic slave trade. Upper-division undergraduate and graduate students in world, Atlantic world, and studies of the Americas (both North and Latin) would benefit from this work, which develops the interconnected nature of the slave trade in ways that are clear and powerful.”

-American Historical Review

“One of the most exciting frontiers in research currently being explored by historians of the Atlantic world is the Spanish slave trade from Africa to the Americas. Although the first and last slaving voyages took place under Iberian flags, most of the historiography and demographic analysis on the Atlantic slave trade has until recently concentrated on the participation of British, French, and Dutch agents. This focus on Spanish traders is crucial both for the understanding of the history of slavery and abolitionism in the nineteenth century and for the reassessment of Spanish imperial history in particular.

“Michael Zeuske’s Amistad is a reinterpretation of the famous slave rebellion in June 1839 on a small schooner off the coast of Connecticut, which initiated an important legal case in courts in the United States. This case has generally been interpreted as a victory for abolitionists. Yet Zeuske shows that it also exposed deep layers of slave smuggling, and he uses the story of the Amistad rebels and their captors as a starting point to penetrate what he calls the ‘hidden Atlantic.’ His exemplary research uncovers the intricacies of the Atlantic networks of slavers and merchants, which were at the base of the rise of financial global capital in the nineteenth century.

“The interesting term ‘hidden Atlantic’ is meant to, first, signal the conceptual effort to expose the links between slavery and capitalism and, second, bring to the fore both the African and the Iberian South Atlantic regions to complement the well-known history of the Anglo-Atlantic. Thus, the ‘hidden Atlantic’ also constitutes a historical gateway into the shifts and changes of slavery and the slave trade in the nineteenth century, when aside from a change in roles the mechanisms, goals, and results of slavery were transformed. Indeed, it was precisely in the nineteenth century that the Iberian powers gained preeminence in the slave trade and expanded their plantation economies based on enslaved labor. This happened in spite of (or precisely because of, says Zeuske) the Anglo-American policy of abolition.

Amistad fits neatly with the recent work of a number of scholars.[1] Dale Tomich, for example, theorized the crucial transformation of slavery in the nineteenth century as the rise of the ‘second slavery,’ a process about which Zeuske comments: ‘Only after 1820 did the possibility of extending the slavery enclaves into the interior of the Americas and Africa emerge from the connection between capital accumulation, mass slavery, plantation agriculture, and the new blessings of industrial modernity (above all, railways and steamships, industrial agriculture)’ (pp. 31-32). In Josep Fradera and Chris Schmidt-Nowara’s edited volume on slavery and anti-slavery in the Spanish empire (in which Zeuske co-authored a chapter with Orlando García Martínez), we find the pioneering work of authors who are rethinking the nineteenth century from the perspective of the Spanish world, particularly anti-slavery, by including the phenomenon of the rise of slavery in Cuba. Ada Ferrer’s new book develops this argument further and delves into both the contrasts and the specific links between the Haitian Revolution and the expansion of the Cuban sugar industry. And the recent reassessment of the Slave Trade Database by Alex Borucki, David Eltis, and David Wheat is another remarkable sign that the field of the Spanish slave trade is transforming the history of the Atlantic world; their inspiring work also suggests that there is still much to be done in that direction.

“Indeed, the work on the slave trade in the nineteenth century is as challenging as it is urgent, given that from 1820 to almost 1890 the trade in humans to fuel U.S., Cuban, and Brazilian plantations was done as contraband. That the slave dealers tried to leave no tracks makes clear one of the most remarkable accomplishments of Zeuske’s work: the fact that he has so patiently and elegantly recovered crucial aspects of the context in which the Amistad rebellion took place and linked them to broader processes and events from Africa and Europe to the Americas and the Caribbean.

“The book is an expanded English edition of Zeuske’s Die Geschichte der Amistad, published by Reclam Verlag in 2012. The excellent translation by Steven Rendall makes it a very readable book that will be accessible to wide audiences, scholars specialized in slavery and Atlantic studies, and students at all levels. It has an interesting structure, as the story moves from the most well known parts of this history (the Amistad case in popular history), and the most central actors in it (the abolitionists and captives), to its less known but equally relevant aspects (the slavers, Africa, and Cuba).”

Marcela Echeverri (Yale University), New West Indian Guide

[1] See, for example, Dale Tomich, Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital, and the World Economy (Boulder CO: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004); Josep M. Fradera & Christopher Schmidt-Nowara (eds.), Slavery and Antislavery in Spain’s Atlantic Empire (New York: Berghahn, 2013); Ada Ferrer, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); and Alex Borucki, David Eltis, & David Wheat, “Atlantic History and the Slave Trade to Spanish America,” American Historical Review 120/2 (2015):433-61.