Philip Gould. Barbaric Traffic: Commerce and Antislavery in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World.
Philip Gould's title articulates three of the principal assumptions that underlie this very interesting book. One is an ethical commonplace, that slavery is intrinsically barbaric, regardless of the particular identification of the slaveholders and the enslaved. Another is more current, reflecting the contemporary interest in eliding the nationalist gap separating British and American thought to treat the Atlantic World as a fundamentally single unit embracing a common literary and linguistic culture; insofar as the slave trade was a joint Anglo-American activity this perspective is particularly relevant to Gould's project. The third is decidedly individual, reflecting Gould's particular interest in how late 18th- and early 19th-century antislavery writers of various national and ethnic origins employed a common rhetoric that figured slavery and the slave trade as commercial activities. A fourth assumption is implied but left unstated by a title that highlights the book's attention to the social practice of slave commerce but obscures its almost exclusive focus on the evidence of literary texts: Gould's stance is that of a cultural historian for whom the most interesting literature is that which illuminates a particular aspect of a society's outlooks and prejudices. For Gould, aesthetic merit is a secondary concern at best. Unlike, say, Debbie Lee, whose Slavery and the Romantic Imagination treats the principal British Romantic writers, Gould hardly acknowledges the more prominent Anglo-American authors and texts of the period from the 1770s to the 1810s.
The volume's structure--introduction, five chapters, epilogue--might suggest a unified argument. In fact, though the chapters are linked thematically by Gould's interest in exposing how commercial rhetoric infuses antislavery narratives, and though they combine to offer a fascinating and convincing picture of the broad use of this rhetoric, the chapters are largely independent, and the book is not ordered in a way that articulates an obvious logic. The introduction includes brief summaries of each chapter's argument, and the first chapter defines a vocabulary and ideology that characterize antislavery narratives of the period, but the subsequent chapters are independent units that relate to one another only in terms of the book's general theme. The epilogue does not so much tie the various strands together as show Gould looking forward to the ways in which fundamental issues concerning slavery and commerce were rethought in the literature of the mid-nineteenth century.
The introduction offers a mildly polemical response to the current notion that there existed a necessary "ideological dissonance between liberal capitalism and chattel slavery," such that the rise of western liberal capitalism was conditioned upon the elimination of slavery. Gould's repudiation here of ideas advanced by, among others, Eric Williams, David Brion Davis, and Ira Berlin provides one of the few moments in the book in which he engages actively with current criticism. While Gould interrogates closely the ideas promulgated by the poets and essayists whose writings comprise his subject, his conversation with other theorists is generally delegated to the volume's extensive notes. Locating the critics with whom Gould does debate is impeded by the absence of a bibliography, an unfortunate deficiency in an otherwise attractively produced volume.
Chapter 1, "The Commercial Jeremiad," postulates that the end of the eighteenth century witnessed a significant change in the Christian rhetoric used by antislavery writers. Earlier writers pinned their arguments on biblical precept, employing an idiom founded on Protestant notions of "human sin, Christian morality, and divine judgment." As the century progressed, the writing of antislavery activists shows an increasing concern with "larger questions about the nature of trade, manners, and consumption," such that the slave trade consistently is pictured as the exemplar of repulsive, non-Christian commerce. The resultant rhetoric combined spirituality and commerce to create what Gould calls a "commercial jeremiad." This rhetoric portrays the slave trade as a noxious combination of "ignorance and barbarity" that figures the African as innocent commodity and the Anglo-American as barbarous commercial gambler and seducer. In the polemical writings of men like Mathew Carey, David Cooper, William Dillwyn, Alexander Falconbridge, Malachy Postlethwayt, Abbe Reynal, Peter Williams, and Elhanan Winchester, slaves are stolen and therein "dangerous" goods. Traders in such merchandise are not only sinful; they lack the manners and understanding required to distinguish proper and improper behavior. They are condemned as uncivilized in this world even as they will be condemned as sin-laden in the next.
Chapter 2, "The Poetics of Antislavery," surveys works by 15 poets--Anna Letitia Barbauld, Joel Barlow, William Cowper, Thomas Day, Theodore Dwight, Bryan Edwards, Philip Freneau, David Humphreys, Hannah More, Thomas Morris, William Roscoe, William Shenstone, John Singleton, Phillis Wheatley, and Ann Yearsley--whose verse makes use of what Gould names "the language of commercial exchange." Gould's particular engagement is with how the poetry fashions a "troubling equivalence between 'civilized' and 'savage' societies," portraying the barbarously uncivilized trader as a marker of the potential fall of a presumably enlightened society, whose institutions accommodate savage values. The true Christian is the African slave, whose natural manners accord with his simple life; the false Christian is the white merchant, whose "wrong refinement" and "polish'd manners" (to borrow Hannah More's language) hardly mask his unethical investment in brutal human commerce. A reader identifies with, indeed imaginatively "becomes," African, or at least the properly civilized Anglo-American caricature of an African.
In Chapter 3, "American Slaves in North Africa," Gould turns from the Anglo-American slave trade to literary portrayals of Americans held captive in Algiers, Tripoli, and neighboring states. Gould's focus here is on the rhetoric that writers like Mathew Carey, David Humphreys, Washington Irving, William Ray, Susanna Rowson, and Royall Tyler use to examine white American slaves, their African masters, and the British who are sometimes pictured as complicit in the north African trade. This literature shows two perspectives: In some texts the perception of tacit British support of north African piracy generates a commercial rhetoric that equates savage Christian British naval officers with savage Muslim traders, damning them both; in others the promise of economic reconciliation between father England and newly adult America is seen as a palliative that will show ethical commerce triumphing over the barbarism of the slave trade. Regardless of perspective, however, the rhetoric of these narratives shows the same "commercial jeremiad" ferocity and values as were used to condemn the trans-Atlantic trade in African natives.
Chapter 4, "Liberty, Slavery, and Black Atlantic Autobiography," expands the investigation of commercially inflected antislavery writing to include the voices of "black subjects" Olaudah Equiano and two presumably illiterate speakers (John Marrant and Venture Smith), whose autobiographies are recorded through the intermediary of white transcribers/collaborators. Gould argues that these narratives reflect a "moment in which the languages of 'liberty' and 'slavery' had density--and mutability." Tropes of "commercial and sexual violation" combine to create sympathy for the African American protagonists even as the ethnically slippery language of Anglo-American editors distances the speakers from their presumed African barbarity. Significantly, the texts counter Anglo-American anxiety about free Africans by extolling the commercial virtues of "righteous labor" and "industry." The freed African's twin goals of achieving spiritual independence through self-mastery and worldly autonomy through property ownership substitute honorable Christian commerce for the barbarism of the slave trade.
In Chapter 5, "Yellow Fever and the Black Market," Gould examines responses to the catastrophic yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in the 1790s. In the aftermath of the epidemic, African American leaders appropriated the language of commerce and industry to defend their community against unjust allegations that blacks had taken advantage of the plight of their white neighbors to extort and abuse them. Gould offers a brief history of the epidemic, in which some 5,000 citizens died (including 200 blacks), before examining the charges raised by Mathew Carey and the defense offered by prominent black citizens Absolon Jones and Richard Allen. Where Carey accuses blacks of profiting from the epidemic, Jones and Allen counter that (1) their personal generosity actually led them to lose a great deal of money; (2) the white leadership abused black trust by falsely denying black susceptibility to yellow fever; (3) blacks in general were selfless in their assistance to whites in need; and (4) those few blacks who did profit from their aid did so because of their white patients' insistence on asserting the economic imperatives of supply and demand, and this in spite of the black health workers' reluctance to accept inordinate fees.
Barbaric Traffic offers an authoritative and continually fascinating look at an important area of African American studies. Gould's mastery of an impressive range of literary sources makes his a voice that literary and cultural scholars of the slave trade will want to listen to and converse with. His lucid prose has made Barbaric Traffic a book that anyone curious about the slave trade and its rhetoric will profit from reading.
Eastern Illinois University
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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