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Volume 6, Issue 2: Contents


Introduction: From Archives of Slavery
to Liberated Futures?

  This special issue of the journal asks how the violence of the archives of slavery contributes to the production of a history of our present. What is
at stake in revisiting the devastation and death contained in the documents of slavery? And is such a revisiting even possible? As several of the authors note, all archives are incomplete—such historical accounts
written primarily by the most powerful have overwhelmingly informed
our understanding of the past. But what is it about the archives of slavery,
the more than 400-year span of forced labor and death of Africans that
requires that we pause to consider their particular silences? It is partly
about violence—the varied forms of violence on black bodies in slavery
that created the conditions by which they are made invisible, mutilated and
difficult to reach; they are not easily articulated or narrated in the historical
accounts. Even as we formulate new methods that challenge archival
power, some things remain unrecoverable, silent. We have irretrievably lost
the thoughts, desires, fears, and perspectives of many whose enslavement
shaped every aspect of their lives.



The Politics of the Archive and History's
Accountability to the Enslaved

  Somewhere along the thousands of miles of African Atlantic littoral that was the extended site of the transatlantic slave trade, some time in the more than four hundred years that the enterprise built on transacting in captive people endured, an event takes place aboard one of the vessels that served as the system’s engine. Enslaved Africans gain decisive control of the vessel in which they are held captive: "The Captain being a’shore, the Slaves rose, kill'd one man and a Boy, and run the Sloop ashore and escaped." The captives thereby take what was supposed to be a routine and mundane occurrence— according to the worldview of their captors—and turn it into an event that demanded documentation beyond the daily recording of shipboard routines. These events took place aboard the Cape Coast while the vessel was in the vicinity of Winneba, off the coast of present day Ghana, on September 6, 1721, and were narrated in the "Letter Books" that organized correspondence between the English Royal African Company's London headquarters and its employees in Africa and the Caribbean. In addition to reporting the status of the property the vessel had carried, the missive officials penned to describe the incident also offered an explanation of what had taken place: "It would be a very unaccountable history," the letter reads, "that Thirteen men & four boys Slaves should attempt to rise upon Seven White Men was it not that it seems they were all out of Irons by ye Master’s orders."



What More Remains:
Slavery, Sexuality, South Asia

  What more remains? At stake here is slavery's plangent entanglement with the idea of the archive. As emergent archival forms push against, or even record the violence of slavery's past(s), we are asked here to consider anew the persistent failure of such efforts. Central to such failures has been the recovery of an archive of slavery that continues to elude any attempts at a redemptive historiography. As the editors of a recent Social Text special issue on the question of recovery and slavery note: the limits of recovery in "the field of Atlantic slavery and freedom" have reshaped the very parameters of historical methods and debate. Indeed, nearly every theoretical account of Atlantic slavery stages the historiography of slavery as the place where absence and archive meet. A similar reading of archival loss, paucity and erasure even animates scholarship that challenges the foundationalism of Atlantic slavery as the "origin-story" for the African diaspora.



Freedom's Surprise: Two Paths
Through Slavery's Archives

  These two epigraphs bring forth an agonism. Is the archive of slavery so saturated by silence, death, and commodification that black life remains indiscernible even as discerning remains urgent, as Saidiya Hartman suggests? Or are archives of slavery in the Americas overflowing with black lives that we are not particularly good at discerning, as Herman L. Bennett argues? I want to linger with and reflect upon this agonism in the interest of widening the frame that often restricts the provocative questions raised by "Venus in Two Acts," the same ones this special issue addresses. I want to set out on transnational, multilingual, and textually difficult paths; to unsettle what we understand as "the archive of slavery"; to revise what we think of as "freedom."



Enslaved in the City on a Hill:
The Archive of Moravian Slavery
and the Practical Past

  Historians have long recognized the central political conundrum of the archive: the powerful leave behind the fullest records. They leave behind, too, the most detailed narratives about the past, narratives that justify their power. The exploited and oppressed usually leave behind more meager traces. Their narratives are often difficult or impossible to retrieve. They have less access to literacy and to the means of preserving or transmitting their stories. Their masters often employ violence to impose silence and have the power to shape and censor the archive. The historians of the peasant, the prostitute, and the proletarian have always faced distinctive methodological difficulties.



Accounting for "The Most
Excruciating Torment": Gender,
Slavery, and Trans-Atlantic Passages

  As early as the sixteenth century, it was not uncommon for slave ships to deliver large numbers of women into slavery in the Americas. In 1566, the slave ship Santiago left Sierra Leone carrying 77 women and children and 15 men to the island of Puerto Rico. In 1642, the Dutch ship the Prinses made the trip from Luanda to Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil in less than 40 days, loaded with 152 captives, 98% of whom were women. One cannot help but ask the question: why were so many women aboard these ships? The presence and absence of women in the Middle Passage is difficult to track, not least because female captives have failed to capture the attention of scholars, except as indices of the relative strength of African polities. Thus, examples including the refusal of the Obas in Benin to sell any male slaves to the Portuguese after 1530, and unbalanced sex ratios like those found on board the Santiago are noted in the scholarship on African slavery primarily in relation to the strength or weakness of a patriarchal African state.




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