Julius Scott’s Epic About Black Resistance in the Age of Revolution

Julius Scott’s Epic About Black Resistance in the Age of Revolution

The Mobile Resistance

Rumor and revolution in Julius Scott’s black Atlantic.


At long last, The Common Wind, Julius Scott’s classic in African-American history and studies of resistance, has found a publisher in Verso. The volume, which began as his 1986 dissertation and went unpublished because of Scott’s perfectionism and ill health, has acquired a cult following over the years. Modeled after Fernand Braudel’s masterpiece on the Mediterranean, The Common Wind started out as a history of the Caribbean and the informal communication networks that emerged among people of African descent during the Age of Revolution. But the project ended up doing so much more: Through traditional archival work and innovative interpretation, Scott—who is now an emeritus historian at the University of Michigan—unearthed an entire underground world.

Along with the popularity of the subaltern school in South Asian history, recent peasant studies in Latin American history, and James C. Scott’s much-cited works on the “weapons of the weak” and the everyday politics of the oppressed, The Common Wind redefined for many historians how we write “history from below.” Drawing on Georges Lefebvre’s study of the role of rumor in the French Revolution, Scott brought Lefebvre’s techniques into the world of black revolutionaries. Tracking the currents of the ocean and the well-traversed routes of trade, war, and rebellion, Scott showed how ideas of black resistance flowed among the slave colonies of various European nations and helped inspire new visions of freedom among the enslaved.

All of this revolutionary unrest came to a head with the Haitian Revolution. News of the rebellion could not be contained by anxious slaveholders and local authorities, and it inspired urgent demands for emancipation among the enslaved throughout the so-called New World. “Sweeping across linguistic, geographic, and imperial boundaries,” Scott writes, “the tempest created by the black revolutionaries of Saint-Domingue and communicated by mobile people in other slave societies would prove to be a major turning point in the history of the Americas.” The title of his study was taken, appropriately, from Wordsworth’s ode to Toussaint Louverture: “There’s not a breathing of the common wind / That will forget thee.”

Reading The Common Wind today, one is struck by how Scott’s arguments have remained at the cutting edge of historical scholarship even after all these years. He uncovered a world of masterless men, free and enslaved, and helped map what he terms a “complex (and largely invisible) underground” of mariners, rebels, and runaways. Using concepts developed by Christopher Hill and C.L.R. James, Scott committed himself to years of painstaking research in the archives of various former slave colonies in order to chart the routes of black resistance in the late 18th century. Runaway slaves—especially those who created Maroon communities on the outskirts of plantation slavery—shared an ideological and political “common space,” he argues, and it was there that new visions of resistance, freedom, and political literacy arose.

In The Common Wind, Scott illustrates how the slave grapevine and forms of slave resistance not only connected isolated plantations but also jumped islands. The First Maroon War in Jamaica in the 1730s coincided with a slave uprising in Cuba. Not surprisingly, extensive marronage by the enslaved in Haiti preceded the revolution and helped lay future communication networks among black radicals. François Mackandal, the leader of a Haitian Maroon community, and Dutty Boukman, who is credited with starting the slave rebellion in Haiti, had both escaped from Jamaica, then a British colony. Runaways from the Danish islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John also moved around, often seeking protection in Spanish Cuba, until the authorities there reversed their policy of granting asylum to foreign slaves.

News and rumors of colonial rebellions, as well as the seeds of revolutionary politics, spread by means of what Scott calls “inter-island mobility—the world of ships and sailors.” The cities and ports of the islands, where news and commodities were exchanged widely, were home to large numbers of free blacks and runaways. Like the serfs of medieval Europe who sought the freedom and anonymity of urban areas—Stadtluft macht frei (City air makes you free), as the German saying went—runaway slaves gravitated to cities. Black seamen and itinerant seafarers brought and exchanged transatlantic news of British abolition and French revolutionary ideas in British, French, and Spanish ports. Bilingual and even trilingual runaways had, as Scott puts it, “access to policies toward slavery in three colonial empires and could therefore play a vital role in bringing together and transmitting the politics of each.”

Coastal commerce and seafaring blacks ended up becoming the common wind that blew slave resistance across the seas and among different slave societies. Encompassing not just the Caribbean but also the port cities of British North America, the West India trade helped widen this circuit of black underground communication. News of revolution flowed in the other direction as well, in the aftermath of the American Revolution when thousands of British loyalists—at times with their slaves—settled in the British West Indies and those free black Haitians who fought alongside the Americans brought its visions of revolution back home with them.

W. Jeffrey Bolster and several other historians have followed Scott’s lead in illuminating the importance of African-American sailors to the politics of resistance and emancipation, and from their work as well as Scott’s we know that many of the leading early black abolitionists—including Olaudah Equiano, the author of one of the first slave narratives, and Paul Cuffee, an African-American Quaker and sea captain from Massachusetts—were sailors. We meet many others like them in Scott’s book. The black abolitionist David Walker, for example, relied on black sailors to help distribute his seminal 1829 pamphlet “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.”

Local colonial authorities, Scott shows us, responded to this developing network of political communication by seeking to curtail black mobility and freedom. The attempts to regulate the movement of black sailors reached a zenith in the 19th-century US South with its notorious Negro Seamen Acts, which, in violation of international law, imprisoned all free black seamen from ships visiting Southern ports for the duration of their stay in order to prevent the passing of information about slave rebellions, especially the Haitian Revolution. The “mobile resistance” of black sailors and rebels, as Scott aptly calls it, turned out to be a central worry of counterrevolutionary politics at the time, and Scott uses his transnational lens to track the white fears and opposition that emerged in response.

But there was little that could stop the growing winds of antislavery sentiment and activism. News of the Somerset case of 1772—in which the most famous runaway in the British Empire, James Somerset, won his freedom—and of the British abolitionist crusade against the African slave trade in the 1780s and ’90s made Jamaican planters bemoan “an active conspiracy of misguided British humanitarians and mobile black agents.” Meanwhile, in the Spanish slave colonies, the pardos (free blacks) and the enslaved claimed that the Spanish king had issued a cedula protecting their rights. The borders of all three slaveholding European empires proved to be porous, as enslaved and free blacks carried news of antislavery politics among their ports.

Even more than British abolition and Spanish reformism, the French Revolution, the struggle for the rights of the gens de couleur (people of color), and local traditions of slave resistance combined to unleash a massive slave rebellion in Haiti in August 1791. The incendiary black communication network that circulated rumors and information throughout the black Atlantic was central in bringing all of these different currents together. With the start of the Haitian Revolution, this network began to bear fruit and spread out even farther.

In the revolution’s aftermath, the common wind of black resistance picked up speed, sowing terror and counterrevolution among slaveholders and colonial authorities across the Caribbean who wanted to contain the contagion of black liberty. They arbitrarily arrested those deemed suspicious and passed laws curtailing and monitoring black mobility. “French negroes” and French refugees from Haiti, Scott shows, soon spread word of the rebellion throughout the Americas. One of the former, Pedro (or Pierre) Bailly, was tried in New Orleans for fomenting slave rebellion, and Scott quotes him at length: “We have the title of ‘Citizens’ in Saint-Domingue and the other French islands…. All of us are human, there should be no differences: color should not differentiate us.”

Perhaps the most notable achievement of The Common Wind is Scott’s ability to embed slave resistance and the Haitian Revolution within the broader history of antislavery. In his 1995 landmark book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot documented how Western historians have long ignored or discounted the significance of the Haitian Revolution in the history of abolition. Both Scott and C.L.R. James, with his classic The Black Jacobins, have helped shatter this paradigm, demonstrating how the rebellion was central to revolutionary abolitionism across the Atlantic.

The Haitian Revolution, as Scott notes, “energized the culture of expectation and anticipation among slaves.” It also served to make the network of black communication ever more “purposeful,” as Haiti emerged as the “center of antislavery and black self-determination,” an “object of identification for Afro-Americans throughout the New World.” In the 1790s, news of rebellion and conspiracy reached places like Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond and Portsmouth, Virginia; and Pointe Coupee, Louisiana. In 1811, Charles Deslondes, a “free mulatto” inspired by the Haitian Revolution, led the largest slave rebellion in US history.

By highlighting the role of political rumor and information networks in the Atlantic world’s rebellions, Scott not only rewrote the history of the Age of Revolution; he provided a new understanding of black politics during the era of legal slavery. One can observe the influence of his insights throughout recent American historiography. For instance, Steven Hahn’s Pulitzer Prize–winning study of black politics in 19th-century America, A Nation Under Our Feet, also emphasizes the role that the slave grapevine played in remaking the political imagination of the enslaved. The history of the black Atlantic as it is currently known would simply not have been possible without Scott’s immense contributions.

In The Common Wind’s epilogue, Scott underscores how the Haitians themselves viewed their activism as part of a broader transatlantic abolition movement. Though not mentioned in the book, Henri Christophe, the ruler of Haiti’s northern kingdom, for example, recruited the British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson to represent Haiti in Europe and named one of its men-of-war after William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist parliamentarian. Haiti’s southern republic, under Alexandre Pétion, sought to promote abolitionism within the Caribbean and Latin America: It agreed to assist the Spanish-American independence movements led by Simón Bolívar only if these revolutionaries would guarantee the emancipation of local slaves. Yet for Scott, the most important aspects of the Haitian Revolution were the images of slave resistance that it generated and the underground network of black mariners and rebels that helped spread its revolutionary story. In fact, Scott closes his study with two American examples of Haiti’s influence: Charleston’s slave conspirator Denmark Vesey, a free black sailor who had lived in Haiti and planned to lead his followers there after starting a rebellion in 1822, and the fugitive slave William Wells Brown, who used the emancipatory image of the Haitian Revolution to further his case for the abolition of slavery in the American South in the 1850s.

In connecting the history of slave resistance with that of abolition, Scott has given a generation of scholars a new interpretive approach for identifying and exploring the common spaces and common winds of black resistance, in the past as well as the present. Even those who never studied under him remain students of his groundbreaking approach—not just in terms of the scholarship on slave resistance but also in terms of how the marginalized can appropriate and repurpose political information to forge a revolutionary politics of their own.

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