This book examines the life and thought of three extraordinary black men. Part of what makes them extraordinary is that they traveled extensively throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Unlike millions of uprooted Africans and their descendants at the time, these men did not have lives of toil and sweat in the plantations of the New World. One of them was born free, the other two became free in their youths, and it is this freedom that gave them mobility. What makes them especially extraordinary is the way they used this mobility and the nature of their physical and intellectual interventions in the world around them. These men share a consciousness of the violence and destruction directed toward people of African descent and a willingness to set themselves in motion in order to bring about change. And because they were literate and eager to express themselves, they gave a voice to their progressive perspectives. They were exceptional men, and their experiences and writings helped shape not only racial but also social and political thought in the eighteenth century.
If one judges from their biographies, they had little in common. These men lived in different national and ideological contexts, and to a great extent, they absorbed the ideas and beliefs that surrounded them. Jacobus Capitein was taken to the Netherlands from Africa as a child, and he took in the unique mixture of Calvinism, ethnocentrism, and tolerance that prevailed in the Dutch republic. Jean-Baptiste Belley lived in Saint-Domingue, a French colony, and emerged as a proponent of the ideals of the French Revolution. John Marrant grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and was exposed to the influences of Methodism, the American Revolution, and later, Freemasonry. In many ways, these men had more in common with the people around them than with each other: their thought was anchored in its own, unique cultural background.
But they share something important: an intellectual strategy made possible by their cosmopolitanism and by the critical stance that it enabled. Through their travels and their exposure to various social and cultural contexts, these men developed a universalizing, multiracial view of human life that, in each case, radicalized surrounding ideologies. Even after inheriting the liberationist and revolutionary ideas that made the eighteenth century such a groundbreaking time, they pushed those ideas further in their own distinctive ways. They were cosmopolitans, not just physically but philosophically and politically. And as such, they made an important contribution to the ideological renewal that was the Enlightenment.
Because each of these men also had connections to the black communities around him, the picture that emerges is that of an eighteenth-century Atlantic world that fostered an elite of black thinkers who took advantage of existing ideologies in order to spread a message of universal inclusion and egalitarianism. Their contributions were the result of their own reflection, but also of an environment that made their physical and intellectual independence possible. Indeed, while they had different racial histories, Holland, France, England, and the American colonies all still carried a certain racial openness inherited from previous centuries. Black cosmopolitans exploited this openness before the nineteenth century, in a new racial turn, closed its doors on them.
Though they never referred to themselves as such, in the most basic meaning of the term, all three men were cosmopolitans in that, to varying degrees, they had the freedom to travel, and they were exposed to different cultures. Capitein grew up on the West African coast and in the Netherlands, first in The Hague and then in Leiden, and he went back to Africa, where he served as a mediator between the whites on a Dutch trading post and the local population. Belley grew up in Saint-Domingue, traveled to Paris at the height of the French Revolution, went back to Saint-Domingue twice, and died in France. Marrant went from New York to Charleston, from there to London, from London to Nova Scotia in Canada, from there to Boston, and then back to London. Aside from Capitein’s and Belley’s original voyages from Africa, they were among the few blacks who traveled the Atlantic world for reasons other than the slave trade. Their exposure and openness to new cultures gave them a sense of multiculturalism one often associates with the cosmopolitan life.1
They were also cosmopolitan in the sense that they were familiar with, and actors in, spaces that were not determined by national identities or boundaries. Capitein had no clear national identity, and the marginal zone he occupied on the African coast after he returned forced him to think in terms of mixed communities. Belley was passionately French, but the troubles in Saint-Domingue throughout the 1790s kept its identity in a state of uncertainty. Marrant’s life seems a moveable feast without any strong national connection or feeling.
More important, these men were cosmopolitans because they developed a particular sensibility reflected in the original meaning of the term: to varying degrees, they became citizens of the world. Their cosmopolitanism was more political than that of Ira Berlin’s “Atlantic creoles,” people of mixed ancestry and heritage who emerged on African and American shores during the early phases of the slave trade, and more philosophical than that of many free blacks who just tried to make a life for themselves in a racially fraught Atlantic world.2 Their commitment to the world was not just about knowing and partly integrating other cultures. It was about developing an ethical vision of the world in which everyone had access to justice, the good society, and the good life as they conceived them.3
And it was about making this vision public. All three men actively participated in eighteenth-century print culture and addressed their ideas both to an undefined reading public and to the powers that be—whether Dutch intellectual and commercial institutions, French organs of revolution, or British movers of empire. Indeed, they were cosmopolitans who did not reject the power of the state to bring about change.4 Driven by their desire to participate in print culture, they developed relationships with persons and networks that made the publication of their writings possible. Their variations on established genres, such as the slave narrative and the political pamphlet, made their contributions distinctive.
While cosmopolitanism is certainly no guarantee of an ethical or progressive vision, in these particular cases, it is these men’s cosmopolitanism that helped radicalize their thought. The old republican ideals of civic virtue and communal life were still very much alive in the eighteenth century, and while the liberal desire for individual freedom was emerging with great force, the republican view continued to form an inspiration for those who did not think in those terms yet, or who were already envisioning the downsides of radical individualism. This book shows that the three men under study not only were inspired by these republican ideals but enlarged them into visions of interracial community and egalitarianism. Capitein’s stoic Calvinist faith guided his decisions in Africa, and while he used it partly for purposes of indoctrination, it also fed his vision of a multiracial, multicultural community as the realization of God’s new covenant. Belley’s republicanism, or his devotion to the combined values of freedom, equality, and the common good, had both national and international dimensions. Marrant’s ministry, as well as his chaplaincy for the black Freemasons in Boston, combined a concern for black communities with visions of universal egalitarianism. Taken together, their ideas show that among blacks were some of the most radical thinkers of the eighteenth century.5
The fundamental value associated with black writers in the slavery era is the search for freedom. It is at the heart of the genre of the slave narrative, and it informs many black expressions of religious faith. American blacks throughout history have been able to resort to the ideas of the American Revolution in the most convincing ways, precisely because they saw their own aspirations as fully embodied by the founding ideals of the nation. This interpretation of American identity as anchored in notions of individual freedom and natural human rights reflects traditional views of the founding as an expression of a liberal political philosophy. In this view, the American Revolution was the concrete realization of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. In the treatise, Locke posits a natural state that existed before the institution of government, in which humans enjoyed freedom and equality within the bounds of the law of nature, which prescribes that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” (9). In order to avoid disorder and rule by passion, and to ensure the preservation of property, men agreed “together mutually to enter into one community, and make one body politic” (14), a contract they were then free to dissolve if it became tyrannical. Locke’s fundamental statement of individual freedom and natural rights has long been seen as one major source of inspiration for revolutionary and abolitionist thought in the Atlantic world.
In the past few decades, though, historians have highlighted another important strand of eighteenth-century Atlantic political thought, usually referred to as civic humanism or classical republicanism. Its importance resurfaced thanks to J. G. A. Pocock’s groundbreaking book, The Machiavellian Moment, published in 1975. Pocock argued that eighteenth-century political thought was informed by theories of republicanism developed in early modern Italian city-states, themselves inspired by Greek and Roman philosophy. These theories, Pocock said, present republics as perpetually caught in a fight against fortuna, or the vagaries of time, and they seek to describe—or prescribe—ways in which republics can maintain their stability in the face of it. Partly relying on Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, they emphasize the importance for citizens of remaining free and independent so that they can devote themselves to the common good of the republic through the display of civic virtue. Pocock then highlighted the role played by republicanism in the English Civil War, as well as in the American Revolution. The book led to a paradigm shift in European and American historiography. Indeed, historians in the past few decades have emphasized how, among others, English, American, French, and Dutch political thought has been shaped as much by republican values as by the Lockean contractarianism that is usually associated with the Enlightenment.
This thesis led to heated debates among historians and political scientists about the actual differences between the two theories, the ways in which they overlap, the role of the concept of freedom in each of them, and the degree of their presence in particular national histories. In a 1992 article, Daniel T. Rodgers traced the course of these developments and quarrels among American historians, highlighting how a focus on republicanism swept through the historiography of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries like an intellectual tsunami. The American Revolution was reinterpreted as a fundamentally republican reaction against British corruption, a fight for a public good, or the expression of a desire for civic participation. Social historians of the nineteenth century revisited class strife through the lens of labor republicanism. The concept came to be applied to women’s history, and even to the history of the American South. Ultimately, it became “distended” and “harder to define.” In legal philosophy, it came to mean “everything liberalism was not” (33)—the focus on civic life rather than on rights, the commitment to specific values and purposes rather than a neutral or pluralist position. Recently, similar discussions have been taking place about the role and the meaning of republicanism in Dutch and French history. One may wonder if the concept can still perform any interpretive work at all.
I believe it can. It is certainly the case that, by the end of the eighteenth century, ideas such as representative government and the balance of powers had complex and entangled roots and cannot simply be labeled liberal or republican. In fact, the word “liberal” did not yet have a political meaning, and people usually labeled “republican” any political system involving some degree of representation, sometimes even monarchies. But the notion of civic humanism has a specific history, which goes back to humanists of the Italian Renaissance. These humanists were certainly concerned about political liberty, which meant “both independence and self-government” (Skinner, 1:77). But they also emphasized that freedom’s role is to build the commonwealth by spurring citizens to exercise their talents and display their public spirit. While the notion of civic virtue was not new, it was expanded and became a staple of humanist political thought, especially thanks to their rediscovery of ancient texts. Cicero’s concept of vir virtutis, the man of virtue, led to the idea that men had to aspire to excellence in all things, devote their virtues and talents to the defense of their community, and achieve honor and glory in the process. In fifteenth-century Florence, Leonardo Bruni, a humanist, praised the excellence of Florence’s constitution in that “it makes it equally possible for everyone to take part in the affairs of the Republic” (Skinner, 1:78). It was this freedom that led to the greatness of the commonwealth, by allowing men to exercise their talents and to display their virtue on its behalf. Sixteenth-century humanists such as Machiavelli emphasized political freedom, government by the people, public virtue, the dangers of luxury and of private wealth.6 While notions of self-interest and self-preservation would emerge in the following centuries, the humanists’ ideas remained influential.7
Particularly because of the predominance of liberalism in black intellectual historiography, I think it is urgent to show the extent to which black writers and thinkers were drawn to other conceptualizations of individuals and society, particularly to the concepts of republicanism and civic humanism. While these theories are sometimes still dismissed as “old” or “traditional” because they don’t focus on the individual or on democracy, or because of their obvious gender bias, they actually provided black intellectuals a theoretical wherewithal that allowed them to imagine a radical transformation of society. This book argues that Capitein, Belley, and Marrant were profoundly influenced by what can be called republican values and that it is their cosmopolitan republicanism that drove their progressivism. Belley drew his sense of civic and military devotion to the common good from the revolutionary culture that surrounded him, both in Saint-Domingue and in Paris. Marrant slowly evolved from an evangelical outlook grounded in an individual relationship to the deity, to a vision of universal, republican brotherhood. And while he accepted and even promoted conservative ideas, Capitein absorbed the more radical and civic aspects of Calvinism and allowed them to shape his responses to his experiences after he left Europe. Through the lens of these three lives, and of those of many blacks around them, this book shows that black republicanism had a significant presence in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.
The association of Calvinism with republicanism may be surprising. In “On Civil Government,” the last chapter of Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin seemed to recommend the political status quo. After criticizing “fanatics” (772) who argue that Christians should not be bound by civil laws because they are obeying a higher law, he argues that, because magistrates and kings are representatives of God, and they receive their power from God, they should be obeyed. He quotes Paul admonishing Timothy that all prayers and thanks be made to kings, “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (775). Indeed, peace and tranquility seem to be a priority for him. Even if a leader or a magistrate is not fulfilling his duty, private persons should not intervene in public affairs, “as it is impossible to resist the magistrate without, at the same time, resisting God himself” (797). Even tyrants should be obeyed, since they too are agents of God, who put them in place “to punish the iniquity of the people” (798). This argument fits well in a chapter that starts by stating that “it is of no importance, what is our condition among men, or under the laws of what nation we live” (771), compared to, says Calvin, the eternal freedom offered by the kingdom of Christ.
But the last few pages of the chapter offer a different view. Calvin suddenly argues that, sometimes, God sends “public avengers” (803) to deliver the people from tyrannical domination. The role of magistrates is to act as a rein on power, in a way similar to “the Ephori, who were a check upon the kings among the Lacedæmonians, or the popular tribunes upon the consuls among the Romans” (804). Not only do these ephors or tribunes act as a limit on the power of leaders, but it is their God-imposed duty to do so and to take action if the leader does not fulfill his divinely delegated function. While the first part of the chapter had seemed to encourage submissiveness, the last section condemns it. As fleeting as the latter discussion is, it introduces a “constitutionalist element into the discussion of political authority.” While constitutionalism was certainly not an exclusively Calvinist concept, since it had been theorized by scholastics and humanists, Calvinists made “an important contribution to the stock of radical political ideas available to his followers” (Skinner, 2:233) at the time.
Indeed, something about Calvinism inclined it toward revolutionary political theory. As Michael Walzer puts it, “What Calvinists said of the saint, other men would later say of the citizen: the same sense of civic virtue, of discipline and duty, lies behind the two names” (2). Walzer shows how Calvinists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sought to destroy the traditional social order and rebuild a holy commonwealth. They abandoned notions of affectionate or family ties to envision a society bound by its obedience to God. God made agreements or covenants with men, and as a consequence, they had to honor the contract through renovation, discipline, and order. Calvinists were originally not interested in personal religious ecstasy; individual regeneration was inextricably bound to national regeneration. These ideas underlay the thought of the Marian exiles, who fled England when Queen Mary, a Catholic, started persecuting Protestants, and of the Puritans behind the English Civil War and the creation of a commonwealth in the middle of the seventeenth century. So from its beginnings, Calvinism had a civic, even a radical, dimension.8
Blacks around the eighteenth-century Atlantic world certainly felt that Calvinism had an egalitarian appeal. In spite of the seeming correlation between Calvinism and an acceptance of the status quo, many blacks who lived in Europe and North America in the eighteenth century embraced one form or another of Calvinist thought. Precisely because it emphasized God’s all-knowingness, omnipotence, and providential guidance, it offered some solace against the cruelties and injustice that people of African descent were ceaselessly subjected to. In the choice between faith and good works, faith also seemed more easily achievable to people who were struggling for survival. To some, Calvinism may have implied a less than critical attitude toward the institution of slavery. But as it grew and developed, some people critical of the institution drew from Calvinism the very philosophical foundation that underpinned their abolitionism. It is this potential richness and complexity of Calvinism that sustained their views.
Many blacks who embraced Calvinism in the eighteenth-century English-speaking world came to it through the influence of George Whitefield and his fiery brand of evangelicalism. The movement had emerged from the Church of England in the 1730s, and unlike John Wesley, another famous Methodist, Whitefield held to the doctrine of predestination, or the idea that God is the ultimate decider of human beings’ individual salvation. His charisma and his appeal to emotion and personal transformation turned him into a major participant in the First Great Awakening, a revival of religious feeling that took place in the American colonies in the first half of the eighteenth century. As he traveled widely along the Atlantic seaboard, he often preached to crowds of thousands. Even though he was perceived as an egalitarian because he preached to all levels of society, he was not in principle opposed to slavery, and he even proposed its introduction in Georgia, where he ended up using slaves at his orphanage in Bethesda, ten miles from Savannah.
In spite of his stance on slavery, many blacks owed him their conversion, and several black writers paid tribute to him. Phillis Wheatley, a poet and a slave who lived in Boston and became famous as the first black author to publish a book, wrote an elegy to him. James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw tells us in his narrative that he knew Whitefield very well and heard him preach in New York many times and that when he arrived in England, Whitefield helped him with expenses and lodging. Both Wheatley and Gronniosaw dedicated their works to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, whose religious movement was strongly associated with Whitefield, who was one of her chaplains. In his autobiography, Olaudah Equiano describes hearing Whitefield speak at a revival meeting in Savannah in February 1765; Whitefield preached with “the greatest fervour and earnestness,” and Equiano was “very much struck and impressed with this” (132). In his narrative, as we will see, John Marrant, who would later become associated with the Huntingdon Connexion, describes how he once entered a large meeting house in Charleston, South Carolina, and was overwhelmed when he heard Whitefield preach, and became convinced the minister was addressing him directly.
For many of these writers, and especially for those born in Africa, the moment of conversion represented an entry into a realm of spiritual freedom and a delivery from the darkness of paganism. As a consequence, slavery came across as a sort of “fortunate fall,” a phrase used by historian Vincent Carretta to refer to various black writers’ thankfulness for their introduction to Western values, even though this introduction happened through enslavement.9 In “On Being Brought from AFRICA to AMERICA,” Wheatley declares: “’TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land, / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too: / Once I redemption neither sought nor knew” (13). Even Equiano, an outspoken abolitionist, identifies his moment of conversion as a recognition of God’s providential plan: “Now every leading providential circumstance that happened to me, from the day I was taken from my parents to that hour, was then, in my view, as if it had but just then occurred. I was sensible of the invisible hand of God which guided and protected me, when in truth I knew it not: still the Lord pursued me although I slighted and disregarded it; this mercy melted me down” (190). After this insight, he rushed back to the chapel in Westminster where he had heard a Calvinist preach, and was finally accepted as a member. For both writers, accepting God’s providence meant that enslavement had been the price to pay for spiritual liberation.
Some of the black writers in this individualistic, new-birth strand of Calvinism embedded no explicit abolitionist statements in their narratives, instead focusing on the liberationist dimension of conversion. Gronniosaw is a case in point. Brought to the Raritan valley of New Jersey after he disembarked from Africa, he was raised by Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen, a Dutch Reformed minister who had received a pietist education in the Netherlands and who, once in the colonies, developed a strict theology with an emphasis on inner spirituality, rebirth, and puritan practices. Whitefield himself visited his church and acknowledged his role in the revival that was then turning into the First Great Awakening. Recognizing a soul mate in theology and preaching style, he wrote in his journal that Frelinghuysen had been “the beginner of the great work . . . in these parts” (Tanis, 82). Gronniosaw’s story is infused with Frelinghuysen’s theology and is less a slave narrative than a spiritual autobiography. He seems proud to recount that, when he visited the Netherlands, he was interrogated by “38 ministers every Thursday for seven weeks together” (48), and they were satisfied. Clearly, Gronniosaw’s theology was close enough to that of his interrogators in Amsterdam. He did not develop a major abolitionist voice.10
Other black writers who subscribed to the Whitefield school of Calvinism spoke against slavery, but their opposition does not really seem to have been inspired by it. In a February 1774 letter to Native American minister Samson Occom, Wheatley asserts that “in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance” (153). Her vocabulary echoes that of the American Revolution more than that of her religious upbringing. In London, Equiano actively took up the cause of abolitionism in the late 1780s, first by publishing essays in various British magazines, and then finally by offering the story of his life as an example of the vicissitudes and wrongness of the system. Interestingly, though, in his essays, he refers to Christian compassion and its duty of “benevolence to all.” In his first essay, moreover, he sounds like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, as he points out that “the oppressor and the oppressed are in the hands of the just and awful God, who says, Vengeance is mine and I will repay” (258). He seems to relish the fate reserved to the oppressor: “The studied and torturing punishments, inhuman, as they are, of a barbarous planter, or a more barbarous overseer, will be tenderness compared to the provoked wrath of an angry but righteous God! who will raise, I have the fullest confidence, many of the sable race to the joys of Heaven, and cast the oppressive white to that doleful place, where he will cry, but will cry in vain, for a drop of water!” (258–59). In an image that could have come from Jonathan Edwards, the famous Calvinist preacher, Equiano turns the concept of a wrathful god to the service of his fight against slavery. Surrounded by white abolitionists who were mostly Quakers or Anglicans, he decided to assert the liberatory potential of a Calvinist worldview, but more specifically of a millennialist one, looking toward the future installment of a virtuous world. It is this Edwardsian bent that motivates him here.11
And it is this particular strand of Calvinism that became the most overtly abolitionist. Its most outspoken black representative was the minister Lemuel Haynes. In his writings and sermons, we can see how Calvinism could be turned into a theological underpinning for abolitionism. In his groundbreaking book Black Puritan, Black Republican: The Life and Thought of Lemuel Haynes, 1753–1833, John Saillant points out that Haynes examined the slave trade and slavery “in a systematic, historicist way” (19). On the one hand, Haynes found much inspiration in images from the Old Testament. For example, in “Liberty Further Extended,” an essay he composed in the 1770s, he expands on humanitarian arguments used by Anthony Benezet in Some Historical Account of Guinea, published in 1771, by highlighting how the blood of the innocent needs to be avenged. But while acknowledging that slavery was once legitimate under Israelite and Mosaic law, Haynes argues that it is forbidden in the New Testament because of “the new dispensation inaugurated by Christ” (Saillant, Black Puritan, 30). Indeed, the New Testament “undid the authorization of slavery in the Old Testament” (31). The new dispensation, in which spirit and love were essential, was universal, and so removed the old one by proving that it had not been interpreted properly. It is this historicist view that inspires Haynes’s abolitionism.
By insisting on the superiority of the new dispensation, Haynes occupied a specific spiritual and political realm. His dispensationalism drew on the theories of Samuel Hopkins, the major representative of a New England theological movement called New Divinity. Hopkins wanted to reassert God’s absolute sovereignty, and he argued that God not only permits sin but causes it, according to a master plan that will ultimately lead to the establishment of the good and the arrival of the millennium. As he put it in the title of one of his essays, sin is “an advantage to the universe.”12 The only way for human beings to promote the moral progress of the universe is to renounce love of the self and to practice “disinterested benevolence.” So, unlike Whitefield’s, Hopkins’s strict Calvinism led to an ethics of communalism and social reform. To him, slavery had to be abolished so that the colonies could achieve moral regeneration. Building on Hopkins, Haynes applied the ideas of New Divinity to “the cause of interracial equality in the new nation” (Saillant, Black Puritan, 86). The slave trade and slavery had been providentially designed by God ultimately to create a racially harmonious society, and true virtue entailed working to help bring it about. Interracial brotherhood was the outcome of these Calvinists’ dispensationalism. Hopkins and Haynes were proof that communitarian, egalitarian conclusions could be drawn from a historicist, Calvinist worldview. As we will see, both Capitein and Marrant, each in his own way, drew on this particular approach.
Capitein’s, Belley’s, and Marrant’s ideological and political interventions were partly made possible by their surrounding culture. In keeping with recent trends in the historiography of racism, this book, by describing the racial context for each of these three lives, shows that racial thought in Europe was in flux throughout the eighteenth century. Shaped by several centuries of writings, art, and the physical presence of blacks on the European continent, racial thinking at the beginning of the eighteenth century was first and foremost monogenic: all humans were seen as belonging to one big human family, and if it was investigated at all, racial difference was usually ascribed to climate. In previous centuries, African culture had often been assessed in positive ways, though ethnocentrism had also assured Europeans of their own cultural superiority. In the course of the century, a new fad for scientific classification planted the germ of polygenism, or the idea of human groups as having separate origins. Moreover, the magnitude of economic interests tied to the slave trade and slavery contributed to more negative images of people of African descent. On the other hand, the spread of the Enlightenment promoted humanist and liberal ideas such as tolerance and individual dignity. As a result, by the end of the century, European racial thought was profoundly unstable, ready to tilt in different directions depending on the context.
The movement toward the kind of engrained racism that would become predominant in the nineteenth century does not seem to have been inevitable. The Greeks and the Romans, with few exceptions, had no clear racial prejudice, and Christianity carried the idea of the unity of humankind. Representations of blacks in medieval and early modern European art and literature were overwhelmingly positive. Even travel accounts about Africa before the eighteenth century were surprisingly evenhanded, full of instances in which a European observer admires Africans’ cultural or physical features, even as, overall, the belief in European superiority was a given.
But by the eighteenth century, most of the blacks Europeans came in contact with on the European continent, in real life or in representations, were either slaves or people of lower status. Most major cities in Holland, France, and England, and especially ports, had a black underclass consisting of slaves temporarily in the country to learn a trade or free blacks working in the trades or as domestics. An African origin was usually associated with a lack of cultural sophistication or even with savagery, and reactions ranged from paternalism to contempt. There was also a trend of bringing African children to Europe. Sometimes they were sent by African rulers, in a conscious strategy to increase their power and access in the Atlantic commercial and cultural network. At other times, they were brought by European traders or administrators and ended up members of rich households, often functioning as symbols of wealth or as mere playthings.
While all three parts of this book show ways in which race was the defining element in encounters between blacks and whites in the eighteenth century, they also highlight the rise of Enlightenment liberalism, or a desire to move beyond race and to assess people on the basis of a common human core. Blackness was not systematically considered a sign of inferiority. In all three countries, to varying degrees, there are examples of blacks having illustrious careers. Mixed-race marriages were not uncommon. The growth of the abolitionist movement in the second half of the eighteenth century promoted a discourse of common humanity and egalitarianism. Some artistic and literary representations featured black characters with realism and complexity. Overall, then, this book shows that one cannot just dismiss the eighteenth century as a racist monolith, and one should particularly avoid projecting later attitudes back into it.13
By the eighteenth century, the racial atmosphere also varied subtly from Amsterdam to Paris to London. The Dutch seemed happy with what can be seen as an early version of multiculturalism, a relaxed if ethnocentric acceptance of difference in their midst, and a determination to live and let live, as long as a person was economically productive. The French tended to subsume all under the banner of their national identity; while blackness could be experienced as foreign, they also seemed quite ready to let it be trumped by national identity, and even to express admiration for it—to celebrate it. Like the Dutch, the British were phlegmatic about racial difference, which often mattered less than the idea of being a subject of the king. While ethnocentrism dominated Europe, each country integrated blacks into its social fabric in its own way.
The American colonies stand separate, marked as they were by slavery in the South or by a recent history of slavery in the North. While some free blacks managed to carve a space for themselves in these societies, the section about John Marrant shows that their relationship to the social and racial context was much more self-conscious and adversarial than in Europe. The notion of black inferiority was more deeply engrained in mentalities as well as in the social and economic life, and as with European countries, this racism would only deepen in the following century.
Each of the three men under study in this book found ways to negotiate the particular racial atmosphere that surrounded him and to carve out a particular place for himself. Interestingly, to them, race was not necessarily a dimension to be negated or erased. In this respect also, each in his own way tried philosophically to move beyond liberalism, to a place where blackness was not negative but somehow still mattered. Capitein perceived the combination of ethnocentrism and relaxed multiculturalism around him, but there are hints that he enjoyed maintaining the complexity of his identity rather than blending in. Belley was fully devoted to France, but his fiery nationalism did not prevent a certain degree of racial pride. Marrant defended the idea of Christian unity but also looked for ways to create black community. In their desire to blend humanism and racial consciousness, these men often sound quite modern.
The African Diaspora in an Age of Revolution
All three men, each in his own way, were touched by the revolutions that took place in the eighteenth century, whether ideological or material. While Belley’s thought reflects the secular grounding of the French Enlightenment, Capitein and Marrant were both profoundly shaped by dramatic changes in Christianity. Belley actually participated in the military and political upheavals of the French Revolution, fighting to protect abolition, and speaking up as a representative at the Paris Convention. Capitein inherited a version of Calvinism shaped by the ideological revolution of the Dutch Enlightenment, and while it did not at first turn him into an abolitionist, it later motivated his vision of a broader community. Marrant’s thought evolved from Methodism’s focus on individual salvation and the liberal ideas of the American Revolution to a more communitarian consciousness and a more radical form of Christianity in black Freemasonry. All three were influenced by and participated in the age of revolutions.
This book contributes to the study of the African diaspora in a number of new ways. With its focus on biography and individual intellectual development, it offers a focused perspective in the study of the vast networks of transportation and exploitation that affected people of African descent in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. By digging into three individual lives, it shows the multiple ways in which blacks were affected by and contributed to their environment and provides some thickness of description to lives that often remain sketchy in larger projects. The focus on free men also throws light on a dimension of the African diaspora that has only begun to be investigated. I chose these particular three precisely because they left us documents that make this kind of investigation possible.
More broadly, this book begins to sketch an international intellectual history of blacks in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. By placing each of these men within his national context, it shows the multifaceted ideologies they were exposed to, as well as the ways in which they both absorbed and resisted their ideological environment. The mixture of Dutch, French, British, and American stories makes comparisons possible, whether they be about race, religion, or political thought. It is my hope that this combination of micro- and macrohistory adds a new facet to the ever-fascinating story of blacks in the eighteenth century.
The subject of chapter 1, Jacobus Capitein, was taken from Africa to Holland as a child. He proved a good student, studied theology at the University of Leiden, was ordained, and returned to the Gold Coast, where he worked as a minister at a Dutch trading post. This chapter traces his intellectual growth and argues that, once back in Africa, he tried to push the progressive potential of a Calvinism that had already been transformed by the Dutch Enlightenment. Specifically, it focuses on the way his notion of a new covenant gradually seems to have taken him from an acceptance of slavery to a multicultural, multiracial vision of human community. It is his diasporic, cosmopolitan identity, I argue, that allowed this rethinking of racial relations and hierarchies. This development, when placed alongside the ideas of men like Lemuel Haynes, a New England black minister, shows how blacks in the eighteenth century could take advantage of the complexities and possibilities of Calvinism, which is often associated with proslavery stances and the social status quo, and make it serve a different agenda.
Chapter 2 focuses on Jean-Baptiste Belley, who was taken from Africa to Saint-Domingue when he was still a baby and remained a slave until young adulthood. Once free, he played a role in the Haitian and French Revolutions. This chapter traces his life as a military man and political actor in Saint-Domingue and in France and argues that he went through a gradual ideological development toward egalitarian and republican thought. Because his life and ideas were at the heart of contemporary events, this chapter places him within various contexts, including the community of free blacks in Saint-Domingue, the beginnings of the Haitian Revolution, the role of republicanism in the rise of French abolitionism, and the growth of French racial thought until the eighteenth century. It shows that, through his presence and his commitment, Belley, like a number of other black cosmopolitans such as Etienne Mentor and Pierre Thomany, was one of the rare true spokespersons for the universal ideals that drove the French Revolution.
The third chapter traces John Marrant’s numerous travels between the American continent and Europe and his intellectual evolution as he moved from one context to another. It first explores his individualistic outlook and how it was anchored both in the evangelical focus on new-birth conversion and a personal relationship to God and in the American Revolutionary context. It then shows his development of a more communal vision, as a preacher in Nova Scotia and a chaplain for the black Freemasons in Boston. Here the chapter identifies a more supple cosmopolitanism, as Marrant alternates universal ideals with black-identified solidarity. It is under the influence of Prince Hall and other black Freemasons that his international vision finds its most subtle expression.