Undercurrents of Power

Kevin Dawson considers how enslaved Africans carried aquatic skills—swimming, diving, boat making, even surfing—to the Americas. Undercurrents of Power not only chronicles the experiences of enslaved maritime workers, but also traverses the waters of the Atlantic repeatedly to trace and untangle cultural and social traditions.

Undercurrents of Power
Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora

Kevin Dawson

Feb 2018 | 384 pages | Cloth $45.00
History | African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Waterscapes of the African Diaspora

Chapter 1. Atlantic African Aquatic Cultures: A Cross-Cultural Comparison
Chapter 2. Cultural Meanings of Recreational Swimming and Surfing
Chapter 3. Aquatic Sports and Performance Rituals: Gender, Bravery, and Honor
Chapter 4. History from Below: Enslaved Underwater Divers
Chapter 5. Undercurrents of Power: Challenging Racial Hierarchies from Below

Chapter 6. African Canoe-Makers: Constructing Floating Cultures
Chapter 7. Mountains Divide and Rivers Unite: Atlantic African Canoemen
Chapter 8. Maritime Continuities: African Canoes on New World Waters
Chapter 9. The Floating Economies of Slaves and Slaveholders
Chapter 10. Sacred Vessels, Sacred Waters: The Cultural Meanings of Dugout Canoes
Chapter 11. A World Afloat: Mobile Slave Communities
Chapter 12. The Watermen's Song: Canoemen's Aural Waterscapes

Conclusion. A Sea Change in Atlantic History


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction: Waterscapes of the African Diaspora

Our story begins in the Pacific, off the island of Hawai'i, in Kealakekua Bay. Here, on January 22, 1779, surgeon's mate David Samwell wrote an early account of surfing, an account capturing Western apprehensions of water and other people's affinity for gliding through liquid infinities: "These People find one of their Chief amusements in that which to us presented nothing but Horror & Destruction, and we saw with astonishment young boys and Girls about 9 or ten years of age playing amid such tempestuous Waves that the hardiest of our seamen would have trembled to face." The sailors "looked upon this as no other than certain death." Like other Europeans, Samwell viewed surfing as mere "amusement," failing to comprehend non-Western cultural understandings of water. Conveying Western land-oriented perceptions, he reveals how anxieties about swimming caused white people to misconstrue Hawaiian aquatic traditions, while regarding water as an unnatural element and swimming as a life-threatening pursuit. The playground of Hawaiian youth was a place of "Horror & Destruction" for white men who had just spent three years at sea.

Societies carve diverging identities from their interactions with and historicization of the same ocean. In many important ways, Westerners are terracentric—"landlocked, mentally if not physically"—treating waterways as empty, cultureless, historical voids. In 1620, William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, captured beliefs concerning humans' natural relationships with land as he witnessed the landing of Pilgrims who "fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean and delivered them from all the perils and miseries, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element."

For more than a millennium, there has been a concerted effort to suppress the sea with religious, scientific, and historical perceptions beginning and ending on the terra firma. Scripture tells us humanity began in the Garden of Eden, while seas symbolized the unfinished chaos predating civilization, a metaphor for God's vengeance, and a perpetuation of the Great Flood. Scientists explain that humanity emerged long after our common ancestor flopped ashore. Historians favor land-bound studies over maritime ones; occasionally using Atlantic voyages to frame accounts of Pilgrims, priests, conquistadors, colonists, and slaves. Terrestrial perspectives treat water as a border for land-bound events and an intercontinental highway, concluding that cultural creation was restricted to land.

Water covers some 70 percent of the earth. Most people live near water. Water dominates much of Atlantic Africa. Stretching from Senegal to Angola, this region is rimmed by thousands of miles of coastline, bisected by rivers and streams, and pockmarked by lakes, while the Niger River's sweeping arch frames its northeastern limits and the Congo plunges through its southern reaches. Here, Africans maintained intimate interactions with water during work and personal time; regarding it as social and cultural spaces, not as intervals between places. Scholars regularly encapsulate societies into binary reductive spheres, treating individuals as land people or mariners; farmers or fishermen—not both. Societies were not dichotomized into discrete terrestrial and maritime worlds and water people equally understood land and water. Many Africans were fishing-farmers and farming-fishermen who wove terrestrial and aquatic experiences into amphibious lives, interlacing spiritual and secular beliefs, economies, social structures, and political institutions—their very way of life—around relationships with water.

Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora examines aquatic fluencies to consider how African-descended peoples charted cultural constellations onto waterscapes while forging similar communities of practice and meaning. African-born and country-born (or those born in the Americas) slaves recreated and reimagined African traditions as they cast cultural anchors into ancestral waters while interlacing diverse ethnic valuations upon New World waterscapes. Grounded in the eighteenth century, this book extends from 1444, when the Portuguese first entered sub-Saharan Africa, to 1888, when Brazil became the last New World society to abolish slavery.

Like watermarks on paper, aquatics can leave ineffaceable impressions on cultures, on memories, and on one's sense of place and identity. Water was a defining feature for African-descended peoples living along seas, rivers, lakes, and estuaries as immersionary traditions enabled many to merge water and land into unified culturescapes. Accounts indicate many were adept swimmers, underwater divers, and canoeists.

In Africa, the construction and use of dugout canoes was imbued with spiritual and secular meanings. Canoes were a central means of conveyance, possibly moving more goods than any other method. Men and women preparing to use them for fishing, market voyages, visiting family members and friends, and warfare made offerings to water deities and dugouts, asking for guidance and protection.

The Atlantic slave trade created a cultural watershed, channeling traditions to the Americas where slaveholders clustered Africans into ethnic enclaves. Imported Africans constructed cultural beachheads, exercising muscle memories that provided New World waters with echoes of home. Sources suggest that captives used African-informed canoe designs and swimming and canoeing techniques to maintain ethnic traditions while forging new identities in multiethnic communities of belonging.

Aquatics enabled unwilling colonists to forge semiautonomous cultural worlds as they traveled more extensively than previously assumed, gaining privacy away from white authority. Parting blue and green waters while swimming and canoeing, many African captives enjoyed their exploited bodies while temporarily escaping the gray monotony of agricultural bondage. Many leveraged their expertise for lives of privileged exploitation.

Maritime retentions resulted from converging phenomena. During free time, saltwater (or African-born) captives of the same ethnicity purposefully re-created traditions, while members of diverse groups reimagined and merged customs. Slaveholders forced some to maintain traditions when members of the same and discrete ethnicities constructed and crewed dugouts or formed underwater dive teams. Multiethnic labor forces faced communication obstacles. Still, similar customs, spiritual beliefs, building techniques, and aesthetic valuations seemingly permitted waterscapes and dugouts to possess meanings for all as traditions coalesced.

Undercurrents of Power expands traditional interpretations of how we examine the past. The Chesapeake, for instance, is one of the most examined regions of America. Historian Rhys Isaacs broadened our historical understandings, explaining how "Virginians of different ranks experienced their surroundings as they went through them, heading out from home along ways that connected them." Cutting through fields and woods, bondpeople gained subtle knowledge of their "alternative territorial system." Traveling by road, planters experienced the "landscape differently—from a vantage point some three feet higher." They observed fields, slaves, and great houses, encountering white and black people who showed them signs of deference, reaffirming their social status.

Isaacs vibrantly illustrated how landscapes shaped human experiences. But what about water? What about the Chesapeake Bay? We would be remiss to ignore how geographic features, like mountains, urban settings, and agricultural fields, as well as the types of crops grown in them, informed human experiences. Still, we only consider a portion of the environment slaves intimately understood, forgetting the thousands of square miles of water that dominated this region, as well as the Caribbean, Latin America, and the rest of North America.

Colonization redefined New World landscapes physically and conceptually, treating them as a savage wilderness that needed to be cultivated intocivilized gardens evocative of Europe. Colonists did not culturally conquer water. This allowed captives to impose African meanings upon waters that were once known only to Amerindians, using them to "maintain distance, distinctiveness, and some sense of ownership" over their lives.

The term waterscape expresses how freshwater and saltwater systems actively informed group identities while articulating how water and land were interlaced into amphibious culturescapes. Waterscape extends the idea of "seascapes" beyond its saltwater confines into freshwater systems. African-descended peoples "enlisted" water "as a player in the historical drama," treating it asdynamic multidimensional spaces. Indeed, waterscapes invite scholars to slide into the drink to reconsider how people who are traditionally treated as members of land-bound societies interacted with local and distant waterways. This approach dramatically expands our historical perspective, adding tens of thousands of miles of culturescapes above and below the water's surface.

At the same time, Atlantic history extends our understanding of the early modern (c.1500-1800) world; terrestrial perspectives ground it in an intellectual valley, limiting its horizons to landbound events. Oceans largely remain a literary mechanism bookending terrestrial histories, prompting historian W. Jeffrey Bolster to observe that "modern people" are "riveted to a land-centered geography" and "have difficulty imagining the oceanic areas" as early modern people did, challenging scholars to "put the ocean in Atlantic history." We equally forget to add water to the Atlantic, assuming maritime history primarily existed on the decks of Western ships or along the docks and wharves of European cities and their colonial outposts, relegating Africans' immersionary experiences to intellectual backwaters. We must avoid making "the historical experiences of Europeans" the "normative standard against which judgments about Atlantic people and their histories are made." Those willing to take the intellectual plunge will find vibrant histories below the surface, in the curl of breaking waves, and seated in dugout canoes.

In this regard, scholars of Oceania offer possibilities for integrating water and aquatics into Atlantic paradigms. In 1993, Epeli Hau'ofa charted Oceania, borrowing concepts of cultural geography from scholar-activists writing in the wake of African independence who forged broad integrative frameworks to correct the historiographic fragmentation that broke Africa into "a historical jigsaw puzzle" by ignoring human relationships with their environment. Stressing that previous studies similarly misconstrued Oceania by concluding that islanders were sea-locked peoples stranded on islands, Hau'ofa rejected the "belittling" tendency of "continental" scholars who shrank this expanse by focusing on human relationships with dry areas, ignoring how Oceanians holistically understood their space, which Europeans had carved into Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. Water was not a confining barrier, nor a liquid void. Seas and islands formed a seamless culturescape—a "sea of islands." "Oceania" signifies human connections to the sea. While this sea of islands suffered "a colonial tsunami," it did, as historian Nicholas Thomas stressed, "remain an Islanders' world."

This book is constructed at the intersection of Atlantic history and the African diaspora. Atlantic history uses a comprehensive approach for examining the past by tracing connections across webs of transnational engagements that emphasize movements and interactions. Scholars of the African diaspora evaluate how captives "remembered Africa intentionally and deliberately" while "creating new and vibrant cultures informed by memories of Africa." They convincingly argue that the slave trade and slaveholders' purchasing preference congregated Africans from specific ethnic groups and regions, with James Sweet stressing that bondpeople "were arriving in coherent cultural groupings that shared much in common," allowing many customs to be recreated "in nearly pure structure." While cultural amalgamations routinely began in Africa, traditions retained their original meanings, providing ethnic hallmarks while forging links with new communities.

Scholarship on the African diaspora relies on understandings of African cultures and how they influenced African-descended peoples in new environments and circumstances. It was greatly informed when Africanists cut deep intellectual inroads into Atlantic history, integrating Africa and the diaspora into a single unit of analysis that follows cultural paths into the Western Hemisphere. Scholars increasingly examine how the Atlantic slave trade connected captives from specific ethnic groups or regions to particular New World destinations. Biographies, composite biographies, and micro-histories facilitate the consideration of trans-Atlantic patterns and minutia of individuals' lives as they created their own space, identities, and experiences. Many sources are separated by considerable time and distance, precluding this book from fully engaging this productive line of inquiry.

Scholars increasingly evaluate how cultural resilience served as a mechanism of resistance. According to one historian, even as European expansion swept Africans to the Americas, "European domination was never a forgone conclusion, particularly in those spaces where Africans and their descendent figured prominently in the overall population." Sources suggest that slaves purposefully retained and insinuated their cultural exactitudes onto New World societies.

The documents used to compose Undercurrents of Power—travel accounts, slave narratives, diaries, newspapers, plantation records, government documents, and ship logs—are familiar to scholars of bondage. My experiences perhaps offer new perspectives. As a multiracial person of African descent who has spent decades swimming, surfing, underwater diving, and sailing, I found accounts of black aquatics to be striking, especially as popular misconceptions contradict historical sources by claiming African Americans were averse to water and aquatic activities.

Sources provide a sound analytical foundation, often permitting empirical examinations. Unfortunately, they do not always definitively link African and slave traditions. Accounts of cultural practices routinely appear in clusters rather than neatly spaced across generations, constraining considerations of change over time and sometimes forcing an impressionistic, even synchronic, approach.

White-authored accounts regularly racialized African-descended people while richly chronicling black aquatics. Whenever possible, documents produced by African-descended people are used, allowing nameless voiceless characters to tell their histories. Slave-authored accounts are routinely held to higher standards of scrutiny than white-authored ones. Still, they are often our best sources for understanding captives' experiences. The spelling and syntax in primary-source quotes remains true to the original text and "sic" is not used to prevent cluttering. Historical images enhance this book's analysis. Some images reveal Western aquatic anxieties, while careful observers produced informative representations. All extend our historical understandings.