MARCH 21, 2019
THE STORY BEHIND the publication of Julius S. Scott’s The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution is as compelling as the puzzle of information Scott has meticulously pieced together. In fact, life could not imitate art — or in this case scholarship — any more. Originally a doctoral thesis completed in 1987, Scott’s unpublished work has been reverently passed from academic to academic, transforming from an impressive doctoral thesis to a cornerstone in the study of the 18th-century Caribbean. Although the text piqued the interest of several publishers, it has taken 30 years for it to finally come to light. Despite the years, its singular contribution remains unmatched.
The Common Wind traces a vast communication network (not unlike the scholarly one that circulated the text itself) through the plantation societies of the Caribbean during the height of French, British, and Spanish imperial control. Within this network, the marginalized peoples of the Caribbean — peoples of African and European descent — covertly communicated and spread by word of mouth news of the French Revolution, imperial reforms to slavery, and rebellions against the plantation system. According to Scott, this robust communication network — born and sustained by indispensable inter-island and transatlantic commerce — gave rise to the fiery Atlantic of the 1790s, when enslaved Africans and other marginalized peoples revolted against imperial control in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) and other Caribbean islands. Scott’s persistence in uncovering this secret network took him on an exciting global tour in which he used his creativity as a researcher to discover and piece together documents scattered among a host of archives. This persistence and creativity are mirrored by the scholars who have circulated his work beyond the typical academic channels of a peer-reviewed journal or monograph. The reverberating impact of Scott’s work emphasizes that the academy must nurture a scholar’s intellectual curiosity and, in the service of discovery, encourage imaginative thinking and risk-taking.
Early in The Common Wind, Scott establishes that commerce and trade allowed the major imperial powers of Europe to increase their dominion over the Caribbean and transform the islands into an economic powerhouse. In fact, trade was so integral to the colonial enterprise that despite initial efforts by Britain, Spain, and France to prevent inter-island exchange, need and avarice defied all attempts. What Scott then argues is that commerce and trade also brought about the downfall of the colonial system in the Caribbean. First of all, trade required mobile people to transport goods and load and unload ships. These individuals lived outside of and thus, in defiance of colonial control. As trade expanded, this population grew and included runaway slaves, free people of color, landless European immigrants, soldiers, and later, refugees from the American and Haitian Revolutions. As these people traveled throughout the Caribbean trading material goods and human beings, their commercial enterprises allowed for conversations. Thus, news and information were exchanged as well. The information traveled via transatlantic ships, inter-island sailing vessels, and through legal and illegal trade. As a result, news spread rapidly, despite colonial efforts to limit the spread of information. In fact, thanks to trade, enslaved peoples and free people of color were sometimes better informed than colonial officials and plantation owners.
Scott is primarily concerned with how the spread of information led to instability in the Caribbean basin. News regarding policy changes (such as Spain’s willingness to protect runaway slaves who professed a desire for Catholicism), revolutions based on Enlightenment philosophies (such as the equality of man), and island insurrections mixed with opinions and led to rumors, which were transmitted as facts. These “currents of revolution” communicated through intercolonial contact “intermingled and fed upon each other, strengthening the belief that emancipation was near at hand.” According to Scott, this information made colonists anxious, enslaved peoples eager to rebel, and free peoples of color more emboldened to request equal treatment. Toward the end of the book, Scott considers the results of the spread of news and information, and charts major and minor slave rebellions as they occurred throughout the end of the 18th century. Ultimately, Scott argues that this network of communication inspired the Haitian Revolution, which, in turn, urged enslaved and free peoples of color across the Caribbean and South America to revolt and rebel against their oppressors.
The Common Wind is compellingly unique because Scott has done what very few scholars have been able to do; he has uncovered a vast communication network that relied primarily on the ephemeral — word of mouth rather than paper. In this communication network, news moved across the sea and ocean with breathtaking rapidity and was surreptitiously transmitted to people who were either politically, economically, and socially marginalized or living under constant control. In the book’s foreword, Marcus Rediker, a fellow scholar, recounts that his initial reaction to Scott’s project was to exclaim “how on earth can someone study that?” Thirty years later, the question vexingly persists: how can someone find evidence of a communication network that relied on conversations that were executed with as much secrecy and discretion as was available to a people who, having not the luxury of privacy, had learned how to operate under constant surveillance?
To execute his goal, Scott amassed a blinding array of primary sources and read against or beneath their official narratives. Scott considered the private papers of slave owners, travel narratives of sailors, letters written by visitors to the Caribbean islands, records of colonial assemblies and courts, parliamentary debates and laws, military and commercial ship records, 18th-century histories written about Caribbean islands, local island newspapers, and a host of other primary and secondary sources. Because the majority of these documents were written by colonists who were either unaware of or who wished to minimize the strength of the underground communication network, Scott read against text after text, looking for gaps, silences, and contradictions that suggested hidden realities.
For example, while discussing the ramifications of the French Revolution and the popularization of the republican ideals of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, Scott notes the uptick in runaway enslaved Africans throughout the islands of the eastern Caribbean during the 1790s. Noting the lack of official documentation or even private letter that suggests a swell in the number of runaways, Scott points to an increase in the number of newspaper notices for escaped enslaved Africans. Because the papers with the greatest increase in notices of runaways were all based in the east, Scott can pinpoint the increase to the eastern Caribbean, specifically. Scott is even able to find a second cause for the increase: changes in Spanish imperial policy encouraged enslaved people on British- and French-controlled islands to find refuge on nearby Spanish-controlled islands. Not satisfied with his sleuthing work, Scott takes a further step, reading the actual notices and uncovering compelling and concealed aspects of Afro-American culture. According to Scott, many of these enslaved Africans were bilingual, if not trilingual in French, Spanish, and English. Scott suggests that planters and colonial officials intentionally ignored these linguistic abilities because they were threatened. By speaking several languages, marginalized peoples exchanged information regarding all three imperial powers and were thus well aware of the causes of the French Revolution and changing Spanish policies. With information regarding two or even three of the imperial powers, enslaved peoples were able to determine when it was best to escape and where to seek refuge.
Scott’s task appears impossible: uncovering decades of subversive activity, a history carefully hidden by a population of itinerant and marginalized peoples and actively ignored by the colonial powers. Yet chapter after chapter, he reconstructs events by piecing together far-flung documents to uncover a fascinating and complex web of information. Perhaps one more example will suffice to demonstrate his all-encompassing investigation: in chapter three, Scott outlines shifting public discourses regarding the morality of slavery on the eve of the Haitian Revolution. With great detail, he describes debates in Britain’s House of Parliament during the late 1780s and 1790s and finds that a particularly vehement rash of discussions during the winter of 1788 coincided with the busiest time for trade with the Caribbean. According to Scott, the timing of these parliamentary debates with the annual uptick in trade allowed for information to be communicated with even greater rapidity. Scott then argues that the slew of small slave revolts occurring at that time on British-controlled islands like Jamaica was thanks to this coincidence.
Scott’s storytelling abilities are singularly compelling as his tale of the late-18th-century Caribbean is not a dry retelling of events but a fascinating account that takes as its subject the life stories of marginalized peoples who defied colonial control. In fact, some of Scott’s recreations read like a fantastical or even comedic story. Toward the end of his first chapter, he tells the tale of 10 escaped army musicians. Following the musicians as they navigate the perilous task of evading capture, Scott describes the urban underground network of Jamaica: the names of the people who hid the men, the places where they hid, their friends and fellow runaways, and the many disguises the men adopted to evade colonial authorities. Reading the tale, one has the feeling that Scott was there, watching the drama unfold in real time. Scott is impressed by these musicians, and his readers are as well. When Scott mentions that the musicians could be found “fishing and shooting” in complete disregard of their outlaw status, the glee in his prose is contagious. Scott developed his story by reading various issues of Jamaica’s Royal Gazette, but rather than simply rehash this bit of reported news, Scott creates a suspenseful vignette full of rich detail.
From the very beginning of The Common Wind, it is clear that although Scott might have been writing for an academic audience, his writing is far from narrowly academic. Rather than impress his readers with a command of theory and intricate phrasing, Scott’s prose is highly accessible, not to mention mellifluous and full of striking imagery. While describing the changing landscape of the Caribbean at the end of the 17th century and the disappearance of the buccaneers and pirates who called the islands home, he laments, “Not only had their old haunts disappeared; older images of ‘enchanted’ islands liberated from the hierarchies of the Old World were difficult to sustain as plantations hungrily gobbled up what was once frontier land.” Here, Scott romanticizes the old Caribbean and portrays the encroaching plantation culture as a monstrous, ever-famished creature. On the whole, Scott’s writing is effortless; his narrative glides smoothly over the great amount of painstaking work that subtends his argument.
The breadth of Scott’s research is vast, encompassing manuscripts and printed primary sources, as well as secondary sources. Of particular note is Scott’s own mobility as he traveled to a host of international and national libraries and archives, including The Archivo General de Indias in Seville, the National Library of Jamaica, the Bibliothèque des Frères in Haiti, The National Archives in London, the John Carter Brown Library, and the University of Virginia Library. Not only do the varied locales speak to the enormous puzzle Scott managed to piece together, but it also suggests the great amount of financial support he had. Having executed most of this research during his doctoral studies, Scott could not afford such extensive travel on his stipend. Like most graduate students, he was funded by grants and scholarships. To put it bluntly, thanks to money set aside for humanistic research, Scott uncovered a secret history of the Caribbean and the Americas. This is a history integral to understanding the evolution of the area and one that presages our own socio-political moment. It is this value of humanistic scholarship during the mid- and late 1980s that we must reawaken in spite of current efforts to financially curtail and debilitate scholarship in the humanities.