The Common Wind of the African Diaspora

Toussaint Louverture, Rue Muert D’Art, Paris (Jeanne Menjoulet: Flickr)

Julius Scott’s The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution is one of the academy’s worst-kept secrets. Scott’s heretofore unpublished 1986 dissertation of the same name has inspired generations of scholars and left us wanting more. While this book does not engage the thirty years of scholarship it informed (and doing so would have cluttered the text and diluted the argument), its impact will be immediate while projecting Scott’s influence well into the future.

Scott offers a nuanced, variegated, and multi-layered examination of the underbelly of the early modern Atlantic world, arguing that the “mobility that characterized the masterless Caribbean at the end of the eighteenth century provided a steady undercurrent of opposition to the ‘absolute’ power of masters, merchants, and military officers in the region” (76). At one level, The Common Wind considers how mobile “masterless,” “unruly,” and dispossessed men and women of European and African descent circulated through and disrupted the “mastered” spaces of plantation societies and capitalistic economies that were tightly regulated by race, social status, gender, and conditions of freedom (xii-xiii; 30). “Caribbean port cities were natural magnets for all types of people seeking personal freedom” (19). In seaports, “masterless” military deserters, absent seamen, smugglers, buccaneers, shiftless foreigners, enslaved higglers, and fugitives of all sorts–including runaway slaves–converged in bars, Black-controlled black markets, and captives’ semi-legitimate internal economies exchanging goods, ideas, and information, while generating a “common wind” of news and information that spoke of freedom and opportunity. Widely distributed by the tongues of common sailors of various races, ethnicities, and nationalities, this “common wind” carried whisperings and rumors from “before the mast,” onto docks and wharves, into taverns and brothels, and eventually into slaves’ networks of communication (39-40). There, it settled upon the ears of enslaved African field laborers, keeping them remarkably well informed of British abolitionism and the events of the Saint-Domingue slave rebellion. Diving deeper, Scott focuses on how captives were far more mobile than previously assumed and how they employed their mobility to spin far-reaching webs of communication that swept this “common wind” across the Atlantic world, creating what Scott later called the “greater Caribbean,” which stretched from Maine to Brazil.1

Key figures in this network of connectivity were enslaved Africans toiling in seaports and aboard wooden ships, where they lived and worked in marketplaces of information, creating a “masterless tenor of life” that inspired discontent and yearning (19). Enslaved ship pilots, fishermen, and sailors working out of eighteenth-century Caribbean and North American ports created a “web of commerce” that brought the “region’s islands into closer and closer contact as the century progressed, providing channels of communication as well as tempting routes of escape” (3). Concurrently, overseas and “short-distance trade increased inter-island mobility” for enslaved mariners as well as many enslaved vendors, with the latter traveling considerable distances, often by boat, to ports where these marketers controlled internal economies, while extending considerable sway over many aspects of ports’ formal marketplaces (48). Making themselves central to communication and trade, these enslaved and free “black workers on the shoreline hammered out a semi-independent status which their employers were forced to recognize” (71). Revolutionary warfare further destabilized “masters’” control, while empowering the “masterless.” First, the “American Revolution brought thousands of black and white loyalists from the mainland to the Caribbean in the early 1780s,” then during the 1790s, slaveholders fleeing the Saint-Domingue rebellion arrived in North American, Cuban, and other Caribbean ports with their captives (57). Even as these enslaved refugees remained the property of citizens loyal to Britain and France, they sowed the winds with the rhetoric of freedom, spreading subversion and encouraging rebellion. Inspired by revolutionary ideals—and knowing where the rigors of bondage were less severe or the chains of slavery had been shattered—many captives took to the seas in canoes and small sailing vessels in search of better lives.

The Common Wind is intentionally and unintentionally unsettling. As a dissertation, it shattered previous assumptions, inspiring us to think beyond reductive colonial, national, and imperial borders to consider how human currents informed the oral dissemination of news and information among the enslaved. As a book, it continues to do this, though in a somewhat surreal manner. Those who never read the dissertation, or have not read it in years, might not realize or remember how this underground text informed the field and their own scholarship.

A criticism that could be leveled against The Common Wind is that Scott made some substantive conclusions that were only supported by a few sources. Or perhaps, we should instead reconsider how we construct histories and allow scholars the latitude to take greater intellectual risks than are typically permitted when they believe sustained inquiry will later support their assertions. Over the years, many scholars have recognized Scott’s foresights and afforded his dissertation leeway, convinced that as it was revised into a book, additional sources would flesh out his claims. While the dissertation was published without revisions, scholarship produced by other academics has proven Scott correct. As we expand our historical horizons to embrace previously dispossessed peoples under our arch of understanding, we can benefit from The Common Wind’s boldness and methodological approach by allowing those deeply immersed in studies of people of diverse races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gendered identities, religions, and social statuses to take risks, lest we hobble our intellectual stride and restrict the expansion of knowledge.

Reviewing The Common Wind risks slipping into sentimental nostalgia, especially given how its scholarly impact is unique and profound. Completed in 1986, Scott’s dissertation remained unpublished until—with historian Marcus Rediker’s influence—it was published in 2018. Yet, it did not languish in some dusty repository for decades. The dissertation produced a prevailing “common wind” that blew, unfalteringly, through academia for some thirty years. Over the decades, it was a “common wind” that introduced Scott’s dissertation to generations of “masterless” and “unruly” graduate students, informing us of opportunities that lay along the peripheries, in back allies, and under the wharves of established scholarship. The Common Wind was earnestly discussed on outdoor benches in university quads, in dingy grad student lounges and cubicles, in student unions, and at conference hotel bars—in all the marketplaces of information frequented by grad students and freshly minted assistant professors. Bootleg versions were furtively exchanged on Zip disks, CDs, and later USB flash drives, while a handful of professors, like Rediker, assigned it in graduate-level courses. Still, it was largely word of mouth that propelled Scott’s dissertation across time, space, and disciplinary borders, making and keeping it relevant to our historical analyses. The publication of The Common Wind breathed new life into Scott’s sails, expanding the book’s classroom use by making it more accessible to undergraduate and graduate students. This book is ideally suited for graduate-level classes because, among other reasons, it will facilitate informative conversations on how to choose dissertation topics that fill voids in the scholarship.

Some of the terms used in the book—like “grapevine” of communication, “Afro-America,” “master,” “masterless,” and even “slave”—are perhaps a bit passé, having given way to newer expressions. Regardless, like an old but still seaworthy ship, Scott’s vernacular reassuringly reminds readers of the intellectual voyagers who charted courses to the rich analytical waters we now call home. As The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution embarks upon a new, mainstream iteration of its life, it remains a seminal, must-read classic that will inform scholars working in many disciplines.

  1.  For “greater Caribbean,” see Julius Scott, “Afro-American Sailors and the International Communication Network: The Case of Newport Bowers,” in Jack Tar in History: Essays in the History of Maritime Life and Labour, eds. Colin Howell and Richard Twomey. Fredericton: 1991), 37–52.
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Kevin Dawson

Kevin Dawson is an Associate Professor of History at University of California, Merced and the author of Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Cultures in the African Diaspora (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Dawson's research is situated at the historiographic crossroads of Atlantic history and the African diaspora and examines swimming, underwater diving, surfing, canoe-making, canoeing, and fishing, to consider how Atlantic Africans and members of the African diaspora used water as a cultural space.