On Early Modern European Political Theory and African Slavery

A Review of Herman Bennett’s African Kings and Black Slaves: Sovereignty and Dispossession in the Early Modern Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania, 2018)

Bennett’s African Kings and Black Slaves is a teaser, an invitation to think through the historiography on Atlantic slavery as a liberal metanarrative, one that has separated the oikos (economics) from the polis. Liberalism has considered slavery as a regime of property and labor, the very antithesis of liberalism. Each slave was the property of the master and the state therefore had no recourse to intervene and regulate the master’s power. Abolitionism, therefore, cast itself as a movement to gain freedom for slaves. Marxism and its various historiographical incantations, from Eugene Genovese to Paul Gilroy, did not buy into this liberal narrative of freedom and tied capitalism firmly to slavery, refusing to sever slavery from the rise of the modern liberal regime. Yet, Bennett argues, these writers still rely on the same conceptual and discursive liberal underpinnings of the Enlightenment: slavery belongs in political economy.

Bennett also takes on the narratives of slave resistance as part of the same liberal discourse, because they build on individual agency as their unit of analysis. Not surprisingly, Bennett offers a critique of Orlando Paterson’s Slavery and Social Death since it is the violent deracination of the individual that kills political and cultural community. If for Bennett the category of social death is problematic, so too is that of ethnogenesis. The liberal underpinnings of the diasporic historiography, Bennett argues, have led to an obsession with “culture.” The newer diasporic historiography has sought to reconnect the deracinated individual back to resilient and original African cultures or to Afro-American creole ones, created in haphazard mixings and transoceanic and continental movements.

Bennett explores an alternative understanding of slavery as co-constitutive of early modern notions of European sovereignty, not merely economics and culture. In his rendering, there is no possible theorization of the early modern “absolutist” state without slavery, and no understanding of slavery without theology and political culture. From Vitoria to Bodin, slavery was at the core of any definition of dominium and imperium, in short, sovereignty. According to Bennett, Catholic writers did not separate the oikos from the polis, that is, they did not render property and labor into fetishes, categories with no anchor in theories of sovereignty. For authors like Vitoria, Bennett argues, there was no autonomous master or slave outside the purview of the sovereign. Notions of individual slave- or master- agency had no room in this political theory. The authority of the individual was always implicitly or explicitly curtailed. Slaves could be taken away from masters by the church. There were also masterless slaves, namely, the slaves of the king.

Bennett goes back to 1450 to 1500, to the encounter of Portugal with the peoples of Guinea. He uses papal bulls, the writings of travelers like Ca’ da Mosto, and the contracts (charters or entradas) between adelantados (entrepreneurs) and the crown (all three types of document translated from Latin and Portuguese and long published in English; Bennett offers no new archival evidence) to investigate the role of slavery in the constitution of the sovereign. The things Bennett describes in these documents should be familiar to those acquainted with sixteenth-century Ibero America.

Contrary to common belief, the papal bulls never assumed Guinea to be a land of pagans whose property and political authority was there for the taking. The pope simply acted as a broker between rival European kings claiming monopoly to engage, within a given area stipulated in the charter, in trade and treaties with local lords to win them over to conversion. Iberian kings themselves issued charters to entrepreneurs not to take property or land away from anyone; nor could adelantados become lords of lands that already had natural lords in the first place. Entrepreneurs got contracts over vast coastal areas where to trade, not unlike the charters which the Pilgrims and Puritans got in the 1630s to set up islands of sovereignty in Massachusetts. Adelantados got charters to set up feitorias (fortified trading posts) in “empty” spaces (islands in deltas or off the coast). It was only in these feitorias-vacant lands where adelantados could exercise sovereignty (issue grace and legislation and mete out justice).

Bennett describes how adelantados shared with travelers taxonomies of African sovereignty that determined their relations to the various African territories. A place was considered “empty” if it had stateless, lord-less peoples. Peoples and lands were there to be taken. There was little incentive to acquire dominium over “empty” spaces, however, because there was no trade to be had. One could raid these lands for captives; but since there were no African lords, there was no effort to set up feitorias on tiny islands of European sovereignty. There was no trade in “deserts.” Territories with lords, however, were something else.

According to Bennett, taxonomies of lordship were essentially based on the political analysis of African spectacle and pageantry. Adelantados and travelers were keen at recognizing local lords’ political-ritual language of sovereignty and acting accordingly. Lord-led territories were worth “controlling,” not by dispossession but by acknowledging the authority of the natural lord to trade in slaves and conversion. For Europeans, the sovereignty of local lords began with the recognition of the lords’ power to sell captives. Europeans might have doubts on the legality of systems used by lords to seize captives to trade, but the status of the captive was never questioned. Adelantados thus had sovereignty to purchase, via rescate, captives to take back to households in the Canaries, Azores, and Portugal.

Bennett argues that sixteenth-century Catholic theorists began to call into question the expansion of rescate as the main system for the expansion of slavery, for the trade itself had the secondary effect of separating slaves from sovereignty as property. According to Bennett, this was the crux of Vitoria and Mercado’s critique of the early modern slave trade. Bennett takes on Davis’s Problem of Slavery in Western Culture for having presented these early modern Catholic theologians as the first critics of the slave trade and therefore the first abolitionist writers. Theirs was not a liberal critique of slavery as labor system and as the antithesis of freedom; theirs was a critique of aspects of the growing challenge of the oikos to overwhelm the polis, as economic motives began to challenge sovereignty and therefore “absolutism.”

Bennett’s African Kings and Black Slaves is a challenging book. While it does not bring new documents to light, it succeeds as a polemics. It offers a most provocative critique of the unspoken liberal underpinning of historiography on slavery. It is also a book addressed to Europeanists who have ignored the centrality of slavery to early modern political theory.

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