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Atlantic History Group

The Atlantic History Group generates innovative scholarship on the relations linking Africa, Europe and the Americas by investigating the expansion of markets during the slave trade; the production of literary texts and forms of historical memory; the politics of religious dissent and conversion; the growth of colonial science and cartography; Native American ethnogenesis; the rise of abolitionist and Pan-African ideologies; and the dynamics of race, gender and creolization throughout the Atlantic world.

Atlantic History Faculty & Students

Coordinating Committee 2020-2021: Carla Pestana, Robin Derby, Aisha Finch, Elizabeth Landers.

Department of History Faculty: Andrew Apter, Robin Derby, Catherine Hall, Robert Hill, Robin Kelley, Fernando Pérez Montesinos, Carla Pestana, Debbie Silverman, Brenda Stevenson, Bill Summerhill, Kevin Terraciano, Mary Terrall, Craig Yirush.

Interdisciplinary Affiliated Faculty:  Scot Brown, Judith Carney, Elizabeth Deloughrey, Aisha Finch, Peter James Hudson, Jorge Marturano, Alex Mazzaferro, Stella Nair, Jemima Pierre, Patrick Polk, Allen Roberts, Dominic Thomas.

Graduate Students: Tania Bride, Jeannette Charles, Desmond Fonseca, Thabisile Griffin, Elizabeth Landers, Javier Muñoz, Madina Thiam, Matthijs Tieleman, Christian Zavardino.


EVENTS FOR 2021-2022


All events will be held virtually on Zoom, Thursdays from 12:30pm to 2:00pm unless otherwise noted. * Outside Events. 


October 6-8, 2021*

Pandemic Legacies: Health, Healing, and Medicine in the Age of Slavery and Beyond
Lapidus Center Conference, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Just as the slave trade tied together the cultures and populations of four continents, it also wed together distinctive disease ecologies. The lack of local populations with exploitable labor in the Americas compelled an increase in the volume of Africans that Europeans forced into the transatlantic slave trade, setting the stage for epidemic diseases and other health issues that shaped the cultural, social, and material life of Atlantic slavery. Genocidal warfare and the destructive effects of Eurasian African epidemic diseases caused the near decimation of Indigenous populations. Yellow fever, a virus native to tropical West Africa, became a common scourge to American ports. Doctors theorizing about the virus developed racial stereotypes that posited that people of African descent were inherently immune to the virus, setting the stage for a range of healthcare disparities that reverberate today.

Registration & Information


October 14, 2021

Degenhart Brown, PhD Candidate, UCLA World Arts and Cultures
“’Spiritscapes’ as ‘Atlantic Modernities’: Examining the Ritual Pathways of Spirit Possession and ‘Fetish’ Objects in West Africa.”

Location: Zoom
Time: 12:30-2:00 pm

In this presentation I explore how the dense vectors of material culture and spirit possession established in the crucible of the modern era continue to inform the decisions of millions of west Africans as they navigate everyday realities at home and abroad. In the first half of this talk, I explore emerging themes in “fetish modernity” theory to demonstrate how, as mediators of modern history, “fetish” objects, through their own semantic and epistemological ambivalence, have changed the ways in which scholars interpret historical conventions. In the second half, I look at some examples of the confluence of possession rituals and slavery discourse across contemporary west Africa to illustrate how the relationships between northern and southern “spirits,” resulting from hinterland slave raids, inform local interpretations of the ongoing legacies of trans-Atlantic slavery. I conclude by engaging the work of Charles Piot to demonstrate how power objects and ritual acts of possession are in themselves “alternative modernities” that have remained crucial ontological technologies in west Africa due to their capacity to efface national and international efforts to define and control west African lifeworlds. 



November 1, 2021

Chris Willoughby, Fellow Huntington Library
"The Medical Chattel Principle: Experiments on Enslaved People and Animals in the United States, 1840-1860."
Cohosted with UCLA History of Science

Location: Bunche Hall 5288
Time: 4:00-5:30 pm

In this paper excerpted from my book manuscript Masters of Health: Racial Science and Slavery in U.S. Medical Schools, I examine how medical students in the 1840s and 1850s created an experimental praxis based in classifications of enslaved African descendants as residing between whites and animals taxonomically. Specifically, the paper compares how physicians and medical students in the United States and Atlantic World experimented on enslaved people, whites, and animals, through an analysis of previously unknown animal vivisections and life-threatening experiments on enslaved patients conducted by students at the Medical College of the State of South Carolina and the University of Pennsylvania.

Notable compared to the more well-known cases of experimental surgeries tested on enslaved patients, these students conducted potentially-fatal physiological experiments with no therapeutic purpose on healthy people. In one case, a student deliberately infected a patient with measles in a convoluted effort to prove that people of African descent were immune to yellow fever. In a second case, a student induced nicotine toxicity on a nursing, enslaved mother, before forcing her to breastfeed her infant, testing the effects of tobacco on breastfeeding. In these cases, students showed a remarkable callousness toward their enslaved patients that reflected the devaluation and animalization of black life. These experiments, however, were less dangerous than the fatal vivisections conducted on animals, as when a student at the University of Pennsylvania opened a dog’s chest cavity to see its heart beat. None of these students received anything but praise for their violent tests. Thus, I argue that physicians’ experimental approach to enslaved people simultaneously reinforced and mirrored racial scientists’ placement of African descendants in a liminal position between whites and the rest of the animal kingdom, turning medical theory into praxis.


November 18, 2021

Pablo Sierra, Associate Professor of History, Rochester University
“Performing Refugees: Asylum, Blackness, and Piracy in Santo Domingo/Saint-Domingue, 1675-1700.”

Location: Zoom
Time: 12:30 - 2:00 pm

The May 1683 raid on the port of Veracruz forever altered the course of Black history in Mexico, Saint-Domingue, and Santo Domingo. In the months that followed, no less than 1,400 people of African descent were taken from Veracruz by a buccaneer fleet and violently dispersed throughout the Atlantic seaboard. Yet, the experiences of those free and enslaved captives have been largely forgotten in favor of narratives on the next pirate attack and subsequent acts of retaliation. This paper asks us to center the documented (and perhaps, the undocumented) experiences of captives-turned-refugees on the rugged borderlands of Hispaniola instead. In particular, I focus on the legal strategies and cultural scripts that African-descended people performed when presented before Spanish authorities in Santo Domingo. How did afrodescendiente refugees frame their lifestories and to what end?  If permanence in, or departure from, Santo Domingo depended on a persuasive narrative, what rhetorical strategies do we detect in these depositions? Finally, how do refugee thoughts, actions, and motivations alter our perception of Mexico, the Caribbean, and African diaspora?


December 2, 2021

Sara Johnson, Associate Professor of Literature, UC San Diego
“L’Encyclopedie noire: An Assembly of Shadows.”

Location: Zoom
Time: 12:30 - 2:00 pm

EVENTS FOR 2020-2021



All events will be held virtually on Zoom, Thursdays from 12:30pm to 2:00pm unless otherwise noted. * Outside Events.

September 18, 2020*

The Early Modern Global Caribbean Conference, Huntington Library

September 25, 2020*

Book Chat
Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana by Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela J. Gross

October 29, 2020

Alejandra Dubcovsky, Associate Professor of History, UC Riverside
"Iquenibilahacu, iquibitila, Killed but not Extinguished, Centering Native Women in the Early South."

In 1695 a Chacato woman was killed far from home and kin. Who was this woman? How did she manage to travel so far? Why was she murdered? This talk explores the life and death of this unnamed Chacato woman. She offers a surprising and quite different view of the contested colonial world she both inhabited and helped shape. She disappears as quickly as she appears in discussions about community, social breakdown, order, balance, and family. She reveals intimate, at times even tactile, understanding of the interpersonal relations that defined her life, which unfolded in the simultaneity of empire building and colonial conflict. Allowing her to tell her story relies on the available colonial documents but refuses to let them dictate the terms of historical engagement. Her violent death, the trial that followed, and the many uncertainties that surrounded both, show how Native women were a central force in the making and unmaking of the early Southeast.


November 6-7, 2020*

Cuban Slavery and the Atlantic World, The MacMillan Center of Yale University

The Gilder Lehrman Center’s 22nd Annual International Conference provides a forum for discussion of the study of Cuban slavery and emancipation today, placing the island’s history within the wider Atlantic world. Over the past few decades, the study of Cuban history has been an increasingly international effort. Cuban historians have interacted more and more with colleagues from abroad, with discussions grounded in the unique primary sources found in the rich Cuban archives. These scholars have demonstrated the importance of understanding Cuban slavery within the context of the Atlantic world and broad colonial networks of domination and resistance. This conference brings together scholars from Cuba and abroad working on the transatlantic slave trade, resistance, systems of control, abolition and emancipation, and the memory and legacies of slavery in Cuba. Join us for in-depth conversations about the present and future of understanding slavery and its long aftermath in this crucial part of the world.

November 19, 2020

Thabisile Griffin, PhD Candidate, UCLA
"Black Militias in the Era of Revolutions: Politics, Race and Labor"

From 1781 to 1790, the British Caribbean military and colonial administrators struggled with renegotiating their racial truth systems - through a recalibration of defense. The last two decades of the century were ripe with not only the insurrections of enslaved Africans, but also threats from competing European powers and indigenous populations. In order to survive, there were constant re-adjustments made to garrison structure and fortifications, that ultimately disrupted racial sensibilities to security. A contentious reinforcement would develop in the 1780s, incentivized by previous strategies used during the American Revolution. Military officials and colonial administrators in the Caribbean were now reckoning with the possibility of employing and arming entire battalions of Black men for the British Army. The creation of this unit in the Caribbean, the Black Corps, was only possible through the evolving myths and villainization of St. Vincent’s Black indigenous population—the Black Caribs. Only through the narrative of the Black Caribs could the fantasy of the Black Corps be actualized.




All events will be held virtually on Zoom, Thursdays from 12:30pm to 2:00pm unless otherwise noted. * Outside Events.

January 14, 2021

Tawny Paul, Director of the Public History Initiative, Department of History, UCLA

Commodified Bodies: Debt Bondage and Maritime Labor Recruitment in the British Atlantic 

Many forms of coerced labor existed in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic. A variety of mechanisms, from indenture to convict transportation, facilitated coercive recruitment. This paper explores one of these mechanisms, debt bondage, and its practice in domestic England where it was used to forcibly recruit sailors for the Royal Navy.  I focus on debt’s capacity to commodify bodies in both formal and informal ways, and on the forms of agency available to individuals to commodify their own bodies. One of the consequences of capitalism was that Britons became used to thinking about their bodies as commodifiable, blurring the distinctions between bodies and things. By examining the link between debt and coerced labor, it becomes possible not only to trace a direct route from Britain’s overflowing debtors’ prisons to Atlantic labor markets, but to uncover the state’s role in commodifying bodies for imperial labor. 


January 30, 2021*

Early Modern Studies Institute USC-Huntington: American Origins [10:30 am - 12 noon (PST)]
Christopher Blakley, Loyola Marymount University and Occidental College
"'Showing Their Slaves How to Collect': Enslaved People and the Foundations of Animal Knowledge"

This presentation explores how enslaved people and the geography of slaving between slave castles in Atlantic Africa, depots in New Spain, and plantations within England’s colonies in the Caribbean shaped the development of knowledge about animals and the networks that developed in the Enlightenment as so-called Linnaean science matured before and after the American Revolutionary War. Blakley investigates  how Atlantic African judgment, curiosity, and suffering produced knowledge about animals throughout the Atlantic world; and how slavers and slaveholders came to rely upon the enslaved and the carceral geography of slavery as sources of scientific knowledge.


February 4, 2021

Sasha Turner, Associate Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University
"Negotiating Slavery and Motherhood on the Terrain of Feelings."

This presentation centers on the story of Abba, an enslaved woman who was the mother of an unusually large family in eighteenth century Jamaica. Abba had been pregnant thirteen times. She had ten live births and one still birth. We come to know Abba’s story through the diaries of Thomas Thistlewood, notorious among scholars of slavery because of his practice of diarizing how he daily tortured the enslaved. In addition to her large family, Abba stands out in the diaries because, despite Thistlewood’s notoriety as a sadistic enslaver, he whips Abba only three times in almost thirty years of claiming power over her life and body. By contrast, Thistlewood was exceptionally generous to Abba providing her with well needed material goods to support her family and permitting her to perform spiritual rituals, outlawed a felony, to grieve the death of her children. Reading Abba’s life against the 18th Century burgeoning culture of sensibility, including Thistlewood’s own displays of sympathy and grief to white community members, this discussion explores Abba's deployment of feelings in negotiating her condition. How did Abba’s displays of feeling mirror Thistlewood’s, and what did Abba seek to gain by consistently exhibiting feelings in Thistlewood presence?


March 11, 2021

Jenna Gibbs, Associate Professor of History, Florida International University

"Protesting Slavery, Asserting Freedom, and Defying Racism at the African Grove Theatre in New York in the early 1820s."

In early nineteenth century New York, the short-lived all-African American theatre troupe, the African Grove Theater, challenged slavery, racism, and restrictions on free African Americans’ voting and civil rights. To do so, the proprietor, William Brown, bravely set up shop next door to the established white fixture, the Park Theatre, and then proceeded to daringly set his company’s calendar as provocation: whatever play the Park produced, Brown’s African Grove ensemble immediately staged their own counter-productions.  This talk will focus on two of the African Grove’s adaptations and political interpolations against this racially charged backdrop: William Moncrief’s Life in London; or Tom and Jerry and John Fawcett’s Obi, or Three Finger’d Jack. My talk will conclude with a brief glimpse into how this thespian tradition of protest continues today in the New African Grove Theater in New York and its namesakes’ elsewhere, such as CSU Dominguez Hills.




All events will be held virtually on Zoom, Thursdays from 12:30pm to 2:00pm unless otherwise noted. * Outside Events.

April 1, 2021

Gabriel de Avilez Rocha, Vasco da Gama Assistant Professor of History and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Brown University

"East Atlantic Crossings Before 1550"

Atlantic historians tend to understand transoceanic crossings along an east-west axis, with people and goods seen as traversing the space between Africa and/or Europe, on the one hand, and the Americas, on the other. Yet in the early decades of the sixteenth century, even as the broader contours of Atlantic circumnavigation were becoming more evident to members of various maritime communities, impressions of transoceanic mobility did not yet assume the east-west axis as normative. Frequently traveled thoroughfares linking Seville to the Canaries, São Tomé to the Azores, and Cabo Verde to Rouen were themselves widely seen as transoceanic in scope, even if they hewed to the eastern side of the Atlantic. The weight of tradition lay behind this conventional wisdom. Maritime routes spanning the Gulf of Guinea, the Atlantic islands, and Iberia had since the mid fifteenth century established patterns of voluntary and coerced movement that continued to be integral to an expanding Atlantic circuit even after 1492. In considering the shifting yet continually vital role of the eastern Atlantic corridor, this talk seeks to recover a largely overlooked geographic and temporal dimension of early Atlantic history. It does so by bringing together individual stories of conflict, negotiation, and struggle waged by a diverse range of individuals who interacted, in different ways, with the breadth and dynamism of the east Atlantic in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


April 15, 2021

Barbara Krauthamer, Professor of History, UMass Amherst

"Liberty’s Diaspora: Black Women in the Age of the American Revolution"

This presentation examines the lives of three Black women who had been enslaved in the British North American colonies at the time of the American Revolution. The presentation reflects on their lives by considering the ways historians have navigated the archival gaps and silences about Black women’s presence. The presentation follows the women’s voluntary and forced migrations, their Diasporic routes, within the Americas and across the Atlantic. This focus on Black women’s routes of resistance, liberation and deportation adds a new dimension to the more familiar and male dominated stories of slavery, Black Loyalists and the American Revolution.


May 6, 2021

Elizabeth Schiffler, PhD student in Theater and Performance Studies, UCLA

"Snow Eggs: Situated Tastes and Partial Archives"

This talk traces a history of Snow Eggs, from its inception in American gastronomic history to a contemporary Los Angeles performance. Beginning with the recipe from 18th century Chef James Hemings, enslaved to President Jefferson, a study of Snow Eggs reveals the emerging technologies and relations between French and American gastronomy. Extending to the 2020 dinner series ‘Hemings & Hercules’ created by Chef Martin N. Draluck at Hatchet Hall in Los Angeles centers reenactment as a historical method that reveals historical, ecological, and technological entanglements. This talk challenges the dominant culinary narrative of the whiteness of French-American gastronomy, to position American cookbooks adapting French cuisine to be read, and performed, through the legacy of Hemings’ contribution to American foodways.


May 20, 2021

Devin Leigh, PhD Candidate in History at the University of California, Davis

“The Origins of an Archive: Enslavers and the Geopolitics of Knowledge Production in an Age of Abolition”

The colonial archive has grown as a subject of interest among scholars of the Atlantic World in recent years. In particular, scholars of slavery have shown how the texts we navigate as historians were constructed as artifacts of power and violence, intended to further the work of colonization and enslavement. This presentation examines a particular chapter in the history of the colonial archive. It traces the parallel lives of two white gentlemen who were born in Great Britain, became enslavers in the West Indies and West Africa, and then produced works of History on Africa and peoples of African descent in the year 1793. It argues that these authors were representative of a new, transatlantic generation of colonial enslavers who were pushed by the rise of the abolition movement to think differently about the value of their experiences overseas. For the past three centuries, enslavers had collaborated with metropolitan chroniclers to produce new knowledge about the Atlantic World. The rise of an abolitionist movement in the metropole caused enslavers to lose trust in these inherited structures of knowledge production and to create an archive on their own.


June 3, 2021

Alea Adigweme, MFA student in Interdisciplinary Studio Art at UCLA 

A Prelude to the Vestibular: Reading Paratexts in Charles Shepard’s “An Historical Account of the Island of Saint Vincent” (1831).

In his hagiographic recounting of “the Carib War” — written in dedication to and with input from the conflict’s white survivors — Charles Shephard unintentionally documents the unsettled nature of Afro-Indigenous “defeat”in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Using Gérard Genette’s concept of the “paratext,” this stage of the project focuses specifically on peritextual elements of An Historical Account of the Island of Saint Vincent, which highlight the circuits of information, capital, and power that form the work’s foundation. Through a disambiguation of the “front matter” into inter-related, though discrete objects of inquiry, attending to the peritextual surfaces connections between Shephard, slaveowners, and a British parachurch organization, allowing a deeper understanding of the financial, affective, religious, and rhetorical mechanisms at play in the erasure of the Black Caribs, against whom the war Shepard recounts was fought. 


Fall 2021

Sara Johnson, Associate Professor of Literature, UC San Diego
"Between the Archive and the Speculative Turn: Notes toward a Biography of Moreau de Saint-Méry.”

This talk considers the process of writing about the life and work of the Caribbean philosophe Moreau de Saint-Méry (1750-1819).  A lawyer, printer, naturalist, and translator who was at the forefront of revolutionary politics on two continents, Moreau was also a slaveholder who wrote about ideals of liberty even as he trafficked in human beings.  An ardent defender of slavery as an institution, he nonetheless left some of the most detailed accounts of the social practices of enslaved women and men in the eighteenth-century Americas.  This talk explores who knew what, and how, using as an example entries from his manuscript Repértoire des Notions Coloniales that I have refashioned into my own Encyclopédie noire.  This work reconsiders how his production of colonial knowledge appears when assessed from alternate points of view.  In a similar vein, I discuss the process and politics that surround a parallel project produced by Moreau’s brother-in-law, Baudry des Lozières.  My methodology embraces the value of informed speculation—through chapters that experiment with form, visual imagery, and narrative voice—as a way to foreground the people of African descent who undergirded Moreau’s work on multiple levels, from those who managed his household to those whose knowledge about language, labor, and community became the basis of his work.  I build upon fragmentary archival evidence to surmount the disproportionate influence of planters and administrators on Caribbean historiography. 


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For further information about the Atlantic History Group, please send an email to Robin Derby (derby@history.ucla.edu).

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