The institution of slavery shaped landscapes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. And in turn enslaved and free Africans and their descendants created new landscapes in the United States, the Caribbean, and Sub-Saharan Africa. African people had their own intimate relationships with the land, which enabled them to carve out their own agency and culture.
At Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., a symposium — Environmental Histories of the Black Atlantic World: Landscape Histories of the African Diaspora — organized by N. D. B. Connolly, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Oscar de la Torre, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, sought to highlight those forgotten relationships between people and their environment.
Thaisa Way, FASLA, director of the garden and landscape studies department at Dumbarton Oaks, said the symposium was the fourth in a series meant to “curate a people’s history of landscape.”
African slaves in the United States’ Southern states and the Caribbean were forced to work in their owners’ plantations. They were seen as cogs in an industrial farming system driven by a trans-Atlantic capitalist market economy. But many owners also set aside land slaves could use to grow, trade, and sell food. “This was advantageous for the slave owner,” said C.C. McKee, a professor at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Copenhagen, as it meant having to spend less on feeding them.
McKee is intrigued by a painting by the artist simply known as Le Masurier, created in the French colony of Martinique in the 1770s (see image above). It clearly shows slave children eating sugar cane, the result of the plantation monoculture, but also the “Afro-Caribbean ecologies,” the many African and native trees and plants slaves planted at the edges of plantations, including cashew and tamarind, pea, and starfruit.
According to historical accounts of plantation life during that time, slaves also planted potatoes, yams, cabbages, herbs, and melons. They blended native Caribbean and African plants, taking a “creolized approach to food production.”
The edges of plantations were places where African social structures could be asserted. In these remnant spaces, slaves could decide how to parcel and cultivate the land. And while slave ownership of these areas was impossible, in some communities, hereditary claims were made on parcels, and kinship structures could play a role. In some communities, they functioned as a slave commons. They were “sites of resistance” to the slave owner’s world.
What isn’t seen in the painting McKee highlights is a depiction of the important role indigenous Caribbean peoples played in cultivating trees and plants, and on many islands, their role in teaching Africans how to harvest and prepare food from them. “The indigenous people have been ghosted because they were completely expelled by the 18th century. They were exterminated and exported; it was genocide.”
Slave children also had a complex relationship with the landscapes of the American South, explained Mikayla Janee Harden, a PhD student at the University of Delaware. They were put at greater risk by a dangerous landscape but also “knowingly imprinted on that landscape,” she said.
Children were left on their own or in the care of an elder while their parents worked the fields. Depending on their age, many were also tasked with clean-up and other responsibilities.
On plantations, slaves lived near untamed landscapes. Children who worked and played in these places without shoes were at great risk from snake bites. The few references to slave children in historical records relate to the medical knowledge gleaned from these bites. Children’s lack of “experience, wisdom, and judgement increased their risk of environmental harm.”
But children could also benefit from their “tacit knowledge” of the landscape. While still enslaved, some apprenticed at a young age to learn important trades. Harden highlights the example of Edmond Albius. Enslaved as a child on the French island colony of Reunion, he discovered a highly efficient way to cultivate vanilla that is still used today.
Landscape was a source of “pain and pleasure” for enslaved children. Untended by their working parents, they could be bitten by snakes or have accidents but could also learn, play, and imagine. Harden is next exploring the material culture — the corn-husk dolls and games enslaved children created — and how these objects transmitted African folklore and culture to the next generation.
The conversation then shifted to the other side of the Atlantic. The landscapes of the Falémé Valley in western Sub-Saharan Africa are a source of deep interest for Jacques Aymeric-Nsangou, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. The valley provides insights into how African people avoided the process of enslavement and commodification.
Aymeric-Nsangou decided to research the hinterlands because most Africans captured and enslaved came from the interior, not the coasts. “Many had never seen the ocean before” when they were loaded into slave ships at coastal ports.
The Falémé River spans approximately 250 miles and flows south to north — from northern Guinea, through Mali and Senegal. It flows through mountains, forests, and deserts, and experiences dramatic seasonal changes. It is a tributary of the Senegal River, which flows east to west, so it could be used by slavers to carry captured people to ports on the western coast.
The landscape of the valley included both independent kingdoms and villages of the varied Madinka (otherwise known as the Manlinke or Mandingo) people, who are of similar ethnic origins. They were targeted by the Muslim Fulani (or Fulu) kingdom for capture as part of jihad (holy war). Enslavement had a long history in this part of the world. For centuries, captives were taken as a product of war. People could also be enslaved if, after a trial, they were deemed criminal or for other reasons.
Aymeric-Nsangou explored the few remnants of Tatas, the fortified defensive homes and landscapes of the region, with a team of archeologists. “The Tatas didn’t appear before the 18th century; they increased because of the slave trade,” Aymeric-Nsangou said.
There are no remaining, intact Tatas in the region, because the French colonial government largely destroyed them. But historic photographs show they were made with raw mud cement and stone.
The interiors of the Tatas were labyrinthine and had multiple layers of walls. Noble families occupied the innermost Tata, which also had the strongest walls. Outside, wood palisades, which are still seen in many communities today, provided an extra layer of security against slavers. And these communities also sometimes “weaponized African bees.” These insects are famously aggressive. And “there are stories that villagers could command them to attack.”
While the Tatas could offer defense, they could also be a trap. Another strategy villagers in the region took was to keep their community small so they could quickly relocate.