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.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves brought from Sub-Saharan Africa were central to the production of many U.S. and Caribbean commodities, including cotton, tobacco, rice, rum, and sugar, and the industrialization and financial markets that resulted from them. The success of the Domino Sugar Company and its refinery on the waterfront of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was a direct result of enslaved labor. As such, “Brooklyn is a part of the Black Atlantic,” said Emily Holloway, a PhD student at Clark University. “Slavery in the south and Caribbean underwrote industrialization in the North.”
Holloway uses multiple academic disciplines to disentangle the “messy reality of racial capitalism,” which runs from Africa to Haiti, Cuba to the Northeast. This economic system relied on slaves and the accumulation of capital, which took the form of buildings and infrastructure.
The success of the Domino Sugar Company can also be understood as a result of a slave rebellion, which drove major changes in the sugar cane economy of the Caribbean. “The beginnings of the Domino Sugar Company leads back to the Haitian revolution,” Holloway said.
Self-liberated Haitians rose up and defeated the French colonial army, which caused sugar plantation owners on the island to flee to eastern Cuba. There, they clear-cut the land and reinstalled their slave-based sugar cane economy. This sugar was then sent to New York City for processing as the granular table sugar consumers bought in stores.
William Havemeyer, the founder of a company that later grew into Domino Sugar Company and later Domino Foods, Inc., formed a sugar refinery in lower Manhattan in 1807. Fifty years later, his firm moved to Williamsburg, where they built a larger refinery.
After that burnt down, the company built a colossal building in 1883 that could produce a million pounds of sugar a day. The company took up four city blocks and created a “densely populated industrial ecosystem.” Today, the building is being redeveloped as an office building, and the Domino waterfront has become “gentrified” and transformed into a park.
This industrialization process was mirrored in the sugar cane plantation landscapes of Cuba. Small farms multiplied and grew in size. Enslaved and then free laborers were still needed to harvest the cane but the processing at the farms became increasingly mechanized. “This history has been largely erased in the archives,” Holloway said, and a “more creative approach to research is needed.”
Holloway said the artist Kara Walker spoke of these relationships with her monumental, 75-foot-tall sculpture, A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, created in 2014 for then derelict Domino sugar factory space. “This was the Black Atlantic answering back in defiance.”
Justin Dunnavant, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, approaches the history of the Caribbean through multiple academic lenses as well.
He said there are researchers exploring the ideas of Black ecology, which examines the unique ways Black people interact with nature and how they are also erased from the environment. And there are also researchers focused on historical ecology, looking at how relationships between societies and environments have changed over time.
His goal is to synthesize these approaches into the new study of Black historical ecology, which can explore how ecological relations changed because of the slave trade. This will involve weaving together multiple narratives to examine the plantation system’s impact on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. His hope is it can result in “a call to action to redress.”
Dunnavant has focused on the island of St. Croix, which was part of the Danish West Indies and is now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. As part of an archeological research collective, he and his team are investigating the ecological impacts of slavery and plantations, including the deforestation that occurred to clear lands for sugar cane; the soils that were degraded by agriculture and development; and the coral mined for buildings. His work is also a part of the Estate Little Princess Maritime and Terrestrial Archaeology Field School, which trains Crucian high-school students in archaeology while investigating the remnants of Danish slavery.
At the same time, he is also uncovering the little known legacy of the maroons that claimed isolated areas of the island. Maroons were Black slaves who freed themselves by escaping, and some were their descendants. They formed self-sufficient communities throughout the Caribbean and southern United States. They often mixed with Indigenous peoples, forming new creole communities. In St. Croix, they led a slave rebellion that ended slavery in 1848.
The part of the island where the maroons found sanctuary was “unmapped” in Danish historical records, but it was actually a “rich area of Black freedom.” Using Lidar data and other archeological tools, Dunnavant’s team is uncovering the remnants of what he calls a “Black geography.” He is interested in how the maroons terraced the land for agriculture and created fortifications and leveraged the dense landscape to protect themselves. “Uncovering their stories is a form of redress.”
Matthew Francis Rarey, a professor at Oberlin College, then took the audience to Brazil to focus on the Portuguese colonial empire and its deadly campaign against maroons.
Approximately 80 fugitive slaves had made a home at Buraco do Tatu, on the coast of Bahia in Northeast Brazil. Their quilombo, or fugitive community, was destroyed by colonial forces. And that destruction was documented in a unique map that accompanied a letter to the viceroy.
The map was meant to provide evidence of the colonial power’s success in suppressing maroons, but it has become an “icon of scholarship,” as it is one of the few comprehensive aerial perspectives on how maroons organized themselves.
The map depicts a community nestled in sand dunes and blended into surrounding trees and shrubs. At its outer perimeter are fields of surrounding wood spikes. There are spiked trap holes. But there’s also a single path to the sea. The inner sanctum, the community itself, is organized on a grid, with homes arranged by streets. And there are food gardens and a trellis for growing passion fruit. “It shows a rebellion landscape,” Rarey said.
The maroons would use the path to reach roads where they would rob wayfarers. “They were fighting against inequality and capitalism.” The maroons would also target enslaved Black people going to market in an attempt to strike a blow at the plantation economy. “Their goal was to dismantle plantations from the inside” by “weaponizing blackness” and making plantation owners “look foolish,” Rarey said. They also participated in informal exchanges to build their supply of guns and gunpowder.
The map includes a legend that explains how the maroon community were killed in the onslaught by Portuguese colonial forces. One maroon woman was labeled a sorceress and “defamed after her death.” Many others killed themselves instead of risking re-enslavement. In the map, the corpses become “part of the subjugated landscape.”
The Portuguese process of mapping the community is an attempt to reinstate colonial order on a free Black landscape. Rarey said you can sense the “anxiety of the cartographer” as they had “no reference point.”