In Intertwined Stories, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon by bringing you extended versions of some of the interviews with the series' contributors.
Historians are in constant conversation with each other about the past. As we uncover evidence, ask new and better questions of our sources, and think about history in relation to our own present, the way that we interpret the past can and does change over time. We call this collective body of past interpretations “historiography,” or the history of history. We must understand what previous historians have said about a subject, before we can offer a new interpretation.
The study of people who were enslaved and the institution of slavery is no different. To better understand what questions inspired historians of the past, and what excites them now, we turned to Dr. Marcus Nevius, an Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Rhode Island. Nevius is an expert on the Great Dismal Swamp and marronage, another way of describing an enslaved person’s flight from slavery. He helped us understand the history of history about slavery, where he thinks historians are taking the field now, and the language we use to describe enslavement.
Intertwined’s co-creator Jeanette Patrick joined Jim Ambuske in this interview with Nevius. We start by talking about resistance in the Great Dismal Swamp before considering how historians have interpreted the history of slavery, and what work they are doing now to complicate our view of the past.
Intertwined is narrated by Brenda Parker and is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared. Full transcripts, show notes, and bibliographies for Intertwined are available at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com.
"How Historians History"
Episode Published March 21, 2022
Co-written by Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske
BRENDA PARKER: This podcast is supported by anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
JIM AMBUSKE: Hello, and welcome to Intertwined Stories. I’m your host, Jim Ambuske
In this mini-series, we’re taking a deeper dive into the history behind the podcast Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
To create that show, we interviewed over twenty scholars, some of whom are descendants of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community, for over an hour each. We couldn’t fit everything into the main series, so we’re happy to bring you extended versions of some of those conversations now.
Historians are in constant conversation with each other about the past. As we uncover evidence, ask new and better questions of our sources, and think about history in relation to our own present, the way that we interpret the past can and does change over time.
We call this collective body of past interpretations “historiography,” or the history of history. We must understand what previous historians have said about a subject, before we can offer a new interpretation.
The study of people who were enslaved and the institution of slavery is no different. To better understand what questions inspired historians of the past, and what excites them now, we turned to Dr. Marcus Nevius, an Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Rhode Island.
Nevius is an expert on the Great Dismal Swamp and marronage, another way of describing an enslaved person’s flight from slavery. He helped us understand the history of history about slavery, where he thinks historians are taking the field now, and the language we use to describe enslavement.
Intertwined’s co-creator Jeanette Patrick joined me in this interview with Nevius. We start by talking about resistance in the Great Dismal Swamp before considering how historians have interpreted the history of slavery, and what work they are doing now to complicate our view of the past.
AMBUSKE: Let's turn back to something actually you mentioned really at the top of our conversation today, which was forms of resistance, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how enslaved people resisted their enslavement, pushed back against the labor demands of the enslavers... What forms did that take?
MARCUS NEVIUS: Yeah, Sure. In the Great Dismal Swamp, it was mainly characterized by "flight" or by a very stubborn insistence on not performing to the optimal expectations of enslavers. And so, I think this is one of the really rich stories that emerges from company records, through company agents, complaints to company members that in some cases, Monday sunrise would happen, and half of the labor crew would not be there. They would show when they wanted to, and they would melt back into the swamp when they did not want to be there. And so, in part, company agents’ responses to that form of resistance would be to A. to deflect the blame from themselves... It's not my fault that these ditches are in disrepair, the enslaved people who won't do the work of repairing the ditches, but also would be to enter requests from company members that they send treats or other forms of coercive things that might be used to respond essentially to what enslaved people are demanding, like spirits. Plenty of requests that spirits be snuck into the swamp at the request of the enslaved laborers to compel them or to concede to their demand such that they might labor... Better clothing... Better food instead of the pork rations and the corn meal or Starch rations, that there'd be something better sent in, or that there'd be more time set aside such that they might fend on their own.
NEVIUS: And flight. For me, the story of resistance in the Great Dismal Swamp is the story of marronage, the story of flight It is the story of how the Great Dismal Swamp remained even into the 1860s as largely an untamed landscape, as largely a space that local people in Virginia knew, gave refuge, whenever an enslaved person made the decision to resistance enslavement by fleeing into the swamp. And though the space for this former resistance shrank over time, as the proto-industrial form of slavery that produced the timber industry in the region took shape, there still remained parts of the Swamp in the southern reaches in the southwestern regions, where by virtue of just being a couple of miles away from the eastern part of the Swamp where the timber industry really took off, and just a couple of miles in from the western edge of the Swamp in the western communities where enslaved people might simply resist by finding a way to carve out a life, in the way that they'd like, as maroons. And so, the Great Dismal Swamp's history then is instructive of slave resistance on several fronts. It shows us individual acts of slave resistance by virtue of simply refusing to work. It shows us the forms of resistance through negotiation. We picked those up, most readily, in company agent's letters to company members, and it also shows us a space of resistance, more broadly, through flight. My good colleague, Professor Benjamin Golden is doing what I think be really revealing work to show just how pervasive the swamp was as a space of insurgent ecology. And she's published a version of this work so far in the Journal of African American History in its most recent addition in the Winter 2021 edition. And so, I think that even as I tended to take a bit more of a, perhaps cautious historian’s approach, to not center fully the story of the Dismal's history on a history of resistance, I think they're as much that can be said about it as a space of resistance as well.
AMBUSKE: Marcus, would you tell us about how the conversation among historians about slavery in the late 18th and early 19th century has changed or evolved over the last three decades?
NEVIUS: Historians have had really long, sometimes contentious, but more recently focused effort on engaging with the history of slavery put broadly, and that has produced a very, very deep and voluminous historiography that is, frankly today, just as intimidating as the historiography of the American Revolution. I know this because I've become interested in the historiography of the American Revolution, and now I'm realizing that it's gonna take me another decade to write another book, but anyway. [laughter] I can distill a number of, I think, important threads in the historiography that might be of interest, uh, to your audience. Major research questions of the last 30 years have revolved around several key threads. One is the veracity of the evidence produced by slave conspiracy scarces, and particularly as distinct from the evidence produced by slave revolts, actual outright revolts that did happen and resulted in significant upheavals in different parts of the Atlantic world. Regarding the veracity of slave conspiracy scares. There was a really good forum that Bob Gross organized for the William and Mary Quarterly, and it was inspired by several books that were focused on the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy of Charleston, South Carolina in 1822.
NEVIUS: Doug Egerton, I believe, and two others published books that essentially were focused on the official report that the slave tribunal, following the uncovering of the conspiracy produced in its effort to quiet fears of an imminent slave rebellion, and frankly to claim that there was perhaps in some historian's view, an imminent slave revolt to begin with. Gross and the William and Mary Quarterly commissioned historian Michael Johnson to write what actually became a really long and really good essay on the official report, which essentially concluded that it was largely a rouse created by the slave tribunal in a broader context of unrest. This context had something to do with the Missouri debates on the one hand, federally and relatively pervasive fears of slave revolt, both more locally in South Carolina. Several other historians from Phil Morgan to Robert Burkett wrote essays in the years to follow. Morgan's essay "Slave Conspiracy Scares" in particular was invited by Gross and others to extend the form. And the legal historian Thomas J. Davis also wrote an essay that helped us to turn our attention to the fears that were largely at the center of this conspiracy, so on and so forth. And I know you're going to ask the question next about new historiography. But I'll foreground here that Jason Sharpell's most recent book, The World that Fear Made, is one really good take on the broader Atlantic world scope of fears at the center of slave conspiracy scares particularly in the Anglo-Atlantic world.
Another historiographical thread in the last 30 years of the history of slavery, uh, centers on questions around what constitutes slave resistance. And that's in some ways where I found my entry into the study of the subject, but generally this continuum was declined leading up to about the turn of the 20th century as appearing on two ends of a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, one might locate individual acts of slave resistance from feigning sickness, to refusing to work in small scale situations, to breaking tools to some degree, running away for short amounts of time. And on the other end of the spectrum where outright slave revolts such as Nat Turner's rebellion or the 1730 Chesapeake rebellion in Virginia, and that slave resistance continuum sort of emerged out of historians’ efforts to respond in a Marxian context to a cultural turn in the mid-20th century, which sought to and did revolve around questions of agency as might be drawn from the record of individual small groups, large groups of enslaved people's actions. One might note Eugene Genovese as one of the major scholars in the agency route. But one might also note, in terms of the cultural turn, P. Sterling Stuckly's work as well.A third thread, and this third thread has actually become really prominent in the last 10 years, has revolved around the complexities about these histories that gender and women's histories and scholars have actually added to the conversation, really. Tracing to Deborah Gray White's Aren't I a Woman and moving through Kathy Brown's. Good Wives, Nasty Winches, Anxious Patriarchs, love any opportunity to cite that title because it's awesome... To Jen Morgan's Laboring Women, to more recent studies that we can talk about a bit later. But, essentially in turning our attention to the central place of women in these histories, we've learned wonderful new things about the ways that slave societies operated about, in some cases, the central place of women in slave societies, as enslavers, as those who sometimes learned about conspiracies - real or not - before they were revealed, and frankly, also sometimes... As is with the case with the Grimké sisters as those who began to agitate against slavery, I'm thinking there South Carolina. And then a fourth thread generally revolves around the ways in which the historiography of slavery for much of the 20th century emerged as a product of the Black radical tradition of scholarship, on the one hand, that scholarship informed by present day Black protest movements in the 20th century, and on the other hand, the effort to really engage with the archives of scholarship in ways that rendered with abundant clarity the daily experiences of enslaved people, and there I'm thinking about the two magisterial synthesis works of Phil Morgan and the late Ira Berlin in helping us to understand comparatively and on individual local circumstances, the context of slavery in the Chesapeake - the context of slavery in the Low Country, and I might add there are other historians who have looked at the context of slavery in the Caribbean and beyond.
AMBUSKE: Well, that's great Marcus, Thank you and as you were talking I realize I just pretty much asked you a comps question, so thank you. Thank you very much. For humoring me there.
NEVIUS: Yeah, sure. You know, when I looked down at the run of show here, the first question, I was like, Oh, there's that question today, but I guess if I pass them, it means that I'll be answering that question for the rest of my career, so, happy to engage.
JEANETTE PATRICK: Well, and part of why we wanted to ask you, you specifically discussion, is just like the notes in your book are so rich in detail that we've actually like, um we have interns working on further reading list for each episode of the podcast, and we've instructed them to like look at your notes because it's just such a rich collection of the historiography of the topic.
NEVIUS: Jeanette, I'm always honored when I hear that compliment because, man, 10 years of reading in that depressing scholarship has finally yielded something... Besides this job I supposed.
AMBUSKE: Did not…Did not go to waste.
AMBUSKE: What are, what are some of the major questions or areas of research that are exciting historians about early American slavery these days?
NEVIUS: Yeah. Sure, so this offers a really good opportunity, I think, to plug an essay that I'm preparing as a book review essay for the William and Mary Quarterly, that should I get it finished, should appear in July with regard to three books that I think will really set the standard for a generation of scholarship in concert with other books that other people are also raising as the standard, right. These three books are Jason Sharples, The World that Fear Made, that I just mentioned... uh, recently published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Vincent Brown's Tacky's Revolt, recently published by Harvard University Press, which I alluded to a moment ago. And Marjoleine Kar's, Blood on the River, recently published by the New Press, all coming out in 2020, all coming out in a context of a broader global Covid 19 pandemic, which has changed the way, to some degree, we have engaged with newly released scholarship. There's been, as you all know, all too well, a wide range of opportunities created to engage with podcasts and the like, and numerous Zoom talks... But setting that broader present-day context aside, I think what will emerge as the collective lesson to take going forward for scholars of the history of slavery, in particular, is that contexts of global warfare and contexts of Colony-making, especially in the 18th century, mattered significantly.
NEVIUS: And so while the tendency of a new thread of scholarship, perhaps a fifth one I should have mentioned earlier, has been to focus on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which... excellent work on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database is out of Emory University, transitioning to Rice University, has made abundantly clear the numbers game that we need to take into account here, but it's also generated a thread of scholarship from Sowandé Mustakeem through, Stephanie Smallwood, which help us to remember the human side of transatlantic slave trading too, and if we remember the Black radical scholarship tradition of C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney and W.E.B. DuBois, frankly DeBois at the forefront of this scholarship, we understand the transatlantic slave trading and colony making and global warfare are not independent scholarships, or should not be treated as independent scholarships, but should be treated as all integrated within one, in ways that help us to understand the deepest complexities of late 17th century, 18th century, early 19th century Atlantic world making, so to speak, if I can coin a phrase here. Vincent Brown does really well in his book to make explicit the grounding of the scholarship in the black radical tradition as do from Sowandé Mustakeem and as has Stephanie Smallwood and a historiographical essay independent of her book Salt Water Slavery.
NEVIUS: Marjoleine Kars does not foreground the Black radical tradition, but she does investigate the Dutch Archives of the Berbice Rebellion of 1763-4 in such a way that remind us of the fears that defined that colony and that produced the circumstances by which the rebellious actions of enslaved people from 1762 through 1764 found fertile ground. And Jason Sharples reminds us that this has long been an historiographical puzzle anyway, if I can channel my reading of The World that Fear Made, which has long taken the end point of rebellion as the starting point, and so rebellions and we deal with the primary sources that slave tribunals produce in order to tell stories, except that when we consider first the fear that defined these colonies, that defined the interactions of colonial officials with enslaved people who betrayed a potential rebellion with and apart from - sometimes the records of what actually took place - We begin to understand better what the world was for people who are actually held as slaves and for people who enslave them. And so, as I'm thinking this through, and thank you for indulging in this point because this is really helping me to try to think about a conclusion for this doggone essay that's taking me forever to write...[laughter]
NEVIUS: As we're thinking about this. I think a couple of things become important for scholarship going forward, the first is that when we think about these long disparate scholarships, the scholarship of global warfare in the context of the Seven Years’ War, for example, which helps us to understand the broader context of Tacky's Revolt and the Wild Coast Rebellion, as Brown and Kars remind us, or when we think about the context of an event that historians have long debated, like the Stono Rebellion of 1739. We consider what Peter Wood explained to us years ago about the motivations of the Stono rebels to reach Spanish Florida, for all the reasons that that entails, from the set-up of that colony in that context, where Fort Mose represented a space of freedom incorporated into the Spanish context, or enslaved Africans who would in turn justify their freedom by defending that northern Spanish outposts to what Peter Charles Hoffer has recently asked us to consider in much the same way that Jason Sharples has, that if we consider the revolt itself and not its results, as we look at the primary record, we might find that the motivations perhaps were different. Peter Charles Hoffer, for example, sees the Stono Rebellion as a spontaneous uprising of a road crew in South Carolina that if we look critically at the record, the record Colonial officials supposed they were trying to St Augustine as opposed to perhaps a more spontaneous local uprising.
NEVIUS: And so I think the key takeaway here is that sources matter... context matters... and taking that together, understanding present day worlds of protests help us to perhaps feel what Rebels may have felt, but shouldn't color our perspective in our reading of the sources. And so, I'm really interested to see what work takes shape going forward. I have one friend in particular, Kathyrn Benjamin Golden, who's working on the insurgent ecology of the great Dismal Swamp, as she looks at the ways in which the record of North Carolina, Virginia Counties, are replete really with fears of revolt and conspiracies, I'm curious to see how she will engage, for example, with the broader cautions we should bring to bear and reading these sources as well.
AMBUSKE: I guess this question kinda goes along with what you were, um, just talking about there, but what areas do you see is under-researched? Ah, you know, if we just talked about the things that excite you right now and gave us some hint of where you'd like to see things go. Are there particular topics centered on slavery that you feel we just don't have enough work on right now, and you'd like to see people dig deeper?
NEVIUS: There are recent essays that have come out that are taking us in a direction of delving more deeply into the history of marronage in its own right, as we also contextualize it as previous social scientists have, but what I'm really interested in here is the sort of broader framing for understanding the history of marronage that doesn't continue divorcing it from broader historical context, and so first, is what I'll do is I'll mention a few scholars who I've noted here who I think have done really interesting work and who have also done that work in ways that contextualize the marronage that they see with relevant scholarships and relevant primary sources that help us to better understand the richness of these historical worlds that we're considering.
NEVIUS: In 2019, Brent Rushworth and Shauna Sweeny published in the William and Mary quarterly, two essays, which enter into this direction really well. Rushforth looking at the Gauolet Rebellion on French Martinique in the second decade of the 18th century, to really explain how Maroons led into local geographies on a small Caribbean Island, but remained connected to the colonial infrastructure, if you will, in a very not too well hidden but "quote - unquote" clandestine economy of exchange, which essentially reveals to us that French colonizers on Martinique tolerated Maroons’ efforts until the threat of rebellion, the threat of burning St. Pierre essentially changed or at least threatened to change the relationship in the tenuous or tacit acceptance of Marronage on that island, if that sounds like a story that has a pretty good analog to the Great Dismal swamp, it does call to mind the story that I tried to write about, The Great Dismal Swamp at a much later time table between the American Revolution and the coming of the Civil War. Shauna Sweeney in that general time period, the late 18th century into and up to emancipation in Jamaica in the 1830s, reminds us that women, enslaved women in Jamaica, basically hid in plain sight in marketplaces in Kingston and Spanish Town engaging in what she refers to as market marronage, and in so doing were a critical component of the island economy in ways that I hope to see her take on build into a broader scholarship that might be perhaps in conversation, for example, with Christine Walker in Jamaica Ladies. And then John Henry Gonzalez is framing for post-revolutionary Haiti as a Maroon nation in the 19th century, just... Just blew my mind, because one, he reminds us that the initial polities did not comprise one nation, uh, we often look at the moment of freedom for Haiti in 1804 as the establishment of a fully integrated singular polity on the western half of St. Domain, but that just was not the case, there was the Republic in one location, the kingdom in another location, and maroon communities in the Eastern highlands, which continued to exert significant economic, political and cultural influence on the effort to shape the post-war nation that ultimately becomes Haiti. And frankly, also to shape the relationships between the western end of the island and ultimately what the Spanish decided to do, and then the independence movements to follow on the eastern end of the island in the late 1830s and early 1840s. And so, in talking about the directions that marronage can go, the history of marronage particularly can go, if we embed the history of marronage into more closely integrated, more closely into these previously seemed to be contentious colonial histories, I think there's much more we can learn.
AMBUSKE: Just as scholarship has shifted over time, the way that we speak about slavery has shifted over time. From simply saying, slave to enslave versus slave owner versus enslaver, what do you see as the significance in this shift in terminology over the last 10 to 15 years.
NEVIUS: The significance of re-training ourselves to speak about slaves as enslaved people or slave holder, slave owners as enslavers has a very crucial connotation for the next generation of people who will engage with these histories. That connotation is, in my mind, pretty simple. Although as a scholar, I'd probably complicated more than it needs to be complicated, but the people who were enslaved, descendants of Africa, descendants of various Native American polities and to some degree descendants of European polities too, depending upon the context that we take up, had the circumstance of slavery imposed upon them, by others, they were not inherently slaves, though we can't get into the psychology of their minds because we largely don't have first-hand documents to tell us what most of these people thought. It should hold as a common place that if we understand the institution of slavery to be imposed upon some human beings, and we understand that in position not to remove those human beings sense of humanness, then we should shift the language. That has two benefits, I think, one is to teach future generations without equivocation that people who were enslaved remained human and two, when the next generation of people engage with the primary sources, produced mainly by enslavers, they also have this shift front of mind, top of mind, they understand that the enslavers themselves who labeled enslaved people as slaves were imposing that sort of status upon them.
NEVIUS: And then finally, it helps us to do away with the implicit questions around the veracity of slave resistance that sometimes bubble up where some who are not trained to understand this shift and the deeper historiography upon which it draws might look rather uncritically at the sources and engage with them as they work in such a way that continues to perpetuate the imposition of the status on human beings, who should otherwise be seen first as humans.
AMBUSKE: Intertwined Stories is a production of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and CD Squared.
I’m Jim Ambuske, your host and producer for this episode.
Jeanette Patrick and I co-created and co-wrote the main series, Intertwined: The Enslaved Community at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Brenda Parker brought it to life as our wonderful narrator. Curt Dahl of CD Squared was our lead producer and audio engineer.
Thank you to the anonymous friends of George Washington’s Mount Vernon whose generous financial support made this show possible.
Please rate and review Intertwined on your favorite podcast app. We’d love to hear what you think, and it will help more people find the series.
And remember to check out our website for full transcripts, teacher resources, and suggested readings. You’ll find us at www.georgewashingtonpodcast.com
Thanks for listening.
Associate Professor of History
Marcus P. Nevius, Ph.D. is associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, where he teaches courses in the history of slavery, the Revolution, Confederation, and Early Republican periods in the early United States; and, in the history of African Americans in the early American republic. Nevius holds a B.A. and M.A. in history from North Carolina Central University, and a Ph.D. in history from The Ohio State University.
He is the author of the book City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763-1856 (Georgia, 2020). He has authored review essays published in the William and Mary Quarterly, and in History Compass. He has published book reviews in the Journal of African American History, the Journal of Southern History, and H-Net Civil War.
Nevius is the recipient of research fellowships granted by the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan; the Special Collections Research Center of the Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary; the Virginia Museum of History and Culture; and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.