On Agency in History

In my review of 1491, I wrote about Mann’s revision of traditional narratives about Indians in history, how “the portrayal of Indians as passive recipients of European actions, either as enemies or victims” is false, as “the first peoples of the Americas were active in history…” Activity in history is an important theme of much recent scholarship, especially in the study of traditionally marginalized groups. The reduction of Indians to passive victims or unthinking barbarians, either way destined to be swept aside, is prevalent in the historiography of other peoples, such as slaves and the victims of colonialism. Note the construction I used, almost reflexively: “victims of…” This thought process is the problem which the new narrative of historical activity seeks to rectify. It is the study of agency.

Agency, in simplest terms, is the ability of a person to be an actor, to be at least partially in command of her own destiny, rather than a “thing” that is acted upon or manipulated. It’s an important shift in the narrative of marginalized people. The first accounts were those “written by the victors,” which justified conquest by the vices of the conquered, or glorification of the conqueror’s virtues. This account, in addition to rendering marginalized peoples into passive things, made them into villains. The first round of corrective revision focused on the moral dimension and ignored the issue of agency. Essentially, the moral narrative is reversed: marginalized peoples had more virtue than had been recognized, their vices had to be placed in context, and the process of their marginalization and subjugation was a great crime. While a useful corrective to an account of history that effectively functioned as apologia for power, and which still serves that role, it still relegates its subject to the margins, now as victims of historical injustice rather than righteously punished enemies. They are still not actors in history.

The new narrative of agency corrects this aspect, but invites other problems. One significant “mixed blessing” is in abandoning the moral argument. On one level, continuing a moralization of marginalization beyond the point of counterbalance returns to a propagandistic mode that obscures our understanding of history, and so an “amoral” or value neutral exploration is desirable. On another, it’s problematic when agency itself becomes a moralized virtue. After all, few would doubt the “agency” or the conquistadors. Agency can mean active complicity in some truly horrific things. Moralizing agency as something to be celebrated rather than explored can also lead to an exaggerated glorification of historical actions in anachronistic ways.

In “The costs of coercion: African agency in the pre-modern Atlantic world,” Stephen D. Behrendt, David Eltis, and David Richardson give an account of slave revolts aboard slave trading ships that exemplifies the different aspects, positive and negative, of placing emphasis on agency in history.1 It is also a fascinating and informative analysis of the economic dimensions of the slave trade. Essentially, the frequency of revolts aboard ship increased risk in the trade and thus raised the costs of shipping slaves. While each individual revolt was unlikely to succeed, the constant fear of revolt required preventative measures which raised costs, and thus prices, leading to reduced demand (when compared to a hypothetical slave trade that did not need to fear revolts) and thus lowering the volume of trade.

In what I would call a “neutral” application of agency analysis, the authors examine the frequency of revolts by region of origin for slaves. Different parts of Africa apparently yielded slaves with differing likelihoods for shipboard revolt, and this correlated with European “patronage” of these regions: slaver traders focused on markets in regions from which they could buy slaves who tended not to revolt aboard ship. Thus, the character of Africans shaped the patterns of the slave trade. This is what agency means in the broadest sense: people in history having a significant effect on its course by their own actions. There is no moral dimension to this observation, it simply relates how Europeans had to react to the actions of Africans, and how this affected the cultural makeup of slaves in the Americas and thus the contributions of Africa to the nature of the nations and societies formed in the New World.

Indeed, on a large enough scale, the effects of slave revolts on the Middle Passage had massive historical consequences. The risk and thus cost of transporting slaves meant that Europeans were less keen to begin importing slaves, and more keen to stop. In essence, other methods of obtaining productive labor were more attractive, for longer (in the case of European colonists and native workers) and earlier (in the case of industrialization and contracting cheap wage labor from other parts of the world). Revolts on slave ships thus shortened the duration of the slave trade. The aggregate decreased demand also led to a decrease in the total number of slaves sold. The authors calculate that in the 18th century, 600,000 fewer slaves were transported to the Americas as a result of the increased costs of preventing revolts, meaning that every rebel aboard ship saved many other Africans from slavery.

This is where agency has the potential to become problematic. To describe this aggregate effect in terms of salvation, as the authors do, is to apply a moral value that is somewhat anachronistic. From our perch in the present, we see this large-scale effect, but the mutinying slaves themselves were unlikely to have had this perspective as a motivation. There is inspirational bravery in their desperate fights for freedom, but basing further valorization on historical consequence occludes history. It creates heroes of legend rather then actors in fact. Still, this is more of a stylistic concern than a cause for alarm. Learning about the positive effect which these slaves in revolt had is heartening, and valorizing them and the importance of their actions reveals a useful lesson about the importance of resistance, even if it seems futile. The authors are not engaging in propaganda simply for finding legitimate inspiration in the record they have uncovered.

The authors then turn in their analysis to events in Africa, and this is where a possible “dark side” to appraising agency appears. When Europeans first began expanding into the Atlantic, their first probings and colonization efforts crept down the coast of Africa. However, they were unable to effectively control very much territory on the continent itself, and were not able to subdue local populations and polities. This forced the march of the plantation economy to change direction and move all the way across the ocean, to South America. In effect, the active resistance and strength of African polities resulted in the distance between the site of production and the source of labor that necessitated the slave trade.

A simplistic evaluation of this effect (which, I should make very clear, the authors do not make) would seek to place blame. It would say that Africans are partially “at fault” for the slave trade. Among other problems with this judgment is that it ignores European agency, and thus responsibility, for seeking to create a plantation economy and buying slaves to run it. Additionally, it is in some ways as “anachronistic” as idolizing slaves in revolt for saving people in Africa from slavery through the high-level operation of market forces. Native Africans did not seek to create a transatlantic slave trade, they sought to keep control of their land. The African “role” in creating the slave trade was something of a side-effect of their actual motives, as much as was the African role in reducing the volume of the trade through revolt.

The impulse to “shift the blame” for slavery exists due to the profound and ruinous long-term after-effects of slavery on American nations. In the United States, there is an historical/political interest ever ready to defend the South and the Confederacy, explaining away the American Civil War as a conflict over “states rights,” thus making the Union an unprincipled, tyrannical aggressor, and to write off slavery as an African institution thousands of years old which affected the South for a tiny fraction of that time. Never mind that it was not an African institution to ship slaves overseas. Never mind the critical role of European demand for slaves in expanding both the scope of African slavery and changing its nature. Never mind the immense benefits reaped by white Americans, northern and southern, due to slavery, which persist today in the form of institutional racism. Never mind that the Confederacy was a self-conscious slave state that saw itself as a natural republic which, unlike other nations where members of the same race perversely subjugated each other, enshrined in law the natural relationship between an inherently servile race and an inherently free one.2

Where agency becomes problematic is in celebrating agency itself as a virtue, regardless of whether that agency is used for good or ill. The authors explore the fact that Europeans had to buy slaves from African elites, which necessarily implied that Africans and Europeans were on equal footing in the trade. While the authors note that this arrangement also reduced the volume of the slave trade, as Europeans could have obtained slaves much more easily by direct raiding, which they were not actually able to conduct, it’s possible to come away with the sense that African complicity in slavery is to be celebrated for the power it demonstrated. The fact that Africans had agency in the trade overshadows, in significance, their participation. We would look with suspicion upon an analysis of the European role in the slave trade that celebrated their business savvy and determination in building new societies at a perilous cost. Yet this is the mirror image of a celebration of African agency in the slave trade, rather than a simple examination.

This is also, in some sense, a simplistic analysis, but simplistic analyses are the heart of political abuses of history. By noting the aggregate effect which Europeans being forced to negotiate with African elites had on the volume of the slave trade, the authors clearly are sensitive to this. And yet, at the same time, the article’s very title puts agency front and center, thus making it seem to be a virtue in itself. The risk of abusing such an impression, however unintended, is lessened to the degree that agency is simply a factor to look for in traditionally ignored areas rather than imbued with an inherent significance. Much like the first round of revision, wherein the morality of marginalization in history was reversed, emphasis on agency is a useful corrective. And like that earlier revision, agency as a cause for celebration in itself runs the risk of distorting the record and inviting opportunistic abuses of history, however cautious historians may be to head off this possibility.

1. The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Aug., 2001), pp. 454-476
2. See, for examples: “Cornerstone Speech” by Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the CSA; “Slavery a Positive Good” by John C. Calhoun; and other examples from an article on “compensated emancipation” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.


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