Randy Sparks clearly expresses the interconnectedness of the Atlantic world in the 17th and 18th centuries in Where the Negroes are Masters. He successfully narrates the stories of prominent figures on the West African coast, specifically in Annamaboe, to show the balance of power and the far-reaching influences of African, European and American politics and culture on one another. While Sparks can seem repetitive and his chapters disconnected, these flaws do not detract from his overall arguments nor the value of his book to the lacking historiography of the African role in the slave trade.
Sparks’ discussion of John Corrantee and Richard Brew’s ascents demonstrates the value of understanding and cooperating with both African and European peoples. Corrantee and Brew encouraged trade between Africans and Europeans, mediated disputes between different African peoples, successfully took advantage of European politics and maintained a strong political presence in Annamaboe. Both men were astute traders, and Sparks emphasizes their focus on ensuring that Annamaboe’s trade remained as uninhibited as possible throughout Chapters 2 and 3. Corrantee’s understanding of the European political environment allowed to him to use the English-French rivalry to his advantage, consistently playing each country off of the other. Corrantee’s use of his children as his eyes and ears in Europe also shows how important European politics was to his own power in Africa, further emphasizing the interconnectedness of the two regions. Although both Corrantee and Brew lived and prospered in Annamaboe, they understood that their success would not endure without constant maintenance of their relationships with the European powers. Although Brew was plagued by political unrest and nasty (albeit, true) allegations against him that Corrantee did not face, they both used similar strategies to keep the peace, remain active in European and African politics, and maintain a successful lifestyle for most of their lives.
Throughout Sparks’ book, he discusses the movement of goods, people and cultural influence around the Atlantic. From the presence of luxury British goods in Brew’s African home, to the distribution of rum from Rhode Island to the African coast, to the expansion of maize, Sparks clearly shows the spread of goods throughout the Atlantic World. His discussion of William Ansah’s travels and other Africans leaving the coast to later return underscores the variety of African movement throughout the region, in contrast to the traditional discussion of Africans merely moving Westward as part of the slave trade. Sparks also traces cultural influences through his discussion of languages and religion. Even in the Gold Coast, where Sparks admits little Christianity took hold, he points out the spread of religious influence using baptismal records and the many congregations that included Africans likely native to Annamaboe’s region. He does an exemplary job of underscoring this theme of interconnectedness using merchant and religious records, rather than just relying on his mini-biographies of prominent individuals such as Corrantee and Brew.
Sparks’ only significant flaw in the book is his tendency to repeat himself, causing his chapters to read as disparate parts, rather than a flowing narrative. While his discussion of pawning, in which African traders left their children as collateral for goods advanced to them, was one of the most interesting aspects of the book, it was unnecessary to define the process in multiple chapters. This and other examples of repetition were distracting, but did not take away from Sparks’ overall theme of defining the material, political and cultural interconnectedness of the entire Atlantic World.
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This response to Sparks’ book was submitted as an assignment for a graduate class at Stony Brook University in New York on 10/01/2015