Dialogues In History |

By: Adam Majcher

On 19 February 2021, the UCSB History Department’s Colloquium Committee held the first of four discussions of Herman Bennett’s 2018 book, African Kings and Black Slaves. Inspired by the recent George Floyd Uprising, these discussions bring together a panel of historians to discuss and expand on some of the most important themes of Bennett’s writing. The first focused on the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Atlantic, including the Portuguese’s acknowledgment of various African peoples’ sovereignty, the role of religion on interracial relations, and the concepts of slavery and unfreedom and how they came to be in the Mediterranean.

The panel consisted of four historians: Sergey Saluschev, who studies the nineteenth-century Caucasus region; Adam Sabra, whose research focuses on the Middle East in the medieval and early modern periods; Elizabeth Digeser, who studies religion and the Roman Empire; and Juan Cobo, an expert in colonial Latin American history. Despite many of their fields being distant from the topic covered in Bennett’s book, it was impressive how all made meaningful connections between their research and the issue at hand. When asked how she prepared for the panel, Professor Digeser responded that she initially wasn’t sure what to contribute: “it might well have been the case that there wouldn’t have been anything I could talk about.” Yet, she found a connection between Bennett’s writing and a letter by Saint Augustine, an African Bishop who lived a millennium earlier. “Since Bennett tended to treat Christianity as monolithic and didn’t address the religion’s implication in the problem of slavery, it made good sense to talk about the precedent that Augustine had set.”

To hear historians speak thoughtfully about a topic that, on the surface, appeared to have no immediate connection to their research was fascinating. So too, was how their comments challenged what we think we know about the early modern Atlantic. Saluschev emphasized that Europeans’ views about Africans were not as simple as one of “savage to slave.” The Portuguese, for example, actually recognized the sovereignty of various African peoples as early as 1450.  Professor Cobo addressed how European laws were established as universal to all, regardless of origin. This meant that European powers needed to respect non-European peoples’ sovereignty to obey their own “natural law.” This proved to be crucial to their assertions of power and understandings of self.

Equally telling was how religion, not race or ethnicity, framed interactions between European and African people. Indeed, race and ethnicity shaped the dynamic between European and African people. Still, as Professors Sabra and Digeser made clear, religion was the initial reason for any encounter. Professor Sabra addressed how those people further from the temperate zone of the Mediterranean (Black Africans and white Slavs and Vikings) and not monotheistic were seen as inferior. Professor Digeser highlighted that it was Christianity that created the hierarchical views Europeans had of their superiority. As a result, Europeans viewed lifelong enslavement as a “small matter” compared to African souls’ salvation.

Finally, the dialogue between other historians and between the past and present was remarkable. As an undergraduate student, it was fascinating to see historians talk about their discipline in a way that is often difficult in a classroom setting. As a result, it was illuminating to observe in real-time what was essentially a historiographical debate. Professor Harold Marcuse, one of the audience members, observed these discussions were “absolutely” a good way for undergraduates to learn about the conversations that historians have and how they look. As he explained, the broader issues discussed “come up everywhere and always, so they resonate and trigger reflection easily.”

The second of these discussions will take place this Friday (12 March) at 1 P.M. The focus this time will be on empire and liberation. You can register on Zoom here. These events are a fantastic opportunity to learn from our very own historians and see what awaits us fellow students of history. So, make sure to check them out!