Review: The Diligent by Robert Harms

Robert Harms, The Diligent (Basic Books, 2002)

A review of Robert Harm’s newest work, Land of Tears, was posted here last January. Many of you have bought the book, and since I think his work is phenomenal, I wanted to showcase his prior work that introduced me to his writing.

Since the beginning for the 21st-century, many historians of colonization have focused intensely on the movement of peoples and the acclimation of cultures along the entirety of the Atlantic Basin. Therefore, it is no surprise that the methodology of the subarea runs parallel to studies in academic research concentrated on the West African slave trade, which overlaps both the period and geographic location that defines Atlantic World studies. The Diligent by Robert Harms attempts to merge the two ideas by demonstrating the interconnectedness of European, African, and New World politics, economics, and cultures.

Harms utilizes a 1731 journal by Robert Durand, First Lieutenant on the slave ship Diligent, to demonstrate how seemingly disconnected localities were impacted by one another. The Diligent is broken down into parts, each one representative of a part of the ships journey. As the Diligent completes each phase of its loop, Harms documents background information on each of the places visited, demonstrating a “kaleidoscope of diverse national and local endeavors” that had direct influences over one another and eventually culminates in the Diligent’s participation in the Atlantic-wide trade of slaves and commodities. For instance, Harms describes how the Diligent was the first slave ship launched by Vannes, a town in France seeking to match the prosperity of its neighbors Lorient, and Nantes, both of whom had already began trading slaves. The slave-trading empires of Africa came to dominate the fortunes of many a European town as they competed to cash in on the terrors of human subjugation.

Similarly, Europeans cast shadows in Africa even where their slave ships did not port – Harms notes that the demographic damage “was felt mostly in the interior regions that no Europeans ever visited.” While some defend the actions of 15th-century Europeans by pointing out that inter-African slavery existed before the Age of Exploration, this is a poor parallel for the African trade. As I noted in my review of Land of Tears, slavery did exist, but it was demonstrably different than the Americanized version most westerners are familiar with. Harms reports there were four classes in the interior of equatorial Africa. The first were rural slaves who worked the land for owners. Yet, these workers had days off to grow their own food for themselves and their family and could take a food surplus to town for sale. A second group, urban slaves often working as porters – split pay with the master.  Concubines was a third class whose descendants could inherit rights to a plantation of and even become sultan. A fourth category – trusted guards of powerful men, could rise to power in a sort of meritocracy. It was not until the introduction of permanent colonial European endeavours in the 19th-century that slavery on the African continent itself came to resemble the Americanized version prevalent in North and South America.

Contrary to the old, localized African ecosystem the financiers of a large percentage of the slave expeditions, including the voyage of the Diligent, would never lay eyes on a slave the ship transported. However, the slave trade operation would permanently alter the landscapes of localities on three continents, whether it be European forts for slave trade on the West African coastline, sugar plantations in Martinique, or new mansions of grandeur in Europe. Most alarmingly, local communities on both sides of the Atlantic became dependent on the slave trade, connecting the areas for over 300 years through illicit and immoral trade, largely benefitting only a relative few people at the expense of many. In the Atlantic islands, slave labor was utilized to create an economic system that became dependent on the continuance of free labor to exist. In Africa, local communities began to buy arms in exchange for slaves, realizing if they did not do the capturing, they had a high likelihood of becoming the captured. Instead of providing a boon to internal African economies, the wealth from the slave trade funneled to a few landlords while the continent itself was pillaged in terms of economic output and real labor. Although the Diligent was but one of over forty-thousand ships that transported eleven million Africans to the New World, its voyage is emblematic of the system that catered to the demands of the slave trade.

The Diligent, and the Atlantic World, is characterized by its transposition of people and ideas as well as an interdependence between seemingly detached communities over extreme distances. Harms effectively links the histories of areas around the Atlantic basin to one another from a multitude of perspectives. David Armitage has argued that you can break down Atlantic history into three types of subareas: circum-Atlantic history which analyzes the region as a whole, trans-Atlantic history, which seeks to compare units within the Atlantic system, and cis-Atlantic history, which analyzes local communities and ties them into the greater scheme of the Atlantic world. The Diligent most closely identifies with cis-Atlantic history by probing slavery’s ramifications on local communities, even those not even bordering the Atlantic Ocean, and demonstrating that the true comprehension of the slave trade requires more than a passing understanding of plantations and ships. In doing so, works such as the one by Harms gives Atlantic World theorists justification for their pursuit for understanding events on an Atlantic-wide scale.

The Diligent by Robert Harms
The Diligent by Robert Harms

Winner of the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, and the J. Russell Major Prize.

Robert Harms is Henry J. Heinz Professor of History and African Studies at Yale University.