John Wood Sweet, 41
Associate Professor, Department of History, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Over the past several years, research for a book about the"lost worlds" of Venture Smith--an African-born man who spent most of his life in eighteenth-century New England--has taken me to a variety of strange and wonderful places. Attempting to expand my horizons as an Early American historian has led me into situations where I verge rapidly from awe and delight to utter disorientation--and worse. On my first trip to West Africa, I made a beeline for Anomabu, a small village on the coast of Ghana, which Smith describes in his Narrative as the place where his coffle arrived at the shore and where he was held for sale in a" castle." I had visions of visiting the fort, breathing in the dark, damp air of the men's dungeon, and stepping out through the Door of No Return into the blinding sun and crashing surf. Standing there, with the wet sand between my toes, halfway around the world from my home, I thought, would be about as close as I was ever likely to get to recreating a moment of Venture Smith's experience.
So, when I arrived at my lodging about a mile from the village, I eagerly set out along the palm-fringed ribbon of white sand beach. As I got closer, children appeared, crying out cheerfully, some of them offering a few words of English, and one of them pausing to squat on the beach and take a dump. I walked on-now, minding my step-attempting to act friendly and not too grossed out by the shit-strewn beach. Soon, the eighteenth-century fort came into view, a grey stone hulk rising out of the haze and the waves, surrounded by busy fishermen working on their long, colorful canoes and hauling huge nets in from the sea. Trying not to get in the way, I stepped gingerly through the tangle of lines (and the chickens and goats) and then waded out onto some rocks in the surf to get a better view of the fort. I was attempting to balance on the wet rocks, keep my camera dry, and take in the view-when I noticed that the people on shore were hollering. At me. And not just the expected cries of obiri and"white man!" Something I was doing had them horrified. I put down the camera, but the clamor continued. As I waded back towards the fort, a young man explained--through a mixture of eloquent gestures and broken English-that I had been treading all over the village's sacred rocks. Fortunately, it seemed likely that the spirits would be placated by a small offering. I wasn't about to give up the expensive new sandals he was admiring, so I paid up in cash, put the matter behind me, and forged on to the fort. Soon, I actually was standing in the men's dungeon, breathing in the dark, dank air, fingering the rusty bolt in the floor where chains were attached, and trying not to disrupt the bats dangling from the barrel-vaulted ceiling. I took in the romance of the moment, feeling that I had arrived somewhere important.
And yet, as I later learned, Venture Smith never did enter that dank dungeon, nor walk through those thick whitewashed walls into the crashing surf. The fort that now stands at Anomabu was built fifteen years after he commenced his middle passage-and the previous fort had been demolished ten years earlier. So, when Venture Smith passed through there was no" castle" there at all. This realization led to another kind of journey, a journey through archives on three continents that has revealed, among other things, that even when the fort wasn't there, the sacred rocks had been: objects of recurrent tensions among English slave-traders, local leaders, and villagers. Indeed, those sacred rocks, which I didn't recognize even when I was standing on top of them, have come to seem emblematic of the story I want to recover about colonialism and the nature of modern globalization. Thus, I've learned (once again!) that what turns out to be most revealing is often not what I expect to find, but what I stumble across along the way. Soon, I'll be back in Anomabu. This time I'll have a more meaningful offering for the rock spirits.
By John Wood Sweet
About John Wood Sweet
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