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According to the latest scholarly investigations, some ten to twelve million Africans were brought to the New World before 1870, in all cases involuntarily.  The number is so staggeringly high, and the circumstances so horrifying, one can scarcely grasp its meaning in human terms.  The European discovery of America in 1492 set in motion virtual tidal waves of social change and migration, the African Diaspora being one of the most massive.  It and the equally catastrophic decimation by disease of American Indians in the sixteenth century are the great tragic dimensions of the merging of peoples of the world that began with Columbus.

History cannot justify such tragedies.  It is presumptuous even to draw up balance sheets of benefits and losses, although this was done many times in defence of the slave trade.  The blessings of “civilization” and “Christianity” brought to “pagans” made everything all right, it was said.  The proper task of historians in this case is above all to tell the story, to reconstitute this epic in all its details.  Much of this is cruel and sordid, but as this catalogue is intended to show, there is also much to be said about black culture and society in the Americas that is independent of the slavery story.

It is one of the glories of the John Carter Brown Library that when the founder began to build the collection in the middle of the nineteenth century, he conceived of his “Biblioteca Americana” as grandly comprehensive.  Himself an ardent opponent of slavery and a grandnephew of one of the leading American abolitionists of the eighteenth century, Moses Brown, John Carter Brown sought to find and preserve forever the printed sources that would make it possible for future generations of scholars to recount the total history of the discovery and development of the New World and its impact on Europe up to the early nineteenth century.  The printed documentation for the history of blacks, not only as slaves and laborers but also as rebels, as artisans and scientists, as artists and writers, was eagerly gathered into this collecting endeavor along with works by and about everyone and everything else that had anything to do with the Americas in this period.

A particular strength of the collection as a whole is its consistently hemispheric focus, which in the case of the history of Afro-Americans is an essential perspective.  Part of an international market once they were aboard a slave ship, African men and women in the New World could live out their careers anywhere from New England to Brazil.

Norman Fiering,
Director and Librarian
The John Carter Brown Library

Editorial introduction

Digital Guide

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