When Judy Giesberg asked me to guest edit a special issue on abolition and solicit essays that would showcase new directions in abolition studies, I welcomed the opportunity. For a field that has been ploughed thoroughly—from global syntheses of the transition from slavery to freedom in the western world by some of the most eminent historians of slavery and abolition such as Robin Blackburn, Seymour Drescher, and David Brion Davis to numerous finely grained studies of African Americans, women, Garrisonian, political, and evangelical abolitionists in the last few decades—it might seem that we have nothing new left to say about abolition. In fact, as the original essays in this issue illustrate, we have barely begun to uncover the long, diverse, and multifaceted history of the abolition movement that goes well beyond old caricatures of irresponsible religious fanatics on the one hand and the simple portrayal of heroic freedom fighters on the other. More importantly, individually and collectively, they challenge the oft repeated, virtually reflexive, received historical wisdom on abolition by both broadening our conception of what constitutes abolition and deeply engaging abolitionist archives.
Joseph Yannielli’s article on the abolitionist town Mo Tappan in West Africa exemplifies this simultaneous broadening and deepening of our understanding of abolition. Much of the recent work on transnational abolition has concentrated mainly on the Anglo-American connection. Even those who have sought to include West Africa in the story of abolition, including myself, have done so mainly through the lens of the debates over colonization and emigration. In his nuanced article on the founding of an abolitionist town in West Africa as part of the American Missionary Association’s Mendi mission composed of the returning Amistad rebels, African participants, and American abolitionists, Yannielli recovers the lost history of Mo Tappan. Eschewing ahistorical equations of abolition with western imperialism—while remaining mindful of the racial, economic, and gendered fault lines in this interracial abolitionist community—Yannielli’s article reveals not only the course of American abolition in Africa but also the Africanization of American abolition.
The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.