University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Christina Mobley

Assistant Professor, Corcoran Department of History

383 Nau Hall

Project

The Kongolese Atlantic: The Central African History of the Haitian Revolution

To finish her manuscript, The Kongolese Atlantic, which tells the remarkable history of Mwana and the more than 300,000 other Kongolese men, women, and children who survived slavery in Saint Domingue, won the only successful slave revolution in history – the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) – and founded the first black republic, Haiti. Historians have yet to understand the social and cultural history of this important group of people who founded post-independence Haitian society. What was the social and cultural impact of the Kongolese in Saint Domingue? How did Central African men and women use Kongolese knowledge and spiritual technologies to mediate the experience of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic world? Mobley analyzes the Haitian Revolution through the African history of the enslaved revolutionaries. The principal argument of her work is that in order to study the social and cultural history of Africans in the Atlantic world, historians must first understand their lives in Africa: who they were, where they came from, and what cultural tools they brought with them across the Atlantic Ocean.

Biography

I am a historian of Africa, the Caribbean, and the African diaspora. My research focuses on the cultural history of slavery in West Central Africa and the Kongolese Atlantic world in the early modern period. I am particularly interested in the history of the Kongo Zone and Saint Domingue, later Haiti, in the eighteenth century.

In my current book project, "The Kongolese Atlantic: Central African Slavery & Culture from Mayombe to Haiti,” I follow captives from enslavement in Africa across the Atlantic to freedom in independent Haiti. I do so in order to understand how enslaved Africans used cultural practices as survival tools in the context of slavery in the Americas. I use historical linguistics to uncover new information about where in Central Africa captives originated. I demonstrate that contrary to conventional scholarship, the inhabitants of the Loango Coast kingdoms and Mayombe rainforest were not simply middlemen in the interior slave trade but themselves constituted the majority of the enslaved. Using a sociolinguistic methodology, I query how enslaved Kongolese men and women used cultural practices to mediate the experience of slavery on both sides of the Kongolese Atlantic world. I argue Central Africans drew on specific Kongolese spiritual tools to address the material problems of plantation life, demonstrating a remarkable durability of Kongolese ontology of both sides of the Atlantic world. Central Africans, therefore, made important contributions to the three cultural creations of the Haitian Revolution: the lakou system of decentralized land ownership and social organization, the Vodou religion, and the Haitian Kreyòl language. I conclude that the Kongolese used instrumental knowledge and spiritual technologies as tools to recreate communities in the aftermath of slavery and constituted the building blocks of independent Haitian society.

 My next project is a history of the Haitian Revolution from the perspective of the African majority. In it, I will resituate the Haitian Revolution within the Kongolese Atlantic world, viewing it from the vantage of West Central Africa, the birthplace of the majority of the population of colonial Saint Domingue.