It's history is the creation of a world.
Simone de Beauvoir, America Day by Day.
In Colombia the first song I learnt on my battered travelling guitar was “Soy Colombiano” (“I am Colombian”) which goes something like this:
🎵 Give me an alcoholic beverage:
An alcoholic beverage made of sugar cane,
With the sugar cane of my valleys and the aniseed of my mountains!
Don’t give me foreign alcoholic beverages, which are expensive and don’t taste so good.
For me the home grown stuff is always the best. ¡Ay! How proud I feel to be born in my country!🎶🎵 [Colombia].
(Soy Colombiano by Rafael Godoy, translation by me with original language lyrics here1)
This wasn’t atypical for popular South American guitar tunes. In every country there was a suite of well known songs telling the audience how lucky they are to be a citizen of that particular country.
Coming from the UK where even singing the national anthem too loudly can be seen as a bit embarrassing, all these songs appeared to me curiously patriotic.
Patrick Griffin’s new book The Age of Atlantic Revolution: The Fall and Rise of a Connected World provides the context that I was missing. Until 1810 Colombia didn’t even exist, it was part of the huge Viceroyalty of New Granada, itself a part of the enormous Spanish empire. The Viceroyalty of New Granada then fractured into Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and (later) a bit of Peru.2 This was part of the wider fracturing of the Atlantic empires into the nation-states that we know today.
And what was it that made a Venezuelan, different to a Colombian, different to an Ecuadorian, different to a Panamanian? Not very much!
What did it mean to be Bolivian? Or Mexican? Most of the markers of national attachment - say, religion, ethnicity, or language - were shared by so many states that had warred with each other. In most cases, states were built because of the practical considerations of the moment, but belonging and attachment required more.
Patrick Griffin, The Age of Atlantic Revolution
As a revolutionary nation builder looking to create a sense of national identity you’ve just got to work with what you have to hand. In the case of Colombia this meant (verse 1) tasty, low cost alcoholic drinks, (verse 2) good quality music, and (verse 3) beautiful ladies with clear eyes and soft skin. The music was part of the process of creating a nation.
Lighting the fire
Griffin starts his book in around 1760 and finishes around 1850, covering the revolution in British North America, the revolution in France and, after a few decades of benign neglect, the revolutions that formed the map of South and Central America. He also covers the Caribbean world, in particular Haiti.
One of the key ideas underlying this book is that the Atlantic was a deeply connected world, and developments in one place were closely linked with events elsewhere. For example, the French revolution acted as both an inspirational people power moment, or a warning of the terrible violence that a revolution could unleash. So while the interactions were complex in their effects they were nonetheless fundamental to how people around the Atlantic ocean experienced the age.
If all this sounds a bit high level and theoretical, that’s because it is! Because Griffin is covering so much ground he generally can’t afford to get bogged down into exactly who chopped off whose head.
After detailing the genesis and progress of the various revolutions (or non-revolutions) Griffin then examines at what point they were considered complete and stopped. This went pretty smoothly in the United States of America where a clear boundary was set out between those who were to receive the fruits of the revolution (white protestant colonists) and those who would not (African Americans) and any excess violent impulses were orientated westward into the interior, against native Americans.
This process was much less smooth for Saint-Domingue, where revolution - and vulnerability to foreign forces - has led to instability arguably up to the present day state of Haiti.
Shadows of the flames
The last section of the book is on memorialising those revolutions - the “vanishing points” of each country’s national story. Memorialising here means building physical structures, mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries, to form a focal point of national myths - for example The Angel of Independence in Mexico City or the Monument to the Independence of Brazil. Griffin draws out what these memorials were intended to remember and what they tried to forget or erase from the story.
Invariably at the time these monuments were constructed this meant forgetting the role of African Americans in the story of the nation, and often it meant forgetting or occluding the existence of native American peoples.
One part of this Atlantic world that was quite new to me was the French colony of Saint-Domingue, forming the Western part of the island of Hispaniola, the largest island in the Caribbean alongside Cuba. At the time of the French Revolution in 1789 it was unbelievably productive, processing half of the world’s sugar supply despite being more than 20 times smaller than France itself. This wealth was founded on the forced labour of hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans.
With the American and the French Revolution as precursors, Saint-Dominique exploded into a bloody revolution of its own and in 1804 it became the first American nation to be run by ex slaves.
The price of independence
The price it paid was a high one. Firstly in blood and suffering to reach this point. Secondly in direct monetary terms - the French government demanded a payment which is thought to have deprived Haiti of $21 billion (in today’s terms) in order to recognise the new Republic3.
The justification for the crippling fine was that it was compensation for the losses suffered by French planters. What had they lost? The land they had stolen and the right to work their slaves to death.4
The writing style
The Age of Atlantic Revolution covers some incredible and exciting stories and events. But unfortunately the book itself has none of this sense of excitement.
Despite being keen to find out more there was something about the terse, dry prose style that meant it felt like a battle to read through the pages.
Partly this is because Griffin is exploring his material from such a high level: humans are like tiny dots scurrying around far below, and we don’t look at any of them for long enough to appreciate the drama. Instead we get a kind of academic crossover book describing “entanglements” and “processes”. Here is Griffin talking about the impact of the American Revolution of 1776:
Because of the very nature of that deeply networked system, shock waves could not be contained. The Atlantic world was so imbricated that it was folly to believe that one crisis over sovereignty that had turned into revolution would remain isolated. The logic of the system would not allow it. What followed would with time demonstrate just how knotted the world had become.
Patrick Griffin, The Age of Atlantic Revolution
I think I know what he means even though I don’t understand all of the words. But I have to work pretty hard to follow along.
Because this period is so fundamental to Europe, America and Africa we should all know more about it than most of us do.
Not just the national stories of Bunker Hill or the Storming of the Bastille, but instead understanding how these “foundational myths” are often just exercises in self-congratulatory navel-gazing. By lifting our gazes and looking over the horizon we can understand our own modern world so much better.
Unfortunately, The Age of Atlantic Revolution is not the book to do this despite all its learning, empathy and perceptiveness. It is just too boring. But perhaps it can show us the way.
A mí deme un aguardiente, un aguardiente de caña,
de las cañas de mis valles y el anís de mis montañas.
No me dé trago extranjero que es caro y no sabe a bueno,
porque yo quiero siempre lo de mi tierra primero.
Ay! qué orgulloso me siento de haber nacido en mi pueblo.
If you want to know how it sounds you can of course listen to some recordings on YouTube, including this one by the celebrated Garzón Y Collazos ↩︎
You can watch a nice video of the changing political map of South America on YouTube ↩︎
Recognition in this context means a loose promise not to launch unprovoked attacks. The $21 billion figure comes the Haitian president Jean-Betrand Aristide who made this restitution demand of the French state in 2003. It has recently been the subject of an article in the New York Times from May 2022 called “The Ransom: The Roots of Haiti’s Misery: Reparations to Enslavers”. The article works very well as a brief history of Haiti as well a discussion of the $21 billion amount. The original figure was 150 million francs according to Wikipedia, 10x Haiti’s annual budget. This get’s translated to $560 million in today’s terms and $21 billion including the opportunity cost of not being able to invest this amount in Haiti itself. ↩︎
Described thusly by the New York Times article referenced above: “It [Haiti] became the world’s first and only country where the descendants of enslaved people paid reparations to the descendants of their masters — for generations.
It is often called the 'independence debt.' But that is a misnomer. It was a ransom.” ↩︎
Book details(back to top)
- Title -
The Age of Atlantic Revolution : The Fall and Rise of a Connected World
- Author -
- Publication date -
- Publisher -
Yale University Press
- Pages -
- ISBN 13 -
- Podcast episode -
- Podcast episode -
- Amazon UK -
- Amazon US -