Beyond the Cape: Amitav Ghosh, Frederick Douglass and the Limits of the Black Atlantic

Jacob Crane


Critical formations of the Black Atlantic, beginning with Paul Gilroy and continued by Joseph Roach among others, have posited the Atlantic rim as a stage for vernacular performance and circulation that transcends the borders of racist nation-state. Gilroy begins The Black Atlantic (1992) with the image of a ship at sea as the central ordering principle and symbol for transatlantic cultural exchange. It is this same chronotope of the ship and its associations with the middle passage that begins Indian writer Amitav Ghosh’s recent novel Sea of Poppies (2008). Set primarily in the Indian Ocean on the eve of the Opium Wars, the narrative of Ghosh’s historical novel begins with the Indian villager Deeti’s mystical vision of the former slave ship Ibis as it arrives in Calcutta from Baltimore to take on a cargo of indentured (coolie) labor to replace the recently emancipated slaves of the British colonies. This paper argues that this (re)vision of Gilroy’s central trope in the Indian Ocean signals a restaging of western hemispheric theories of diaspora and the oceanic beyond the heuristic borders of transatlantic paradigms articulated by Gilroy and Joseph Roach. To the Atlantic genealogies of Ghosh’s Ibis and its African-American first mate Zachary Reid—who becomes both witness and participant in the formation of the 19th century Indian diaspora—the novel adds the non-western third destination, Calcutta, into the circulation of vernacular performance, positing a globalized oceanic model that bridges Atlanticist and Postcolonial discourses of hybridity.


Amitav Ghosh; Frederick Douglass; Diaspora; Atlanticism; the black Atlantic

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