Review: Between Swamp and Sea: Bahamian Visitors in Southeast Florida before Miami by Devin Leigh

Preface and Message to my Readers: This is the first in a series of reviews I will feature on this blog.  While most reviews will be of books, this particular review is of an article from an academic journal, written by Devin Leigh, and upcoming pirate historian (of the Zamani Reader Blog).  Based on this article, I hope to see more works on pirate history by Mr. Leigh. I particularly look forward to his doctorate work on Black Caesar and the legends surrounding this slave who sailed with Edward Thatch, otherwise known as Blackbeard.  Originally, I intended to publish a new article post on the blog, but decided to wait for some significant articles to come in from the UK National Archives before publishing it.  Until those documents arrive, I will begin work on my next article.  Hopefully, the article I originally planned on posting can be completed by the end of October or early November.  Meanwhile, please enjoy my review of Mr. Leigh’s article about early Bahamians in southern Florida.

Leigh, Devin. “Between Swamp and Sea: Bahamian Visitors in Southeast Florida before Miami.” The Florida Historical Quarterly 93, no. 4 (Spring 2015), 511-537.

In American society’s greater memory, Florida’s history features many intriguing events occurring along its long and lush coasts.  The northern half of this state thrives in a long post-European contact history that dates to the sixteenth century.  Meanwhile, the southern half of Florida did not feature large population centers until well into the nineteenth century.  The typical interpretation of this region’s history seldom mentions European activities on this coast beyond isolated incidents such as pirate activity.  In his article, “Between Swamp and Sea: Bahamian Visitors in Southeast Florida before Miami,” Devin Leigh, a PhD student in the History Department at the University of California, Davis, and an adjunct history instructor at Solano Community College, exposes this view of the past is a narrative influenced by the themes of urbanization, industrialism, and large scale immigration.  This narrative usually neglects Florida’s strong association with the Bahamas.  Bahamians regularly visited the coast of southern Florida, dating back to the 1680s. 

Leigh’s article examines the relationship between Florida and the Bahamas from diverse perspectives and brings new insight into early Florida history.  To explore the relationship mariners from the Bahamas had with the Florida coast, Leigh examined the historiography of Florida history, the geographic and environmental history of southern Florida, and the social history of the Bahamians that visited Florida’s coast.  This thorough approach, along with the academic writing style, is typical of an article published in an academic journal such as the Florida Historical Quarterly.  The sources referenced in the footnotes shows the significant amount of effort placed into researching this issue.  While there are two references to secondary sources that could have featured sources that are more academic, their use does not interfere with points made in the article nor do they cause any notable inaccuracies.  Otherwise, there is little to criticize in this article, which casts a needed light on this neglected subject.

Leigh’s approach to Florida’s history demonstrates the necessity of looking into a subject’s historiography.  While previous historians cast Florida’s history in a way that excluded the early Bahamians, it is important to understand why this neglect occurred in the first place, since coincidence cannot explain the large number of histories that do not cover these early visitors to Florida.  In his examination of Florida’s historiography, Leigh demonstrates that the industrial era significantly shaped the narratives of early Florida history.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industry and business blossomed throughout the tropical regions of the Americas.  This period also saw an opinion shift among many Americans and Europeans, as Catherine Cocks demonstrates in her book, Tropical Whites: The Rise of the Tourist South in the Americas (click here for Amazon link).  Instead of posing dangers to the health and morality, inhabitants from northern environments changed their views during this period and saw the tropics as a place that could yield great profits on both a personal health level and on a business level.  As Leigh demonstrates, this change in narrative for the tropics also fell into Florida’s history and resulted in the exclusion of the Bahamians who did not fit the taming and growth narratives of the industrial and modern eras.

Besides historiography, Leigh also shows the significance of geographic perspective for southern Florida.  On the political map, Florida is part of the United States of America.  Three hundred years ago, this political association did not exist.  Instead of being an extension of the mainland, Leigh demonstrates that, thanks to its geographic position, Florida’s southern half held a stronger association with the Bahamas until Florida’s population boom in the late nineteenth century.  When examined from this Bahamian perspective, southern Florida’s early history gains valuable context.  This placement of lower Florida back into proper geographic context somewhat resembles something Michael Jarvis did his work with Bermuda.  In his book, In the Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783 (click here for Amazon link), Jarvis features a map of British America with North pointing to right instead of to the top of the map. The shifting of the map helps show the strategic location Bermuda held in a way typical maps do not.  This map also helps to demonstrate the small island’s maritime significance.  By geographically reconnecting southern Florida with the Bahamas, Leigh helps reintroduce this region to a history not easily accessed when viewed only through the old American mainland perspective.

Examining the history of the lower half of Florida requires looking at it through a diverse set of perspectives.  Leigh’s work in this article demonstrates the results of examining Florida’s past outside of traditional mindsets for this region’s history.  Through these new perspectives, this region gains back part of its history that many ignored.  The biases of historians, both past and present, often isolate Florida’s history from its neighboring inhabitants in the Bahamas.  By using perspectives such as historiography and geography, these biases are more easily recognized and the connection between Florida and the Bahamas restored.  While using these kind of perspectives is not brand new in history studies, its applications to the Atlantic World of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century is refreshing.  Hopefully, more researchers and historians will continue utilizing this kind of methodology and advance the study of this era on more regions and subjects during this era.

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