When Dr. Jonathan Bryant published a book about a historic and often overlooked court case, he suspected that it might be "just another little dusty book that is remaindered after a couple of months." But since Dark Places of the Earth: The Voyage of the Slave Ship 'Antelope' hit the shelves in July, the Georgia Southern University history professor has been enjoying unexpected fame.
Over the last few months, Bryant has been a featured guest on Georgia Public Broadcasting's "On Second Thought" with Celeste Headly and NPR's "The Diane Rehm Show." He has made his first appearance on television and has seen his name in the Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Tribune, the Boston Globe and the Library Journal. He has given talks all around the state, from the Statesboro Public Library to the Bittersweet coffee and book shop in Augusta, and the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta earlier this month.
Although his teaching duties have resumed with the academic year, Bryant still has several more book-related appearances scheduled, including a signing at the Barnes & Noble at Oglethorpe Mall in Savannah Sept. 26, and a talk for the Bulloch County Historical Society in the Nessmith-Lane Conference Center Monday, Sept. 28.
So what may be the reasons for the book's unexpected attention? For one, Bryant said, it helps that a major publisher is representing the book: Liveright Publishing, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company, which has been able to help market the book and gave valuable direction during the writing and editing process.
But he thinks the biggest factor may be the timing of the book's publication. With race at the forefront of national discussion — largely because of episodes such as the Ferguson riots and the Charleston church massacre — people are actively thinking about the history of race in the United States and the historical factors that may have contributed to the current racial climate.
Amid its elements of constitutional law, corruption, high-seas intrigue and piracy, the Antelope case is largely a discussion of slavery in America. Bryant calls it "the most important Supreme Court case you've never heard of."
"The assumptions about slavery and international law, the assumptions about the role of positive law of property versus the natural rights of human beings that emerge out of this case in essence fortify slavery in the United States in ways it was never fortified before," Bryant said. "And thus, I would argue, (it) lays the foundation for the growing conflict over slavery that becomes such an important part of the reasons for the Civil War."
The most important court case you've never heard of
In 1820, a Spanish slave ship was captured off the coast of Florida and was brought to the port of Savannah. In its hull were nearly 300 captives from West Africa. At this time in the United States, slavery was legal, but involvement in the international slave trade was not. The Antelope's human cargo fell into a strange middle territory: Could the captives be claimed as slaves for American plantation owners, or should they be sent back to Africa as free individuals?
The resulting court cases began at the local level and ended as a five-day rhetorical battle in the United States Supreme Court, drawing in prominent historical figures including Francis Scott Key, Richard W. Habersham and John Quincy Adams.
Bryant's book tells the story of the case in many different settings: the hull of the Antelope, where many of the captives died on the brutal voyage; the streets and legal offices of Savannah, where the captives' plight became a subject of public debate; and the theater of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., where it was ultimately decided that only 17 of the captives, chosen by a lottery, would be freed and sent to Liberia.
While his book has found a niche in contemporary discussions of race, for Bryant, the story of the Antelope has been about two decades in the making. He first ran across the story in the 1990s, searching for a case with local connections for his constitutional law students at Georgia Southern. When he ran across the Antelope case in old court records — with its ties to corruption, high-seas drama and piracy — the "10-year-old" boy in him went wild with curiosity. The case was too big and too convoluted to use for his students, but the story stayed with him for years. In 2009, he needed an academic project to take on after finishing a series of articles, and he seized the chance to revisit the Antelope case.
His first order of business was to visit the regional branch of the National Archives, located in Morrow, Georgia. Bryant could find very little about the Antelope at first, until he started searching the boxes filled with unsorted, non-chronological admiralty case files. There, he found research material that was not only relevant but that "no one had ever touched before." When he had filled seven boxes with research material, he knew he had a book on his hands.
"It is like finding a treasure," Bryant said, going on to describe some of the valuable, untapped resources he found in the archives. One day, he stumbled upon the register of the surviving
180 captives on the ship, including their names, ages and descriptions — "a goldmine piece" from a time when slaves often went undocumented and became lost to history.
For his book's scenes of courtroom drama, Bryant combed through regional newspaper archives, both online and through microfilm. When he finally began synthesizing the research into a narrative, he would rise at 5 a.m. every morning and work on the book until 9 before going to teach his classes at Georgia Southern. Helpfully, the department chair scheduled these later in the morning to accommodate Bryant's writing schedule.
"I personally found it so engaging that I have spent my life, in a lot of ways, since 2008 working on this book," Bryant said at his "Brown Bag Luncheon" author talk at the Statesboro Regional Library in late August.
A story with emotion
In writing Dark Places of the Earth, Bryant found himself navigating the tension between historian and storyteller, wanting to go deeper than simply discussing the court's policies or the societal forces that contributed to the outcome of the Antelope case. When he brought his book to his editor at Norton, she told him he needed to identify the story's "heroes and villains."
"You don't like to do that, because in reality, as we know in day to day life, human beings are both," Bryant said. "Nonetheless, I had to think of Francis Scott Key and Richard W. Habersham as heroes, even though they very much have clay feet, and I had to find John McPherson Berrien and John H. Morrell and others and present them as villains, even though there are many good things about them. I tried to give that nuanced presentation of those individuals in the book, and by doing so, it's as much a book about individuals as it is about a Supreme Court case or about pirates or whatever."
Bryant hopes that the narrative approach he takes in Dark Places may make the story more palatable to readers who shy from books about history, and he is working to make the book accessible to teachers for use in their classrooms. On his website, www.jonathanmbryant.com, he has made many of the primary source documents available for educators to peruse. Ultimately, he said, he believes the case is so important that he wants to get the story out however he can.
"Slavery and its legacy in our society is actually not simple," Bryant said. "It's a very complex thing, and so the more people have thought about it, the more people know about it, the more we're likely to understand and deal with it well today. And they can't know about it if they don't have a chance to read and learn, and how do you help them read and learn? You make it as enjoyable a process as possible."
Brittani Howell can be reached at (912) 489-9405.