Lila O’Leary Chambers

  • Fellowship year:2020-2021
  • University: New York University
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Atlantic
  • Dissertation Title: Liquid Capital: Alcohol and the Rise of Slavery in the British Atlantic- 1623-1736
  • Alcohol played a pivital role in the British Atlantic, with particular importance to the growth of Atlantic slavery. Historians have largely focused on the economic relationship between alcohol, the slave trade, and the plantation complex; instead, I argue that English colonizers around the Atlantic relied on alcohol to subsume social and cultural barriers, maintain alliances, and establish the person-to-person diplomacy trade relations required. Tracing the flow of alcohol through Britain's imperial projects, from their origins in Ireland, to Africa's Gold Coast, to slaving ships, to the Americas, my project illustrates how a wide range of Atlantic peoples drew on alcohol as a form of "liquid capital"; a mutually-recognized medium for the transfer of social, political, and moral, as well as economic value. By combining plantation accounts, RAC and Colonial Office documents, depositions, correspondence, travelogues, dictionaries, maps, and political tracts for quantitative scale and qualitative depth, I shed light on the many overlooked ways alcohol sustained and tested Britain's Atlantic holdings.

    Why and how free and enslaved African, Indigenous, and Irish actors turned alcohol to their own ends, forcing the English to continually renegotiate strategies of alcohol management, is central to my project. Akan-speaking leaders demanded liquor for political ceremonies to shore up their power in the context of increasingly centralized African imperial formations. Kalinago warriors exploited the intimacy of a drink to resist Anglo-Irish invasion in the Leeward Islands. Enslaved laborers imbibed illicitly to foster a distinct political cosmology under the weight of slavery. All employed alcohol to reassert themselves as active subjects. By centering alcohol's many forms of worth, I uncover a new, material perspective on the oft-erased ways "peripheral" actors shaped the Atlantic World. I also offer a new interpretative lens through which to bring together the system and experience of Atlantic slavery.