KRISTEN BLOCK. Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit. Early American Places. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 312. $29.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8203-3868-2.

As Atlantic History has risen to popularity, historians like Lara Putnam and Rebecca Scott have posed a critical question. They have asked whether microhistory can help practitioners overcome some of the field’s most-common limitations, namely its tendency to silence voices of everyday people while emphasizing “Big Picture” changes across enormous geographic scopes. Kristen Block’s latest work, Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean, is an attempt to put that question into practice. Described as a “social microhistory,” Ordinary Lives takes as its subject religious change in the Caribbean over the long seventeenth-century. This timing allows Block to study the region as it transitioned from a primarily Catholic, Spanish world into an Anglo, Protestant world following Oliver Cromwell’s so-called Western Design.[1]

One characteristic of Atlantic History is that authors sample a portion of the Atlantic as a case study for the whole. This is true of Ordinary Lives, which takes Cartagena, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Barbados for its Caribbean. Block divides her study into four parts that examine these locations in chronological order. Each revolves around the biographies of “everyday” people—the “ordinary lives” referenced in the title. These include a runaway slave from Cartagena, Colombia, named Isabel Criolla; a French-Calvinist servant to the Spanish governor of Jamaica named Nicolas Burundel; an English sailor to Hispaniola named Henry Whistler; and two enslaved people on a Quaker plantation in Barbados named Yaft and Nell. Of course, Block features many other figures—including more-standard characters like Sir Francis Drake and Bartolomé de las Casas—but they do not constitute the organizing principle of the text.[2]

Ordinary Lives has two purposes. First, Block wants “to portray with sympathy the stories of groups exploited and silenced by the expansion of early modern Atlantic colonialism and capitalism.” This largely determines the content and narrative of Ordinary Lives, which follows works like Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre in utilizing the “the essential craft of the imagination” to re-construct the “hidden transcripts” of silenced actors. Such a thesis leads Block to test the boundaries of the profession to an increasing degree with each part. While Criolla’s struggle against slavery generated ample records in the Inquisition Courts, for instance, almost nothing survives about other people, like Yaft and Nell. In this way, Block uses microhistory to “read against the grain.”[3]

As her second purpose, Block argues that “the Caribbean was a central focus for the early modern shift from religion as a primary basis for political and social identity to that” of what we call race today. This goal determines the arc of Ordinary Lives. In short, as northern European powers achieved dominance, they introduced changes rooted in the Protestant Reformation. These included “toleration for international trade and competitive investment in slave-produced goods,” which ushered the Caribbean on a descent toward irreligion, “cynicism, hostility, and cruelty.” By supplanting Spanish Catholicism, newcomers closed traditional avenues for upward social mobility, hardened race, and created a characteristically brutal West Indian plantation regime. In this sense, Block’s work aligns with that of scholars like Jane Landers and María Elena Díaz, who have argued the Catholic Spanish colonies offered more “pathways to shape social relations” than their Protestant counterparts.[4]

With Ordinary Lives, Block traces the panoramic history of religious change in the Caribbean through intimate microhistories. Many will find this approach admirable; however, tensions between Block’s two purposes often create the impression that the reader has two different books. One rescues the voices of commoners from obscurity—revealing the creative ways they negotiated identities in the context of hegemonic structures like religion—and the other domesticates their voices in the service of countering the legacy of the Black Legend. At its weakest points, the goal of the second book overshadows that of the first, and characters whom we know little about—like Yaff and Nell—become tools for explaining “the solidification of racial boundaries.” However, both despite and because of these moments, Block’s Ordinary Lives has much to teach students of Atlantic history about the benefits and the limitations of micro-historical methodologies.[5]

Notes: 

[1] Lara Putnam, “The Study the Fragments/While: Microhistory and the Atlantic World, Journal of Social History, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Spring, 2006): 615-630; Rebecca J. Scott, “Small-Scale Dynamics of Large Scale Processes, The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 2 (April, 2000): 472-479; Kristen Block, Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 3-5, 16.

[2] Ibid. 230.

[3] Ibid. 234, 6.

[4] Ibid. 16, 238.

[5] Ibid. 3, 5, 10, 15, 89, 212.