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The Caribbean

Discussion of Sasha Turner’s Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica

SASHA TURNER. Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Pp. 316. $45.00. Hardback. ISBN: 9780812249187.

Contested Bodies with BorderNote: Please keep in mind that the purpose of my video book-discussion series is only to introduce viewers to historical works by covering their material in broad strokes and in a casual way. Works by academic historians are generally very dense, complex, nuanced, and multi-faceted. It is impossible for me to do justice to all of the interesting dimensions, sub-arguments, and components of each work that I have chosen to feature. In general, my objective is to say something meaningful about the background of the author; the geographic and temporal focus of the book; its thesis, key concepts, title, and structure; its primary source material and its historiography; and, finally, to provide a brief discussion of what I consider to be the scholar’s most-significant findings and interventions. I have decided not to offer any criticism of the works. That does not mean I believe these works are flawless, only that I want to emphasize their contributions to the field. Thanks for watching.

Review of Kristen Block’s Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean

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.

A New Place for Stories: Essay On the Idea of Environmental History in the Florida Straits

But if environmental history is successful in its project, the story of how different peoples have lived and used the natural world will become one of the most basic and fundamental narratives in all of history, without which no understand of the past could be complete.

William Cronon, “A Place for Stories”[1]

I am trying to think, to see if I read anything more about Miami…I can’t tell exactly how far we are from there. There are no borderlines on the sea. The whole thing looks like one.

Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak![2]

In the year 1990, the Journal of American History hosted its first roundtable on the emerging sub-field of Environmental History. This academic forum included five short responses by a generation of established scholars to a centerpiece article by the historian Donald Worster, a man who had already become a founder of the field. Evident in the forum was an early tradition of disputing the intellectual boundaries of Environmental History, even while they were being formed. On the one hand, Worster called for practitioners to begin “Seeing Beyond Culture” and analyzing “modes of production as ecological phenomenon.” He called for scholars to collaborate with scientists and explore capital–m Man’s relationship to the environment throughout time as a set of “autonomous, independent energies that do not derive from the drives and intentions of any culture.” On the other hand, established historians used their responses to push back on this argument. Writers like William Cronon, Richard White, and Carolyn Merchant called for scholars not to lose focus on the “broader cultural systems in which [agro-ecological modes of production] are embedded.” They asked for us to avoid ignoring cultural categories that existed “below the level of the group” implied by Man, and they asked us not to forget how particular relationships to the natural environment depended upon social constructions like race, gender, reproduction, and class.[1]

Continue reading “A New Place for Stories: Essay On the Idea of Environmental History in the Florida Straits”

Review of The Last Days of Blackbeard the Pirate by Kevin P. Duffus

KEVIN P. DUFFUS. The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate: Within Every Legend Lies a Grain of Truth. 4th ed.  Raleigh, NC: Looking Glass Productions, 2014. Pp. ii, 255. $24.95. ISBN: 1888285540.

Introduction:

The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate is the third nonfiction book written by the North Carolinian local author, historian, independent researcher, and filmmaker Kevin P. Duffus. Originally published in the year 2008, the book went through two subsequent editions—in 2011 and 2013—before appearing in the current, expanded fourth edition last year. The work is an attempt to “divine the true story of Blackbeard,” aka Edward Thatch, the famous yet enigmatic pirate from the early eighteenth century, by going back “to the trodden ground of original sources” and attempting to peer beyond “the inscrutable shadow of Black Beard’s vast legend,” which has been aggressively cultivated by academics and non-academics alike since the figure’s death in late November, 1718. Continue reading “Review of The Last Days of Blackbeard the Pirate by Kevin P. Duffus”

Review of The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard

COLIN WOODARD. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. New York: Harcourt, 2007. Pp. 383. $27.00.

The Republic of Pirates ImageThe Republic of Pirates is the third nonfiction book by the American journalist and writer Colin Woodard. The book “tells the story of the Golden Age of Piracy,” here dated as 1715 to 1725, “through the lives of four of its leading figures.” The first three of these figures are the Black Flag pirates Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, Edward “Blackbeard” Thatch, and Charles Vane; and the last figure is the first, crown-appointed Governor of the Bahamas and the former privateer and circumnavigator of the globe, Woodes Rogers. Continue reading “Review of The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard”

Review of A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson

CAPTAIN CHARLES JOHNSON. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates. New York: Garland Publishing, 1972. Pp. 320. $30.00.Originally published in London: Charles Rivington, 1724.

General History of the PyratesOriginally published in early May of 1724, A General History of the Pyrates (henceforth GHP) is a compilation of British pirate biographies from the early eighteenth-century. Without a doubt, it is the most famous and most widely cited primary source on the topic of the Black Flag pirates, often being described as the “Bible” of English pirate history. Although the authorship of the work has been long disputed and continues to remain a mystery, this fact has not softened the momentum of the text, which remains the cornerstone of almost every secondary source on the history of the English sea rovers. Continue reading “Review of A General History of the Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson”

Review of Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates

ROBERT RITCHIE. Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986. Pp. vii, 306. $20.00.

Captain Kidd Image

Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates is the second book book written by Robert Ritchie, senior research associate at The Huntington Library, in San Marino, and former history professor and associate chancellor at the University of California, San Diego. Ritchie specializes in the history of seventeenth-century colonial America and early-modern England. His book uses the life of the privateer-turned-pirate William Kidd (1645-1701) to explore the greater economic and political factors that led to a widespread, brutal campaign against piracy by Anglo-American merchants, government officials, and their colonial allies in the final decade of the seventeenth century. Continue reading “Review of Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates”

Review of The History of the Buccaneers of America by Alexander Oliver Exquemelin

ALEXANDER OLIVIER EXQUEMELIN. The History of the Buccaneers of America. Trans. by Alexis Brown. Introduction by Jack Beeching. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1969. Originally published in Dutch as De Americaensche Zee-Roovers. Amsterdam: Jan Ten Hoorn, 1678.

The Buccaneers of America

The History of the Buccaneers is perhaps the most important primary source book on the lives of the Caribbean pirates (aka, Les Frères de la côte) from the late 1660s and early 1670s. The text was originally produced in Holland by the Jan Ten Hoorn publishing house in the year 1678; it was written in the Dutch language by a largely mysterious writer named Alexander Olivier Exquemelin. Extraordinarily famous in its own time, the text now stands alongside such iconic works as William Dampier’s A New Voyage Around the World (1697) and Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates (1724) as essential reading for anyone who wishes to study the history of piracy in the seventeenth-century. Continue reading “Review of The History of the Buccaneers of America by Alexander Oliver Exquemelin”

Review of Pillaging the Empire by Kris Lane

KRIS E. LANE. Pillaging the Empire: Piracy in the Americas, 1500-1750. (Latin American Realities.) Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998. Pp. xxiv, 237. Cloth $58.95, paper $19.95.

Pillaging the Empire is the first book written by Kris Lane, the current France V. Scholes Professor of Colonial Latin American History at Tulane University. Lane specializes in early modern Spanish American history, with particular interests in metal extraction and forced labor in colonial Quito. Pillaging was funded entirely by Lane, written during a year-long visitorship at the University of Miami, where he was teaching an experimental course entitled “Piracy in the West Indies.” The book is a concise, chronological “overview of the phenomenon [of piracy] as it developed in American waters, including the Pacific, during the early modern era (c. 1450-1750).” Continue reading “Review of Pillaging the Empire by Kris Lane”

Review of Avengers of the New World by Laurent Dubois

LAURENT DUBOIS. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, York: The Dial Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 357. $17.95.

Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (... Cover Art

Avengers of the New World is the first book written by Laurent Dubois, the historian, anthropologist, and literary scholar of France, the French Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Dubois wrote Avengers as a new history of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), updating the anticolonial work of the Caribbean scholar C.L.R. James with Atlantic and African scholarship and social and cultural methodologies. Whereas James tended to “essentialize the differences” between groups within San Domingo, and focus on defending the actions of black revolutionaries and condemning those of planters from within a racialized discourse, Dubois is interested in creating an understanding of the revolution’s wider context within the “Age of Revolutions.” Continue reading “Review of Avengers of the New World by Laurent Dubois”

Review of The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James

CYRIL LIONEL ROBERT JAMES. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: The Dial Press, 1938. Pp. xi, 396. $3.75.

james_blackjacobins_vintage_LorenEutemy.jpg

Introduction:

The Black Jacobins is the seventh and most famous work written by C.L.R. James, the late Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist, playwright, professor, social theorist, and essayist. It is a vivid and nuanced historical narrative of the San Domingo Revolution, popularly known as “the only successful slave revolt in history,” and its “courageous leader,” Toussaint L’Ouverture, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the declaration of independence for Haiti in 1804. Written in anticipation of widespread African decolonization, with sincere Marxist-socialist leanings and a defining sense of solidarity for oppressed peoples, The Black Jacobins is widely hailed as a classic critique of imperialist and colonialist historiography. Continue reading “Review of The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James”

Review of Villains of All Nations by Marcus Rediker

MARCUS REDIKER. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004. Pp. 240. $20.00.

9781844672813_Villains-b7e7074b0ac7e040af5099bb22eeda41

Villains of All Nations is the third book written by Marcus Rediker, a prize-winning American historian of the early-modern era and the Atlantic world and a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. In Villains, Rediker explores the social, political, and cultural history of the nearly 4000 pirates who sailed on roughly 80 pirate ships and captured approximately 2,400 vessels during the late period of the Golden Age of Piracy, from 1716-1726. Continue reading “Review of Villains of All Nations by Marcus Rediker”

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