From Scarification to “Country Marks”: Individual, Ethnic, and Racial Marking in the Early Modern Atlantic

Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:50 AM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton)
Craig Koslofsky, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The early modern era transformed the place of human skin in history. Intensifying global trade, especially the slave trade, forced bodies and dermal practices into contact. In this world the distinctive skin cultures, practices, and discourses of Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas began to circulate and reshape one another. West African practices of scarification or cicatrization moved from intensely local contexts through European travel accounts, and then into Atlantic slavery, where they were referred to as “country marks.” Described in hundreds of advertisements for runaway slaves, these marks were simultaneously highly visible and, I argue, deeply misunderstood as generic signs of membership in a “nation.” Unlike certain other West African practices, scarification did not survive the Middle Passage and take root in the New World. Building on a study by Paul E. Lovejoy [“Scarification and the Loss of History in the African Diaspora,” in Activating the Past: History and Memory in the Black Atlantic World, ed. Andrew Apter and Lauren Derby (Cambridge, 2009)] and recent French scholarship, I suggest that these marks were both deeply personal and a key component in articulation of ideas of race in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In my paper I’ll consider questions of visual identification and epidermalization in the relationship between scarification, branding, and skin color.