Beyond the Veil of Planter Power: Conjuring Loyalties in the Colonial Caribbean

AHA Session 109
Conference on Latin American History 20
Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Spire Parlor (Palmer House Hilton, Sixth Floor)
Marc Hertzman, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
James H. Sweet, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Session Abstract

This panel investigates otherworldly practice and knowledge in the history of the colonial Caribbean. In particular, the panel investigates the process of building and breaking affective bonds—questions of loyalty and betrayal—through what Western European social and intellectual traditions have deemed sorcery, witchcraft, magic, and the occult. Comparing Guyanese, Dominican, and Haitian cases, the panel privileges the worldviews of the enslaved and the subordinated between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Each panelist investigates slave/post-emancipation communities from within and delves into previously unexplored power dynamics, both in the sense of power visible and invisible. Rejecting the enlightenment notions of the political, economic, and socio-cultural as separate categories of historical analysis, the panel attempts to engage how African, Indigenous, and European ways of knowing and being in the world structured the dynamics of building or breaking community in the British, French, and Spanish colonies.

Interrogating power and authority across geographic, linguistic, and imperial boundaries the panel foregrounds a history of secret knowledge in the production of political, social, and economic loyalties. Derby investigates how indigenous healing practices were incorporated into slave and creole practices during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and became core activating components of Haitian and Dominican sorcery from demonic animal spirits that generate illness, to cemis (indigenous spirits) and botellas (medicinal bottles) used to remove it. Mobley investigates the specialized knowledge that Kongo slaves brought with them to Saint Domingue, Haiti, and its survival in the ritual knowledge of Vodou. To understand the dynamics of building community, Mobley uses this “Vodou archive” to rewrite the history of the Haitian Revolution from the point of view of the African majority by paying close attention to the multiplicity and diversity of the people, ideas, and goals of the African and African descendants. Tamboli contemplates questions of loyalty by revisiting the history of ethnic soldiering and marronage in the Guianas, reconfiguring the history of 'Carib' military units from the Essequibo used to hunt rebel African slaves in the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion. Tamboli places this discussion of indigenous slave hunters in direct relation to the practice of assault shamanism and figure of the sorcerer-assassin that emerged through imperial conflict in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century.

As important as the unseen dimensions of power are in constructing affective bonds—in generating loyalties, and, in turn, communities—they have remained under-explored within the historiography. This panel thus interrogates the historical methodologies for accessing these otherworldly and secret dimensions of power, demonstrating their integral role in determining the contours of economic and political history of the New World and the very loyalties that bind together creole societies across the globe.

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