“Meditations on Archival Fragments”: Review of Dispossessed Lives

FuentesIt should go without saying that the historical profession depends on archives. Near or far, we need those repositories to craft historical narratives about past worlds. There is also no shortage of books and articles critical of the construction of colonial archives, perhaps the most famous among them being historian Ann Laura Stoler’s Along the Archival Grain. Despite the popularity of that book, however, historians still rarely discuss their archival methodology. Monographs always provide a list of consulted repositories, which for early American history can often read like a top ten greatest hits of national and state archives. And yet, try looking for the word “archive” or “archival knowledge” in the index of most books and the result might be surprising.

Among other things, it’s for this reason that historian Marisa J. Fuentes’ new book, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive is so significant. Unlike Stoler’s focus on archival silences, Fuentes meditates on imbalances within the archival representations of enslaved women in eighteenth-century Bridgetown, Barbados. She applies what she describes as “theoretical approaches to power, the production of text, and constructions of race and gender to the written archive” (6). The resulting portrayal of “the machinations of archival power” exposes the ways in which colonial power structures pervade the archive and, therefore, historical epistemology itself (1).

To say that Fuentes’ book is a critique of the colonial archives, however, would be missing the point. Rather, she challenges the profession itself in bold, broad strokes. She started her research into the lives of enslaved women hoping to find individual voices that could illuminate their worlds from their perspectives. However, she encountered “the complete absence of material by enslaved women,” who appeared only through the “archival and physical violence” enacted upon them (144). However, within “a historical disciplinary structure that required more sources to make a project ‘viable,’” (146) Fuentes began to ask difficult questions about the very “ethics of history and the consequences of reproducing indifference to violence against and the silencing of black lives” (12). In this sense, rather than attempting to reconstruct the social worlds of enslaved women in Bridgetown during the eighteenth century, Dispossessed Lives meditates on “archival fragments” about enslaved women in order to “actively resist the perpetuation of their subjugation and commodification in our own discourse and historical practices” (12). Although slightly understated, the implicit critique of more quantitative studies of slavery is nonetheless sharp.

In five chapters, Dispossessed Lives explores the experiences of Jane, Rachael and Joanna, Agatha, Molly, and ‘Venus’ from the archival fragments that record the barest information about them. At the beginning of each chapter, Fuentes explains not just the sources she worked with to construct each vignette, but also the methodology she employed. In the first chapter, for example, Fuentes uses a runaway slave advertisement for a woman named Jane in order to explore the vulnerability of escaped slaves the urban space of Bridgetown. However, Fuentes also sought to “subvert the archival discourse that filters” the experiences of the enslaved through white voices by “dwelling on the scars” of the enslaved people described in those advertisements (15). In other words, the scars speak to the “mutilated historicity” of the enslaved, a way of understanding not the lived experiences of enslaved women per se, but rather “the violent condition in which enslaved women appear in the archive disfigured and violated” (16). Chapters four and five repeat this method of close archival scrutiny. In the fourth, Fuentes analyzes a criminal case involving an enslaved woman accused of poisoning a white man in order to speak to the “construction of enslaved (female) criminality,” in which guilt and innocence prove inapplicable to cases in which the enslaved were always culpable (4). And, in the final chapter, Fuentes reads abolitionist accounts of violated enslaved women to argue that, “the recounted scenes are less about understanding the enslaved female subjects or their agony and more about showing the moral outrage of the white male witnesses and the depravity of the abuser” (139). Rather than allow enslaved women to be subsumed into the narrative of the “heroic white male witness,” Fuentes lingers over the pain of their tortured lives without the liberal humanist triumph of emancipation as the final word (139).

Dispossessed Lives offers several important historiographical interventions for scholars of slavery in early America and the Caribbean. First, Fuentes challenges the tendency to portray urban slavery as more mobile and less violent than the experience of enslavement on sugar plantations. While not discounting the horrendous mortality involved in the production of sugar, Fuentes analyzes the physical appearance of Bridgetown to demonstrate the ways in which terror and surveillance were inscribed on the very geography of the city. Second, Fuentes argues that, despite the obvious value of studies that emerged from Civil Rights and the Black Power movement and that sought to highlight enslaved agency, we must understand “the excruciating conditions faced by enslaved women” in ways that challenge a simple agency/passivity binary (8). This comes through perhaps most forcefully in chapter two, which explores the famous example of Rachael Pringle Polgreen, a freed mullato brothel owner. Fuentes uses Polgreen to challenge the tendency to slip into language of “success,” especially because in the historical literature, “sexual intercourse becomes the means by which enslaved women are ascribed power and/or agency” (63). For Fuentes, that ignores both the enslaved women who Polgreen exploited in her brothel as well as Polgreen’s own constrained movement within systems of exploitation and denigration. Finally, because of the peculiar demography of Bridgetown, in which women predominated, Fuentes explores the construction of gender and sexuality for African and Afro-Caribbean women “in relation to white women” in ways that challenge the tendency to focus on the relationship between white men and enslaved women (8). The complexities of that construction emerge most clearly in chapter three, which explores white women’s ability to capitalize on “patriarchized gender” through an analysis of a married white woman’s affair with another man (76).

Dispossessed Lives is a radical book that challenges many of the tendencies and assumptions brought into studies of slavery, gender, and sexuality. That said, Fuentes rarely engages directly with that scholarship in her text. Perhaps part of the issue here is that the book’s endnotes rather than footnotes makes it difficult to connect her arguments to the wider historiography. However, there were moments when Fuentes could have been more aggressive, more pointed in her critiques. For example, in her analysis of Molly, the enslaved woman accused of poisoning a white man, Fuentes argues that historians must be critical of an archive created by people with virtually unlimited power – especially in legal cases such as poisoning. While I wholeheartedly agree with Fuentes on this point, I’m not sure who would disagree. In other points of Dispossessed Lives, however, Fuentes’ work does directly engage with a deep and long-standing historiography, and yet her critiques remain implicit. This reviewer would have appreciated a more direct engagement with the work that already exists on the history of slavery in the British Caribbean, if only because it would have illuminated to those unfamiliar with the field just how significant her interventions actually are.

In the end, Fuentes accomplishes much in 204 pages. Moreover, Dispossessed Lives makes for uncomfortable reading in two, interrelated ways. First, her critique of the very epistemology of history makes turning back to one’s own work all the more difficult. After all, her book challenges us “to bring the discipline of history into a more transparent and reflexive frame” (145). As I return to my own sources, I am realizing both the imperative of working in this way, as well as the profound challenges that it presents. Dispossessed Lives also forces its readers to meditate on the pain and the violation of enslaved women without narrativization. As Fuentes explains, “this is the historical genre of the enslaved in the colonial archive” (143). And it’s a genre that, for all its discomfort, make Dispossessed Lives an important contribution to an ongoing conversation about slavery, gender, and sexuality in the early modern world.

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2 comments on ““Meditations on Archival Fragments”: Review of Dispossessed Lives

  1. […] Canadian again, but useful for Canadian historians, is the latest blog post from the Junto, where Casey Schmitt reviews Marisa J. Fuentes’ Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and t…. While the book deals specifically with women who were enslaved in Barbados, it also provides an […]

  2. […] Enslaved Women, Violence and the Archives is her first book. Casey Schmitt previously reviewed Dispossessed Lives for the […]

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