My Dissertation

[This description is old but I don’t have it in me to draft another one at this time. It’s more or less what I am doing.]

My research focuses on the Atlantic slave trade, the history of the body, and science in the early modern period. I am currently completing my dissertation, “Observing the Shapes of These People”: Creation of Difference in Seventeenth-Century Barbados, under the direction of Neil Kamil.

My dissertation examines the emergence of new categories of difference that arose in the seventeenth century in the English colony of Barbados. Scholars of the seventeenth century are often engaged in discussions about the origins of race and, despite Barbados having been the economic and cultural cornerstone of the burgeoning English empire, only very rarely do historians turn their attention to the island. Yet, it was one of the earliest English colonies to surrender its entire agricultural landscape to the production of sugar. This was possible because it was also the first place where Englishmen learned to effectively manage a slave society and a demographically dominant African population.

Observing the Shapes intervenes in a central question in early modern historiography — How did the modern concept of race emerge? My dissertation argues that it was in Barbados in the seventeenth century when Englishmen began to develop, in confusing, contradictory, and experimental ways, some of the kernels of belief that would eventually become central to English notions about race.

Observing the Shapes identifies many of these kernels in moments when Englishmen turned to different means of authority to work out their claims and to justify their beliefs. Chapter one starts with a thorough analysis of the only English book on the Caribbean published in the seventeenth century: Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657). It was a natural history that presented a complicated portrait of the people who populated Barbados mid-century. While Ligon reified many stereotypical beliefs about native peoples and enslaved Africans, he also showed a large amount of appreciation for a wide range of human bodies.

Chapter two examines the series of influential laws that Englishmen on the island drafted beginning in the early 1650s. These laws increasingly turned to racial reasons to explain the purpose of the legislation and the harsh legal treatment of enslaved peoples. The laws were exported to many English colonies, some that copied them directly (Jamaica, South Carolina, and Antigua) and others that were strongly influenced by them (Virginia and Madagascar). Chapter three argues that Englishmen in Barbados, in a common colonial practice, employed a series of demographic tools — baptism and death record, wills, and censuses — to categorize and track people on Barbados. Who was counted and how they were described indicate how fraught the exercise of codifying difference was on the island, even as they made an effort to sketch distinctions.

Chapter four looks at how Englishmen on the island, in their letters and personal papers, discussed different bodies and when they were most interested in categorizing or making sense of the difference they found around them. It shows that the confusion of Richard Ligon and the efforts of codification in the laws and demographic tools were part of a larger, on-the-ground response to the often chaotic and the very novel reality of life in this small, compact colony.

A running theme throughout these four chapters is the way in which Englishmen in Barbados turned to the incipient but important intellectual framework of empirical science. Chapter five elucidates this more fully by tracing the impact of Barbadian ideas about difference on the experimental and intellectual practices of members of the Royal Society in England. Even in the earliest stages of building slave societies and a trans-Atlantic system of slavery, Englishmen on both sides of the Atlantic were relying on scientific ideas to provide meaning for corporeal difference. This chapter, and the dissertation at large, shows how easily and how far these beliefs born in Barbados spread in a short amount of time and what a large impact they had on intellectual production within the empire.

(from my profile)


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