In 1657, Richard Ligon published the only seventeenth-century English comprehensive text on the Caribbean, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados. It was popular and influential in its time, and many Englishmen had access to the text. Other authors easily quoted and shamelessly copied it, from Royal Society fellows to literary authors and editors of daily newspapers. For many decades, especially during the earliest parts of the English Atlantic empire, Ligon was the sole source about the Caribbean for many, if not most, Englishmen. What he penned had a significant influence on how the English thought about sugar plantations, slave labor, Africans, and the Native Caribbean peoples on Barbados.
In a section where Ligon discussed the forms of the enslaved African’s bodies, he declared: “I have been very strict, in observing the shapes of these people.” He had diligently studied the African people on Barbados, though not through the lens of art but rather science.
Ligon judged the shapes of the men and women on the basis of “Albert Durers rules.” The men were “very well timber’d,” “broad between the shoulders, full breasted, well filleted, and clean leg’d.” Most of them “hold good” with Durer’s rules, which “allowes twice the length of the head, to the breadth of the shoulders; and twice the length of the face, to the breadth of the hipps.” Ligon said that based on these particular rules, “these men are shap’d.” But the women, they were not. They, in fact, are “faulty.” Durer “allowes to each woman, twice the length of the face to the breadth of the shoulders, and twice the length of her own head to the breadth of the hipps.” On the island, Ligon had seen few women who fit this standard, “unlesse they have been very fat.” Instead what he found were women with “very large breasts, which stand strutting out so hard and firm, as no leaping, jumping, or stirring will cause them to shake any more, then the brawnes of their armes.” Because most of these women had birthed and then breastfed “five or six children” in their lives, by old age “their breasts hang down below their navells, so that when they stoop at their common work of weeding, they hang almost down to the ground, that at a distance, you would think they had six legs.” (51)
Since my dissertation was originally going to be only about bodies and with a big nod toward the impact of empirical science on the understanding of those bodies, I early on chose this quote — “observing the shapes of these bodies” — as the title of my dissertation. Whether it will end up being titled that, I am not sure at this point. But this is still the phrase I most associate with the work I do.