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The Reaper's Garden

Page history last edited by pag191@psu.edu 11 years, 5 months ago

 

 

I’ve rearranged sections in this order: Meghan > Jake > Sarah > Patrick > Patricia. I've added a new introductory paragraph and tried to tie the sections together more fluidly, but as you'll see, the review does stagger at times as well as become redundant. Please, edit! The original separate reviews can be found at the bottom of the page. -PC

 

 

 

The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery

Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery examines how death became a generative cultural and political force in Jamaican slave society. Brown’s compelling analysis seeks to resurrect the dead, arguing that the island’s high mortality rates created a volatile society in which the dead were active participants. In political struggles and social rituals, “mortuary politics” allowed for both freemen and slaves to claim authority and assert political power through the symbolic manipulation of the dead (4). Death shaped Jamaican social practices such as funeral rites, inheritance customs, and Obeah shamanism, yet Brown’s welcome transatlantic perspective demonstrates death’s haunting presence in British abolitionist and evangelical discourse. He consults colonials’ letters, travelogues, slave songs, and eulogies in order to imaginatively recreate the history of slavery as intricately intertwined with the immaterial.

Beginning with a chapter discussing the connection between wealth and death, Brown’s book notes the decreased value of life in Africa, due to famine, war, and disease as well as the matter of fact accounting of the deaths of slaves recorded in slave ship ledgers. While many of the points Brown develops here (and indeed throughout the study) may have been studied by the scholar specializing in the transatlantic slave trade [?], the particular strength of his work is that each chapter lavishes the reader with a multitude of noteworthy details. One such example of this in the first chapter is one particular accounting of slave deaths. Brown reproduces exactly one such list as shown below:

Dysentery.

Insanity.

Consumption.

Ditto.

Ditto.

Ditto.

Ditto. (48)

It is a remarkable record of history that Brown properly deliberates on. He asks:

What could the boy have done to merit the distinction of having died by insanity? Was he screaming? Crying uncontrollably? No, that would have been too commonplace. Perhaps the boy emitted some baffling expression of grief all his own, too alien to be easily accounted for but too inconsequential to be worthy of further notice. (47-48)

Indeed these curious and strangely effective moments make the book—the poignant section above highlights how the stories of the lives and especially the deaths of slaves are tales of ellipsis. Captured in the master’s rhetoric, one has to look hard enough through the white space in between the lines to see the slave.

In the second chapter, Brown discusses to funeral rites and their role in “demonstrating the order of things” (91). Counter-intuitively, this section does not describe death as the great equalizer. Instead the death rituals that could be afforded were largely based on socio-economic status, serving instead as a truss to the hierarchy inherent to the slave organization.

Brown’s third chapter holds a commentary on the sway the dead held through properties of inheritance on the living. He discusses the wills of inheritance that directed the lives of Jamaica’s white inhabitants, the wills granting freedom (whether enforced or not) to slaves, and the bequests among the enslaved. Brown argues that “In the midst of catastrophe people in Jamaica anxiously imagined the future, expecting the dead to assist them in their endeavors Legacy and inheritance were crucial features of slave society primarily as an inspiration to purposeful will and action. They were embedded in struggles over the nature and future of society” (127-128). The fourth chapter is a discussion of the influence that a spiritual landscape has when applied to temporal social struggles through icons, shamans, and martyrs. People raised the dead as examples for whatever agenda they happened to back. White authorities make admonitions to rebels through icons of punishment, shamans claimed to use spirits as an otherworldly force, abolitionists (eventually) used examples of doggedly obedient martyrs to cruel masters as an argument against slavery (131). The fifth chapter includes a discourse on the transformation and effect of slavery. Originally slavery is construed as purely an economic institution, however this chapter follows the evolutionary process; during the culmination of which, slavery is eventually seen as a moral cancer infecting the soul of the British Empire. The following chapter is a discussion of the impact of Christianity on death and social order. Brown poses the Christian desire for conversion in opposition to abolition (for indeed to many Christians, the former was considered of the highest moral obligation, the latter often not considered at all), the influence of Christianity on death rituals and obeah (in particular he considers the effective converting power of posing the Holy Spirit as a more powerful alternative to the spirits harnessed by obeah), the struggles of missionaries under the pressures of high mortality rates for both the shepherds and the sheep, and most extensively, the power that the promise of an afterlife held over the living. The concluding chapter “Gardens of Remembrance,” for which the book is named, is an analysis of the effect of memorials to the dead in justifying claims to territory and in creating a shared history connected with the locations of these memorials. Often slaves would bury their dead on plots of land that they would forthwith consider their property. Alternatively, the dead were buried in meaningful locations where the living could gather and remember the events that constituted a common history. These chapters provide a panoramic and impressively detailed account of Jamaican history.

The substance of the argument set forth in this publication, is that death is indeed the spinal column of slave society. A noteworthy observation is that Brown does not exclusively discuss the slave in the context of death. He treats with equal deliberation the master—a necessary and approach, as without a slave you do not have a master, and without a master you do not have a slave. Both the slave and the master are mirrors to each other and provide insights that would be obscured in the process of discussing one to the exclusion of the other. The structure of his argument is often as successful as the content. Each chapter is a comprehensive study in its subject; with a 54 page bibliography attesting to the meticulous research that structures this professional and thorough review of slavery from the perspective of death. Furthermore, the arguments set forth in each chapter are nicely summed up in an encapsulating set of sentences located in either the first few pages of the chapter or in the final paragraphs. This is a critical element for the understanding of the work; these statements draw the many strings of primary sources into a well-developed subject that the author easily maintains throughout each section. Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden is a thoughtful and successful contribution to the study of transatlantic slavery.

Brown’s account of the abolition movement in England in Chapter Five offers a fascinating, if limited, perspective. He presents us with no less than the religious, or at the very least, moral conversion of a nation, based around shifting English conceptions of death and dying. “Rising evangelicalism, popular sentimentality, and the fashionable genre of graveyard literature” in the mid-eighteenth century all directed British public attention to the relation between death and moral values (157). This changing paradigm, Brown argues, played a vital role in the abolition movement, as abolitionists were able to focus their anti-slavery rhetoric on the high mortality rates in Britain’s slave colonies—not just for slaves but for white colonists and slave owners as well—and what those suggested about not only personal, but also national moral character. However dubious the link may seem, Brown does make a compelling argument that increasing public fear over death and eternal damnation led, in part, to the success of abolitionism.

Part of this claim is grounded in a brief gesture towards popular literary trends, and leads us to a consideration of what Brown’s study does in the way of rethinking literary texts. Widely published “graveyard poetry,” such as Robert Blair’s “The Grave,” Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard,” and Edward Young’s “Complaint or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality,” points, for Brown, to “the ascendance of moral sentimentalism” in England (165). To the extent that these works, particularly Gray’s elegy, prefigured certain sentiments of English Romantic writing, their popularity “set the stage for a much broader concern with the moral sentiments that connected the living with the dead” (167). For Brown, “Gothic and Romantic narratives, revolving as they did around evocative images of pain and death, helped build a morally charged aesthetic around mortality that directed sentiment towards the mortal trials of others” (268). This is undoubtedly an important impact of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century literature, and it is well-founded throughout this section. Brown points to Britons’ awareness of graveyard poetry in Jamaica as a means of forging a link to slavery and abolition (169). The poems, however, had little or no affect on the practice of slavery. In this sense, Brown’s discourse on literary trends raises more questions about these links than it does posit a firm association between the rise of sentimentality and moral concern in literature and abolition. Certainly popular literature revolved around sentiment and morality in reaction to death, but did these trends specifically represent an anxiety over slavery or just a typically British poetic and religious concern with mortality in general? Why, for instance, did not the classical elegy at the beginning of the century, or Donne’s concern with very similar issues a century before that contribute to any public awareness over slavery? Was not graveyard poetry, like these forms, intrinsic to the Island itself and not characteristic of the islands? If these questions are still on the table at the end of Brown’s discourse, it becomes clear that his account of the solution to the problem of slavery in Britain leaves something out. His focus on the public’s concern with their own and with national morality tends to obfuscate the interplay of certain economic motivations with British abolitionism. Notably, Brown points to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments as a text emphasizing empathy and moral concern for other’s suffering, but makes no mention of his subsequent Wealth of Nations, a text which restructured European and Western economic thought at a time when colonialism and the slave trade were at the forefront of the British economic prosperity. Even if Brown does underrate these motivations, they have already been the focus of numerous studies; what he gives us that is relatively new, however shaky its claims may be, is the theory that popular literary trends responding to death may have actually impacted public sentiment towards the slave trade—even if the writing itself was not directed towards the slave trade—and thus may have had a considerable influence on abolition.

Brown’s breadth of textual evidence offers an ample overview of the types of primary texts related to the Atlantic slave trade. While he often relies on planters’ journals and monographs, such as Edward Long’s The History of Jamaica and Bryan Edwards’s The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies, Brown also includes writings by surgeon Alexander Falconbridge and several missionaries, writers whose professions dictate a perspective on death different from that of landowners. Brown’s inclusion of Abraham James’s satirical twenty-one scene caricature, Johnny New-come in the Island of Jamaica, provides representations of the vulnerability of white colonists to tropical disease and lends visual support to Brown’s claims that death pervaded the consciousnesses of all of Jamaica’s inhabitants. The Reaper’s Garden is strongest when it combines these texts’ descriptions of death and mortuary practices—the ritual of the inquest, for example—with knowledge of West African spirituality to offer a range of the meanings of death and to demonstrate the creolization of mortuary rituals in Jamaica.

While this extensive textual research leaves colonists well-represented and provides vivid descriptions of their perceptions of slaves’ mortuary rituals, it is precisely this reliance on text that excludes the voices of slaves in interpreting the meanings of their own practices. Brown acknowledges the difficulty of recovering these voices in his prologue (9), but the book fails to overcome them. Even when attempting to examine material archives, such as gravestones, Brown turns to texts like Phillip Wright’s Monumental Inscriptions of Jamaica. The exclusion of alternative sources of knowledge that provide a non-white path to exploring the past, oral histories and accounts of contemporary mortuary practices in Jamaica for example, limits Brown’s ability to examine death from the perspective of slaves. Though drawing from a diverse array of written sources, The Reaper’s Garden is not the fully realized “materialist history of the supernatural imagination” that Brown promises (5).

Brown’s proposed methodology gestures toward an exciting historicist model for transatlantic studies. Tracking the web of influences across the Atlantic allows for a creolized understanding of cultural practices. He models the Atlantic as a tangled web of commercial and cultural exchanges, and therefore the study attempts to follow “a method akin to that of epidemiology in which one must describe the movement of people, cultural practices, and social actions as a epidemiologist might analyze pathogens spreading through space and time” (9). Jamaican society, then, was always in flux, not only because of the catastrophic death rates, but also the influences constantly arriving from Europe, Africa, and America. Epidemiological history challenges identities based on the nation and emphasizes the interpenetration that generates hybridity. Cultural permeability demands focus, as rituals and ideas related to death continually reshaped and redefined Jamaican culture. However, this exciting interpretive scheme only makes a brief appearance in the text’s introduction; Brown seems to open up possibilities which he ultimately fails to pursue to the end. Death serves more as an organizing principle than a part of any larger thesis based on the method of epidemiology.

Although The Reaper’s Garden presents scholars with a rich compilation of sources that, together, chronicle the story of death in Jamaica, there are points in the text in which the promise of new and interesting ideas is not fulfilled. In many of Brown’s illustrative examples, the tone is detached and descriptive rather than interpretive and the text falls short of becoming an analytical approach to the material that could provide readers with a much deeper appreciation for the way that the individual pieces of the book are intended to contribute to Brown’s overarching point that death was a generative force in shaping Jamaican culture. For example, Brown offers a potentially interesting interpretation of the importance of the body in Jamaican slave funerals when he writes that “the corpse, a physical link between human life and the spirit world, was a potent material symbol of a group’s cohesiveness” (68), but the link between group unity and the physicality of the corpse, as opposed to the communal gathering of the funeral, remains largely unclear. If Brown were to follow up on concepts such as this one, the focus of the book would be shifted toward an analysis of the cultural and historical import of the presence of and practices surrounding death in the Caribbean (perhaps leading to an analysis of the state of death in Jamaica in present times), and The Reaper's Garden would live up to its potential as an indispensible text for scholars working in the field of Atlantic studies. As it is, Brown's book is a great starting point for those who desire a quick and easily accessible recounting of death in colonial Jamaica.

 

 

 


 

 

Meghan's Review:

The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery

The Reaper’s Garden, a new production by Vincent Brown discusses the slave trade in the spheres of the Atlantic, Jamaica, and Britain from the vantage point that death provides. This treatise is outlined fairly well—it begins with a chapter discussing the connection between wealth and death. In this section Brown discusses everything from the decreased value of life in Africa, due to famine, war, and disease; to the matter of fact accounting of the deaths of slaves recorded in slave ship ledgers. While many of the points Brown develops here (and indeed throughout the study) may have been studied by the scholar specializing in the transatlantic slave trade; the particular strength of his work is that each chapter lavishes the reader with a multitude of noteworthy details. One such example of this in the first chapter is one particular accounting of slave deaths. Brown reproduces exactly one such list as shown below:

Dysentery.

Insanity.

Consumption.

Ditto.

Ditto.

Ditto.

Ditto. (48)

It is a remarkable record of history that Brown properly deliberates on. He asks:

What could the boy have done to merit the distinction of having died by insanity? Was he screaming? Crying uncontrollably? No, that would have been too commonplace. Perhaps the boy emitted some baffling expression of grief all his own, too alien to be easily accounted for but too inconsequential to be worthy of further notice. (47-48)

Indeed these curious and strangely effective moments make the book—the poignant section above highlights how the stories of the lives and especially the deaths of slaves are tales of ellipsis. Captured in the master’s rhetoric, one has to look hard enough through the white space in between the lines to see the slave.

Moving to the second chapter, Brown discusses to funeral rites and their role in “demonstrating the order of things” (91). Counter-intuitively, this section does not describe death as the great equalizer. Instead the death rituals that could be afforded were largely based on socio-economic status; serving instead as a truss to the hierarchy inherent to the slave organization.

In the third chapter, Brown holds a commentary on the sway the dead held through properties of inheritance on the living. In this section he discusses the wills of inheritance that directed the lives of Jamaica’s white inhabitants, the wills granting freedom (whether enforced or not) to slaves, and the bequests among the enslaved. Brown argues that “In the midst of catastrophe people in Jamaica anxiously imagined the future, expecting the dead to assist them in their endeavors Legacy and inheritance were crucial features of slave society primarily as an inspiration to purposeful will and action. They were embedded in struggles over the nature and future of society” (127-128). The fourth chapter is a discussion of the influence that a spiritual landscape has when applied to temporal social struggles through icons, shamans, and martyrs. People raised the dead as examples for whatever agenda they happened to back. White authorities make admonitions to rebels through icons of punishment, shamans claimed to use spirits as an otherworldly force, abolitionists (eventually) used examples of doggedly obedient martyrs to cruel masters as an argument against slavery (131). The fifth chapter includes a discourse on the transformation and effect of slavery. Originally slavery is construed as purely an economic institution, however this chapter follows the evolutionary process; during the culmination of which, slavery is eventually seen as a moral cancer infecting the soul of the British Empire. The following chapter is a discussion of the impact of Christianity on death and social order. Brown poses the Christian desire for conversion in opposition to abolition (for indeed to many Christians, the former was considered of the highest moral obligation, the latter often not considered at all), the influence of Christianity on death rituals and obeah (in particular he considers the effective converting power of posing the Holy Spirit as a more powerful alternative to the spirits harnessed by obeah), the struggles of missionaries under the pressures of high mortality rates for both the shepherds and the sheep, and most extensively, the power that the promise of an afterlife held over the living. The concluding chapter “Gardens of Remembrance,” for which the book is named, is a treatment of the effect of memorials to the dead in justifying claims to territory and in creating a shared history connected with the locations of these memorials. Often slaves would bury their dead on plots of land that they would forthwith consider their property. Alternatively, the dead were buried in meaningful locations where the living could gather and remember the events that constituted a common history. These chapters provide a panoramic yet impressively detailed and documented account of history.

The substance of the argument set forth in this publication, is that death is indeed the spinal column of slave society. A noteworthy observation is that Brown does not exclusively discuss the slave in the context of death. He treats with equal deliberation, the master—a necessary and singular approach, as without a slave you do not have a master; and without a master you do not have a slave. Both the slave and the master are mirrors to each other and provide insights that would be obscured in the process of discussing one to the exclusion of the other. The structure of his argument is often as successful as the content. Each chapter is a comprehensive study in its subject; with a 54 page bibliography attesting to the meticulous research that structures this professional and thorough review of slavery from the perspective of death. Furthermore, the arguments set forth in each chapter are nicely summed up in an encapsulating set of sentences located in either the first few pages of the chapter or in the final paragraphs. This is a critical element for the understanding of the work; these statements draw the many strings of primary sources into a well-developed subject that the author easily maintains throughout each section. Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden is a thoughtful and successful contribution to the study of transatlantic slavery.

Sarah's Review:

Note: I’m happy to add better introductory and concluding sentences once we figure out in what order these are going!

Brown’s breadth of textual evidence offers an ample overview of the types of primary texts related to the Atlantic slave trade. While he often relies on planters’ journals and monographs, such as Edward Long’s The History of Jamaica and Bryan Edwards’s The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies, Brown also includes writings by surgeon Alexander Falconbridge and several missionaries, writers whose professions dictate a perspective on death different from that of landowners. Brown’s inclusion of Abraham James’s satirical twenty-one scene caricature, Johnny New-come in the Island of Jamaica, provides representations of the vulnerability of white colonists to tropical disease and lends visual support to Brown’s claims that death pervaded the consciousnesses of all of Jamaica’s inhabitants. The Reaper’s Garden is strongest when it combines these texts’ descriptions of death and mortuary practices—the ritual of the inquest, for example—with knowledge of West African spirituality to offer a range of the meanings of death and to demonstrate the creolization of mortuary rituals in Jamaica.

While this extensive textual research leaves colonists well-represented and provides vivid descriptions of their perceptions of slaves’ mortuary rituals, it is precisely this reliance on text that excludes the voices of slaves in interpreting the meanings of their own practices. Brown acknowledges the difficulty of recovering these voices in his prologue (9), but the book fails to overcome them. Even when attempting to examine material archives, such as gravestones, Brown turns to texts like Phillip Wright’s Monumental Inscriptions of Jamaica. The exclusion of alternative sources of knowledge that provide a non-white path to exploring the past, oral histories and accounts of contemporary mortuary practices in Jamaica for example, limits Brown’s ability to examine death from the perspective of slaves.

Patrick's Review:

In order to understand death in the transatlantic consciousness, The Reaper’s Garden pursues “a materialist history of the supernatural imagination,” tracking how death’s presence shaped the cultural practices of not only the West Indies but the entire oceanic basin (5). Brown models the Atlantic as a tangled web of commercial and cultural exchanges, and therefore the study attempts to follow “a method akin to that of epidemiology in which one must describe the movement of people, cultural practices, and social actions as a epidemiologist might analyze pathogens spreading through space and time” (9). Jamaican society, then, was always in flux, not only because of the catastrophic death rates, but also the influences constantly arriving from Europe, Africa, and America. Rituals and ideas related to death continually reshaped and redefined Jamaican culture: Obeah shaman’s harnessed the power of the dead to promote political authority; funeral rites established the communal values of slaves; and English abolitionists summoned images of dead slaves to argue their cause.

Brown’s method of epidemiological history provides an exciting historicist model for transatlantic studies. Tracking the web of influences across the Atlantic allows for a creolized understanding of cultural practices. Epidemiological history challenges identities based on the nation and emphasizes the interpenetration that generates hybridity. Though Brown’s promises a method based on cultural permeability, his book fails to fully take advantage of this exciting interpretive scheme. Death serves more as an organizing principle that a part of any larger thesis based on the method of epidemiology. [I'll have to integrate this discussion of method's drawback with Patricia's criticism on lack of analysis.]

Patricia's Review

Although the Reaper’s Garden presents scholars with a rich compilation of sources that, together, chronicle the story of death in Jamaica, there are points in the text in which the promise of new and interesting ideas is not fulfilled. In many of Brown’s illustrative examples, the tone is detached and descriptive rather than interpretive and the text falls short of becoming an analytical approach to the material that could provide readers with a much deeper appreciation for the way that the individual pieces of the book are intended to contribute to Brown’s overarching point that death was a generative force in shaping Jamaican culture. For example, Brown offers a potentially interesting interpretation of the importance of the body in Jamaican slave funerals when he writes that “the corpse, a physical link between human life and the spirit world, was a potent material symbol of a group’s cohesiveness” (68), but the link between group unity and the physicality of the corpse, as opposed to the communal gathering of the funeral, remains largely unclear. If Brown were to follow up on concepts such as this one, the focus of the book would be shifted toward an analysis of the cultural and historical import of the presence of and practices surrounding death in the Caribbean (perhaps leading to an analysis of the state of death in Jamaica in present times), and Reaper's Garden would live up to its potential as an indispensible text for scholars working in the field of Atlantic studies. As it is, Brown's book is a great starting point for those who desire a quick and easily accessible recounting of death in colonial Jamaica.

Jake's Review

Alright, this is crap, I think it devolved more into an analysis than a review, but here it is:

Like his epidemiological trope for reading history in the early chapters, Brown’s account of the abolition movement in England in Chapter Five offers a fascinating, if limited, perspective. He presents us with no less than the religious, or at the very least, moral conversion of a nation, based around shifting English conceptions of death and dying. “Rising evangelicalism, popular sentimentality, and the fashionable genre of graveyard literature” in the mid-eighteenth century all directed British public attention to the relation between death and moral values (157). This changing paradigm, Brown argues, played a vital role in the abolition movement, as abolitionists were able to focus their anti-slavery rhetoric on the high mortality rates in Britain’s slave colonies – not just for slaves but for white colonists and slave owners as well – and what those suggested about not only personal, but also national moral character. However dubious the link may seem, Brown does make a compelling argument that increasing public fear over death and eternal damnation led, in part, to the success of abolitionism.

Part of this claim is grounded in a brief gesture towards popular literary trends, and leads us to a consideration of what Brown’s study does in the way of rethinking literary texts. Widely published “graveyard poetry,” such as Robert Blair’s The Grave, Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard, and Edward Young’s Complaint or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, points, for Brown, to “the ascendance of moral sentimentalism” in England (165). To the extent that these works, particularly Gray’s Elegy, prefigured certain sentiments of English Romantic writing, their popularity “set the stage for a much broader concern with the moral sentiments that connected the living with the dead” (167). For Brown, “Gothic and Romantic narratives, revolving as they did around evocative images of pain and death, helped build a morally charged aesthetic around mortality that directed sentiment towards the mortal trials of others” (268). This is undoubtedly an important impact of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century literature and it is well-founded throughout this section. Brown points to Britons’ awareness of graveyard poetry in Jamaica as a means of forging a link to slavery and abolition (169). The poems, however, had little or no affect on the practice of slavery. In this sense, Brown’s discourse on literary trends raises more questions about these links than it does posit a firm association between the rise of sentimentality and moral concern in literature and abolition. Certainly popular literature revolved around sentiment and morality in reaction to death, but did these trends specifically represent an anxiety over slavery or just a typically British poetic and religious concern with mortality in general? Why, for instance, did not the classical elegy at the beginning of the century, or Donne’s concern with very similar issues a century before that contribute to any public awareness over slavery? Was not graveyard poetry, like these forms, intrinsic to the Island itself and not characteristic of the islands? If these questions are still on the table at the end of Brown’s discourse, it becomes clear that his account of the solution to the problem of slavery in Britain leaves something out. His focus on the public’s concern with their own and with national morality tends to obfuscate the interplay of certain economic motivations with British abolitionism. Notably, Brown points to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments as a text emphasizing empathy and moral concern for other’s suffering, but makes no mention of his subsequent Wealth of Nations, a text which restructured European and Western economic thought at a time when colonialism and the slave trade were at the forefront of the British economic prosperity. Even if Brown does underrate these motivations, they have already been the focus of numerous studies; what he gives us that is relatively new, however shaky its claims may be, is the theory that popular literary trends responding to death may have actually impacted public sentiment towards the slave trade – even if the writing itself was not directed towards the slave trade – and thus may have had a considerable influence on abolition.

 

 

 

Outlined Version

 

1. Patrick’s introduction – add popular history idea

Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery examines how death became a generative cultural and political force in Jamaican slave society. Brown’s compelling analysis seeks to resurrect the dead, arguing that the island’s high mortality rates created a volatile society in which the dead were active participants. In political struggles and social rituals, “mortuary politics” allowed for both freemen and slaves to claim authority and assert political power through the symbolic manipulation of the dead (4). Death shaped Jamaican social practices such as funeral rites, inheritance customs, and Obeah shamanism, yet Brown’s welcome transatlantic perspective demonstrates death’s haunting presence in British abolitionist and evangelical discourse. He consults colonials’ letters, travelogues, slave songs, and eulogies in order to imaginatively recreate the history of slavery as intricately intertwined with the immaterial. Scholars looking for an accessible and interesting introduction to Atlantic studies will benefit from Brown’s synthesis of existing scholarship and creation of a new paradigm for transatlantic cultural production.

 

2. Death in rites and rituals in Jamaica – wills inheritance, obeah, mortuary practices

 

Brown’s text explores the role of death in Jamaica – the epicenter of the British Atlantic empire. Beginning with a chapter discussing the connection between wealth and death, Brown’s book notes the decreased value of life in Africa, due to famine, war, and disease as well as the matter of fact accounting of the deaths of slaves recorded in slave ship ledgers. While many of the points Brown develops here (and indeed throughout the study) may have been studied by the scholar specializing in the transatlantic slave trade [?], the particular strength of his work is that each chapter lavishes the reader with a multitude of noteworthy details. Brown reproduces ship’s ledgers that demonstrate how the stories of the lives and especially the deaths of slaves are tales of ellipsis. Brown recovers important details about the lives of the slaves previously occluded by the master’s rhetoric.

 

In the second chapter, Brown discusses to funeral rites and their role in “demonstrating the order of things” (91). Counter-intuitively, this section does not describe death as the great equalizer. Instead the death rituals that could be afforded were largely based on socio-economic status, serving instead as a truss to the hierarchy inherent to the slave organization.

 

Brown’s third chapter holds a commentary on the sway the dead held through properties of inheritance on the living. He discusses the wills of inheritance that directed the lives of Jamaica’s white inhabitants, the wills granting freedom (whether enforced or not) to slaves, and the bequests among the enslaved. Brown argues that “In the midst of catastrophe people in Jamaica anxiously imagined the future, expecting the dead to assist them in their endeavors Legacy and inheritance were crucial features of slave society primarily as an inspiration to purposeful will and action. They were embedded in struggles over the nature and future of society” (127-128). The fourth chapter is a discussion of the influence that a spiritual landscape has when applied to temporal social struggles through icons, shamans, and martyrs. People raised the dead as examples for whatever agenda they happened to back. White authorities make admonitions to rebels through icons of punishment, shamans claimed to use spirits as an otherworldly force, abolitionists (eventually) used examples of doggedly obedient martyrs to cruel masters as an argument against slavery (131).

 

The concluding chapter “Gardens of Remembrance,” for which the book is named, is an analysis of the effect of memorials to the dead in justifying claims to territory and in creating a shared history connected with the locations of these memorials. Often slaves would bury their dead on plots of land that they would forthwith consider their property. Alternatively, the dead were buried in meaningful locations where the living could gather and remember the events that constituted a common history. These chapters provide a panoramic and impressively detailed account of Jamaican history.

 

3. Transatlantic perspectives – abolition movement, graveyard poetics, slaveship, Africa

 

transition from memorials Although Brown’s focus is on death in Jamaica, the book also extends its investigation across the Atlantic. Brown traces the origins of the Jamaican practices of death from their varied west African roots through the middle passage and ending with cultural creolization of various ethnic groups from Africa and Europe. Brown investigates the shift in public perception of slavery from an economic institution to a moral cancer that infects the soul of the British Empire and its people. Mortality in Jamaica and protestant religious beliefs contribute to the abolition movement in England.

 

The following chapter is a discussion of the impact of Christianity on death and social order. Brown poses the Christian desire for conversion in opposition to abolition (for indeed to many Christians, the former was considered of the highest moral obligation, the latter often not considered at all), the influence of Christianity on death rituals and obeah (in particular he considers the effective converting power of posing the Holy Spirit as a more powerful alternative to the spirits harnessed by obeah), the struggles of missionaries under the pressures of high mortality rates for both the shepherds and the sheep, and most extensively, the power that the promise of an afterlife held over the living.

 

4. Sarah’s praise of textual evidence

Like his argument, Brown’s textual evidence extends from Britain to Jamaica and offers an ample overview of the types of primary texts related to the Atlantic slave trade. While he often relies on planters’ journals and monographs, such as Edward Long’s The History of Jamaica and Bryan Edwards’s The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies, Brown also includes writings by surgeon Alexander Falconbridge and several missionaries, writers whose professions dictate a perspective on death different from that of landowners. Brown’s inclusion of Abraham James’s satirical twenty-one scene caricature, Johnny New-come in the Island of Jamaica, provides representations of the vulnerability of white colonists to tropical disease and lends visual support to Brown’s claims that death pervaded the consciousnesses of all of Jamaica’s inhabitants. The Reaper’s Garden is strongest when it combines these texts’ descriptions of death and mortuary practices—the ritual of the inquest, for example—with knowledge of West African spirituality to offer a range of the meanings of death and to demonstrate the creolization of mortuary rituals in Jamaica.

 

5. Jake’s section (Britain not linked to other chapters)

In addition to texts focused on colonial presence in Jamaica, Brown is also interested in the abolition movement in England. In chapter 5, Brown’s account of the abolition movement in England offers a fascinating, if limited, perspective. He presents us with no less than the religious, or at the very least, moral conversion of a nation, based around shifting English conceptions of death and dying. “Rising evangelicalism, popular sentimentality, and the fashionable genre of graveyard literature” in the mid-eighteenth century all directed British public attention to the relation between death and moral values (157). This changing paradigm, Brown argues, played a vital role in the abolition movement, as abolitionists were able to focus their anti-slavery rhetoric on the high mortality rates in Britain’s slave colonies—not just for slaves but for white colonists and slave owners as well—and what those suggested about not only personal, but also national moral character. However dubious the link may seem, Brown does make a compelling argument that increasing public fear over death and eternal damnation led, in part, to the success of abolitionism.

 

Part of this claim is grounded in a brief gesture towards popular literary trends, and leads us to a consideration of what Brown’s study does in the way of rethinking literary texts. Widely published “graveyard poetry,” such as Robert Blair’s “The Grave,” Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard,” and Edward Young’s “Complaint or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality,” points, for Brown, to “the ascendance of moral sentimentalism” in England (165). To the extent that these works, particularly Gray’s elegy, prefigured certain sentiments of English Romantic writing, their popularity “set the stage for a much broader concern with the moral sentiments that connected the living with the dead” (167). For Brown, “Gothic and Romantic narratives, revolving as they did around evocative images of pain and death, helped build a morally charged aesthetic around mortality that directed sentiment towards the mortal trials of others” (268). This is undoubtedly an important impact of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century literature, and it is well-founded throughout this section. Brown points to Britons’ awareness of graveyard poetry in Jamaica as a means of forging a link to slavery and abolition (169). The poems, however, had little or no affect on the practice of slavery. In this sense, Brown’s discourse on literary trends raises more questions about these links than it does posit a firm association between the rise of sentimentality and moral concern in literature and abolition.

 

Certainly popular literature revolved around sentiment and morality in reaction to death, but did these trends specifically represent an anxiety over slavery or just a typically British poetic and religious concern with mortality in general? Why, for instance, did not the classical elegy at the beginning of the century, or Donne’s concern with very similar issues a century before that contribute to any public awareness over slavery? Was not graveyard poetry, like these forms, intrinsic to the Island itself and not characteristic of the islands? If these questions are still on the table at the end of Brown’s discourse, it becomes clear that his account of the solution to the problem of slavery in Britain leaves something out. His focus on the public’s concern with their own and with national morality tends to obfuscate the interplay of certain economic motivations with British abolitionism. Notably, Brown points to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments as a text emphasizing empathy and moral concern for other’s suffering, but makes no mention of his subsequent Wealth of Nations, a text which restructured European and Western economic thought at a time when colonialism and the slave trade were at the forefront of the British economic prosperity. Even if Brown does underrate these motivations, they have already been the focus of numerous studies; what he gives us that is relatively new, however shaky its claims may be, is the theory that popular literary trends responding to death may have actually impacted public sentiment towards the slave trade—even if the writing itself was not directed towards the slave trade—and thus may have had a considerable influence on abolition.

 

6. Patrick’s epidemiological

 

Brown’s proposed methodology gestures toward an exciting historicist model for transatlantic studies since tracking the web of influences across the Atlantic allows for a creolized understanding of cultural practices. He models the Atlantic as a tangled network of commercial and cultural exchanges and therefore attempts to follow “a method akin to that of epidemiology in which one must describe the movement of people, cultural practices, and social actions as a epidemiologist might analyze pathogens spreading through space and time” (9). Jamaican society, then, was always in flux, not only because of the catastrophic death rates, but also the influences constantly arriving from Europe, Africa, and America. Epidemiological history challenges identities based on the nation and emphasizes the interpenetration that generates hybridity. Cultural permeability demands focus, as rituals and ideas related to death continually reshaped and redefined Jamaican culture.

 

However, Brown’s thrilling methodological proposal remains just that—a proposal. The interpretive scheme makes only a brief appearance in the text’s introduction, and while Brown does identify the traces of death in a surprising wealth of locations from the archive, the book would benefit from analytical discussions that explicitly return to the epidemiological trope in order to expose the hidden causal connections between various literary productions and cultural practices. [I should give an example here...?] In other words, ideas from one chapter are not able to infect surrounding chapters. Death, then, serves as more of an organizing principle than a part of any larger thesis based on the method of epidemiology.

 

 

7. Sarah’s archival criticism

Pursing an epidemiological analysis also may have provided the text with a means of analyzing history from the bottom up. While Brown's extensive textual research leaves colonists well-represented and provides vivid descriptions of their perceptions of slaves’ mortuary rituals, it is precisely this reliance on text that excludes the voices of slaves in interpreting the meanings of their own practices. Brown acknowledges the difficulty of recovering these voices in his prologue (9), but the book fails to overcome them. Even when attempting to examine material archives, such as gravestones, Brown turns to texts like Phillip Wright’s Monumental Inscriptions of Jamaica. The exclusion of alternative sources of knowledge that provide a non-white path to exploring the past, oral histories and accounts of contemporary mortuary practices in Jamaica for example, limits Brown’s ability to examine death from the perspective of slaves. Though drawing from a diverse array of written sources, The Reaper’s Garden is not the fully realized “materialist history of the supernatural imagination” that Brown promises (5).

 

8. Patricia’s conclusion

Although The Reaper’s Garden presents scholars with a richly diverse (though poorly indexed) compilation of sources that, together, chronicle the story of death in Jamaica, the promise of new and interesting ideas is often sadly unfulfilled. The text falls short of its potential as an analytical approach to the material that could provide readers with a much deeper appreciation for the way that the individual pieces of the book are intended to contribute to Brown’s overarching point that death was a generative force in shaping Jamaican culture. In many of Brown’s illustrative examples his tone is detached and descriptive rather than interpretive. For example, Brown offers the potentially interesting interpretation of the importance of the body in Jamaican slave funerals that “the corpse, a physical link between human life and the spirit world, was a potent material symbol of a group’s cohesiveness” (68). However, the link between group unity and the physicality of the corpse, as opposed to the communal gathering of the funeral is never clarified. If Brown were to follow up on concepts such as this, the focus of the book would be shifted toward an analysis of the cultural and historical import of the presence of and practices surrounding death in the Caribbean (perhaps leading to an analysis of the state of death in Jamaica in present times), and The Reaper's Garden would become an indispensible text for scholars working in the field of Atlantic studies. As it is, Brown's book is a great starting point for those who desire a quick and easily accessible recounting of death in colonial Jamaica.

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