Heterogeneous Blackness: Peter Brathwaite’s Eighteenth-Century Re-portraits

This is a collaborative piece that has emerged out of interviews between Peter Brathwaite and Kerry Sinanan in response to Brathwaite’s Rediscovering Black Portraiture project, 2020. [1]

 . . . (And whose boy am I, and what is
my name?
). Black erasing blackness,
body and backdrop: you are not permitted to enter
the question light asks of his skin as if it were
a field, a mind, a word inclined to be

–From “Vanitas with Negro Boy”, Rickey Laurentiis[2]

Black Servant, England. Unknown artist (1760-1770).

In 10 April 2020, in response to the Getty Museum Challenge to recreate famous works of art on social media during COVID lockdown, Peter Brathwaite, the internationally renowned opera singer, offered Twitter what he thought would be a sole contribution to the project, namely a reworking of an anonymous and not very well-known portrait, Black Servant, ca. 1760-1770.[3] On 29 May, Brathwaite reached 50 reworkings and is continuing now with the work in order, as he says, to “amplify marginalized voices” from the past. In this first painting a smiling Black boy holds aloft a large glass in one hand, and a silver charger in the other, with a small spaniel looking up at him adoringly. This is a classic eighteenth-century scene: enslavement is veiled with civility, materially by the boy’s white shirt and genteel clothes, and ideologically by the presentation of this as a somehow “natural”, unquestioned scene of servitude. The coupling of the Black boy with a pet is common for the period, as Catherine Molineaux writes: “acquiring pets, black slaves and fashionable animals became a form of social currency; they became objects consumed and displayed in a semiotic system of status”.[4] In this system of displayed “objects” the roemer glass, prized for its greenish tint, is notably large and copiously filled, and, alongside the enslaved boy and silverware, works to construct a politeness that is both British and white. As Sinanan has recently argued, displaying glass objects alongside enslaved people is central to the construction of politeness. Many eighteenth-century paintings juxtapose blackness with more modern, transparent, lead glass to do this work in an even more explicit way: “blackness, alongside . . . glass that is prized for its ‘purity,’ intensifies the rhetorical construction of whiteness”.[5] In this image, though, whiteness is constructed through a painterly focus on colour: the boy’s blackness becomes fetishized beside the tints of the wine, the greenish glass and the silver. The boy’s “colour”, rather than his personhood, makes him suitable as an artistic subject. As the eighteenth-century aesthetic theorist, Uvedale Price writes in his Dialogue on the Distinct Characters of the Picturesque and the Beautiful (1801), “blackness . . . has a richness, which, in the painter’s eye, may compensate its comparative monotony, and may, therefore . . . be called beautiful”. Price continues to discuss Joshua Reynold’s painting of Samuel Johnson’s servant, Francis Barber, to emphasize the focus on blackness as being on “tint”, “tone” and “colouring”.[6] While we see a Black servant smiling, he is the subject of a portrait composed by white ideals of the picturesque that racialized skin tone to present the boy for a white gaze.

In Brathwaite’s re-presentation, though, we do not see this portrait alone: alongside it is Brathwaite’s reworking that immediately challenges the eighteenth-century dynamics at work. Brathwaite’s emphasis of the boy’s smile, a more open and slightly freer expression, highlights what is already apparent: this Black boy is a person, not merely a subject of artistic interest, with a real history and life, but one that is erased and not accessible beyond the frame of the painting. The re-portrait prompts questions we may not as readily ask of an artefact located at an historical distance. A free Black man, now, joining his own history and personhood to the boy’s through this reworking, disrupts the naturalization of the eighteenth-century composition to reveal the picturesque scene, using colour, tint, and servitude to forge politeness, as in fact comprising oppression and barbarity. That such a corrective is needed is evidenced by the description of the painting in the Philip Mould Historical Portraits Image Gallery which currently describes the boy as being “a favoured companion” with an “intimate position in his master or more probably mistress’s household . . .trusted and loved by their lapdog”.[7] Such a reading accepts as natural the racialized hierarchies of the boy’s position, and dismisses the realities of Black servitude and enslavement in Britain and its colonies in the mid-eighteenth century to prioritize white affection. As Peter Erickson asserts, “Inclusion of the black servant does not represent benign inclusiveness but is rather keyed to incorporation into a visual regime structured in white dominance”.[8] While in the original portrait the Black boy already disrupts the desired display of objects for consumption with his inevitable personhood, this is much more forcefully felt in the re-portrait. Brathwaite’s free, Black, present personhood, combined with his satire of the spaniel with a stuffed sheep, emphasizes the violence of fetishization and objectification required by eighteenth-century white politeness to construct itself. 250 years after the original portrait, Brathwaite’s re-portrait, with his free smile, offers a “subversive” judgement on the consuming vulgarity of a declined slave-owning culture.

Such a reading – more attentive to the sacrifices required of Black people to make whiteness – has become impossible to avoid in the present context of COVID in which we see significantly higher rates of death and infection among Black people both in the UK and in the US. Since March it has become clear that COVID is wreaking disaster on Black people precisely because systemic racism has left them most vulnerable to its ravages.[9] And within this context, Brathwaite’s portraits give life to figures from the long eighteenth century whose histories and identities were seized by the racist forces that defined the period.

The new venue for their viewing is Twitter, which allows Brathwaite to present both the original painting and his own reworking simultaneously in a Tweet thus visually embedding the latter’s disruptive reworking in the former. Brathwaite names his acts of re-creation as “re-imaginings, disruptions and a re-empowering” and describes his research to find portraits as an “archaeology” a “digging things up”: we are presented with what has been occluded by white canons of art and asked to look at these images in a radical new way. The term “re-portrait” describes the complete image created by Brathwaite that captures both the original painting or photograph, and his own reworking simultaneously, with the hyphen registering both the splice and join of the new image allowed for by social media.[10] The reaction that Brathwaite received to this first re-portrait spurred him on to do more as he realized the “open-ended, wide platform” offered for this vital work of curation and re-creation. The urgency of such a project is even more clear during the rise of BLM 2020 which, in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and, during the period of protest itself, of Tony McDade, David McAtee, and Rayshard Brooks, has become a global movement for Black liberation. At the time of writing, the protests are in their sixth week and continue to take place all over the world: tragically, so do police brutality and hate crimes against Black people. In this context, Brathwaite’s re-imaginings inevitably become another crucial way to assert, not just the importance of Black life, but the vitality, creative energy, variety, and resistant thriving of it in the face of overwhelming odds.

In Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique, Roderick Ferguson emphasizes the “social heterogeneity that characterizes African American culture” due to its inherent queerness which, he argues, is embodied in the “estrangements” of the Black drag-queen prostitute. This figure, Ferguson argues, “allegorizes and symbolizes” how

African American culture indexes a social heterogeneity that oversteps the boundaries of gender propriety and sexual normativity. That social heterogeneity also indexes formations that are seemingly outside the spatial and temporal bounds of African American culture.[11]

Brathwaite’s work produces beyondness and extraneousness that, interfusing with Brathwaite’s own Bajan roots, presents us with a global sense of Black heterogeneity across centuries, disrupting the raced and gendered norms that encoded Black enslavement and servitude. Encompassing artworks from the 15th century to the present day, Brathwaite has curated portraits of gondoliers, ambassadors, menagerie keepers, flower sellers, street artists, chimney sweeps, soldiers, actors, noble women and more. These figures cross gender, class, and national boundaries, creating a powerful representation of global, heterogeneous Blackness that exceeds the static, foundational image of the enchained Black person as chattel, while also disrupting the libidinal economies of slave culture. As James Edward Ford asserts, “Whiteness takes shape partly through financial economy and partly through libidinal economy”.[12] Brathwaite’s mode of re-portrait on the Twitter platform wrests the Black subject from white libidinal framing to re-present it in Black repossession, creativity and ownership: his re-portraits are forged by a Black gaze. As an opera singer, Brathwaite also regards each re-portrait as a performance complete with set, costume, and his embodiment of the person whom he is re-presenting. In many of the re-portraits Brathwaite uses personal belongings and artefacts of his Bajan culture and such heterogenous, Caribbean Blackness presents a powerful riposte to slavery’s legacy of racist violence.

Brathwaite's re-portrait of Dido; Dido Elizabeth Belle

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Elizabeth Murray, by David Martin (c.1778)

We can see such heterogeneity in one of the most striking 18th-century images in his curation, that of Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) and her cousin Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825), by David Martin (ca. 1778).[13] In his re-portrait, the original double portrait is cropped, taking Elizabeth Murray out and leaving only Dido. In this powerful move, Brathwaite reverses the dynamics of racist exclusion to center Dido as the main figure alongside his reinterpretation. While most of the re-portraits Brathwaite has made are of men and boys, here, we clearly see the relevance of Ferguson’s idea of Black culture as figured by the heterogeneity of drag. Brathwaite did not explicitly have this idea in mind when he produced his Dido, but acknowledges the potential for radical heterogeneity in his “cross-dressing” image. This particular representation of Blackness, already transgressive in Martin’s painting, is accentuated by Brathwaite “to subvert” as the re-portrait crosses gender and raced norms. Arguably, Brathwaite’s beard is not the most disruptive aspect of the re-portrait: rather it is his smile and, as he asserts, the “cheeky expression” he deliberately creates to accentuate his Dido’s freedom and independence. Brathwaite consciously infuses his performance and posing for the reworkings with new, subtle interpretations of the figures’ looks, postures and positions that force questions about the dynamics of oppression and emancipation at work. Here, Brathwaite reads the original painting of Elizabeth Murray’s hand on Dido as perhaps “a push” away, out of the space and thus in the re-portrait the hand is more of a grip, either of welcome or of possession, registering the libidinal economies of white/Black relations.

As Gretchen H. Gerzina discusses, how to read the women’s poses in the original double portrait remains contested and she argues that “the two cousins exhibit a closeness and ease”, “like sisters”, that they are comfortable to express to the painter.[14] Yet, such sisterliness cannot transcend the raced dynamics within the portrait as we read the contrast of Dido’s white silk dress against her skin and the luminous whiteness of Elizabeth’s body. Elizabeth is to the fore, albeit the running Dido somewhat decenters her. The bond the women had cannot escape these dynamics, imbricated, as it was, materially in the fact that Dido’s own mother was an enslaved woman and in the fact of Dido’s blackness.[15] Reading intimacies within such economies is fraught. In his reworking, Brathwaite deliberately presents Dido as “delighting” in her movement away, and as more mischievously rejecting the claim of whiteness upon her as she runs into the light, refusing her role as “bearer” even to a loving cousin. While these disruptions are apparent in the original painting, the drag dynamic of Brathwaite’s re-portrait registers the productive heterogeneity of Dido and accentuates the emancipatory potential to make Dido both “more comfortable and powerful”, and, crucially, uncoupled from the white femininity of her cousin.

Joseph Johnson, by John Thomas Smith (1815).

Brathwaite’s re-portraits also present Black heterogeneity in terms of class. On the point of completing fifty re-portraits, Brathwaite launched an online vote for the public’s favourite and an image from the long eighteenth century won, an etching of Joseph Johnson by John Thomas Smith (1815). Johnson was a former Merchant Navy seaman who had been reduced to homelessness in London after the Napoleonic Wars. He devised an act of street art in which he built and wore a large wooden model of the HMS Nelson to busk for money. On a very basic level, it is remarkable that Brathwaite’s work has brought this image of a free but poor Black man in nineteenth-century Britain to public attention, especially in the current moment. The original print first appeared in a set, originally entitled, Etchings of Remarkable Beggars, Itinerant Traders and Other Persons of Notoriety In London and Its Environs (1815). As Eddie Chambers writes:

Within a year or so, the prints appeared in book form, the publication having been given the equally extravagant title Vagabondiana or, Anecdotes of Mendicant Wanderers through the Streets of London; with Portraits of the Most Remarkable, Drawn From the Life by John Thomas Smith (Keeper of the Prints in the British Museum) produced etchings that were amongst the earliest attempts to depict the poor of London in ways that sought to avoid caricature, and relied to some extent on the artist’s quest to capture the personalities of his subjects as well as the hardships they reflected.[16]

Chambers’ detailed account of Johnson emphasizes how he was able to create a novel and effective act of street art to survive. The subversive potential of Johnson’s act was considerable: his choice of the Nelson immediately located him in a British narrative of heroism, the Battle of Trafalgar, familiar to all, to counteract his precarious status. Johnson’s act affirms that he, too, is a Briton. Chambers asserts that this print is also “one of the first documented examples of a Black-British artist (in this case a sculptor) in London”.[17] The original print certainly registers the carnivalesque potential of Johnson, further accentuated by Brathwaite’s re-portrait which displays the multi-faceted skill it would have taken accomplish such an act from sculpting to busking. As we think of Brathwaite preparing for his performance, we simultaneously think of Johnson preparing for his and become more aware of the artistry involved. Brathwaite’s crafting of his ship from cardboard highlights the self-made aspect of Johnson’s much more accomplished sculpture, and Brathwaite’s outfit and selected props all intensify the deliberate performance elements of Johnson, showing him to be in charge of his own art as protest. As Brathwaite notes on his online gallery, the sight of a ship on a Black man’s head would also have likely reminded his audience and passers-by of the slave ship: Johnson is physically “below deck” having placed the ship on his own head but now as a free man who has reinterpreted the ship as a sign, not just of white liberty, but of Black emancipation. While the transatlantic slave trade had been abolished in 1807, emancipation was still a long way off.  Johnson’s performance was also, then, an anti-slavery disruption of the libidinal economies of consuming sugar and other goods from the Caribbean, redirecting pleasure into subversive laughter. The sense of the Black person as “carrying” a culture dependent on slavery is captured by Brathwaite’s re-portrait in which his more serious expression as he looks up at this ship, registers a sense of judgement and weariness. That the public on Twitter selected Johnson as their favourite re-portrait speaks to the current rise in an awareness of transatlantic slavery’s role in the present and of how this re-portrait has reframed Johnson as an abolitionist precursor to Black Lives Matter protest in the eighteenth century.

Still Life with Moor and Parrot by Jan Davidz. de Heem (1641).

The heterogeneity of global Blackness is visible in the props Brathwaite uses to replace objects in the original paintings. Thus, in Jan Davidsz De Heem, Still life with Moor and Parrot (1641), Brathwaite replaces the mirror, a sign of vanity, with an African print, and the luxurious lobster with Caribbean saltfish and pepper sauce. The props of white power, already critiqued in the original vanitas genre, are now replaced by productive Black lives and cultures that have survived enslavement. These supplantings are also critiques, mocking the object-fixation that drove consumption in the long eighteenth century. That this consumption depended on the subjugation of colonized others is made clear by the Black boy to the right, peeking in on this display of artefacts, to become another “object” in the display. However, in Brathwaite’s re-portrait, the figure’s gaze falls mockingly on a copy of Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657), instead of on the monkey he is visually twinned with in the original. As Molineaux argues, the “association of blacks and monkeys as common products of the African continent” was prevalent in the period that regarded both as exotic accoutrements of fashionable life.[18] Ligon could simply not have imagined the Black lives that would emerge from the practices of plantation slavery that he witnessed being tried and tested in mid 17th-century Barbados: in Brathwaite’s display Ligon’s History, in which enslaved people are listed as “stock” along with “Horses, Cattle, Camels” becomes a piece of old bric à brac, debunked and looked on with appropriate mockery.[19]

Vanitas with Negro Boy by David Bailly (1650).

The challenge to white patriarchal slave culture is challenged in many re-portraits. In his reworking of David Bailly’s Vanitas with Negro Boy (ca.1650), Brathwaite replaces the miniature portrait of the white patron held by the Black boy, with “a picture of my ancestor Miles Brathwaite and the will of a Planter great-grandfather”. At the other end of slavery’s long history, the manumission papers of Brathwaite’s great, great, great, great-grandmother, Peggy, are held by him in his re-portrait of H.L. Stephens’ Man Reading Headline: Presidential Proclamation, Slavery (1863). Working with a researcher, and in the Barbados archives, Brathwaite was able to recover these vital documents of his own family’s emancipation on his mother’s side. As Hortense Spillers tells us, the scene of slavery’s capture of African people, “marked a theft of the body—a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance), severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire”. This captive body, separated from a more liberated pre-captive flesh, is for Spillers “as a category of otherness . . . embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general ‘powerlessness,’ resonating through various centers of human and social meaning”.[20] Brathwaite’s re-portraits seize Black people from the art of the long 18th-century in which they have been objectified as bodies. In Brathwaite’s re-portrait Peggy’s papers, held in the hands of her descendant smiling with glee, symbolically moves Peggy back into the flesh and blood of her free grandson. He holds her physically in his radical act of curation. Brathwaite’s Caribbean and Black British artefacts, along with his body that is able to perform and recreate these many moments, are signs of a global Black resistance movement for emancipation which, while still not fulfilled, remains a creative site of persistence.

Brathwaite’s grandmother’s Bajan quilt hangs in many of the re-portraits as perhaps the most visually striking creative artefact, representing a new Caribbean culture of matriarchal materiality that replaces the materiality of patriarchal white power in the originals. This representation of Bajan folk art is vital for Brathwaite, not just as a riposte to the past, but also as a critique of current cultures of consumption in present-day tourism. Barbados remains in the British imagination as “Little England”, and British tourism a form of neo-colonial possession. In this economy of tourism in which Caribbean culture is commodified, as Brathwaite notes, older, Bajan “folk songs are now a dying culture”. Brathwaite places a book of Bajan folk songs in several re-portraits as he feels “an urgency to preserve them”.

The Paston Treasure, by unknown painter (1665).

In the painting, The Paston Treasure (ca. 1663) commissioned either by Sir William or his son Robert Paston, the plush red velvet hanging backdrop to the dizzying display of luxurious objects is replaced by his grandmother’s quilt, alongside a large swathe of fabric printed with repeating Union Jack flags. The drapings fuse Caribbean and Black Britishness, which claims the Union Jack, to represent the people who came to post-war Britain at the government’s invitation, to help rebuild the country. Brathwaite’s mother came to England from Barbados in the wake of the Windrush generation as a nurse and so both drapings can be read as matriarchal reclamations of the middle passage: the voyage of Caribbean people undertaken in the push for a better life, a self-determined step along the path to emancipation. Such a statement at a time when the British government continues its illegal deporting of Windrush generation British citizens to the Caribbean is even more vital. The quilt and the Union Jack, both repositioned and displayed in Brathwaite’s re-portrait, offer a powerful corrective to the histories of Black people in Britain as projected by colonial power.

In his reworking of The Paston Treasure, Brathwaite’s smiling figure replaces the Black boy as he looks up, once more, at a toy, stuffed-monkey. In the original, the racist twinning of the monkey on the boy’s shoulder again signifies the semiotic association in the long eighteenth century of monkeys with Black people, both reduced to consumable, exotic objects in this world of material wealth. Brathwaite’s figure, clothed in Côte d’Ivoire prints, has been reclaimed by African culture and sits among a range of Black cultural products that are not for white consumption. Brathwaite feels that such “standing in” for the original Black people in the paintings is a powerful act of curation which brings them back into Black ownership and into our present line of vision. That such a correction is vital is evidenced by the fact that a collaborative project on the painting in 2018 between Yale Center for British Art and Norwich Castle focuses on the painting as an object and on the history of the Paston family. In the specially commissioned short film about it, A Painting Like No Other, narrated by Stephen Fry, he describes the glittering objects and the painterly techniques that created them. The dimmed colours around the boy are noted: the “dazzling yellows have now faded to muted brown and the vibrant reds, are now grey”, Fry tells us. In contrast, Brathwaite’s re-presencing of the boy makes him the most notable aspect of the re-portrait which, while it imbues the original person with respect and visibility, also offers an important perspective on both a past and present fascination with material culture and its shiny things that can often obscure Black people, their lives, and their labour.[21] We see Brathwaite himself as an descendant of the boy, free and able to re-make The Paston Treasure with his perspective and creativity. Brathwaite displaces the objects in the vanitas, signs of dissolution and corrupt indulgence, with his and his family’s belongings, as the re-portrait title lists: “Reworked with – Afro hair products, Côte d’Ivoire prints, granny’s patchwork, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price and family luggage from their arrival in the UK”. This is the new bric-à-brac, a living, creative culture of exchange, created by those who have come after the boy in the painting.

In his Nobel Prize for literature speech, ‘The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’, Derek Walcott describes Antillean culture as comprised of “shards” and “pieces”:

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.[22]

Brathwaite’s Black re-portraiture, like his grandmother’s colourful quilt, is composed of such lovingly gathered pieces, “restored” to presence in his new images. The word “curation” has its etymological roots in the word “cura”, meaning “to take care of”, and Brathwaite has taken great care to rediscover these paintings and images and refocus on the forgotten Black people within them. The “white scars” are visible in the spliced frames that both join and separate the pieces of the new work of art, like a quilt. His grandmother’s quilt, too, comprises gathered and kept “shards” of fabric, crafting the worn textiles into something vibrant to be passed on in an act of matrilinear continuity to heal the fragmentation of Antillean history that was underpinned by the separation of mothers from their children. In her essay “Odes to the Mountains of Jamaica”, Jacqueline Bishop writes about her Jamaican great grandmother and her last visit to her “maternal ancestral home”, Nonsuch, Portland. During her visit, Bishop ponders the quilts her great grandmother has made that she will inherit:

Spectacular quilts. Bold in colour, composition and design. . . I loved the piecing of things together, of trying to make something whole out of pieces, of something old taking on new life, of one thing becoming another; of making so much beauty out of the scraps of life.[23]

Like the quilts of Caribbean women, Brathwaite’s re-portraits gather and relocate eighteenth-century Black people into a new, Antillean art, rescuing them, reclaiming them from the possession of white culture back into the presence of Black inheritance.

Peter Brathwaite is a British opera singer. After his degree at Newcastle University he trained at the Royal College of Music, London and Flanders Opera Studio, Belgium. Recent and future engagements include performances with the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Glyndebourne, La Monnaie, Nederlandse Reisopera, Opéra de Lyon and Opera North. He has written for The Guardian and The Independent. Documentary work includes BBC Radio 4’s Black Music in Europe 2, presented by Clarke Peters. He currently writes and presents features for BBC Radio 3’s Essential Classics. Peter is a Churchill Fellow, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a Trustee of the Gate Theatre, London.



[1] http://peterbrathwaitebaritone.com/rediscoveringblackportraiture  Go to this website to see the re-portraits.

Direct quotations from Peter Brathwaite, taken from interviews conducted in May and June 2020 are in quotation marks.

[2] Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015).

[3] Philip Mould names the painting as: A Servant ca. 1770. http://historicalportraits.com/Gallery.asp?Page=Item&ItemID=618&Desc=Black-servant,-Colonial-School-%7C-School–Colonial

[4] Catherine Molineaux, ‘Hogarth’s Fashionable Slaves: Moral Corruption in Eighteenth-Century London’. English Literary History, Volume 72, Number 2, Summer 2005, pp.495-520. 498.

[5] Kerry Sinanan, ‘Slavery and Glass: Tropes of Race and Reflection’. In In Sparkling Company: Reflections on Glass in the Eighteenth-Century World, ed. Christopher Maxwell (Corning: Corning Museum of Glass, 2020), 10.

[6] Uvedale Price, A Dialogue on the Distinct Characters of the Picturesque and the Beautiful, in Answer to the Objections of Mr Knight. Prefaced by an Introductory Essay on Beauty; with Remarks on the Ideas of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mr Burke Upon the Subject (London: J. Robson, 1801), 53. See Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of a Man, probably Francis Barber, ca. 1770.

[7] Philip Mould, ‘Historical Portraits Image Gallery’, ‘A Servant c.1770’ http://www.historicalportraits.com/Gallery.asp?Page=Item&ItemID=618&Desc=A-Servant-%7C-Colonial-School  Accessed on 22 June, 2020.

[8] Peter Erickson, ‘Invisibility Speaks: Servants and Portraits in Early Modern Visual Culture’. Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Spring-Summer, 2009, Vol. 9, No, 1, pp. 23-61. 34.

[9] See Orlando Patterson’s definition of slavery as ‘social death’ , now part of Afropessimism. See Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982). And, Frank Wilderson, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2010). And, Joy James, “Black Suffering in Search of the ‘Beloved Community’: Political Imprisonment and Self-Defence.” Trans-scripts: An Intersdisciplinary Online Journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences at UC Irvine 1 (2011).

[10] Brathwaite’s re-portraits can be viewed as part of a larger Caribbean culture of writing back, often undertaken by those in exile. Writers and poets including Louise Bennet, Jean Rhys, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming and Sam Selvon participate in this intertextual, corrective approach to Western literature. Alison Donnell describes this as ‘a counter-discursive (writing back) approach’. See, Alison Donnell and Sarah Lawson Welsh eds., The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 116.

[11] Roderick Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 2-3. Ferguson mobilizes the figure of the Black drag queen prostitute to point out the ways in which she challenges the fixed categories of “identity” and difference, produced by sociology, that work to conceal intersectionality. His queer of colour critique offers ways to disrupt categories of racialized and sexualized difference to enable a more heterogeneous mode of critique that avoids curtailing disruptive, emancipatory cultural possibilities.

[12] James Edward Ford, Thinking through Crisis: Depression-Era Black Literature, Theory, and Politics (Fordham University Press, 2019), 183. Understanding the libidinal as interwoven with the material economies of slavery is fundamental to Afropessimism. As Frank B. Wilderson notes: “Jared Sexton describes libidinal economy as ‘the economy, or distribution and arrangement, of desire and identification (their condensation and displacement), and the complex relationship between sexuality and the unconscious.’ Needless to say, libidinal economy functions variously across scales and is as ‘objective’ as political economy. Importantly, it is linked not only to forms of attraction, affection and alliance, but also to aggression, destruction, and the violence of lethal consumption. Sexton emphasizes that it is ‘the whole structure of psychic and emotional life,’ something more than, but inclusive of or traversed by, what Gramsci and other Marxists call a ‘structure of feeling’; it is ‘a dispensation of energies, concerns, points of attention, anxieties, pleasures, appetites, revulsions, and phobias capable of both great mobility and tenacious fixation.’” In Red, White and Black. Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 7.

[13] As Gretchen H. Gerzina tells us, the attribution of the original double portrait has been contested. “Although long attributed to Johann Zoffany, there are now a number of reasons to suspect that the double portrait was painted by someone else. . . Most recent attributions settle upon David Martin, a fellow Sot who had painted the magnificent portrait of Lord Mansfield in his robes and was a protégé of the famous painter Allan Ramsay.” 171. Gerzina seems persuaded by the idea that both painters ‘had a hand in the painting’”. ‘The Georgian Life and Modern Afterlife of Dido Elizabeth Belle’. In Britain’s Black Past ed. Gretchen H. Gerzina (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), 172. The painting is now at Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland.

[14] Gerzina, 172.

[15] Gerzina’s work on Dido Belle is also based on the archival research undertaken by Sarah Murden and Joanne Major in their Blopost, All Things Georgian. See, “Dido Elizabeth Belle”, Joanne Major, June 26 2018. https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2018/06/26/revealing-new-information-about-dido-elizabeth-belles-siblings/?fbclid=IwAR3fcUm6bi2D_FIVaT2Ts1KIxXWr0C2yvIT3AXVUW1-K3j623Lv4VbJAcy4

See, “Dido Elizabeth Belle, her Portrait”, Sarah Murden, September 13, 2018. https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2018/09/13/dido-elizabeth-belle-her-portrait/

And, see Gerzina’s historical account of Maria Belle and Sir John Lindsay, Dido’s parents, pp. 163-166. “Speculation has always suggested that Maria was taken as a prize from a Spanish ship and was an enslaved person when she was ‘acquired’ by Lindsay, who freed her at some point before 1772”, 164.

[16] Eddie Chambers, Black Artists in British Art. A History since the 1950s (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), xii.

[17] Chambers, xv.

[18] Molineaux, 511.

[19] Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (London: Humphrey Moseley, 1657), 108.

[20] Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, No. 2, 1987: 65-81. 67.

[21] The urgent need to address this history of the erasure of slavery and Black people from British cultural history has recently been described by Sally-Anne Huxtable in Addressing the Histories of Slavery and Colonialism at the National Trust (National Trust, 2020). https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/addressing-the-histories-of-slavery-and-colonialism-at-the-national-trust Accessed on 24 June, 2020.

[22] Derek Walcott, ‘The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’, Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1992. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1992/walcott/lecture/ Accessed on 24 June, 2020.

[23] Jacqueline Bishop, “Odes to the Mountains of Jamaica”, Woman Speak. A Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women (WomenSpeak Books, 2016). Vol. 8, 2016. Ed. Lynn Sweeting, 98.

“Dialectical Presentism”: Race, Empire, and Slavery in 18th-Century Studies

Like many of you, I’ve followed the V21 developments with much interest and excitement, if I’ve largely done so from the margins (this is the first time I’ve been a part of any formal discussion about V21).  There are so many things to commend and discuss about the manifesto and the published symposia, roundtable discussions, and essays that are out in the world now (particularly V21’s visions for institutional critique, which I hope we can talk more about in our discussion but which I’m actually not going to talk about now); what I do want to talk about is V21’s call for “strategic presentism” and how it relates to my vantage point in 18th-century studies.  The term itself, which of course recalls Gayatri Spivak’s “strategic essentialism,” is, as I understand it, an attempt to retrieve presentism from the charge of anachronistic projection (a reading of the present uncritically into the past and a collapsing of historical identity and difference) and to redeploy it as a way to signal how the past informs the present, is at work in the present, and how the present shapes itself according to this examined past.  While this sounds all well and good, I have to admit that, as I have been trying to follow the V21 collective’s adventures, I just keep getting stuck here at this concept (stuck as in stunned or perplexed).  Is this really a problem for 18th-century studies?  Do we need a strategic presentism to signal the urgency and relevancy of our field?

I think my stuckness has everything to do with where I am situated in the broader field—race, empire, and slavery studies.  I can’t really speak for the whole of 18th-century studies (although I’d like to have conversations about this whole today), but the field of slavery studies is shot through with strategic presentism.  I think this concept (and the need for it) was puzzling to me, because it’s something so obvious in slavery studies.  Race, empire, and slavery have a certain almost irrefutable significance in the present.  I mean, not only does it instantly signal a special kind of monstrousness if one doesn’t understand the present import of studying the history and representations of race, empire, and slavery, but also these things have such clear, obvious, well-articulated afterlives in the present that seem redundant to even mention (which I could mention, but the point is that I don’t have to).  And 18th-century scholars of slavery are really adept at making these strategically presentist moves in their research, teaching, discussions, works in progress, etc.  Just in the two race, empire, and slavery panels I went to yesterday, for instance, (one on Ramesh Mallipeddi’s Spectacular Suffering:  Witnessing Slavery in the 18th-century British Atlantic and one on “Life and Death in and across Race and Empire”) the following issues were raised:  how the form and logics of 18th-century abolition continues to affect our thinking today (the upshot:  we’re stuck in abolitionist paradigms, help … we need new paradigms!), the untapped potential for 18th-century philosophers of moral sentiment (Hume, Smith, etc.) as models for deploying sentiment as crisis management and for creating a vocabulary and paradigm to deal with what certain bad historical actors are doing to harm fellow humans (and how to stop them), the continuities of the relationship between 18th-century discourses of displacement (one example being restoration rewritings of The Aeneid) and the current Mediterranean migration crisis (Charlotte Sussman’s talk), and Swift’s Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels and drone warfare (Peter DeGabriele’s talk).  This morning’s roundtable on presentism (“Mind ‘Yore’ Business? Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Problem of Presentism”) offered up even more examples:  Al Coppola’s paper on the persistence of Newtonian enlightenment assumptions in the present, specifically how our blind faith in universal laws undergirds popular scientific studies like Geoffrey West’s Scale, and Grace Rexroth’s paper on 18th-century typography, neuroscience, and MRI memory studies.  And I could go on…

If anything, there’s too much presentism in race, empire, and slavery studies.  What we risk is not just misreading the texts of our past and what they can offer us in our present but a misapprehension of the present as well (more on this in a minute).  I don’t think the answer is a return to reductionist historicist paradigms (those that V21, I think, are usefully critiquing) but a dialectical presentism, a presentism that can hold the past and present at once, that can account for an interdependence of identity and difference, that can project a future out of this mess and tangle of conjunction and disjunction.  This need for but also demonstration of such a dialectical presentism came up for me in one of these aforementioned panels from yesterday when Suvir Kaul made a comment about how he thinks the Black Lives Matters Movement is influencing his teaching of the 18th-century.  The example he gave was of a student in one of his courses who was essentially waiting all semester to get to Equiano’s Narrative, only to express profound disappointment once there and declaring it accommodationist, not seeing it as a narrative of self-making as he was hoping she would.  Now, as we were discussing at the panel, to some degree the Narrative is accommodationist, but it’s also self-making and non-accommodationist, but we perhaps see only the former and have this kind of disillusioned feeling and reaction because we’re expecting Equiano to belong to a certain black community that exists today (our imagination of this kind of continuity of black collectivity is the thing Stephen Best critiques in his 2012 essay “On Failing to Make the Past Present,” which we also discussed).  Such a need for dialectical presentism also comes up in my own work, which is, among other things, about what the study of servitude and slavery (and its relationship) can tell us about the present, in particular what it can tell us about the history of race as a concept—that race is an ideological concept that we made and that we have representations of its making, which, of course, means that it can be unmade.  But in order for it (and racism) to be unraveled in the present, we have to recognize that it wasn’t always like this, that race was not a settled, congealed category in the worlds of (especially early) 18th-century texts.  Distance and difference are necessary in our present in order to understand the past, the present itself, and to work for a different kind of future.  So, presentism is a problem, and I think that, if we are to use it strategically, then it must be a dialectical one, so why not call it that?

One question that Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski asked in their call for this roundtable is whether or not the 18th century offers different approaches to the problems V21 so deftly lays out.  In some respects, I think that’s what I’m trying to get at.  Perhaps the 18th century is uniquely situated as a field to see the need for some form of dialectical presentism.  As I see it, our period is one of emergence, a period that showcases the simultaneous identity and difference of a host of now intelligible modern categories (and ones that are perhaps more settled in the 19th century), whether we’re talking about race, the novel, the author, the nation, the bourgeois subject, or sexuality, etc.  The 18th century is strategically positioned to show us how things are made (and how they can be unmade) if we can figure out how to let it, and I think its transitional character gives us a useful model for understanding the dialectical relationship between our present and our past as we try to work for new futures.

For the 2018 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference program, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski chaired a roundtable responding to the V21 Collective’s intervention in nineteenth-century studies and the possibilities it presented for reflecting on current problems and critical approaches in eighteenth-century studies.  Additional contributions to the roundtable can be found here.

ASECS and V21 Roundtable Organizers’ Response: Collective Ways Forward

When we put out the call for participants on this roundtable, we asked whether eighteenth-century studies needed its own V21 moment, but we must confess that in thinking about the relationship between the two communities, we found ourselves wondering, instead, whether V21 needs eighteenth-century studies.  Many eighteenth-centuryists—as Katarzyna Bartoszynska noted while attending the inaugural V21 Symposium—will have read many of the texts and theorists whose names circulate in Victorian Studies, but can the same be said of work in our field, for scholars outside of it?  Could the more idiosyncratic status of eighteenth-century literature within literary studies account for the fact that some of what V21 identifies as pressing problems for Victorianists do not similarly trouble scholarship in our field?  Presentism, for instance:  not only do we not shy away from presentism, we are in fact continuously called upon to articulate the bearing our texts, and our work, have on the present, if only to persuade students to read it.

For some time, many of us in eighteenth-century studies—as reflected in the institution of the “long eighteenth century”—have proceeded with an arguably irreverent approach to historical periodization, encroaching on both the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in order to posit wide-ranging (or what some anonymous reviewers have described as “recklessly broad”) theoretical arguments.  We routinely reach to material beyond the historical eighteenth century to think about what we nevertheless consider “eighteenth-century problems.”  This tendency was observable in the roundtable:  we were struck by how little mention there was of eighteenth-century texts.  Rather than rely primarily on eighteenth-century thinkers to frame their approach to the V21 manifesto, panelists turned, for instance, to E. M. Forster and Matthew Arnold (though, to be fair, Sandra Macpherson emphasized how much Arnold is relying on Burke).  On the one hand, this reaffirmed our sense that dix-huitiemistes are voracious readers who eagerly join in the kinds of “multi-field and multi-disciplinary conversations” that the V21 manifesto calls for.  As Stephanie Insley Hershinow points out, a kind of “naïve synchronism” has served many of us well, particularly in the classroom, and may be leveraged to foster not only good scholarship but also new forms of public writing; such an approach could elevate and “bring in” the kinds of nimble thinking the academic precariat is already being asked to do, but without institutional recognition.  But if we want Victorianists and other specialists outside our field to reciprocate with an occasional deep dive into our texts—the literature and philosophy of the eighteenth century, as well as scholarship on it—who would we point them to?

Secondly—and these responses may reveal to V21-ists how people outside the field see them!—we had not expected presentism to be such a central point in the conversation.  Indeed, of all the issues raised in the V21 manifesto, this seemed like the one least troubling to eighteenth-centuryists (though, with the contorted logic of the psyche, this may well be precisely why everyone was drawn to it).  Carrying the conversation forward, it seems clear to us that beyond the question of presentist methods (strategic or not), we must also continue to think about the critical reassessment of antiquarianism and uncritical historicism, both within the eighteenth century and in our studies of it; the fear of our work not being compelling to scholars outside the discipline; the call for more rigorous theorizing, and for not opposing history and theory); the rethinking of form and formalism, including what Jonathan Kramnick describes as “form detached from politics,” and its relationship to an understanding of literary form, in Sandra Macpherson’s words, as “politics by another means.”  While, as several panelists argued, eighteenth-century studies is already doing a lot of the things V21 calls for, and has done them well, we must commit not only to continuing in these paths but also to doing other and better work as well.  How might we more effectively converse across fields and disciplines?  How do we generate multiple modalities and new institutional frameworks?  And, crucially for many of us engaged in this conversation, what is the relationship between these approaches and the mandate to assess academia and its projects in light of both colonization and decolonization?

The wonderful responses of the panelists strongly suggest that eighteenth-century texts and scholars offer a rich resource for the robust theorization of presentism—a commitment to recognizing how the pressures of the present generate both the past and the future as epistemological objects—and an excellent model of synthetic thinking and dialogue between fields.  As Jonathan Kramnick points out, when it comes to present-day matters, none of us has any particular expertise.  Rather, “we bring our expertise and our methods of explanation to political or ethical matters as they take shape in materials with which we are intimately familiar and about which we have something to say particular to our expertise and training.”  Travis Chi Wing Lau urges us to consider how even historicist knowledges are presentist formations, since expertise is forged within the conditions of the present.  Rather than disavow the “present in the past,” he argues, we must attend to how we “listen” to the past from our own particular, present positions:  “what are we training ourselves to hear, to tune out, or even fail to hear all together?”  Laura E. Martin draws attention to the unique quality of the eighteenth-century materials on which our expertise is focused, namely, that we recognize them as works-in-progress, simultaneously different and similar to present phenomena, having not yet coalesced into their more familiar forms.  Where the V21 Manifesto asserts that “we are Victorian,” Laura E. Martin shows us that it is because of the ways in which we are not of the eighteenth century that the “transitional character [of C18 objects] gives us a useful model for understanding the dialectical relationship between our present and our past.”

Finally, as to the question of institutional frameworks and new modalities:  what are the best ways to produce future collaborations, not only across V21 and eighteenth-century studies, but broadly across various fields and emergent collectives?  Borders between eighteenth-century scholars, Romanticists, and Victorianists grow ever blurrier, and we are not the only V21 affiliates whose work fits in more with ASECS than NAVSA.  Is the time ripe for a friendly takeover, a broadening of the tent?  Are V21’s intellectual goals bigger than Victorianism—are they, in fact, a clarion call for literary studies as a whole?  Or do those of us working in the eighteenth century need, instead, to start our own collective, and encourage cross-overs?  Discussion in the panel’s Q&A suggested that such an organization would have as one of its objectives a commitment to antiracist and anticolonial work in our field, joining the work of groups such as Bigger6 in Romantic studies, ShakeRace in early modern studies, and the Medievalists of Color.  (Since the recent ASECS meeting, we have added the BIPOC18 collective to this list).  While V21 is clearly engaged in such work—as Anna Kornbluh pointed out, V21 is motivated by the postcolonial call to break down the national and historical frameworks through which literary studies have reproduced imperialism—this goal is not explicitly part of the manifesto.  Should it be?  Or, rather than perpetually revise our mission statements, should we focus on making collectives and building coalitions, respecting each organization’s way of approaching the big picture?

One thing that the V21 Collective has done beautifully is actively to integrate graduate student, non-tenure-track, and early career researchers in ways that allow them to feel (correctly!) that it is their platform as much as anyone else’s.  It has served as a model for other collectives in this regard.  We believe that, in our shared but inequitable present, providing a “home” for institutionally disenfranchised peers, and practicing non-hierarchical methods of interaction, is one of the primary reasons we need new platforms, genres, and scholar-activist communities in our fields right now.  Whether or not we organize a “V21 for the C18,” how might we best provide space for active collaboration across not only periods but also differentials of institutional power?  One thing we have observed as C18-based affiliates of V21 is that traditional periodizations are, in fact, not a separate issue from the question of how institutions organize power.  Building new coalitions in defiance of hierarchy necessitates transhistorical and cross-field thinking.  We certainly long for academic frameworks and infrastructures that would put us in touch not only with Victorianists, or Modernists, but also Early Modernists and Medievalists, of all ranks.  It seems vital that we routinely remind each other that one period’s “emergent objects” can be another’s foregone conclusion, and to take stock of the way our different knowledges appear from each others’ perspectives.  Let’s not lose sight of the fact that one of the reasons we, as eighteenth-centuryists, ended up in V21’s orbit is because its work is so exciting!  In a present that is so bleak in so many ways, we all need the gravitational pull of concerted collective effort to stay in motion.  We feel the possibilities of broader collaboration, and of circulating knowledges along new paths, as an influx of energy.  How might we reciprocate and carry this energy forward by making eighteenth-century studies a vitalizing resource beyond the period, the discipline, the academy?

For the 2018 American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) conference program, Katarzyna Bartoszynska and Eugenia Zuroski chaired a roundtable responding to the V21 Collective’s intervention in nineteenth-century studies and the possibilities it presented for reflecting on current problems and critical approaches in eighteenth-century studies.  Additional contributions to the roundtable can be found here.

The University of Woodford Square and the Age of Obama

Edward L. Mooney. “The Hero of Lake Erie.” 1839. Portrait in oils after John Wesley Jarvis (1839). U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection.

The non-Western world was the “common” of 18th-century Europe, territory to be gradually colonized—fenced off, walled off, or hedged off—by powers looking to raise the value (and the rents) of their respective empires.  For modern nations forcibly melded and forged within this ruthless cauldron, imperial legacy offers a bitter, but seemingly indispensable path to identity.

In Port of Spain you will find—if lost—a cemetery gate ordained with the British Imperial Coat of Arms, iron corroding from the relentless force of West Indian rains, an eroding misnomer amidst the rising steel towers of the Caribbean’s most dynamic economy.  A freshly-placed bronze plaque, a recent gift to Trinidad & Tobago from the U.S. Embassy in honor of the country’s 50th anniversary of independence, denotes its significance.

Here an “illustrious hero and Christian gentleman”—U.S. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry—was once interred following a gracious ceremony by the British governor of Trinidad, Sir Ralph James Woodford.  The Commodore succumbed to yellow fever in 1819 on his 34th birthday, but not before becoming a well-known naval hero during America’s first international campaigns—the Barbary Wars and War of 1812.  (Commodore Oliver Perry is not to be mistaken with his younger brother, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, the catalyst for prying open Japan to the West in 1853 and the resulting Meiji Restoration.  Has a bloodline of American sea-farers ever had a greater impact on history?)


Roncevert Almond. “Perry Gateway at Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port of Spain, Trinidad.” 2012.

Wandering the streets of Trinidad, I was struck that the true character of a modern nation is not found in the rusting cemetery of empire, but in the living commons—the intellectual and physical space animated by the human spirit.  Merely a half-kilometer away, but ages apart, is the birthplace of modern Trinidad & Tobago, Woodford Square.  Seated before the country’s Parliament, the Red House, and courts of justice, this public space serves as the beating heart of Port of Spain.

When Dr. Eric Eustace Williams, the nation’s founding father and first prime minister, applied his Oxford education to challenge the British imperial system in Trinidad & Tobago, he did so from Woodford Square.  Ever the history professor, Dr. Williams held a series of lectures at the “University of Woodford Square” (as the park became known) that provided the intellectual basis for national sovereignty.  Forewarning the struggle of constructing a post-colonial identity, Dr. Williams remarked:

There can be no Mother India, for those whose ancestors came from India.  There can be no Mother Africa, for those of African origin. There can be no Mother England and no dual loyalties.  There can be no Mother China, even if one could agree as to which China is the Mother; and there can be no Mother Syria and no Mother Lebanon.  A nation, like an individual, can have only one Mother.  The only Mother we recognize is Mother Trinidad & Tobago, and Mother cannot discriminate between her children.  (History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, 1962).

As a result of this political dialogue, Woodford Square was no longer the inert namesake of a former imperial overseer, but a reclaimed center of learning, a breathing manifestation of budding national identity.

Upon the lowering of the Union Jack and the tolling of the Anglican Cathedral’s bells, a new nation was born on August 31, 1962.  Addressing the new citizens via radio, the Prime Minister reminded his audience that “democracy means freedom of worship for all and the subordination of the right of any race to the overriding right of the human race.”  A contemporary of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Dr. Williams laid the pathway to a Rainbow Nation in the Americas.  The journey began long ago.

It was on behalf of the Spanish in 1498 that Columbus first spotted the three pinnacles of the Trinity Hills (hence “Trinidad”), but Madrid largely ignored the new colony due to its lack of gold or silver.  Lima and Bogota were more enticing jewels during the mercantile economy of the time.  Even Sir Walter Raleigh, in search of El Dorado, was disappointed by the lack of spoils and in 1592 sacked the lonely Spanish settlement.  In order to populate the island, the Spanish finally resorted in 1783 to issuing land grants to Roman Catholic Frenchmen fleeing pre-revolutionary turmoil at home.

Adam Smith’s industrializing Britain, however, envisioned for its possessions a more complex division of labor.  Following Spanish capitulation in 1797, British sugar barons and shipments of African slaves, cogs in the triangle trade of Europe-Africa-America, soon arrived.  Amerindian natives were already in steep decline—the exchange of cocoa production for soul salvation from the Catholic Church had resulted in a decidedly one-sided bargain.

In a unique and bemusing act of irony, in 1845 the British began “importing” indentured South Asians to the islands in order to fill the labor shortage at sugar plantations caused by earlier black emancipation.  They were supplemented by Chinese, Syrians, and Lebanese workers.  The artificial arrival of these “Oriental” exiles, equipped with their Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist upbringing, forced an early debate on multi-racial and multi-religious nation-building.

(Even its current political geography, as a member of the Caribbean states, is more historical accident than natural reality.  Trinidad is actually an extension of the Paria Peninsula, an outcrop of the South American continental shelf—as opposed to an independent island arc like the rest of the Lesser Antilles.  On a clear day one can spy Venezuela from the capital city; the distance between the countries is only seven miles.)

Consequently, via the formation of Trinidad & Tobago, the journey of Columbus was complete.  Europe did not arrive in Asia through the Americas.  Instead, the Orient, the tale of Azeri poets and Silk Road travelers, had arrived in the Americas through Europe.  On the pleasant banks of this Caribbean island, on the volcanic cliffs of this South American mountain, humankind advanced a peculiar experiment.  The West—Indies indeed!

Dr. Williams noted that with independence the people of Trinidad & Tobago faced the “fiercest test in their history—whether they can invest with flesh and blood the bare skeleton of their National Anthem, ‘Here, every creed and race find an equal place.’”  (History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, 1962).  It is a work in progress, much like the United States.

At the conclusion of my project in Port of Spain, I ventured to Woodford Square and reflected upon the young Commodore, the end of empire, and the continuous journey of a nation.  The park remains a lively space for debate and learning.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, I came across the latest lesson offered at the University of Woodford Square—an observation on the meaning of “The Age of Obama” and the power of the “changing course of time.”  Given the influence of demography upon national identity, as made evident by the U.S. presidential election, it was a fitting stop on the way home.

Roncevert Almond. “University of Woodford Square.” 2012

“African” in Early Haiti, or How to Fight Stereotypes

“The Slave Ship” or “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon Coming on.” J.M.W. Turner, 1840. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The concept of Africa as a unified region whose inhabitants share a common identity developed alongside the transatlantic slave trade of the eighteenth century.  Europeans thought that the group of people they purchased and exploited (despite their vast cultural differences) belonged to a common group because of their social position.  This position was at first justified by theories of climate.  (They erroneously believed that people from “the torrid zone” could withstand hard labor in harsh climates better than those from more temperate zones.)  Gradually this inferior social position became known as that of “Africans,” which means that ancestry, geographic origin, and common physical traits became intertwined and began to define an entire group of people.  In this post, I examine, through the example of early Haiti (which was known as Saint-Domingue until 1804), the influence of a European understanding of Africa that erased nuances between different cultures.

When many twenty-first-century Americans hear the term “eighteenth century,” they might think of the beginning of the United States, the Enlightenment, or perhaps the French Revolution.  Artificial divisions between Western and non-Western histories mean that many of us learned a one-sided story about what happened in the Americas in the eighteenth century and do not often think of the many interactions between Europeans and people of other regions that happened during the time.  Sure, most of us know about the transatlantic slave trade, but we still do not often think of it as a period of contact that involved two active (albeit unequal) participants:  the slave master and the slave.  Henry Louis Gates describes what developed out of these interactions as a “veritable seething cauldron of cross-cultural contact” (4).  This “seething cauldron,” this place where cultures mixed violently, unequally, and even sometimes harmoniously, gave rise to the first successful slave revolt in the Americas.  The eighteenth century did not just end with the French Revolution, but rather with the birth of Haiti, the first black republic, and the first postcolony in the world.

Laurent Dubois, a well-respected historian of Haiti, has noted that the Haitian Revolution was an African revolution (5).  Indeed, two-thirds of the enslaved people living in Saint-Domingue at the end of the eighteenth century were born in Africa.  Beginning in the late 1780s, debates about the rights of three classes of people began in Paris:  the enslaved, the gens de couleur (free people, mainly of both European and African ancestry), and slave owners.  A lobby of slave owners known as the Club Massiac proved particularly unwilling to budge on rights for anyone with African ancestry in Saint-Domingue.  By 1791, the enslaved population took matters into their own hands and began to revolt.  Just two years later, the French commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax abolished slavery, which was made official for all French colonies in Paris in 1794.  Napoleon’s troops, however, returned to Saint-Domingue in 1801 to reestablish slavery.  They were defeated at the Battle of Vertières in November of 1803, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806) declared the independence of the nation of Haiti (from the Arawak name for the island) on January 1, 1804.

As early Haitians were carving out a position for themselves independent of one of the most powerful colonial empires of the time, they had to assert their equality as human beings and their unity as a nation.  This required a rather complicated philosophical and rhetorical manoeuver that is the subject of this post:  early Haitians had to claim that this identity known as “African”—a label that the French gave them—did not denote inferiority.  At the same time, they were not all one homogenous group known as “Africans.”

People arguing against extending the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) to people of African descent in the colonies used the term “African” to highlight that these people were foreign, different, not French and therefore excluded from access to rights.  In this moment, we can see that “African” began to take on a meaning that included anyone with non-European ancestry in the colonies (i.e., people whom French colonists wanted to omit from the new doctrines of freedom espoused by revolutionaries).

Early Haitians argued that they were equal to the French, despite the negative use of this term “African.”  Yet while “African” was a term that they sometimes championed as they were asserting their humanity, it did not achieve a sense of solidarity among the varied population of eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century Haiti.  The eighteenth-century Creole colonist and writer M.L.E. Moreau de Saint-Méry mentions the large number of different peoples represented among “the black population” of the colony.  In his work, distinctions between Africans in Saint-Domingue were glossed, detailed, and translated for those unfamiliar with the colony.  A new site developed by the French Atlantic History Group that contains advertisements for runaway slaves shows the diversity of people living in late eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue.  Slaves were described as belonging to the Nago, Congo, Senegalese, Gold Coast, Tiambo, and Arada “nations,” just to name a few (“nation” meant “group” in this context).  During the Haitian Revolution, these “nations” did not always fight together and division existed among different cultures (Jenson 620).  In addition to the diversity present among people born in Africa, slaves born in the colony (Creole) were often of a higher status than those who had survived the Middle Passage (Bossale).  The population also included people of both European and African ancestry (often the result of consensual and non-consensual relationships between masters and enslaved women).  These gens de couleur were often of a higher class and sometimes owned slaves themselves.

What it meant to be African or from Africa in Saint-Domingue at the end of the eighteenth century was complex and multifaceted, which means that in early Haiti vindicating the rights of a group of people based on their common African origin was not easy or even particularly effective.  If we examine some of the earliest writing by Haitians—their governmental documents—we see that in order to argue for Haitian national unity, the Declaration of Independence never refers to “Africa.”  “Africa” actually meant division and was counter to their vision of a new nation.  In a similar manner to Europeans, the authors (Jean-Jacques Dessalines with the aid of his secretary Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre) left Africa out of discussions of identity, but not because they thought of Africans as a unified block.  It was precisely the opposite.  For them, being reminded of Africa might distract Haitians from the new national identity that they wished to form.  If anything, the unified block had to be comprised of Haitians—a new category that Dessalines would, in his 1805 constitution, define as “black.”  By associating “black” with nationality rather than with physical traits, Dessalines challenged a developing negative conception of “race” that the Europeans were creating.  Dessalines made “black” a political project of independence.

Studying the eighteenth century, and Haiti in particular, helps us see how the meaning of the term “African” developed within the context of the institution of slavery.  This institution classified its victims based on physical traits that were common to people from a vast region that originally had been categorized only by its climate.  In the Americas, it was what this population had in common—their unfortunate position as enslaved peoples—that defined them as a group; physical traits came to represent this position.  Slavery created racial difference.

It takes philosophical argumentation to combat stereotypes that deny our freedoms as individuals.  Early Haitians contributed to eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought on freedom and human rights by challenging and redefining the categorizations set up for them by a hostile colonial ruler. They were some of the first postcolonial philosophers and provide us with a powerful example of how categorizations are ever-evolving ways of conceptualizing the world that should be considered critically and challenged accordingly.

 Works Cited

Dessalines, Jean‑Jacques.  Déclaration d’Indépendance, Centre historique des Archives nationales de Paris, AF III 210.

Dubois, Laurent.  Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2004.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.  The Signifying Monkey:  A Theory Of African-American Literary Criticism.  New York, NY:  Oxford UP, 2010.

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