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Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean by Kristen Block (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 1, July 2013
pp. 129-130 | 10.1353/tam.2013.0081

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The seventeenth-century Caribbean is often painted as a place full of pirates, privateers, and swashbuckling. Unfortunately, this fanciful view overlooks the realities of life for many of its residents. Most people living in Spanish, British, Dutch, and French colonies led far less dramatic lives. Kristen Block's Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean attempts to capture and explore the lives of everyday people. In particular, she examines the role that Christianity played in mediating social relationships and the changes brought by expanded mercantile capitalism in the region. To draw out these religious and economic connections, Block's study compares these issues in Spanish and British colonies.

The structure of the book supports its focus on ordinary people by dividing the analysis into four parts, each corresponding to a case study of specific individuals. Each part contains three chapters that delve into the particular religious, social, and economic issues raised by the case at hand. The first part explores the case of Isabel Criolla, a runaway slave in Cartagena de Indias. This case follows Isabel through a criminal investigation into her mistress's physical abuse of slaves. Using the case as a lens, Block examines the conflict between Catholic religious precepts and the realities of everyday life under slavery. Part two turns to the case of Nicolas Burundel, a French interloper in Spanish Jamaica who ran afoul of local politics and found himself before the Inquisition. Burundel's trial serves to highlight the conflict between Spain's desire to combat Protestantism and the economic benefits of tolerating Northern European merchants. Block demonstrates that many of these individuals recognized that religious conversion could secure their safety in Spanish colonies and allow them to further their commercial interests.

The second half of the book turns to the British Caribbean. Part three examines Oliver Cromwell's "Western Design" and the costly and nearly failed capture of Jamaica. Block notes that during this conflict religious prejudice against Catholic Spaniards led many to believe that Africans and natives living under Spanish rule would joyously greet the Protestant English expedition as liberators. When this support failed to materialize, the British leaders and their men fell back on racial explanations for African and indigenous savagery, ignorance, and inferiority. Furthermore, the meager profits of the initial conflict led common soldiers to complain that West Indian planters were oppressing them like slaves. This discourse of the oppressed 'free-born Englishman' helped undercut the Puritanical religious drive of Cromwell's plan and shift the political discourse toward economic concerns including the adoption of mass African slavery on the island.

The fourth part further examines the conflict between religious belief and growing economic reliance on African slavery by following the life of Colonel Lewis Morris and his two slaves Nell and Yaff. In this part, Block traces the conflict between Morris's Quaker faith and the realities of slave ownership in late seventeenth-century Barbados. While Morris and other Quakers were drawn by their faith to Christianize their slaves and to assure them a proper religious life, the pressures of commerce and social control inhibited those desires. As the slave regime hardened, Quaker religious paternalism gave way to rigorous policing of Africans and a belief that Christianity justified their enslavement.

Overall, Block's work provides a unique window into the conflict between increased commerce and religion in the seventeenth century. The dual focus on Spanish and British colonies creates an excellent comparison of how Protestantism and Catholicism dealt with similar issues of race, slavery, and social control. In the end, Block argues that over the course of the century the pressure of commerce and international trade led to an increase in toleration of religious differences, albeit at the expense of increased "cynicism, hostility, and cruelty" (p. 16). While Block's case studies provide poignant examples, their protagonists sometimes drop out of the narrative. In the end Block's work is most effective when the case studies carry her argument and we are afforded a glimpse of ordinary lives at their most vivid.

Copyright © 2013 Academy of American Franciscan History
Project MUSE® - View Citation
Robert C. Schwaller. "Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean by Kristen Block (review)." The...

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