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  • The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery
  • Erik R. Seeman
The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. By Vincent Brown. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008

Historians have long known that the grim reaper stalked New World plantations, scything down Africans and Europeans at a horrifying rate. But in Vincent Brown’s powerful retelling of the history of Atlantic slavery, the reaper was not merely a harvester, but also a gardener (255). That is, death was generative, producing the language and politics of everyday life. “It is thus less revealing to see the extravagant death rate … as an impediment to the formation of culture than it is to view it as the landscape of culture itself” (59). As the living buried their dead, mourned their loved ones, and tried to escape the reaper’s scythe, they created a new culture at the nexus between the here and the hereafter.

Brown’s signal contribution is his concept of “mortuary politics” (5). Most historians who have investigated African deathways in the New World have concerned themselves with unearthing the African roots of New World practices. This reflects the field’s broader interest in the process of creolization: the creation of new cultures out of Old World influences and New World circumstances. Brown, however, sidesteps the creolization paradigm. “Rather than ask of a cultural practice or idea, „How African is it?’ it might therefore be more useful to ask, "What was it used for? What were its consequences?’” (8) This is the central component of mortuary politics: what people tried to accomplish by invoking the dead or by mobilizing death practices. Deathways do not simply reflect broader historical realities, in Brown’s formulation, but help create change. And it should be emphasized that although this is a history of slavery, Brown’s subjects are not only the enslaved. Brown is also interested in how people of European descent used mortuary politics. The result, in prose that admirably avoids breathless overstatement, is a work that manages to say something fresh about the intensively studied subject of slavery.

The story is set in Jamaica. Although some of Brown’s findings are specific to this island, most of the dynamics he describes are applicable to plantation societies throughout the Americas. Brown begins by describing the demographic disaster that was eighteenth-century Jamaica. Jamaican whites died at a faster rate than blacks; in the first half of the eighteenth century, some 50,000 European migrants streamed into the island yet the white population grew by only 5,000 (17). But at least these European fortune-seekers went to Jamaica (mostly) of their own volition. The same cannot be said, of course, for the roughly 600,000 Africans who arrived in Jamaica between 1740 and 1807 (25–26). Their death rate was slightly lower than that of whites, apparently as a result of their previous experiences with tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria, yet still they died at an extraordinary rate due to miserable working conditions and poor nutrition.

This is depressingly familiar to historians, but where Brown goes beyond existing works is to describe how all this dying was central to the creation of culture in Jamaica. Burial practices helped define boundaries between Europeans and Africans, clarifying what it meant to be “white” and what it meant to be “Negro” (75). But deathways also helped each group sustain itself in the face of potentially crippling death rates. For people of African descent this was especially important. “Funeral ceremonies, which had been perhaps the most important occasions for communal association in Africa, became still more significant in the context of demographic calamity in Jamaica” (74). Mortuary politics was likewise evident in what Brown calls “necromancy,” the “conjuration and manipulation of the dead for the purpose of shaping actions and events” (130). Whites and blacks practiced necromancy with equal fervor. Slaveowners relied on postmortem humiliation of black corpses—placing severed heads on poles, nailing ears to trees—to send the message that they had control over life and death. Blacks responded with obeah and myal, religious practices that connected the dead with the living...