In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery
  • Randy M. Browne (bio)
The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. By Vincent Brown. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. Pp. x, 340. Cloth: $35.00.)

Caribbean slave societies were notoriously deadly. African captives who survived the middle passage and a period of “adjustment” in colonial [End Page 336] Jamaica could expect to live less than two decades; between one quarter and one half of all enslaved children born on the island died before reaching their first birthday (24, 54). Whites also faced a grim reality: Throughout the eighteenth century, the death rate for the British in Jamaica exceeded 10 percent (13). Over the past several decades, works such as Richard B. Sheridan’s Doctors and Slaves: A Medical and Demographic History of Slavery in the British West Indies, 1680–1834 (Cambridge, UK, 1985) and Joseph C. Miller’s Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade (Madison, WI, 1988) have done much to document and explain these staggering mortality rates. Other historians have emphasized the role of this demographic catastrophe in inhibiting the maintenance of African cultural practices and in disrupting social life. In The Reaper’s Garden, however, Vincent Brown takes a different approach. How, he asks, did “death shape daily life” (6)?

The result is a gripping, provocative, and broadly compelling analysis of the role of death in shaping cultures, social practices, and political discourses. The “extravagant death rate in Jamaican society” should not be seen “as an impediment to the formation of culture,” Brown argues: It was actually “the landscape of culture itself, the ground that produced Atlantic slavery’s most meaningful idioms” (59). Exploring a broad range of themes, including burial rites, inheritance, missionary activity and conversion of blacks to Christianity, slave resistance, the antislavery movement in England, the judicial treatment of enslaved peoples, and efforts to construct a collective memory of slavery, Brown concludes that “death in Jamaica destroyed individuals, while generating a society” (127). In this deeply researched and imaginative book, Brown shows how death in Jamaica had different consequences for three interrelated groups: enslaved blacks, white Jamaicans, and even British people on the other side of the Atlantic.

“For all its economic success as an outpost of empire,” Brown explains, “Jamaica routinely destroyed its black people” (49). And yet, instead of stifling the cultural creativity of the enslaved, this grim reality was the very basis of the culture they formed. The social crises caused by the slave trade, for example, forced captives to form fictive kinship bonds onboard slave ships. In Jamaica, these “ ‘shipmates’ were treated as brothers and sisters” (44–45). Those who died while enslaved on the island also profoundly shaped the culture of Jamaican slavery. Burial ceremonies were central rituals of “social communion,” Brown argues; they functioned to reinforce bonds of “kinship and friendship” and helped establish social order in volatile, dynamic slave communities (63, [End Page 337] 73). Funerals were also important occasions for white Jamaicans, who actually died at a higher rate than blacks in the eighteenth century (13). Like blacks, whites used funeral ceremonies as opportunities to demonstrate the “social and financial status of the deceased,” which made burial “a civil and economic event [as much] as it was a personal and familial one” (82). After burial, the dead continued to influence the world of the living through the bequeathing of property, which was an attempt “to pass down their hopeful vision of the social order, beyond the limit of their lifetimes” (92). Enslaved Jamaicans managed to wrest “near-legal rights” of inheritance from the Jamaican plantocracy—a victory, Brown argues, that should “caution historians and others against viewing ‘social death’ as an actual state of being” (125, 127).

In one of the most provocative sections of The Reaper’s Garden, Brown discusses “necromancy,” or “the conjuration and manipulation of the dead for the purpose of shaping actions and events” among the living (130). He shows, for example, how slaveholders tortured slaves convicted of various crimes and mutilated their bodies in an effort to intimidate and control the enslaved population. Convicted rebels and...