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  • The Reaper's Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery
  • Sharla M. Fett
The Reaper's Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. By Vincent Brown (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2008) 368 pp. $35.00

Brown's highly original The Reaper's Garden disabuses readers once and for all of the cliché that death is the great social leveler. Locating his study in colonial Jamaica, Brown poses the question, "How have people made sense of death culturally and use of the dead politically (258)?" The answer is an innovative blend of political, social, and cultural analysis that reveals the cultural importance of death to struggles for power within an Atlantic slave society.

A methodological tour de force, The Reaper's Garden employs, in Brown's words, "a bundle of interpretive approaches" ranging from anthropology and medical history to literature, social history, art, and architecture (255). For example, Brown draws on Verdery's anthropological [End Page 139] work on the political reburial of state leaders in postsocialist Eastern Europe to show how slaveholders manipulated the mutilation and display of corpses as instruments of spiritual terror in repressing slave resistance.1 Describing his approach as a "materialist history of the supernatural imagination," Brown creates a conversation between an array of primary sources, including wills, sermons, visual arts, songs, planter journals, colonial reports, traveler accounts, and graveyard monuments (5). Putting well-known evidence, such as William Blake's engravings of slave death and torture, in dialogue with accounts of African obeah practitioners and eighteenth-century British graveyard poetry deepens the meanings and significance of colonial mortality, which has been primarily viewed by scholars through the lens of demographic history.

Although such an eclectic use of both primary and secondary literature risks superficiality of analysis, Brown deftly sidesteps this hazard with careful contextualization and honest engagement with the ambiguity of the sources. Thus does he join other scholars of the early modern Atlantic whose reconstruction of the lives of enslaved Africans from scraps of colonial evidence rejects, as Brown puts it, the "authority of the omniscient narrator's voice" and instead exposes the contingency of the archive (10).2

Furthermore, The Reaper's Garden achieves a remarkable equivalence in its treatment of both European and African cosmologies. Existing historical sources often render Africans in anthropological and collective terms, while portraying Europeans in literary and individualistic terms. By structuring the book around political struggles, rather than static beliefs about death, Brown brings all of Jamaica's inhabitants into a world where the dead actively shape the lives of the living. For example, African captives, arriving in Jamaica for the first time, saw the British state commit "human sacrifice" through the execution of several naval seamen (129). English ancestors "reach[ed] back from the grave" through their estates to shape the lives of their descendents (111). Freedpeople used "the rites of death" to celebrate emancipation by giving slavery a theatrical funeral (250). As the book progresses, Brown also demonstrates how processes of creolization gradually shifted the "mortuary politics" of both British and African descendents in the British Caribbean.

The Reaper's Garden uses the tools of multidisciplinary analysis to transform the seemingly well-known fact of Caribbean colonial mortality into a profound exploration of the cultural politics of Atlantic slavery. [End Page 140]

Sharla M. Fett
Occidental College


1. Katherine Verdery, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (New York, 1999).

2. See Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Chapel Hill, 2004).