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  • The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery
  • Philip Howard
The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. By Vincent Brown. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. pp. viii, 340. Bibliography. Index.

Vincent Brown’s book explores the attitudes, behavior, and rituals about death among blacks and whites during the height of Jamaica’s sugarcane economy. He believes that an examination of “mortuary politics” (p. 5) between the 1720s and the 1840s is required because death was part of the Jamaican experience not only for thousands of African slaves, but also for Europeans. To discover what death meant to the African slaves, freed blacks, and British planters and colonists, Brown explores how mortuary beliefs, rituals, and practices were influenced by demographic, socioeconomic, political, and religious transformations on the island. Positing his study within the broad literature on the Atlantic World—particularly that historiography concerned with the slave trade, African cultural identity, and retention, and sugar planters’ attitudes and beliefs about color, ethnicity, power and privilege—Brown uses social history and epidemiology to approach the topic of mortuary politics. In doing so, he argues that Jamaica’s economy, history of slave resistance and the cultural exchanges that took place between blacks and whites were part of the “human consequences of the Caribbean political economy—high death rates, rapid demographic turnover, and social relations characterized by flux and instability which resulted in an unsettled slave society whereby social authority had to be continually rearticulated through the most imposing of idioms.” The most salient idiom became “the activities that joined the living with the dead—themes, beliefs and attitudes which all survivors in Jamaican slave society valued and understood.”(p. 10)

Brown’s narrative begins by underlining much of the historiography dedicated to the processes and motivations that led to the British colonization of Jamaica and the construction of its slave system. Examining how the complexities of the African slave trade affected both Jamaica and Africa, Brown argues that the role death played among Africans during the Middle Passage as well as during the “seasoning” process after their arrival was influenced by the site of their embarkation. For example, the slaves from the Bight of Biafra had lower survival rates than any other groups seized along the west and west-central coasts, according to Brown. He follows this topic with an interpretation [End Page 120] of how the funeral rites of both blacks and whites reflected the value they placed on the human condition within the context of colonial slave society. Comparing the burial rituals of the slaves with those of the British planters and settlers, Brown insists that the slaves’ practices assisted them in recovering their humanity while strengthening social roles and communal values. On the other hand, British funeral rites served only to develop and retain a sense of community.

The middle section of Brown’s study explores how death organized property relations among slaves, freed blacks, and British males and females. Inheritance was employed by nearly all sectors of society, enslaved and free, to transfer property and wealth to surviving family members. Interestingly, fair-skinned black female servants were privileged during this process as they often obtained not only their freedom but also property of their masters. Meanwhile, a noticeable number of planters’ wives were not taken care of by legacy. Later, Brown discusses the methods blacks employed to invoke the power of their deceased ancestors in order to challenge slavery. Many did so, in response to the repressive policies of owners who sought to reinforce white power and privilege. Perceiving the relationship blacks had with the deceased as authentic, many planters often denied their slaves the right to bury their loved ones, while others sadistically mutilated the remains of such loved ones in an attempt to mitigate the power of the dead.

Brown concludes his study by analyzing how the antislavery movement and Christianity altered the dynamics of mortuary politics, and how blacks and whites ritualized and venerated the institution of slavery after its abolition. The fashion in which the former slaves and white planters and colonists celebrated those who died before emancipation affected race relations, land tenure...


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pp. 120-121
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