- Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit by Kristen Block
Kristen Block successfully navigates the central thesis of her book, Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: to sympathetically portray the stories of silenced and exploited voices during the early period of transatlantic confluences in the Spanish Caribbean. Block effectively uses historical evidence to convey the ambiguities of religion as a tool of oppression and liberty. Spanning the early seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries in her analysis, Block examines the duplicities of economic privilege and inherent slave and other marginalized statuses through the lens of Protestant and Catholic conflict and “culturally aware” religious acts. In the first section of the book, we find Gregorio Álvarez de Zepeda, an alcalde charged with the task of adjudicating escaped maroons, interviewing recaptured runaways Juan, Susana, Mariana Mandinga, and Isabel Criolla. Criolla and the others recount their attempted escape into mountains near Cartagena de Indias. The author highlights archival descriptions of Doña Eufrasia Camargo’s severe and disgusting maltreatment [End Page 797] of the escapees. Block vividly recreates the physical and emotional tortures slaves faced as evidenced by “thick white welts” on their “shameful parts.” Criolla tells Zepeda of the cruelties inflicted by mistress Camargo but begs the magistrate “for the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ” to sell her to another lest she “lose her soul.” This “culturally aware performance” points to Spanish American duplicities of enslavement, gender, and religion, according to the author. Block details how in this moment the sexual dalliances of male slave masters like Camargo angered noble wives and underwrote female slave abuse. It also prompted subaltern resistance by female slaves, challenging parameters of elite European womanhood and universalisms of Christianity.
In the next section of the text, Block explores marginalized Protestant Northern Europeans in Atlantic metropoles under Spanish Catholic moral authority. Nicolas Burundel, for example, employed conversion and religious performance. Arrested by Inquisitors for a “fake” conversion in Cartagena, Burundel resorted to yelling from his cell and engaging in other mad behaviors characteristic of demonic possession. His bizarre behavior failed to convince his Franciscan and Dominican inquisitors and they sentenced him to be tortured. Facing painful mutilation on the rack, Burundel capitulated. His performance resulted in incarceration and a commuted sentence of unpaid labor, Catholic instruction, and perpetual exile. The author in this example shows how local conditions in the Spanish Caribbean reflected Old World religious conventions of conversion and coercion.
Using this approach Block argues that Protestant interlopers, “New Christian” Africans and Jewish conversos could be susceptible to auto de fe tribunals of the Inquisition in the Americas. Block reveals that, for Burundel—a so-called “Englishman and alleged heretic” of humble origin—popular conversion, if convincing, could save your life and afford social acceptance and allegiance instead of denunciations rationalized by alleged piracy, sedition, or heresy. The author argues that Burundel’s French origins, maritime knowledge, and captivity by Barbary pirates taught him survival strategies including tolerance and religious empathy. Burundel’s example of Old World Mediterranean creolizing was a precursor to the formation of Atlantic creole identities, such as those described by Ira Berlin. Block concludes that the Spanish Inquisition’s mission to uphold Catholic orthodoxy became less valid amid the commercial realities of a Spanish Caribbean sparsely connected to more successful Spanish American expansionist ventures. In places like Cartagena and Jamaica, contraband linkages with English, French, and Dutch factors fostered future cooperative Atlantic networks.
The third section applies the book’s central thesis to the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s “Western Design” to capture Spanish Caribbean holdings. Here the author explores the lives of other Atlantic marginalized Europeans or “masterless men” such as the sailor Henry Whistler. The English-Spanish imperial rivalry was often couched in the rhetoric of religious belief and millennial expectation. The author reconsiders the legacies of Spain’s Black Legend and the writings of Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Gage. Their narratives of English interracial conviviality with “disgruntled” maroons and...