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  • Panel Introduction:Slavery in the Caribbean—Archives and Representations
  • Kelly Wisecup (bio)

The recent calls to remove confederate monuments and commemorations of men who were slave holders on university campuses and in cities across the United States—and recalcitrance or refusal to act on these calls—have reignited discussions about how we read and interpret the past. Defenses of public commemorations speak to the power of physical objects to perpetuate narratives about history and about personhood, to the deadly and lasting power of colonial history making. This discussion is one scholars of the eighteenth-century Black Atlantic have engaged for several decades, as they have shown how the colonial archive both facilitates and compromises research on African lives, experiences, and literatures. That archive was assembled to transform African lives into objects and to make African peoples into property. The archives of slavery function not just as a repository for records—memorials of the past—but spaces of knowledge production that aim to define what can be known about slavery as well as what kinds of terror and violence are permissible on certain bodies. As a result, working in this archive is always compromised by its propensity to reproduce itself and its ways of seeing. As Saidiya Hartman has written, "The [End Page 65] archive of slavery rests upon a founding violence. This violence determines, regulates and organizes the kinds of statements that can be made about slavery and as well it creates subjects and objects of power."1

The possibility of finding or creating a counternarrative in this archive—which scholars have variously characterized as a voice, agency, or as something recognizable as resistance—is always compromised by its "founding violence" and modes of creating "subjects and objects of power."2 Merely expanding the archive, or recovering additional texts, does not escape the archive and its epistemes. As a result, historians and literary scholars have moved not to reverse the terms of the archive but rather to analyze and destabilize the project of the colonial archive itself.3 This critical move has multiple manifestations: in narrative speculation and in analyses of the archive that account for "the ways in which we as scholars are products of the very past that we are trying to discern."4 Such approaches use colonial archives even while aiming to lay bare their structures and discourses.5 As Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Ann Laura Stoler have argued, we might think of these approaches as inquiries about design that ask how the archive is constituted, the form it takes, and the questions it raises.6

Scholars of the early Caribbean and the Black Atlantic have begun to ask questions of design with and of digital archives. The possibility—and peril—of digital archives rests in their capacity to redesign colonial archives: "to disrupt and throw into relief the coloniality of knowledge and history itself."7 Emerging over the last decade or so, digital archives and projects about the eighteenth-century Caribbean include sites that compile large quantities of data, such as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Database's "records of nearly 35,000 separate slaving voyages between 1514 and 1866" and archives that make newspapers, slave narratives, and legal documents widely accessible, such as the Digital Library of the Caribbean.8 Digital projects can suggest new perspectives from which to examine early Caribbean literature and history, whether by aggregating data that allows for a comparative view of slave trade voyages or by gathering primary texts that would otherwise require trips to national archives on multiple continents. Some digital projects deliberately use the colonial archive to reimagine their objects of study and approaches to them. Vincent Brown's Slave Revolt in Jamaica collocates colonial maps, reports, correspondence, and military records on 1760s' slave revolts to open up questions these documents hoped to foreclose. As Brown explains: "the written record skews our understanding toward the insights, fears, hopes, and desires of slaveholders. But we learn something else by plotting the combatants' movements in space. Tracing their locations over time, it is possible to discern some of their strategic aims and to observe the tactical dynamics of slave insurrection and counter-revolt."9 Even as Slave Revolt in Jamaica and...


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