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  • The Smell of Slavery: Olfactory Racism and the Atlantic World by Andrew Kettler
  • Daniel Livesay
The Smell of Slavery: Olfactory Racism and the Atlantic World. By Andrew Kettler (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2020) 254 pp. $39.99

When viewing the horrific image of a slave ship, one of the many dreadful things that comes to mind is the wretched odor that Africans had to endure. Smell, as Kettler outlines in his new book, permeated more than just the Middle Passage in the history of African slavery in the Americas. It was also a critical sense in the formulation of racial ideas and in the everyday struggles of enslaved people. Through four engaging chapters, Kettler argues that Europeans affixed concepts of savagery to Africans and their descendants through constructed imaginations of their smell, which was critical to the development of a pseudo-scientific belief in biological race and the implementation of its worst abuses.

Although grounded in the past, The Smell of Slavery incorporates several scholarly approaches “driven by engaging more with structures of philosophy than the rigors of disciplinary history” (36). Kettler is first concerned with Renaissance literature and the ways in which early modern Europeans began fashioning themselves as a deodorized, and thus more advanced, culture compared to other societies in the Atlantic world. Playwrights, influenced by travel narratives of the time, included noisome African characters whose odors denoted foreign foods and strange religious customs at odds with Europe’s supposedly more refined traditions. As time progressed, and slavery became entrenched in the world economy, these prejudices transitioned from a cultural critique into a physical one. Enslavers in the Americas insisted that African scents endured in the New World, and that the bodies of those whom they imprisoned on plantations continued to emit different odors than themselves. By the eighteenth century, European racialization associated Africans with distinct smells that indicated a corporeal inferiority that could not be removed. This interpretation lingered; emancipation did little to alter the belief among many whites that African-descended people could not be deodorized and thus brought into modernity within civil society.

Yet Africans were not powerless to push back against this narrative. Kettler’s impressive use of travel narratives allows him to construct a competing olfactory profile of Africa than that assembled by Europeans. He shows, in contrast, the rigorous bathing rituals in Fetu, and the sensory skills of priests in Guinea who assigned their own claims of moral [End Page 425] righteousness to particular bodily odors. Africans brought these sensitivities to the Americas, attaching a sense of foulness to the European captors who imprisoned them on the nauseating ships of the Middle Passage. Likewise, this sensibility enabled the enslaved to use the power of smell to their own advantage. For instance, enslaved people could thwart auctions by applying malodorous material to their bodies. Religious leaders within the enslaved community could also harness the power of certain fragrances in herbal remedies to foster rebellion, poison an enslaver, or simply assert a greater degree of control on a plantation. Moreover, the knowledge of how to mask scents was literally a matter of life and death for those who decided to run away from bondage.

This focus on olfaction adds a critical new element to our understanding of the development of modern ideas of racism. Smell should now be added among the battery of issues identified by scholars—such as religion, language, kinship, complexion, and social organization—that strengthened ideas of African cultural inferiority by advancing false beliefs about biological difference.

Kettler successfully employs a broad collection of published accounts to chart this intellectual history of smell as it related to transatlantic slavery. Yet, given this topic’s intrinsic connection with human bodies, Kettler’s evidence is highly abstract. Accounts from plantations, physicians’ journals, planters’ correspondence, runaway advertisements, and other written material could have further illustrated how his philosophical insights elucidated racialized thinking. As an interdisciplinary endeavor, however, the book will appeal to a wide academic audience interested in the broad application of sensory history to slavery. Readers will come away not only with an understanding of slavery’s brutality but also with an intensely visceral impression of its truly rancid character...

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