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Part 3 Subjectivities Chapter 7 Power and Historical Figuring Rachael Pringle Polgreen’s Troubled Archive Marisa J. Fuentes It may be precisely due to Rachael Pringle Polgreen’s “exorbitant circumstances” duringherlifeasafree(d)womanofcolorinlate-eighteenth-centuryBridgetown, Barbados, that her narrative has not changed since she appeared in J. W. Orderson ’s 1842 novel Creoleana.1 Apart from an important critique by Melanie Newton of the political and historical context of Creoleana, Polgreen’s life story—her triumphs , extraordinary relationships, and visual depictions have not altered since the nineteenth century. Thus the archive and secondary historical accounts beg reexamination. She was a woman of color, a former slave turned slave owner, and manystoriescirculatethatsheranawell-knownbrothelwithoutmuchlegalcontroversy .2 Thepersistenthistoricalrepresentationsofherlifedrawfromanarchive unusualformanyfree(d)andenslavedwomenofcolorineighteenth-centuryslave societies. Polgreen left a will, and her estate was inventoried by white men upon herdeath—aprocessreservedprimarilyforthesociety’swealthier(white)citizens. Her relationships with elite white men and the British Royal Navy are well documented in newspaper accounts and most significantly, in the nineteenth-century novelwrittenbyaresidentofBridgetownwhomayhavebeenwellacquaintedwith Polgreen.Inthe1770sand1780s,PolgreenappearsinBridgetown’staxrecordsasa propertiedresident,andheradvertisementsinalocalnewspaperalludetotheimportancesheplacedonproperty .Fromacaricatured1796lithographtothefolkloric accountsofPrinceWilliamHenry’s(KingWilliamHenryIV)rampagethroughher brothel, Polgreen’s story has in many ways been rendered impermeable, difficult to revise, and overdetermined by the language and power of the archive. 144 • Marisa J. Fuentes The archive conceals, distorts, and silences as much as it reveals about Rachael Pringle Polgreen. Creoleana, in which a “complete” dramatized life story of Polgreen is narrated, provides a tantalizing solution to gaps and uncertainties for historians who struggle with the fragmented and fraught records of female enslavement marked by the embedded silences, the commodified representations ofbodies,andtheepistemicviolenceofslavery’sarchive.However,forPolgreen,it is perhaps her hypervisibility in images and stories that continues to obscure her everyday life, even when the archive appears to “substantiate” certain aspects of thatlife.Icontendthatsuchpowerfulnarratives,visualreproductions,andarchival assumptions erase the crucial complexities of her personhood and obfuscate the violent and violating relationships she maintained with other women of color in Bridgetown’s slave society. The challenge, then, is to track power in the production of her history while recognizing that Polgreen’s historical visibility is also an erasure of the lives of those she enslaved. In the scholarship of slavery and slave society in Barbados, Polgreen and other free(d) women of color are centered on narratives about business acumen and entrepreneurship. Several historians discuss the significant role that prostitution played in the local and transnational market economy. Indeed, in many of the eighteenth-century Caribbean and metropolitan Atlantic port cities, prostitution was rampant and served a significant mobile military population as well as providing local “entertainment.”3 “During the 1790s,” Melanie Newton states, “the symbol of nonwhite business success in Barbados was the female hotelier.”4 A number of free(d) women found slave owning and prostitution economically viable routes to self-sustenance as they and other free(d) people of color in slave societies were systemically excluded from many other roles and opportunities.5 Though many references of free(d) women of color mention their involvement in the sexual economy of port cities, we must also note that in Bridgetown there was a unique demographic of a majority white female population by the beginning of the eighteenth century. This white female (and mostly slave-owning) majority tended to own more women than men and set the precedent for the selling and renting out of enslaved women for sexual purposes.6 Moreover, in a town setting with little arable land, white women profited from a surplus of domestic laborers by hiring them out to island visitors.7 It is thus within this environment of slaves, sailors, Royal Navy officers, and other maritime traffic in Bridgetown’s terribly bustling port that Rachael Pringle Polgreen made her living. Polgreen necessarily appears in histories of gender and slavery in Barbados as shelivedaremarkablelifewithinaslavesociety.However,theotherenslavedand freed women who lived in similar circumstances during her time are eclipsed and silencedbyherseductivenarrative.Thisessaytrackshowmaterialanddiscursive powermovesthroughthearchiveinthehistoricalproductionofsubalternwomen.8 Power and Historical Figuring • 145 Moreover, revisiting the documentary traces of Polgreen’s life and death illuminates several contradictions or historical paradoxes that make it problematic to characterizePolgreenorenslavedandfree(d)women’ssexualrelationswithwhite men as unmediated examples of black female agency. How does one write a narrative of enslaved “prostitution?” What language should we use to describe this economy of forced sexual labor? How do we write against historical scholarship that too often relies on the discourses of will, agency, choice, and volunteerism, which reproduce a troubling archive that cements enslaved and free(d) women of colorinrepresentationsof“theirwillingnesstobecomemistressesofwhitemen.”9 If“freedom”meantfreefrombondagebutnotfromsocial,economic,andpolitical degradation, what does it...


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