Identifying pictorial images of Atlantic slavery: Three case studies

2006 (J. S. Handler and A. Steiner) “Identifying pictorial images of Atlantic slavery: Three case studies.” Slavery & Abolition 27: 49-69.

During the last several decades, the number of publications on New World slavery and the Atlantic slave trade has increased tremendously. Sometimes these works are lavishly illustrated, but the illustrations are usually not taken directly from primary sources; rather, they are purchased from commercial photo libraries or are taken from secondary works which themselves have depended on commercial houses. Authors, especially of books or encyclopedias destined for a commercial market and wide general readership, pay insufficient attention (or no attention) to the historical and bibliographic contexts of the illustrations they use, and commercial photo libraries that sell images of slavery and the slave trade rarely give bibliographic information on their images; if they do, the information is often inadequate and misleading at best and inaccurate at worst. This article illustrates these points by focusing on three images that are often reproduced and argues that historical researchers should pay as much attention to the illustrations, and the context in which they were created, that accompany their publications as they do to citing the written sources upon which their research depends.

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On Interpreting Slave Status from Archaeological Remains

2006 (J. S. Handler and F. W. Lange) “On Interpreting Slave Status from Archaeological Remains.” African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter. June.

An early colonial period church cemetery in Campeche, Mexico yielded the skeletal remains of persons who investigators identified as African born; some reports claimed these remains represent the earliest evidence of African slavery yet found in the New World. However, physical evidence in and of itself does not unequivocally demonstrate the social status of the people concerned. Persons of African descent in Campeche at this period could have been free or held other social statuses that were not chattel slaves. Whatever the case, the Campeche remains raise the issue of archaeological interpretations of social systems, in this case the social system of chattel slavery. In this article we reproduce excerpts from the final chapter of our 1978 book on plantation slavery in Barbados; we argue that archaeological remains alone cannot determine the presence of slavery and documentary data are needed to establish its existence.

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Diseases and Medical Disabilities of Enslaved Barbadians, From the Seventeenth Century to around 1838

2006 (Jerome Handler) “Diseases and Medical Disabilities of Enslaved Barbadians, From the Seventeenth Century to around 1838, Part I, Part II.Journal of Caribbean History 40: 1-38 and 40: 177-214.

The disease environment, health problems, and causes of mortality of enslaved Barbadians are described. Data largely derive from documentary sources; also included are bio-archaeological data from analyses of skeletons recovered from Newton Plantation cemetery. Major topics include infectious diseases transmitted from person to person, as well as those contracted through water, soil, and other environmental contaminations, and diseases transmitted by insects, parasites, and other animals; nutritional diseases, including protein energy malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, anemia, and geophagy or ‘dirt eating’; dental pathologies; and lead poisoning, alcoholism, traumas, and other disorders, including psychogenic death or illness caused by beliefs in witchcraft or sorcery.

Part I: Diseases and Medical Disabilities of Enslaved Barbadians

Part II: Diseases and Medical Disabilities of Enslaved Barbadians

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Jonathan Corncob Visits Barbados: Excerpts from a Little-Known 18th Century Novel

2006 (F. Brady and J. Handler) “Jonathan Corncob Visits Barbados: Excerpts from a Little-Known 18th Century Novel.”  JBMHS 52: 17-34.

Published in 1787, this obscure satirical novel written by an author who to this day remains anonymous treats the adventures of a young man from Massachusetts during the period of the American Revolution. During the course of his adventures, Corncob spends some time in Barbados, and the three brief chapters that depict this visit are reproduced here with historical notes by the editors.

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A Rare Eighteenth-Century Tract in Defense of Slavery in Barbados: The Thoughts of the Rev. John Duke, Curate of St. Michael

2005 (Jerome S. Handler) “A Rare Eighteenth-Century Tract in Defense of Slavery in Barbados: The Thoughts of the Rev. John Duke, Curate of St. Michael.”  JBMHS 51: 58-65.

In this article I summarize the contents and argument of this rare pamphlet (I know of only one existing copy) as a contribution to the historiography of slavery in the West Indies and to make known a resource that has hitherto escaped notice by scholars and bibliographers of early West Indian history and slavery.

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Obeah: Healing and Protection in West Indian Slave Life

2004 (K. M. Bilby and J. S. Handler) “Obeah: Healing and Protection in West Indian Slave Life.”  Journal of Caribbean History 38: 153-183.

Obeah encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices involving the control or channeling of supernatural spiritual forces, usually for socially beneficial ends such as treating illness, bringing good fortune, protecting against harm, and avenging wrongs.  Although obeah was sometimes used to ham others, Europeans during the slave period distorted its positive role in the lives of many enslaved persons. In post-emancipation times, colonial officials, local white elites and their ideological allies exaggerated the antisocial dimensions of obeah, minimizing or ignoring its positive functions. This negative interpretation became so deeply ingrained that many West Indians accept it to varying degrees today, although the positive attributes of obeah are still acknowledged in most parts of the anglophone Caribbean.

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Plantation Slave Settlements in Barbados, 1650s to 1834

2002 (Jerome Handler) “Plantation Slave Settlements in Barbados, 1650s to 1834.” In A. Thompson, ed., In the Shadow of the Plantation: Caribbean History and Legacy (Ian Randle publisher, Kingston, Jamaica),  pp. 121-158.

This paper describes the antecedents of many rural settlements in Barbados; it focuses on some of the major physical and demographic features of slave settlements, particularly on medium- and large size plantations. Changes in some of these features are traced over the almost 200 years of plantation slavery on the island, and the possible influences of Africa or England on village layout and spatial arrangement of houses are considered. Some of the methodological and historical issues in establishing the number of plantation settlements during the slave period and of identifying the sites of former villages and plantation cemeteries in present-day Barbados are also explored. Finally, some of the sociological characteristics of the slave settlements as small communities are considered.

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Survivors of the Middle Passage: Life Histories of Enslaved Africans in British America

2002 (Jerome S. Handler) “Survivors of the Middle Passage: Life Histories of Enslaved Africans in British America.” Slavery & Abolition 23: 25-56.

This paper describes fifteen autobiographical accounts by Africans who survived the physical and psychic hardships of the transatlantic crossing and passed a portion of their lives enslaved in the British Caribbean or British North America during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I focus on what the autobiographers relate about their lives in Africa before being taken from their homelands, how they were captured/kidnapped,  transported to coastal ports and placed aboard ships, and their personal experiences during the transatlantic crossing.

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On the Early Use and Origin of the Term ‘Obeah’ in Barbados and the Anglophone Caribbean

2001 (J. S. Handler and K. M. Bilby) “On the Early Use and Origin of the Term ‘Obeah’ in Barbados and the Anglophone Caribbean.” Slavery & Abolition 22: 87-100.

The medicinal complex of Barbadian (and other Caribbean slaves) fundamentally rested on African beliefs and practices in which the supernatural played a major role. What was called Obeah formed part of this medicinal complex even though Europeans who wrote about Obeah often confused and misunderstood many of its features. For whites, ‘Obeah’ became a catch-all term for a range of supernatural-related ideas and behaviors that were not of European origin and which they heavily criticized and condemned. The supernatural force (or forces) which the Obeah practitioner attempted to control or guide was essentially neutral. However, for the enslaved in Barbados (as elsewhere in the British Caribbean) the force, as accessed by the practitioner, was largely directed toward what the slave community defined as socially beneficial goals such as healing, locating missing property, and protection against illness and other kinds of misfortune; it could even be directed against slave masters, which, from the perspective of the slave community, was a beneficial goal. Although Obeah could also have negative or antisocial dimensions in the form of witchcraft or sorcery, the entirely negative view of Obeah that whites largely promulgated during the period of slavery (probably exacerbated by the fact that it was sometimes directed against them), and that has endured until the present, has distorted the social role that Obeah played in the lives of many enslaved persons, whether of African or New World birth.

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The 1816 Slave Revolt in Barbados: An Exchange in Barbados Newspapers

2000 (Jerome Handler) “The Barbados Slave Insurrection of 1816: Can it be properly called “Bussa’s Rebellion”?” The Advocate and The Nation, March and April.

A heated exchange in two Barbados newspapers concerning the only slave revolt in the island’s history. Handler’s position, stated in several articles in the Advocate, is that there is no documentary evidence that a slave named Busso/Bussa was the prime organizer or leader of the revolt or played a greater role than others who were accused by whites of leadership roles. Professor Hilary Beckles, writing in the Nation, attributes this singular role to Busso/Bussa.

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