Caribbean Inflections

Karen Salt

History, University of Aberdeen

This fall, I offered two new courses for 3rd and 4th year students at the University of Aberdeen: Kings, Queens, Revolutionaries and Outlaws: The Politics and Culture of the Caribbean, and The Haitian Earthquake of 2010: The Aftershocks of History.  These complex topics revisit issues addressed in other courses—revolutionary upheaval, liberation politics, and societal chiasmus—but bookends those issues through a reading across temporalities.  In essence, the courses ask what is the Caribbean/the Antilles/the West Indies and to whom does it matter.  Both would prove to be daunting and challenging courses.  Worth it?  Without a doubt.

I participated in this year’s Just Teach One as one of the few history-based instructors.  I am, in all honesty, a history chameleon, as my courses tend to emerge from the same co-mingling of culture and politics as my research.  Nevertheless, we were honored to participate.

Although the Kings course was designed before the offer to join Just Teach One, participating in it forced me to make visible many of the thought-processes that gave this course meaning.  As a result, students were encouraged to think diachronically about the material and to ponder the currents of cultural transmission in the Atlantic world.

This brief write-up offers a glimpse into the dynamics of the Kings course in which Humanity in Algiers appeared.  From the outset, the course set out comparative cultural readings that reached forward and backward in time, including an analysis of the role of religion, social cohesion, and power between enslaved persons and their owners. 

Students began the unit in which Humanity in Algiers appeared by reading BassCulture, a book on the rise and cultural import of reggae in Jamaica.  Although focused on the 20th century, the book swings back in time, periodically, in order to set the stage for the range of cultural traditions and productions steeped in colonialism and slave culture.  This proved a fortuitous beginning as it allowed students to think through ‘outlaw’ figures, power, and mysticism in the wider Caribbean as the course focuses on cultural tropes and figures.  This structure emerged from my desire to teach Caribbean history by placing specific entities or cultural icons at its core.  As a course steeped in cultural studies, this proved a fruitful way to present history students with cultural information.  For many, this course offered their first experience in reading beyond dates and data for different cultural markers of time, space, community, and politics.

We revisited these issues once the students turned from reggae to Benjamin Moseley’s A Treatise on Sugar.  In the edition that includes a note on Jack Mansong, students were introduced to a powerful cultural icon engaged in a violent confrontation with colonial representatives.  As a class, we considered how outlaw figures such as Mansong (immortalized in historical and narrative accounts as Three-Fingered Jack) are framed and how their lived and manufactured histories impact political processes and other structures of power.  As the term moved on, we began to chart out how representations of outlaw figures responded to cultural dynamics within specific communities.  In so doing, we began to ask a series of questions: What makes an outlaw?  Who gets to decide when someone exists outside the juridical system?  How do laws create citizens and subjects?  These questions emerged again once the course shifted from outlaws to revolutionaries.  Students pondered the role of religion—be it Obeah, Rastafarianism, or the Baptist tradition—in fostering cultural and political change. 

For my students, these issues rose to the surface once we turned to Humanity in Algiers.  We discussed it in a 2-hour seminar that included group work.  This was followed up by a 50-minute lecture that linked the tract with our other course materials.  I should preface my remarks on the text with a caveat:  We did not approach the text as part of a unit on American history, Barbary captivity narratives, anti-slavery, piracy, or international relations.  Instead of those themes, students knew that I wanted them to read it as a comparative example of another system of control with its own religious and social dynamics.  During their group work in class, they were encouraged to note any articulations of normative behavior/attributes—be it of the ‘ideal slave’ or the ‘ideal master’—which we could take back to our readings of the Caribbean.

This year’s crop of students proved more than capable of pulling apart the text.  My 4th years noted that Humanity in Algiers contains a trope of “enduring slavery.” During discussions of the text, they argued that although the narrative does not de-legitimize resistance to enslavement, it did support other ways of resolving unjust or unfair treatment—such as social condemnation and social pressure.  The role of the slave during these trials?  They found a refrain of patience amidst the tragedy.  Students found the text an interesting one to compare with the multiple legends of Three-Fingered Jack and other Caribbean leaders in the 18th and 19th century.  A number of the students suggested that Humanity in Algiers shared something else with the legends of Three-Fingered Jack—death.   This provoked a long debate about freedom in the Atlantic world—and its price.

These considerations led to intense discussions about the title of the tract.  Whose humanity is on display in the narrative?  Is this a universalizing idea of all communities and peoples or one in which those existing on plantation economies would be left out?   We never resolved this, but did note how the Baptist War in Jamaica seemed to suggest that the Baptist movement impacted communities of color differently—with immensely different ramifications.



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