Prof. Marisa Fuentes, women’s and gender studies and history, Rutgers University–New Brunswick, uncovered lost and fragmented records of women’s lives in Caribbean slave society on Monday.
As part of the American Fall Colloquium Series of Cornell’s American Studies department, Fuentes drew from her book Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, which vividly recounts the lives of enslaved women in the Barbados during the colonial era.
The challenge Fuentes confronted was that current British colonial archives do not sufficiently represent the complexity and depth of enslaved women’s lives, pointing to the limits of historical methodology.
“The violence committed on enslaved women’s bodies permeates the archive, and the methods of history, I argue,” she said, “have not adequately offered a vocabulary to reconstitute the depth, density and the intricacies of experiences of personhood and domination in enslaved lives.”
If they were lucky, people who were the “so-called ‘refuse slaves’ were African captives who survived the Middle Passage,” Fuentes said, “but largely died or were sold at discount to people who were looking for a bargain in this flesh market.”
Working with an extreme scarcity of historical material, Fuentes’s work fleshed out what she described as a “mutilated historicity of enslaved women – the ways in which enslaved women in the archives were distorted and disfigured.”
What interested her, she said, was how scarce recorded experiences of slavery were, even in a society mostly composed of enslaved women.
“When I began archival research for this book, I anticipated it to be a time of discovery of sources that I could pull together on the social history of gender in Caribbean slavery,” Fuentes said. “Instead I found an absence of the voices and people I sought to document, no whole figures emerged that I could trace beyond a momentary mention.”
In the past, Fuentes had worked in West Africa and the South Carolina Sea islands. Since studying the African Diaspora as a graduate student, she said she has always been interested in African American history.
She also read an excerpt from the book, aimed to humanize a runaway slave’s narrative and demonstrate her method of telling the stories of those brought over in the transatlantic slave trade.
Fuentes spoke of the inhumane conditions of the refugee slaves’ lives and the suffering they experienced as consequences of capitalism, focusing on one individual’s experience of voyaging to the Caribbean. The stories of these individuals illuminated intricate details of their painful experiences of oppression that had been absent in the archives.
Once only documented in the form of descriptions of the scars on her body and the reward given to her for returning to her master, Fuentes gave Jane a story — a story of a young girl whose life was linked to waste, oppression and poverty.
“Jane would smell the seawater mixed with the sour and dank smells of too many people and too small an area,” she said. “If she passed by the Cage which held captured runaways, she would have seen the sweat and sensed the fear of the occupants inside.”
Spurring the audience’s awareness of slavery in the Caribbean world, Fuentes also illuminated specific moments leading up to a slave’s execution and the afterlife of slavery.
“Execution sites in Barbados towns were centrally located, and slaves were often hanged … or burned to death in front of large audiences,” she said.
Fuentes said she hoped to give readers the perspective of an enslaved woman rather than history’s conventional perspective through white males.
“It [the book] invites us to explore the intra-gendered relationships of white and black women … which shifts our gaze from focusing on white men’s domination of black and brown women in slave societies,” she said.