Research

Within the general field of Atlantic History, my research focuses on slavery and colonialism in the nineteenth-century British Caribbean, especially Berbice (located in what is now Guyana).

I’m currently finishing my first book, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming 2017).  In this project, which draws on extensive research in the U.S., the U.K., and the Caribbean, I propose a new way of understanding the power relationships of Atlantic slavery.  In particular, I suggest that we reconsider enslaved people’s struggle against slavery as a multifaceted struggle for survival.  We have long known that Caribbean slave societies were death traps, but how did the pervasiveness of violence and death shape enslaved people’s experience?

My research answers this question by tapping a remarkably rich body of evidence from early nineteenth-century Berbice, including the single largest archive of first-person testimony from and about enslaved people in the Atlantic world.  To show how the problem of survival shaped power dynamics at various levels, I explores a wide range of topics, including: the Afro-Caribbean spiritual complex known as obeah; the predicament of slave drivers; the practice and politics of marriage; enslaved people’s legal battles to protest physical abuse; the role of Christian missionaries; and contestations over property rights.

Approaching these distinct yet overlapping social relationships through the lens of survival provides an opportunity to move beyond the prevailing and problematic framework of domination and resistance and instead develop a rigorous, nuanced, and multilayered view of the power dynamics that shaped the world in which enslaved people struggled to survive.  Ultimately, I show how the daunting challenge of staying alive was at the heart of nearly everything enslaved people did, structuring the complicated relationships they entered into with their enslavers and with one another.

For a taste of some of the issues I explore in this project, see my article, “The ‘Bad Business’ of Obeah: Power, Authority, and the Politics of Slave Culture in the British Caribbean,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 68, no. 3 (2011): 451-80, and Justin Roberts’s review of my dissertation.