Friday, December 11, 2009

The case of the old age conversions

Historians of religion have a pretty strong sense of who converts to evangelical Christianity during the mid-eighteenth century: it's basically young people. The story goes: back in the seventeenth-century, Reformed Protestants (like the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, etc.) went through a long, extended conversion process during their early twenties, in which they suffered moments of doubt and then assurance about their salvation. Eventually, they came to a slow realization of their sanctity and became full church members (meaning, they could take part in the sacrament of communion).

During the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, conversion patterns changed. Young adults and teenagers reported having instantaneous conversion experiences, in which they were immediately aware of God's grace and their own salvation. Sometimes, these converts were barely out of childhood.

As this brief sketch illustrates, there are really two trends: first, converts became younger in the mid-eighteenth century. Second, conversions became shorter and more eventful. Instead of the prolonged cycle of doubt and assurance that characterized Reformed Christian conversion of the seventeenth century, eighteenth century evangelical conversions were sudden and emotional. More of the heart than of the head.

Anyway, I have just noticed an interesting pattern in the conversion African slaves in Jamaica. Unlike most Great Awakening-era conversion narratives, the majority of converts in the Moravian missions are old men. And their conversions are not instantaneous, but long and drawn out, largely because the Moravian missionaries wanted to make sure that the conversions were authentic.

So Jery, the first baptized slave in the Moravian mission of Mesopotamia, is consistently referred to as "old," as well as a number of other slaves who take an interest in the Moravians.

The question is, then: why did older (and often male) slaves turn to the missionaries more often than their younger compatriots? Franck, another old male slave, provides one possible answer. In the September 13, 1761 entry in the Mesopotamia journal, the author writes:

"September 13 - ...In the afternoon Franck visisted us and attested to his desire for baptism, and said further that he agreed that in his current condition and with his accustomed heathen ways, he could not become holy, and that this caused him much agitation; and now that he was already old and perhaps didn't have much longer to live he wanted to become a part of the great grace [of God] before he died etc..."

Franck, it seems, has no more use for his "accustomed heathen ways" and turns, in his old age, to God. I wonder, also, if this trend is an effect of the power relations among slaves on plantations. If older men and women are looking for alternative sources of power and validation, it implies that those at the peak of their strength have less need for such alternatives.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

"The White People"

I just finished a very compelling book on the effects of Indian war in the middle colonies during the eighteenth century -- Our Savage Neighbors by Peter Silver. The basic argument is that the paralyzing fear wrought by the possibility of Indian attack during the Seven Years/French and Indian War (1754-1763) was manipulated by polemicists in Philadelphia and elsewhere to perform a variety of functions. Master manipulators like William Smith developed what Silver calls an "anti-Indian sublime," in which decontextualized descriptions of Indian "murder" were used to unite the normally fractious groups of European settlers (including Irish Presbyterians, German speakers, and others - none of whom got along) into a category of "white people." "The white people" were united NOT, as we might think, by their "race" (racial theories were a regrettable product of the 19th century) but by their shared suffering in the face of the Indians.

Not all people we might now consider to be "white" were counted as the poor, white sufferers in the 18th century. The Quakers, who still retained a significant (though ever dwindling) amount of political power in the mid-18th century, were vilified because they attempted to maintain friendly relations (through their Friendly Association) with the Indians. They were denounced as bigots who sided against "the white people" in favor of the Indians.

Polemicists published pamphlets with cartoons like this one from 1764, entitled "The German bleeds and bears ye fur," (from The Library Company of Philadelphia) that attacked the Quakers for helping Indians over "the white people" who had suffered at their hands:

If you look closely, you can see a Quaker (with the broad hat) and an Indian riding literally on the backs on the backcountry residents, while bodies lay strewn on the ground.

Silver's argument is compelling, and it brings me to consider how categories like "the white people" were being formulated in other regions during this time. Or more specifically, since Silver's "white people" are heavily dependent on the existence of Indians, can there be a "white people" without the threat of Indian attack?

My answer is... yes. In the Moravian diaries from Jamaica that I am translating the missionaries begin to use the term "the white people" (die weissen Leute") in 1760 and 1761 -- precisely when slave rebellions were erupting across the island (the rebellions are now known as "Tacky's Revolt"). One of the diarists, Carl Schultz, uses the term "white people" only three or four times in two years, and every time is in direct reference to the rebellion. On May 30, 1760, for example, he writes:

"Not all the white people are being mobilized to stand against the murdering mob etc..."

At another point he writes: "But he didn't meet Mr. Hunnius at home because he had been called to Lacovia where all the white people from this parish are meeting to prepare for a war against the rebelling negroes on this island."

The similarities to the case in Pennsylvania are very suggestive: in both cases, the term "the white people" is mobilized for a specific reason -- to unite disparate European groups who are fearful of attacks from an "other" - either Indian or slave. It is a term of victimization, not of racial supremacy. And once the idea of "white people" has calcified, the question is then: how can it transform polemical rhetoric and political life? In Pennsylvania, "the white people" were invoked for political purposes and the rhetoric had real consequences: Quakers were pushed out of government (well, for a multitude of reasons) Benjamin Franklin lost his seat in the Assembly and later, revolutionary war polemicists attacked the English as savage Indian lovers to mobilize support for Independence.

I don't know whether "the white people" were transformed in a similar way in Jamaica, but it will be interesting to find out!

One final note: I was delighted to see that Silver himself made a Jamaica connection in Our Savage Neighbors. While discussing the anti-Anglo attacks during the American Revolution (when polemicists claimed that the English were aiding the savage Indians), Edward Long, a Jamaica slave owner and author of The History of Jamaica (in which he recounts the events of Tacky's Revolt), bemoans the regrettable association between the English and the Indian, wailing that his "National Character" was "in the utmost danger of being obliterated" (cited on p. 244). As Silver continues, "the most horrific image, even for this former planter, was plainly that of Britons acting as "patrons and abettors of Wanton Homicide," and "stretching forth Cannibal Indians to scalp, tomahawk and torture, with undistinguishing fury."" (244)

Silver goes on to note that it is a testament to the power or rhetoric that Long was so affected in far-away Jamaica. I agree, though I also think that the transference of rhetoric across colonies was significantly commoner than most people assume. And it's my hope that I can keep Silver's story in mind while looking for similar developments in the Caribbean and elsewhere...

Monday, November 23, 2009

A word on Moravian missions and Slave categories

These days, my life has been filled with archaic German Script: I am translating the early records from the Moravian mission to Jamaica into English and trying to make some sense of them.

A little background: the Moravians (aka the United Brethren) are a Protestant denomination founded in eastern Germany in the 1720s (though they trace their roots back to the 15th century followers of Jan Hus). In the 1730s, due to a chance meeting between a former African slave and the leader of the Moravians, Count Zinzendorf, the Moravians decided to send missionaries to the Caribbean, where they could spread the gospel to African slaves.

Moravian missionaries soon head out to the Danish West Indies and in 1754, Brother Zacharias George Caries led a new mission to Jamaica. He did well. In two years, 69 slaves were baptized and dozens more sat on deck as candidates.

Today I was reading a letter that Brother Caries sent from the mission in Jamaica to Brother Spangenberg in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In it, he is trying to convince Spangenberg that he has done a great deal of work among the slaves. At one point, he divides the converted slaves into categories I found both curious and alarming:

The translation of this section read: "43 Negroes were baptized in the year 1756, 17 more as the year before. Among them is Sambo, who was the first. The others are from various groups, 18 circumcised [beschnittene] Negroes, who also look like Jews and who wear small beards [Bärter], and some of the cannibals [Menschenfresser], 30 of which are Guinea Negroes and 13 Creoles. 6 single brothers, 2 widowers and 35 married men. No women have wanted to be baptized because I didn't have anyone who could administer their baptism, but now the Sister [Sone?] is here..."

There are several bizarre things about this description: first of all, why did Caries divide the slaves into circumcised and non-circumcised? And why did he think some looked like Jews? Now, many Christians in the early modern period liked to fit both Africans and Native Americans into a biblical master narrative, in which Native Americans could be the Lost Tribe, and Africans could be either the curses descendents of Cham (this reasoning was often used to justify slavery) or another biblical group.

So was Caries using one of these narratives to make sense of the slaves in his midst? And also: were there really circumcised slaves? Where would they have come from?

Second bizarre aspect: why does he characterize the entire group of baptized slaves as "cannibals"? [Menschenfresser] This, also, was a typical way of categorizing "the other" during the early modern period, and it was often used to refer to Native Americans, but it is surprising that Caries using the term so easily to refer to individuals with whom he has had extended (and, one would hope, meaningful) contact. And, to top that, these were CHRISTIANS, and since Christians are never cannibals (so it was thought), it seems odd that Caries combined the categories of Christian and heathen into one human subject.

Caries also includes both "Guinea Negroes" and "Creoles" within the "cannibal" category. That means that even blacks who had been born and raised in the Caribbean were considered cannibals.

The last method of categorization that Caries uses makes a lot more sense: he splits up the men into single, married and widowers. For Moravians, this division was particularly important because Moravians divided congregations into these groups. In Herrnhut and Bethlehem, two Moravian communal settlements, single brothers lived together in one building while married women lived in another, etc, etc.

To bring these mental perambulations to a close, a word on why categorization is important: understanding how Caries and other Moravian missionaries subdivided African slaves into different groups helps us understand what it meant to be African and a slave in 18th Jamaica. Not that Caries' categories were "right"--but that is beside the point. During this period, Europeans were going through a major shift in their understanding of "us" and "them." Before and during this period, it was common to refer to "us" as "Christian" while "they" were "heathen" (or cannibal, etc.). But in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is possible to see a shift away from a Christian/other worldview into what could be called a nascent racial worldview. In place of Christian/heathen, we have white/black. Among other things, this allowed for blacks to be Christian while still be "other."

In my research, I am trying to trace this shift, which I believe to be critical to the formation of a racially-based world-view that plagues us to today. Though that is not to say that the Christian framework is better-- certainly not. But both have their pros and cons, and I believe we can learn from them still.


A word about why I am beginning this blog:

When I wrote my undergraduate thesis, I decided to keep a companion blog ( to keep friends and family updated on my progress. Not that too many people read the blog - but some did, and it was nice for me to know that my finding/thoughts were at least *potentially* available to a virtual, imagined community that may or may not exist.

The biggest (and most exciting) surprise for me was that people I didn't know both read and contacted me about my research. I've made a handful of wonderful connections that would not have been possible without the good ole www.

Now that I've started down the path of something much more ominous than an undergraduate thesis -- namely, the dissertation -- I've decided to do the same thing all over again... with a new name.

So welcome, dear reader, to Dissertationitis! We will traverse the texts of long-dead men and women, reconstruct the lives of those who did not leave traversable texts, and consider the impossible, and kind of awful question: what was it really like to live in a slave society three hundred years ago?