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.


  1. I can’t help but think of Coetzee’s “Foe” when I read about the Moravian mission -- where Cruso dubs Friday an “other,” a “cannibal” and a “heretic”, until he converts him to his own religion and culture. The categorizations are key, and so utterly dependent on the figure in power.

    Is the entire script like the screenshot you provided? If so, your translation is quite a feat.


  2. Dear Katie,

    Can't seem to find an email address for you but any chance of sending me a copy of your 2007 article?

    Best wishes,

    Justin (