In his classic text, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot asked of the Haitian Revolution: “How does one write a history of the impossible?”1 Planters and colonial powers represented the thirteen-year event that resulted in the enslaved overthrow of colonial power and the independent state of Haiti (the first black republic of the Atlantic World) as an “unthinkable history,” “a non-event,” even as it was happening. Although Trouillot wrote specifically of Haiti, his work on how social and political inequalities of the past shape the ways historical events are recorded in their moment and then archived, retrieved, and written about in the present is widely applicable to historians of slavery.
The archive of slavery is steeped in silences. This is true especially for the colonial Caribbean, where enslaved individuals left few if any sources of their own and often appear in the archives as voiceless and fleeting figures. In this way, to write a history that recognizes the complex personhood of the enslaved, while adhering to traditional disciplinary methodologies, appears to be nearly impossible. How do historians of slavery, faced with a disruptive, fragmented, and contested archive, re-create the lifeworlds of enslaved individuals who appear as fleeting moments in the archives?2 How do we engage with an archive and a discipline very much tied to imperialism and colonial violence? How do historians make space for a cultural and social history of the enslaved while recognizing the condition of slavery, which betokens alienation, abjection, and social death? While Trouillot acknowledged that “history is the fruit of power,” it is for this reason that we must study its production: “Power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous.” Indeed, Trouillot argued that “the ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.”3 The three articles under consideration here reveal the fraught relationship historians have with the archive of slavery and the ways in which we might address the silences that abound in it.
One of the fundamental challenges historians of slavery face is how to exhume the lives of the enslaved from the archive of slavery. Saidiya Hartman begins “The Dead Book Revisited” by asking: “How do we attend to black death? How do we find life where only traces of destructions remain?”4 Reflecting on two of her previous works, Lose Your Mother (2006) and “Venus in Two Acts” (2008), Hartman raises questions about the silences and violence of the colonial archive, in particular how historians can create space for thinking about possibilities of life, grief, and mourning in the “ever growing archive of black death.”5 For Hartman, the dearth of empirical evidence about the lived experiences of enslaved individuals called her to explore “a series of speculative arguments . . . the what might have been.”6 Hartman’s work challenges disciplinary methodologies in allowing space for imagining and responsibly speculating on the lives of enslaved individuals from archival fragments.
Responding to Hartman’s work, Stephanie E. Smallwood exposes the methodological limits of the discipline of history in “The Politics of the Archive and History’s Accountability to the Enslaved.” She traces a historiography of scholars who have pressed against the limits of the archive and written the enslaved into history. For Smallwood, slavery’s archive always seeks to conceal. It provides empirical evidence and quantitative information for histories of slavery and the slave trade, but these numbers deny the human experience, allow us to take comfort in abstraction, and reveal themselves “for the fictions that they were—false representations meant to make a stark political contest over the commodification of a human life as a natural and foregone conclusion.”7 The archive seeks to disavow, however, that there is always an impermeable counterhistory bubbling at the surface. This counterhistory is accountable to the enslaved, and it requires historians to imagine and reveal what cannot be verified by the archive.
Whereas Smallwood’s work focuses on methodological approaches to deal with the archive’s silences, Simon P. Newman’s work illustrates how the archive both obscures and reveals. In “Freedom-Seeking Slaves in England and Scotland, 1700–1780,” Newman begins his analysis of a runaway advertisement with a series of questions about the fugitive’s life that may always allude us. Based on an analysis of more than eight hundred runaway advertisements in England and Scotland, Newman reveals an often-silenced history of metropolitan slavery. His work includes a number of statistics about these advertisements and fugitive bondspeople in the metropole. Despite the detailed information advertisements provide, however, Newman is left to ponder “what might have been.”8 Runaway advertisements embody the tension between enslaved people being everywhere in the archive yet conspicuously silent. Often written by slave owners or overseers, they were meant to help identify and apprehend the runaway. Runaway advertisements give detailed descriptions of enslaved people’s bodies, speculate on their whereabouts, and reveal kin relations on neighboring plantations. Despite all the information the advertisements glean, the enslaved individual’s personhood is almost absent. It is here that we see the effect of white colonial power on the archive, where enslaved people are visible on the outside, yet their experiences remain unknown.
The different approaches to and meditations on slavery’s archive that these articles analyze speak to the reverberations of violence and silence that continue to attend black life in the Americas. Hartman speaks of the renewed visibility of state violence against black people in North America and connects this to its early modern legacies. Slavery still haunts the Americas—in the US prison system, in the killing of black individuals by police, and in the Caribbean, where social and political disablement prevents equitable access to health care, causing high rates of illness and impairment in already marginalized (i.e., racialized, poor, indigenous) communities. The epistemic violence that makes black death a “non-event” in the archives of slavery structures black dispossession even today. We must never ignore that the living and the dead are intimately connected. As Trouillot reminds us: “We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence. Naiveté is often an excuse for those who exercise power. For those upon whom that power is exercised, naiveté is always a mistake.”9
This question is inspired by the work of Marisa J. Fuentes, who challenges us to rethink the way the historical discipline deals with archival absence (Dispossessed Lives ).
Quotation from Hartman, “The Dead Book Revisited,” 210. Examples of this kind of speculation are found in Newman, “Freedom-Seeking Slaves,” 1140–41, 1145, 1156, 1158.