Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive

Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive

Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive

Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive


In the eighteenth century, Bridgetown, Barbados, was heavily populated by both enslaved and free women. Marisa J. Fuentes creates a portrait of urban Caribbean slavery in this colonial town from the perspective of these women whose stories appear only briefly in historical records. Fuentes takes us through the streets of Bridgetown with an enslaved runaway; inside a brothel run by a freed woman of color; in the midst of a white urban household in sexual chaos; to the gallows where enslaved people were executed; and within violent scenes of enslaved women's punishments. In the process, Fuentes interrogates the archive and its historical production to expose the ongoing effects of white colonial power that constrain what can be known about these women.

Combining fragmentary sources with interdisciplinary methodologies that include black feminist theory and critical studies of history and slavery, Dispossessed Lives demonstrates how the construction of the archive marked enslaved women's bodies, in life and in death. By vividly recounting enslaved life through the experiences of individual women and illuminating their conditions of confinement through the legal, sexual, and representational power wielded by slave owners, colonial authorities, and the archive, Fuentes challenges the way we write histories of vulnerable and often invisible subjects.


Dispossessed Lives constructs historical accounts of urban Caribbean slavery from the positions and perspectives of enslaved women within the traditional archive. It does so by engaging archival sources with black feminist epistemologies, critical studies of archival power and form, and historiographical debates in slavery studies on agency and resistance. To trace the distortions of enslaved women’s lives inherent in the archive, this book raises questions about the nature of history and the difficulties in narrating ephemeral archival presences by dwelling on the fragmentary, disfigured bodies of enslaved women. How do we narrate the fleeting glimpses of enslaved subjects in the archives and meet the disciplinary demands of history that requires us to construct unbiased accounts from these very documents? How do we construct a coherent historical accounting out of that which defies coherence and representability? How do we critically confront or reproduce these accounts to open up possibilities for historicizing, mourning, remembering, and listening to the condition of enslaved women?

This study probes the constructions of race, gender, and sexuality, the machinations of archival power, and the complexities of “agency” in the lives of enslaved and free(d) women in colonial Bridgetown, Barbados. a microhistory of urban Caribbean slavery, it explores the significance of an urban slave society that was numerically dominated by women, white and black. By the turn of the eighteenth century, Barbados sustained an enslaved female majority whose reproduction rates contributed to a natural increase in the slave population by 1800. Similarly, white women made up a slight majority of the island’s white population and owned predominately female slaves who, in turn, allowed white women a measure of economic independence. This unusual demography and the underexplored, intra- gendered relationships between different groups of women mark an important shift from the extant scholarly focus on white men’s domination of black and brown women in slave societies.

Despite its small size in relation to other Caribbean islands, an . . .

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