The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic

The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic

The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic

The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic


Opening a window on a dynamic realm far beyond imperial courts, anatomical theaters, and learned societies, Pablo F. Gomez examines the strategies that Caribbean people used to create authoritative, experientially based knowledge about the human body and the natural world during the long seventeenth century. Gomez treats the early modern intellectual culture of these mostly black and free Caribbean communities on its own merits and not only as it relates to well-known frameworks for the study of science and medicine.

Drawing on an array of governmental and ecclesiastical sources--notably Inquisition records--Gomez highlights more than one hundred black ritual practitioners regarded as masters of healing practices and as social and spiritual leaders. He shows how they developed evidence-based healing principles based on sensorial experience rather than on dogma. He elucidates how they nourished ideas about the universality of human bodies, which contributed to the rise of empirical testing of disease origins and cures. Both colonial authorities and Caribbean people of all conditions viewed this experiential knowledge as powerful and competitive. In some ways, it served to respond to the ills of slavery. Even more crucial, however, it demonstrates how the black Atlantic helped creatively to fashion the early modern world.


After much delay, Bernardo Macaya finally arrived in Cartagena de Indias in late October 1675. the chief constable of the city of Portobelo in Panama had hastily arranged for Bernardo’s departure to Cartagena shortly after taking office some weeks before. the magistrate had heard worrisome notices about Bernardo during his time in Portobelo and had discovered equally disturbing accounts about him in paperwork left by the previous constable. Bernardo, a thirty-four-year-old West Central African slave of “Congo caste,” was a feared and renowned ritual practitioner operating around Portobelo. the chief constable was worried that he would not be able to keep Bernardo in prison or, worse, that he would end up like his immediate predecessor in office: dead. His fears were eventually realized by the events surrounding Bernardo’s departure from Portobelo.

For three days, according to the chief constable and the ship’s crew, the vessel taking Bernardo to Cartagena could not depart. the West Central African slave had commanded the skies over the Caribbean Sea to unleash fearsome winds and pour water and thunder over the city that Bernardo said he would use “to break the ships of those taking him to Cartagena and kill them.” It was only after prolonged negotiations and, later, after one of the sailing vessel’s shipmates held the West African ritual practitioner “at gun point” that Bernardo agreed to let the “sea … become calmed enough” so the ship could set sail. Bernardo’s powers, however, went far beyond commanding seas and skies.

Witnesses told the chief constable how, among other events, in early 1675 the “governor” of the free black town of Nuestra Señora de La Consolación, some ten miles west of Portobelo, called for Bernardo to treat a wound to his hand. the governor was worried he “had been bitten by a bejuco” (a reed). After examining the leader, Bernardo confirmed that, indeed, the ulcer “was caused by herbs” and gathered all of Nuestra Señora de La Consolación’s folk in the central plaza to discover the culprits. Bernardo then appeared in the middle of the group “dressed in skirts, with a macaw feather on his head” and started “playing a deer antler and a bell.” He danced “for a space of six or eight hours performing different ceremonies,” during which . . .

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