Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Female Bodies and Capitalist Drive: Leonora Sansay's Secret History in Transoceanic Context

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Female Bodies and Capitalist Drive: Leonora Sansay's Secret History in Transoceanic Context

Article excerpt

Junot Diaz prefaces his 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with a condensed history of the Caribbean island named Hispaniola by Christopher Columbus, later called Santo Domingo and now home to the two nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The "Admiral" of Diaz's passage below is Columbus, whose 1492 landing in the Caribbean marked the first moment when Europeans set eye and foot on what would be called the New World. Diaz describes the haunting legacy of Santo Domingo's difficult history, ignited by this arrival:

  They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the
  enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as
  one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into
  Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the
  Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku--generally a
  curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of
  the New World. Also called the fuku of the Admiral because the
  Admiral was both its midwife and one of its great European victims
  ...
  No matter what its name or provenance, it is believed that the
  arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fuku on the world,
  and we've all been in the shit ever since. Santo Domingo might be
  fuku's Kilometer Zero, its port of entry, but we are all of us its
  children, whether we know it or not. (1-2)

This passage describes the Columbian arrival as a kind of big-bang moment marking the origin of the modern/colonial world system, that uneven network of global capitalist relations facilitated by Europe's discovery of the New World's resources. (1) Diaz locates the epicenter of the world system's emergence at the ground zero of Santo Domingo in a suggestively gendered scene wherein the "midwife" Columbus assists at the colonial birth of a child whose destructive power is launched by the terrifying violence of its own conception. (2)

In this article I turn to another novel set on this same island, a novel that until recently languished in near obscurity since its publication almost exactly two hundred years before Diaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Written by Leonora Sansay and published in 1808, Secret History; or, the Horrors of St. Domingo is an epistolary novel set in the French colony of Saint Domingue following the slave revolution that erupted there in 1791. Saint Domingue was a spectacularly profitable French sugar colony that occupied the western portion of the island and that was given its indigenous name, Haiti, following its independence from France in 1804. The eastern portion of the island--now the Dominican Republic--was in Sansay's time the Spanish colony whose name, Santo Domingo, was then used also to designate the entire island. (3) The novel takes place in the years 1802 and 1803, when the slave revolution in Saint Domingue transitioned into a war for independence from France. I begin this consideration of Sansay's novel with Diaz's brief history because Secret History recognizes and plays out precisely the violent spin and repeating whirl of colonial violence described in his passage above. It does so by plotting onto each other the intimate domestic dynamics of sexual desire and the transcontinental economic relations of capitalist drive by superimposing erotic and economic triangles. (4) Much recent scholarship on Secret History has read the novel in the context of the Atlantic world; it was written, however, during a period when Atlantic trade routes were being aggressively extended through exploration and commerce into the Pacific. The many narratives of these Pacific voyages that circulated throughout Europe and the United States during this period presented an image of a lucrative and exotic Pacific world that recalls the frequent pairing of wealth and sexuality in some of the earliest European accounts of the Americas, I situate Secret History in this transoceanic commercial and literary context and argue that the bodies of women repeatedly function in this novel as a kind of switch that exposes the dynamic interrelation between individual desire and capitalist drive. …

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