25 May 2016 12:00pm - 2:00pm Seminar Room SG1, Alison Richard Building


Dr James Poskett (Faculty of History, University of Cambridge)
Remembering Haiti: Phrenology, Slavery and the Material Culture of Race, 1791-1861

Dr Stefan Hanß (Faculty of History, University of Cambridge)
Familiar with the Matter: Slavery and the Body in the Early Modern Mediterranean


Dr James Poskett. Eustache Belin saw the violence of slavery and revolution first hand. Born a slave on the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1773, Eustache spent his youth toiling in the sugar mills. But amidst the Haitian Revolution of 1791, he escaped to Paris. Incredibly, in the 1830s, a French phrenologist took a cast of Eustache’s head. Over the next thirty years, Eustache became a focal point for discussion of African character. Phrenologists wanted to understand the relationship between the African mind, slavery and revolution. In this talk, I follow the bust of Eustache as it travelled back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. In doing so, I show how a single phrenological bust was deployed by both supporters and opponents of abolition. More broadly, this talk suggests that the history of race needs to be understood as part of a history of material exchange.


Dr Stefan Hanß. Traditional definitions of slavery strongly connect forced labour to the absence of a slave’s autonomy of decision over his body. Coerced labour, in that sense, is enforced, ensured and perpetuated through an owner’s power over another human’s body. Sociologists and anthropologists, however, have broadened the definition of body techniques and practices that prompt historians to rethink the relationship of labour and the body. My presentation thus discusses slavery in the early modern Mediterranean in the light of recent research on the history of the body. I examine how the bodies of slaves were a targeted yet negotiated scene of constraint and agency. Whilst Mediterranean slave-owners indeed tried to mark slavery through the bodies of enslaved men and women, their strategies in body practices enabled slaves to constantly re-negotiate their servile status. I first examine archival lists in which slave-owners described their slaves’ bodies in detail. These descriptions enabled identification and guaranteed the slaves’ status as commodities on the one hand. On the other, slaves were familiar with the significance of these lists. Consequently, they tried to influence both the processes of commodification and their servile status by making active use of their masters’ records. My presentation’s second focus lies on how former slaves described their own bodies and body practices in servility. When enslaved Germans returned to the German lands, they often wrote in incredible detail about the shaving rites they had to endure whilst living in Ottoman or North African servitude. These sixteenth- and seventeenth-century narratives, again, underline that slaving and body practices posed constraints as much as scopes of actions of which slaves were well aware of and keen to use.




Open to all.  No registration required .
Part of Things-(Re)constructing the Material World Research Group, series.

Administrative assistance: gradfac@crassh.cam.ac.uk

Upcoming Events


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk