Annika Raapke


Caribbean Realms of the Body: A praxeological Approach towards a History of the Moved Body in the late 18th Century

1. Introduction & Contextualisation

The 18 century's steady stream of Europeans moving to the  Caribbean colonies is primarily attracted by promises of wealth through the slave-based sugar- and tobacco-business. But it is also the prospect of an increased social mobility which enticed many people from poorest backgrounds to travel to French, English or Dutch settlements in the Caribbean. Those men and women who dared to resettle, kept close contact to friends, family and business partners by means of correspondence. In these letters, which have been preserved in an astonishing spectrum (see below), one highly-visible phenomenon comes to the fore: the world-perceiving, world-experiencing body of the letters' authors. Ubiquitously, they describe the body as the medium of perception and experience. Corporeal perception is the origin of emotional and mental states as well as the situational perception of the world – a “realm of the body”. The body, firstly, experiences the physical Caribbean: heat, tropical storms, bites of unknown insects, unfamiliar food. It also experiences the specific make-up of colonial societies, perceives the enslaved counterpart's black skin or the commingling of the white population regardless of European distinctions of rank, e.g. when a highly cultured theatre manager works next to a perennially hired servant. The authors' bodies experience the colonial resettlement as crisis and unfitting: their everyday practices of dressing, working, eating, sleeping or health care fail at the Caribbean's physical conditions; they fall ill, feel queasy, feeble, irritated. Social practices of in- and exclusion, distinction and usage of shared spaces have to be modified, too. A French merchant's wife, for example, is outraged about the “mulatto-women's impertinence”, who “parade” the streets in voguish clothes. In addition to that, there is slavery, which entails the execution of very particular practices on a daily basis. The letters preserved contain an astonishing spectrum of intelligible bodies, which contributed to shaping the 18th century's colonial everyday life through their practices – this allows for a new approach to a colonial history of the body from the perspectives of Praxeology and History of the Everyday. On the basis of questions, rooted in cultural history and the sociology of the body, I will investigate in how far the changing constellations of people in combination with the colonies' natural environment contributed to the emergence of certain caesural bodily experiences. These moments of caesura will be, furthermore, scrutinised in terms of their effects on practice-modifications and, in how far, thusly, processes of subjectivation within the colonial array were influenced by these constellations of people and experiences of the body – and, in turn, the ways, in which processes of subjectivation turned out to be constitutive for everyday life.

2. State of Research

In various discourse-analytical investigations, Colonial and Postcolonial Studies have already dealt with issues such as the construction, reflexion, objectification and sexualisation of male, female, black, indigenous and enslaved bodies in politics, science, medicine, literature etc. as well as the home countries. The bodily encounter with the unknown, its experience and discursive establishing are common issues of colonial and postcolonial approaches. These analyses have provided fascinating and important insights into the discursive foundation of early colonial ideologies. However, the colonial societies' everyday life was also constructed through the huge number of people of utterly diverse origin, who did not take part on the level of a normative text-production (which Homi K. Bhabha describes as „in itself a theatre of war“), and whose constitutive meaning can only be fathomed through an analysis of their practices. De Certau's argument that “the presence and circulation of a representation (…) tells us nothing about what it is for its users. We must first analyse its manipulation by users who are not its makers” is valid here, too. The colonial societies, which emerged in the 18th century, are particularly promising for an investigation of change on the microlevel following practices as “cultural science's smallest unit of analysis”, since it allows a reconstruction of these societies' constitutions “from below”. The chosen, multifaceted material, the approach from a History of the Everyday in combination with the focus on the body and its practices, promises new insights into the realms of the body within the colonial arrangement and, hence, its everyday, in which any society ultimately constitutes itself in the first place.

3. Material

The project is based on an atypically broad (at least in terms of the History of Early Modern Times) and, yet, widely unresearched source material: the British Hight Court of Admiralty’s caper-inventory, stored at the National Archives in London. The countless, partly still unopened letters come from the hands of men, women and children from almost every European country. “Lower” servants of all sorts, ship's crews, traders, people belonging to plantations of each rank are represented; the level of writing skills varies from the most basic knowledge to “master-letters” of top level literary standards. This source materials potential for the project's goals has already been tested twice. For my investigation, I will primarily rely on personal correspondence."



The National Archives, London,

High Court of Admirality (HCA): HCA 30/381


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