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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · September 21, 2016

Meet OI Fellow Shauna Sweeney

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Shauna Sweeney joined the Institute this summer as the 2016-2018 OI-NEH Fellow. Her research focuses on female-centered market networks in the Caribbean and their significance to the rise of Atlantic commerce and the transition from slavery to freedom during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Laurel Daen (William & Mary Ph.D. 2016), sat down recently with Shauna to discuss her work and her goals while at the Omohundro Institute. Here is what she found out.

Tell us about your project.

My project is a social and cultural history of market-women in Jamaica and the networks they constructed during slavery. While conducting dissertation research, I uncovered what appeared to be a fundamental tension pervading Caribbean slave societies: the informal economy—managed to a large extent by enslaved and free black women—simultaneously made colonial slavery possible and, by fostering enslaved mobility and socialization, undermined the rigid hierarchies of race and social control upon which slavery rested. In my project, Jamaican market women were at the center of this colonial paradox. Their commercial activities helped to stabilize capital accumulation and ensure survival within colonial slave society, but their mobility and fierce independence made them controversial icons of black freedom long before the abolition of colonial slavery. I argue that Jamaican market women played a critical role in constructing an eighteenth-century infrastructure of black freedom that only acquired additional significance during the early nineteenth century transition from slavery to freedom.

In addition, my research suggests that black women’s economic practices extended well beyond what scholars have previously assumed. Women traders often traversed large swaths of land and sea in pursuit of both potential customers and items that might fetch a high price at urban marketplaces. They traded with soldiers and local military commanders, shopkeepers, and tavern owners from whom they took orders for goods and with whom they could develop personal relationships. My goal is to capture fully the multifaceted nature of both Jamaican market women and the broader informal economy in which they operated, while highlighting the political significance of black women’s commercial activities during slavery and freedom.

How did you come to this topic?

I have always been struck by the centrality of outdoor markets to everyday life and the persistence of itinerant trade in the contemporary Caribbean. The connection between this phenomenon and the region’s vexed history of slavery and emancipation has fascinated me since I first encountered Caribbean and Atlantic-world history as an undergraduate. The question of how Caribbean informal economies developed and why women of African descent figured so prominently in their development dovetailed with my broader interest in the history of the African diaspora and Atlantic slavery. As a graduate student, I pursued these questions into archives in the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, and the United States. My project is also influenced by rich scholarly literatures on slavery and freedom, race and gender, and economy in the Atlantic world. My work attempts to place these historiographies into conversation through a story about women of African descent whose commercial activities profoundly shaped their own and others’ experiences of enslavement and freedom.

What types of sources do you use? Tell us about one memorable source.

I look at seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century legislation, colonial correspondence, vestry records, and maps. Planters and colonial historians had plenty to say about marketplaces, weekly gatherings of enslaved people, and women traders in their writing so I make extensive use of these histories as well as colonial travel narratives and diaries. There has been very important work done on the “silences” endemic to archives, particularly where it concerns enslaved people and enslaved women more specifically. The contents and structure of colonial archives tend to obscure the story of enslaved people so I have learned to read sources creatively and have actually found a wealth of information pertaining to markets. Private correspondence between merchants, official colonial correspondence, legal testimony, slave-trial summaries, workhouse records, and runaway advertisements have all proven indispensable to reconstructing the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Caribbean informal economy.

Finding the voices of market-women themselves in the historical record has proven difficult, though not impossible. I have had the greatest success identifying individual women by using runaway advertisements in colonial newspapers. In one memorable notice, a woman was wanted as a fugitive not for running away but rather for returning to Jamaica after being banished and continuing to trade in the local market with her daughter. That advertisement suggested to me the real intractability of the informal economy and the ability of some commercially-minded women to elude authorities. In addition to archiving the mobility of market-women, such advertisements also pointed to the libratory nature of the informal economy: many runaway women found a modicum of freedom in public markets.

What archives have you used? What is it like to work in these archives?

I have mostly used the British National Archives and the Jamaican National archives. My first trip to each was memorable for the sense I had of being overwhelmed and not really having a clue where to begin. The archivists and staff at both archives were very helpful and made valuable suggestions that ultimately led me to consult sources that have become critical to my work. At the National Archives in England I created a plan of what I would look at each day well in advance and it was more or less routine. In Jamaica, I had a sense of which documents and registers I would look at but I also was able to discover interesting records just by requesting things that had incomplete descriptions.

Archives are not neutral spaces. The work of Michel Rolph-Trouillot and Michel Foucault became meaningful to me in a practical sense as I sifted through records generated by slave-owners, slave-traders, and colonial officials. These were documents that were organized in such a way as to conceal—and selectively reveal—the workings of imperial power and ‘private’ domination. The routine violence of slavery, captured so well in its archive, can be distressing. The work of historians and other scholars who are critical of the genesis and enduring function of slavery’s archives were both heartening and useful to me as a researcher. Nevertheless, I think that the archive of colonial slavery has as much to tell us about how enslaved Africans lived, moved, traded, and formed relationships as it does about how they suffered and died. Caribbean market women, for example, embodied both the horrors of slavery and what Trouillot once called the “miracle” of creolization.

What do you hope to accomplish while at the OI?

During my residency in Williamsburg, I look forward to revising my manuscript, beginning with expanding the chronological scope of the project. I plan to delve deeper into the history of the informal economy in the Atlantic world during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In particular, I want to develop further some of my arguments about the influence of West African marketplaces on Caribbean developments and explore in greater depth the socio-economic relationships between African, European, and indigenous peoples during the early phases of colonialism in Jamaica. I would also like to analyze the evolution of material culture through an examination of images of market women (among the most popular in colonial art), clothing, and artifacts.


The 2017-2019 OI-NEH application is due October 31, 2016. Please note all applicants must have finished the Ph.D. before applying.

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