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Uncommon Sense

By Joseph M. Adelman · September 15, 2015

Witnesses and their Testimony in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World: Identifying Commonalities and Exploring Differences

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Today we continue our series exploring the roundtable sessions from last summer’s Institute-SEA conference with a post from Sara T. Damiano. She will receive her Ph.D. from the History Department at Johns Hopkins University this fall. This spring she will be a postdoctoral fellow in the Program in Early American Economy and Society at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Like many conference sessions, “Witnessing and Testimony in the Early Modern Atlantic World” first took shape during a conversation between friends. In the spring of 2014, as part of my larger study of gender and credit in eighteenth-century New England port cities, I was writing a chapter about women who observed credit financial transactions and testified in debt litigation. My colleague at the McNeil Center, Philippa Koch, was writing about eighteenth-century Protestant narratives of sickness and dying. Witnesses were a central category in both our projects. It seemed that similar questions on laypeople’s authority pertained to both of our projects, and that understanding testimony in its many forms was useful for contextualizing our actors’ speech and writing. Our roundtable at the 2015 OI-SEA Joint Meeting arose from our desire to have a broader conversation about witnessing which crossed subfields and disciplines.

Chaired by Sarah Knott, an Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, “Witnessing and Testimony” included presentations by a historian, a literary scholar, a historian of Christianity, and a historian of medicine. As Knott noted, our papers examined both witnessing as a practice and testimony as an archive. In my paper, I proposed that the study of witnessing is a useful lens through which to examine the relationship between everyday uses of space and social authority in early America. In the case of witnesses to financial activity, the fact that credit transactions routinely occurred within households, bustling, mixed-sex places, allowed women as well as men to legitimate binding agreements and pass judgment on others.

Next, Charles Bradshaw, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Martin examined testimony about plots of slave insurrections, arguing that enslaved people’s words contributed to racial divisions between blacks’ and whites’ subjectivities.

Philippa Koch, a PhD candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago, then examined a husband’s account of his wife’s death from breast cancer. Eighteenth-century Protestant accounts of sickness and dying, she explained, fused the language of empiricism with the Christian narrative form of the martyrology in order to serve multiple simultaneous purposes.

Finally, Seth LeJacq, a PhD candidate in the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University, suggested that sailors’ statements in sodomy trials in the British navy reflected a “vernacular” understanding of sodomy, one centered on telltale signs, sounds, and movements. Such testimony established the crime as the province of laypeople rather than medical experts.

During the discussion that followed, audience members generally pursued two lines of questioning. Several attendees queried how casual observers became formal witnesses. To what extent did bystanders recognize the import of their roles during the initial moment of seeing, and to what extent did people become witnesses after-the-fact, through legal processes or genres of writing? Other questions concerned the different social positions of individuals who did—or did not—testify. Attendees asked about differences between the testimony of informants and the accused, the significance of cross-class accusations, and the importance of witnessing in establishing racial hierarchies.

Such questions usefully exposed commonalities and divergences between witnessing in its many forms. To take one example, different kinds of witnessing functioned differently in establishing racial hierarchies. Enslaved people ordinarily could not testify in legal cases, and their inability to testify about the financial disputes discussed in my paper was one component of their exclusion from the body politic. In contrast, as Bradshaw explained, slaves could testify about insurrection plots, and so in these instances the content of their testimony reinforced differences between whites and blacks.

To take a second example, witnesses’ observations gained importance at different distances from the initial act of seeing. For example, Ebenezer Parkman, the husband featured in Koch’s paper, committed his observations to writing only one day after his wife’s passing; Parkman recognized from the outset his obligation to describe death to those who could not be present. In contrast, the vernacular knowledge of the sailors in LeJacq’s paper acquired legal importance primarily after-the-fact, during the formal proceedings of naval courts. Overall, comparing different kinds of witnessing clarified their respective features and functions, suggesting that scholars of witnessing have much to gain from remaining in conversation with one another.

The session ended with a provocative question from Sarah Knott, one that remained unresolved even after the discussion came to a close. Knott observed that each of the four papers concerned the second half of the eighteenth century (and, in the case of LeJacq and Bradshaw, the early decades of the nineteenth), and asked whether this period was a distinctive moment in the history of witnessing. Indeed, one might persuasively argue that it was. Scholars of the Enlightenment have charted an increased emphasis on observation and reason during the long eighteenth century, and Knott’s current project examines the sudden proliferation of first-person accounts during the Atlantic revolutions of the late eighteenth century.

Yet our panelists took a range of stances on this question. At one end of this spectrum, LeJacq noted that his paper was situated between 1789 and 1816, the period when British naval persecutions for sodomy peaked, and which other historians have associated with the rise of the expert witness. During these years, the navy’s concern with policing abuses of shipboard authority led ordinary sailors to assume a significant role in articulating vernacular sexual knowledge. In contrast, Koch explained that, while her paper featured examples from the mid-1770s, she locates witnessing within a Christian tradition extending back to works on the “art of dying” during the medieval period. Elements of Parkman’s description of his wife’s death, in other words, would have been similarly present in accounts from earlier centuries. Such contrasts between LeJacq’s and Koch’s arguments suggest the ongoing need to investigate connections between religious and secular forms of witnessing, and to interrogate assumed connections between witnessing, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Revolutions.

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