In this book, Jennifer Morgan seeks to reckon with slavery—its historicity, its afterlives, and notably, its archival silences—from the standpoint of the captive, specifically, from the lived experiences of enslaved women. From the first African who the Portuguese took as captive in 1441 from Senegambian Rio de Oro, who was a woman, to Dorothy, a Ghanian woman who literally blew up a slaveship by throwing a pipe into a pile of gunpowder, the female experience of enslavement drives Morgan’s historiography, and book, to its analyses and conclusions.

For this chapter, Morgan takes issue with modern histories of the labor market in early capitalism and their customary neglect of the economic and social aspects of the slave trade—as if, in her words, the establishment of chattel slavery had happened “off stage” while capitalism grew as an inevitable step forward in the history of economic development. She notes that even Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery remained in relative obscurity until recently, exemplifying economic historicism’s trend to relegate as marginal the role of slavery in the development of the economic (and social) historical present.

Though it is commonplace to note that what we may label, after Arendt, “the banality of evil,” prevails as a potent discourse in the unfolding of atrocities such as the slave trade (or the Shoah), Morgan here seeks to unravel how this process of turning absolute horror into banal operations exactly comes to pass. The answer, at least in part, is found in data: the mining of data, the disciplines deriving from numeracy, and the “creation of populations” or demographics. All of these numbers-based operations were mobilized during the 17th century as technologies of statecraft.

This was also a time in England when old economic models were giving way to new mercantilist realities. Complicated questions around new practices of credit and trade, of currency circulation, and the commodity trading as the main preoccupation of the wealth of the English nation, arose simultaneously with the commodification of Africans and hereditary racial slavery. In this turbulent economic environment, political thinkers in England were forced to engage debates about the shifting status of value and currency.

Morgan is here adamant in demonstrating that it has long been unrecognized that these conversations never took place outside the domain of imperialist thought, colonialism, and race thinking. At the precise moment when political economists could but scratch their heads in the face of a volatile, shifting value system, slavery and its accompanying practice of commodifying human beings get folded into, and instrumentalized, for the purpose of bringing relief to this inner chaos. To the English’s “rationality” and market oriented value system, Africans had nothing but “lack of rational attention to value and industry” (85). This and other discursively constructed antagonisms provided a convenient counterpoint against which to solidify answers to those troubling questions. Morgan demonstrates that there occurred much deliberate silencing of historical as well as contemporary economic activity of Africans in order for this narrative to pass as true. Not only had there been, for decades before the slave trade, a sustained and functioning trading system between Africans and Europeans, but even in descriptions of African nations at this time, all mentions of numeracy as associated with various trading and accounting practices and customs go suspiciously unaccounted for in Europeans’ travel narratives.  

This narrative of rationality embedded in the “ability” to valorize and trade in goods had the effect of “couch[ing] moral judgment” in a time where “secular rationality,” driven by marketplace logics, was emerging as a substitute for absolutist forms of governance. Simultaneous with this narrative, another epistemological break occurs during this time. That is: distinguishing the material from the social.

How did the practices of numeracy and demography described in this chapter amount to such an epistemic break?

Much is owed to the “political arithmetic” work of Petty and Graunt. When John Graunt published his Natural and Political Observations Made upon the Bills of Mortality in 1662, he was putatively the first to use “demographic evidence to understand a contemporary sociopolitical problem,” that of population growth (96). To contemporary minds, data can indeed appear harmless. To what degree Graunt and others at the time were aware of the violence embedded in such a fallacy, we’ll never know, but what we know is that in the process of ordering mortality, christening, and other such data rates into tables, Graunt effectively turned bodies into numbers to the effect of creating an exclusionary “grammar of citizenship” whereby Englishmen = citizens, distinguished from those that lived “ex sponte creates [laboring only sporadically], and are unfit subjects of Trade” (Graunt qtd. in Morgan 97). Thus the citizen is he who can actively participate in the market, and because the new economic system, and the imperialist aspirations of the English necessitated that Africans’ role in the trade was as commodities, Africans were ontologically disqualified from being subjects of trade. Sectioning off population groups and social and mortality trends into numerical data, Graunt set the stage for an economic order that depended on the state’s ability to turn bodies into numbers, the English falling on the citizen category and Africans on that of goods.

The place of black women in the slave economy

Of primary concern in this chapter is the role that black women played in the emergence of a slavery-based economy as we are seeing occurs in 17th century England. It is commonly understood that race comes about as an ideology to give a solution to the moral problem of slavery. For Morgan no such succession occurred. The examination that she does on the coevolution of demography and the antagonistic categories of citizen and commodified humanity evidence for her that what grows to be known as race emerges “simultaneously in a field of meaning that propelled early modern capitalism” (102). Moreover, as we have seen, Graunt’s novel modes of quantification come as a solution to the problem of population growth. This social reality is transmuted into an economic one when the bodies of black women become both enslavable and transmitters of slavery status (recall Spillers partus sequitur ventrem). Regarded, thus, as unable to populate England or its colonies (only “fit” subjects of trade would count as population), black women attain economic value in two fronts. All the while, the dehumanization is also doubled, relegating them marginal to human status in more ways than other women, including Native and Irish women, and than African men.

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