Among the healers featured in this study of Caribbean healing over the seventeenth century (ca. 1580–1720) is Antonio Congo, an African-born slave who lived in Spain, New Spain, Santo Domingo and Curaçao before settling in Cartagena de Indias. A free healer, Congo referred to herbs and other products of the natural world as his ‘offspring’; cast coins received in payment on the floor of his shack to appease the spirits of the Amerindians interred underneath; and communed with nature, witnessed by a crowd commanding a tropical storm into submission sometime around 1680. For this he was denounced to the Inquisition’s office in Cartagena and his experiences entered the historical record. Healers like Congo were ubiquitous in the early modern Caribbean, but there have been few empirical studies of their practice. Drawing on hundreds of depositions and confessions in the files of Cartagena’s Inquisition, this book offers a new history of early modern empiricism that meticulously reconstructs the activities of dozens of healers in the lower Caribbean basin, including Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, the Panama Isthmus, Cuba and the northern savannahs around Cartagena. More than half were criollos (born in the New World), followed numerically by recent arrivals from Upper Guinea, West Central Africa, and the Bight of Benin. In this volatile, polyglot world, ritual healers commanded authority on the basis of their ability to observe and manipulate ‘substances with bodily effect’ in their new settings. Gómez argues that this creative practice produced a ‘sensorial language’ about the natural world with broad appeal in society that amounted to an epistemological revolution, in which immaterial spiritual entities infiltrated the sensed material world. It is an effective rebuke of prevailing models that posit the linear importation of African cultures and knowledge, or a stable blend of African, European and Amerindian in a pot of medical mestizaje. Despite the observation that ‘most health care took place outside of hospitals’ (p.51), preliminary chapters treat the demographics of the region and the manner in which official spaces of healing, with their funding shortages, minimal regulation and inadequate personnel, relied on the expertise and labour of healers of African descent. Analysis then shifts to the ‘geographies of healing’ constituted by mobile ritual specialists who traversed port cities and hinterlands, multiple islands and the boundaries of English, Dutch and Spanish empires. To refer to these figures Gómez adapts the label Mohán, a term indigenous to the region that inquisitors occasionally used to denote a sorcerer. As with ‘black’ and ‘blackness’, Gómez hopes by this usage to discourage anachronistic assessments of their work and to draw attention both to the multiple influences and ultimate instability of their knowledge: seen on their own terms, they were intellectuals with circuitous and overlapping itineraries. They interacted with patients from diverse backgrounds to develop healing repertoires that were above all experiential, in the sense of engaging with corporeal and natural realities. Healers smelled, touched and otherwise manipulated herbs and other ritual objects, in a ‘Babylonian world’ in which unintelligible languages ensured that the sounds of drums and words produced the realities of disease and health. By conjuring amazement over truth-extracting leaves, charmed snakes and other healing phenomena (a Caribbean counterpoint to the European fascination with wonders), specialists created a natural world in which animals, plants, and handmade ritual objects opened onto a universe of unseen spirits and energies. And their claims were accepted as truth by a range of early modern actors, apparently including Cartagena’s bishop, who secured the services of Paula de Eguiluz, a celebrated healer of advanced age, even while she was in the Inquisition’s custody. Patients rejected medical orthodoxies in favour of African epistemologies; they were less concerned with first principles and medical theories than with whether cures worked. This book marks an indispensable contribution to the literature on the lived experiences and healing cultures of the early modern Atlantic. Readers familiar with studies of the social dimensions of health will appreciate the particularity of this Caribbean diaspora, where the power of black healers was ‘dominant and expanding’ (p.139). By contrast, the anthropologist Laura Lewis, drawing on Inquisition records in early modern Mexico, has characterized an ‘unsanctioned’ realm of healing and hexing to which Spanish merchants, priests and officials had recourse, in which the practices of Africans and castas predominated. What is normative in the fragmented Caribbean is so only within certain hidden domains within the more established colony of New Spain. Where the book most innovates is in its recovery of a seventeenth-century culture of experimental practice—of empirical assessments of reputed cures that often involved patients—beyond the European world, one that nevertheless failed to give rise to new natural taxonomies or ‘circulate’ because the repertoire was so profoundly rooted in the social contexts in which it evolved. For their part, inquisitors were unprepared to hear about medicinal substances with universal applications and often burned the substances and objects they confiscated. The book offers a paradox, in the form of situated knowledge that posed an epistemological challenge to European categories and convictions but that was ephemeral, and often not even identifiable. In this the early modern Caribbean may approximate other healing cultures, in which ‘prudential’ expertise (in Steven Shapin’s formulation1), acquired through accumulated experience and practical action on sick bodies, proved more compelling for most people than the bookish learning of physicians. Scholars of early modern science, medicine and the African diaspora are invited to consider the Caribbean as a crucible of knowledge production about the natural world. In the process readers might adduce other factors—the politics of race, print and literacy, or the status of New World knowledge relative to Europe—to explain why so few took note of what African healers gleaned from their study of the natural world. Footnotes 1 Steven Shapin, Never Pure. Historical Studies of Science as if it Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Social History of Medicine – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 3, 2018
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