After three weeks of searching through hundreds of moldy and hurricane-stricken eighteenth-century documents at the National Archives in London, I discovered a petition for the sale of property in 1790. The letter was primarily for the property sale of Ann Barramont, a Black Carib woman living in St. Vincent, a Caribbean island in the Lesser Antilles chain just west of Barbados. The petition mentioned Ann, her children, and a man named Pierre Barramont in the transaction—positioning her as the matriarch and head of the family. Rarely have the colonial archives ever mentioned a Black Carib woman, let alone contained a document detailing her individual experience. After photographing Ann’s petition, I shut the one-hundred-page folder the letter was stuffed into, only to have it fall open again, exactly on her page.
The Black Caribs, as they were termed by British colonists, had come together with both Arawak and African ancestry, the latter having been historicized as shipwrecked aboard a vessel in the seventeenth century headed for Barbados. Later, they also functioned as a type of maroon society and welcomed mostly escaped Africans from the brutal plantations of nearby Barbados, but also Caribs from Dominica and fugitive Africans from St. Lucia and Grenada. The Black Caribs were, like many others, a moving mixture of cultures, experience, and survival under the unstable regimes of market capitalism and plantation slavery. By the eighteenth century, they formed a diverse but amalgamated community.
By the late eighteenth century the Black Carib population was estimated at close to five thousand, and were considered the only autonomous Black population in the British Caribbean. Historicized as a Black indigenous group that prevented large-scale European settlement and plantation societies in St. Vincent, their strategic alliances with the French army in Martinique and their capabilities during guerilla warfare also gained cultural popularity in theatrical productions in the early nineteenth century in Harlem. They were understood in the Atlantic world, and in historical pages as legendary in their negotiation and psychological manipulation over colonial administrations and armies. Indeed they were all of this, and more.
Ann however, appeared as a figure that necessitated a recalibration of a dominant history. The Black Caribs were not a monolith. There were factions that were incredibly militarized and distrustful of their British neighbors on the island, and some participated in the colonial market and lived on British settlements. They engaged in trade in the francophone Caribbean, and held various understandings of political economy and freedom making. Much of the historiography discusses the agency of Black Caribs only in relation to armed warfare, producing a highly masculinized and linear narrative of success and defeat. Because of these gaps, I set out to craft a world for Ann through surrounding documents and by reading into archival silences. This demanded the discipline of an honest and corroborated imagination. I also did not want to fall into the trap of telling a story of predetermined arguments, or of satisfying outcomes. Ann was not a radical woman on the island. She did not singlehandedly lead revolts, nor is it clear that she participated in the infrapolitics of domestic culture.
Ann was a property owner in the British settlement of St. George’s Parish, located a few miles away from Kingstown, the colonial administrative center of the island. In the one-page petition for the sale of her property, her family is also mentioned. She was an elder, the matriarch of her household, with three adult children—Celeste, Marianne, and Rosalie. She had also been widowed prior to the construction of the document. All of the members of her family in the document have the French surname Barramont. Colonial documents claimed that by this time, Black Caribs at every level and every age were fluent in French, which fueled the paranoia of British administrators. Proficiency in French was a skillset learned not through formal institutions on the island nor missionary instruction but through close social proximity with nearby French colonies. Adjacency to the French meant more than cultural amalgamation; it also implied an enduring political alliance. By 1790, units of Black Carib militia were already involved in an arms trading market with French military in Martinique and had political ties and communication with the government on that island. Ann’s family name lets us know that they were part of this tradition shared among the Black Carib population—an involvement with the French that had yielded past and potentially future alliances.
Ann’s narrative also required going beyond just a story of confirming her existence as a Black indigenous woman who owned property in 1791. To piece together Ann’s story simply for the gratification of representation within history would be doing her an injustice. I wanted to understand her relationship to power and to the rest of the Atlantic world. Her petition grants us a specific focus of colonial priorities in the turbulent final decades of the eighteenth century. It is a vantage point for a story of ownership, colonial instability, and panic that placed ultimate importance on profit, property and cultivation within the larger Atlantic region. I surveyed surroundingmeeting notes and correspondence from the late 1780s and used them to determine the nature of her land grant, the relationship between different sects of Caribs and British settlers, and the shifting social and political climate on the island. The existence of the Barramont petition itself also reveals an internal struggle for property and land holdings. The possibility of the transaction being coerced signifies the structural power within the British settlement, even as property-owning Caribs were understood and given privileges as adopted subjects. The example of Ann and her family’s incorporation into the settlement as “friendly” also assisted in building opposition to the militarized Black Caribs. The creation of the petition, its contents, and its implications confirm the priorities of the nascent British colony—to profit through cultivation, dispossession, intimidation, and reinforcement of property.
The Black Caribs today are understood as both victims of genocide and as the ancestors of a contemporary ethnic group called the Garifuna, or Garinagu. Today, the Garifuna live mostly on the Caribbean coasts of central America, but since the 1970s they have become a global people, immigrating to cities in the U.S. and Canada. The Garifuna exodus out of central America was due mainly to the privatization of land in the coastal regions of their countries, to prepare for a parasitic and violent tourism industry. From two centuries earlier, Ann Barramont’s story offers a closer look at the insecurities of colonialism and the complexities of subjugation. While the history of the Black Caribs/Garifuna is a tale of autonomy and warfare, it is also about a people that were active participants in both a local and global struggle to make sense of ownership and property. The uncertainty that pervaded Ann and her family’s world, their foreseeable dispossession, and the inherent resistance that accompanied, is indeed telling of the rushing waters to come. Ubafa woun Garinagu.
Thabisile Griffin is a doctoral candidate in the History department at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a scholar of Atlantic history, with an emphasis on the 18th century Caribbean world. Her project is entitled The Unmaking of St. Vincent: Colonial Insecurity, Black Indigeneity and the Problem of the Hero, and examines Black Carib and multi-ethnic peasant struggles for freedom and sovereignty against an unstable colonial order. She has been published in forums such as the Boston Review in response to “Black Study, Black Struggle,” as well as in Ufahamu: A Journal of Africa Studies. Follow her on twitter at @Ptahbisile