by Frank Kuin
Concordians were treated last week to a sneak preview of the next work
by acclaimed historian Natalie Zemon Davis an ambiguous tale of
romance between a white captain and a mulatto woman slave in colonial
South America, steeped in the intricacies of cross-cultural relationships.
At the English Departments annual Lahey Lecture, Professor Davis
regaled faculty and students of English and history with her interpretations
of the multicultural plantation society of late 18th-century Suriname,
on the Caribbean coast of South America. She has been researching the
subject as part of a new book, due to be completed in about a years
In the lecture, Davis, a professor at Princeton University and the University
of Toronto, focused on the marriage of John Gabriel Stedman, a Scottish-Dutch
military captain, and Joanna, the daughter of a Dutch settler and a black
woman. Although colonial Dutch law prohibited unions between freemen and
slaves, the two were unofficially married for four years in the 1770s,
until Stedmans return to Europe.
Both of them were people of mixed lives, mixed parentage, multiple
languages, conflicting loyalties, Davis said, explaining her interest
in the story, in which many cultural strains are braided together.
I want to explore the multiple and contradictory worlds to which
Stedman produced diaries, a book and drawings of his detachment in Suriname,
which serve as an important source for Daviss research. Stedmans
narrative is a versatile document, with descriptions of flora and fauna,
accounts of hostilities between rebelling Maroons and the Scots Brigade
in which he served, autobiographical material, as well as the love story.
However, Davis, a pioneer in womens history since the 1970s, has
undertaken to tell the story from Joannas perspective even
though the woman slave has left no record of the romance. Stedmans
account of Joanna as simply a faithful and loving friend does
not satisfy her.
I hope to construct a possible mentality for Joanna, and a sense
of how she viewed this marriage, Davis said. How would Joanna
have reflected on her relation with a white captain to her sister slaves?
Was it affectionate or exploitative? A successful business relation?
Or, seeing as Stedman tried to purchase Joannas freedom, a step
bringing her closer to manumission?
Davis engages in such construction by researching contemporary contexts.
For instance, by examining collateral evidence on marriage
and women slaves in general, both from literary narratives and historical
documents, Davis builds insights into Joannas possible motives.
Thus, Davis works as a literary scholar and as an historian at the same
time. I try to put on both hats, she said. The bottom
line for me is more that of a historian, in that I want to end up understanding
the culture and style of a period. But I like the idea of being between
fields, drawing from both of them.
This imaginative approach is reminiscent of Davis critically acclaimed
earlier work. Most famously, she used comparable methods in her 1983 book
The Return of Martin Guerre, a work of historical research that
reads more like a novel. With Daviss cooperation, it was made into
a movie starring Gérard Depardieu.
In The Return of Martin Guerre, Davis reinterpreted the case of
a 16th-century imposter in a French village, who took on the identity
of Martin Guerre after a long absence of the real Guerre. Many townspeople,
including Martins wife, Bertrande, apparently believed him
until the real Martin appeared near the end of a trial held to establish
the imposters identity.
Davis proposed a persuasive new interpretation, implying Bertrande had
known all along that the new Martin was an imposter. She probably played
along, Davis argued, because it was in her best interests to have a husband
again. Davis examined the historical context of the area, including themes
like the role of women in marriage and the degree of their independence,
to support her argument.
Although some historians criticized her approach as too speculative, most
praised it as compelling and insightful. Moreover, Martin Guerre established
Daviss reputation as a highly engaging storyteller.
Now, Davis has set her sights on Joanna, the Suriname slave, as her new
protagonist. She was gripped by some aspects of Joannas existence,
such as her links to Dutch settlers, slaves, and Maroon rebels; the languages
she spoke, and her mysterious death by poisoning in 1782.
I really liked Joanna, Davis said, adding that of the two
marriage partners, she is the more challenging enigma. Davis
came across their story while working on an earlier book, and has been
doing research in Suriname and in the archives in The Hague, the former
Geographically, the new project is a departure from Daviss first
passion: French social and cultural history. I decided I did not
want to do any more writing that was only situated in Europe, Davis
There are stories I very much want to tell about people who once
lived in the rain forests of Suriname, or along the shores of the St.
Lawrence, or plied the caravan routes of North Africa.