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December 6, 2001 Natalie Zemon Davis plunges into another historical story



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 Department’s 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 year’s time.

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 Stedman’s 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 they belonged.”

Stedman produced diaries, a book and drawings of his detachment in Suriname, which serve as an important source for Davis’s research. Stedman’s 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 women’s history since the 1970s, has undertaken to tell the story from Joanna’s perspective — even though the woman slave has left no record of the romance. Stedman’s 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 Joanna’s 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 Joanna’s 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 Davis’s 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 Martin’s wife, Bertrande, apparently believed him — until the real Martin appeared near the end of a trial held to establish the imposter’s 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 Davis’s 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 Joanna’s 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 colonial capital.

Geographically, the new project is a departure from Davis’s 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 explained.

“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.”