The history of New World slavery has been an increasingly rich and revealing research field, as historians, ethnographers, sociologists, and other scholars of culture pick through the archival records left by Europeans and Americans revealing the brutality, inhumanity, and racism that created and sustained what after C. Vann Woodward has come to be known as “the peculiar institution.” Carrying on the legacy of C. L. R. James, whose pioneering Black Jacobins (1938) set the standard for historical criticism, many historians and ethnographers have concentrated on showing how slavery, while it degraded and humiliated its exploited objects, did not go unchallenged, virtually from the first. The picture of abject, powerless Africans who meekly accepted their unhappy fate has become less and less tenable as the record of slave revolts and everyday resistance has been gradually filled in. Slavery, we must now recognize, was a complex system of domination and resistance in which slave-holders, while they undoubtedly held the upper hand, were never wholly omnipotent.
Alabi’s World is Richard Price’s second major study of the origins of the Saramakas, a Suriname maroon community that was established in the course of the eighteenth century in a long series of wars followed by a tense, conflicted peace between the Saramakas and the European colonizers. It is a sequel to his First-Time: The Historical Vision of An Afro-American People(1983), which detailed the rise of the Saramakas as they themselves have preserved this history in the present and explored the role of this historical imagination in contemporary Saramaka social life. The new study, while it is concerned with much the same period, takes a some what different tack, interweaving three distinct kinds of source materials: once again, the accounts of their own history narrated by contemporary Samarakas; second, the records of Dutch colonial administrators charged with controlling the runaway slave problem as well as with negotiating with the Saramakas; and third, the diaries, letters, and other extant records left by the Moravian missionaries who tried and (for the most part) failed to convert the Saramakas from their indigenous religious practices to the exceedingly odd version of Christianity professed by this German Protestant sect. These last are perhaps the most intriguing and difficult documents to handle, since, as Price observes, he is attempting not merely to condemn or ridicule the missionaries—surely an easy mark for the modern historian and his or her audience—but to produce a similar kind of sympathetic understanding to that more readily achieved for the Saramakas themselves. It is an open question whether he succeeds in this last aim.
Price opens this narrative with the arrival of Alabi’s ancestors—indeed, they are, according to tradition, the ancestors of the entire maroon community—the West African slaves Lanu and Ayako. The story of their escape from captivity, their being taken in by sympathetic Amerindians, and their predatory raids on local plantations is told principally from the evidence of Samaraka tradition preserved into our own era, with some small additions from Dutch official records and diaries. Price himself interpolates these materials deftly, but it is fair to say that the burden of this tale is left to the Saramaka tradition, which Price records, one presumes, faithfully. At this point, and in principle throughout the book, Price draws no sharp distinction in possible authority or verisimilitude between Saramaka oral tradition and the archival documents from which he quotes so extensively. Neither form of historical recollection is privileged, although Price does, again and again, attempt to draw various sources together for comparison, while trying to see through the more obvious distortions of fact, particularly when these latter derive from the cultural opaqueness of one group to another. It should not require emphasizing that such incapacity to understand an alien society is equally apparent in the Europeans and the Saramakas.
Alabi’s father, Abini, the principal architect of the peace treaty between the Saramakas and the colonizers signed in the 1760’s, was largely responsible for establishing the lineaments of themodus vivendi that would dominate maroon-colonizer relations up to the end of slavery—and in many ways to the present day. The principal condition of the peace was the agreement of the Saramakas to return all runaway slaves, for which they would regularly receive tribute from the Paramaribo government. Price devotes numerous...
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