Theses Doctoral

Daring Trade: An Archaeology of the Slave Trade in Late-Seventeenth Century Panama (1663-1674)

Gaitan Ammann, Felipe

This dissertation delves into both archaeological evidence and firsthand written sources in order to examine the material constitution of European slave traders' social life in the last years of existence of the Spanish colonial city of Panama, burnt down to the ashes following a piratic attack in 1671. It is based on the well-established and widely recognized premise that African captives played a transforming and profoundly disruptive role in Spanish colonial society, despite the dehumanized social status slaves were given in the early modern world.

On the one hand, enslaved Africans were seen as necessary tradable objects without which the Spanish colonial enterprise could not have been sustained; on the other, colonial documents indicate that these captives were perceived as dangerous subjects seriously compromising the cultural basis of the colonial order. This work aims at demonstrating that the life trajectories of African slaves cannot be dissociated from those of their captors: it offers an alternative and indirect vision of the rich cultural experience of African people in the Americas by evaluating, both historically and archaeologically, the extent to which the cultural threat slaves manifestly represented for Western colonists in the New World determined or regulated the configuration of slave traders' lived spaces.

This research builds upon an important legacy of archaeological investigation that has, at least since the 1960s, provided Afro-descendant communities in the Americas with powerful historical and material referents indispensable to recreate strong and socially significant ties with their own past. However, taking some distance from more traditional studies focusing on the development of creolized lifestyles in plantation and maroon contexts, this works offers an innovative perspective on the painful memories of the slave trade by interrogating the nature and scope of the consumption practices through which Western slavers defended their nowadays unthinkable commercial enterprise.

In order to address this fundamental, but overlooked question in the archaeology of slavery, this study strongly engages with recent theorizations on the rich and complex concept of materiality, one which has contributed to reactivate material culture and social archaeology studies by empowering dormant, classic visions of the fascinating and unstable social bond relating people with the physical objects they create. In this study, archaeological and historical data testifying to colonial networks of material exchange are, thus, not simply described as mere reflections of past social performances; they are revealed as constitutive components of meaningful systems of sociability in which African slaves were inevitably trapped.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Meskell, Lynn M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 5, 2012