In Between Fitness and Death, Hunt-Kennedy explores representations of disability, racism, and slavery in an ambitious study that spans 200 years, starting in the sixteenth century and concluding with the end of the British slave trade in the early nineteenth century. Working with a range of printed and archival sources from the Caribbean (mostly Barbados and Jamaica) and England, Hunt-Kennedy argues that disability served as a “trope” to “denigrate Africans and their descendants to the level of subhuman beings” (4). The association of blackness and disability, however, was more than discourse. As Hunt-Kennedy maintains, slavery had a disabling impact on the enslaved. Most lived out their lives under bondage in the “space between fitness and death,” experiencing the “methodical disfiguring and disabling” of their bodies (71). Such was the reality of life under slavery that served the economic interests of slaveowners. This undermining of the health and longevity of slaves by the very system that relied upon slaves’ bodies to realize profits is a contradiction that was not lost on other historians. But in using the lens of disability studies to explore this tension, Hunt-Kennedy provides a new and valuable way of reading the sources.
Hunt-Kennedy begins this work with an exploration of the origins of British racism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, tracing its impact on ideas about slavery and enslaved people during the period of the transatlantic trade. She states that English writers’ descriptions of Africans as “monstrous” deformed beings “contained elements that anticipated later forms of racist thinking” (3, 5). But disability was more than just representation. Hunt-Kennedy points to the injuries that enslaved people suffered in their violent capture and confinement during the Middle Passage. Physically weakened, they were vulnerable to the harsh conditions that they experienced in the Caribbean.
Hunt-Kennedy shows the extent to which the Jamaican and Barbadian legal system allowed slaveowners to mete out punishments that often left enslaved people permanently disabled. Hunt-Kennedy’s close reading of almost 1,000 Jamaican and Barbadian advertisements for runaway slaves allows her to reveal the many ways that slavery disfigured, injured, and crippled the enslaved. One graphic advertisement for an escaped teenaged boy described his body as marked by whipping and scarred by disease. Hunt-Kennedy argues that such advertisements made the violence inflicted on enslaved people seem natural and mundane. But they also reminded enslaved people of the surveillance under which they lived and the violent consequences that infractions could bring. They echoed earlier representations of Africans and African-descended peoples as only “questionably human” (108).
Disability meant something different for abolitionists They represented enslaved people as injured and broken in an effort to sway public opinion and enact legislation against slavery and the slave trade, countering images of the “‘strong’ armed, and threatening black rebel” (164), in an attempt to reassure that freeing enslaved people would not threaten the empire. For their part, enslaved people sometimes resisted slavery by “masquerading disability,” which allowed them to evade work and exert some control over their lives (92). Disability could also indicate special abilities. Enslaved people viewed spiritual specialists, such as Obeah—practitioners who had some kind of disability—as possessing a “higher degree of supernatural ability,” which could serve as a “compensation” for physical impairment (83).
In revealing the pervasiveness of disability among enslaved people and the various associations between blackness and disability, Hunt-Kennedy provides a new way of looking at the archives of slavery. Between Fitness and Death furthers our understanding of Caribbean slavery.