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The psychodynamics of oppression

Published:Friday | November 9, 2018 | 12:00 AM
The book cover of Archibald Monteath
Glenville Ashby

Maureen Warner-Lewis projects Archibald Monteath on to a multiplex tapestry of history. Archibald, like slaves before and after him, is swept up by the sociological and psychological curents of a painful era.

Throughout, documents, personal narratives, and oral traditions are authenticated to reproduce an intriguing historiography. For sure, Warner-Lewis' work is meticulously crafted and qualitatively sound.

We are given an anthropological purview of Igbo life. It is here that Anaiso, later christened Archibald Monteath, was first cultured. It is circa 1792. Born of a chieftain mother, we learn of the intrigue behind his capture and the new Zeitgeist that defined a people and a nation.

The author addresses slavery's many layers and nuances. "Plantation society in Jamaica," she writes, "was structured along caste distinctions (...) one was based on colour; the other personal freedom."

She explains that both these factors "[produced] conflicting and contradictory paradigms".

It is from these conflicts that colourism emerged as a defining phenotype.

Warner-Lewis' study transcends any single historical figure. Almost effortlessly, the author traverses the enduringly complex topography of slavery. For its scholarship and rigour, Warner-Lewis' work serves as a comprehensive pedagogical resource for anyone interested in the phenomenology of oppression. On an affective level, Archibald Monteath resonates in a manner hardly imaginable.

Anaiso was born around 1792. After his capture, he recalled that "he and about 11 boys travelled across in the slave cabin and were allowed to play and move about."

The author corroboratively adds that "up to 20 per cent of slaves on any shipment were sold by slave captains and crews as part of their commission for making their voyage to Africa," and that during the 18th century, having black servants was "an index of rank" among the English elite, and small black boys occupied a special position as cosmetic ornaments.

The writer describes plantation conditions in some detail, differentiating between pens and larger holdings in Jamaica.

"By 1782 there were still about 300 pens and by 1832 one-eighth of the island's slave population resided in livestock farms," she notes.




"The principal role of pens was therefore to produce goods for the domestic market by way of large and small stock, meat, grass and food provisions. In addition, pens offered the sugar estates manpower ... they were occupied in daily and annual routine such as tending animals, cleaning and preparing pasture and planting guinea grass and provisions ... as watchmen, skilled labour and marketing livestock and other commodities." There were field labourers but they were divided into gangs sharply smaller than those on estates.

There is ample information on John Monteath, Archibald's master, and, more importantly, the evangelising efforts of the Church, in particular, the defining qualities of the Moravians.

Sunday markets proved advantageous for proselytising. Prayer meetings were also convened and Bible classes were formed at chapels. The Word was also conveyed on the many estates throughout the island.

Membership in the church was earned. To become a Moravian was "arduous and selective, evidenced in the accounts of preparation of reception, and the testing period between reception into the Church and first communion".

Expectedly, Christian indoctrination was never seamless. From plantocracy emerged unrestrained, libidinous arrangements - "a model for a proper bourgeois life [that] offered a model of disorder, licentious sexuality, illegitimacy with coloured mistresses kept openly, and concubinage ..."

But clearly, the Church had more exigent concerns, i.e., the proselytising of the obdurate African slave.

Of the ever-stubborn manifestation of 'Africanness,' the author writes, "Belief that spirit force could manifest in the physical self made the body a site of spiritual conflict ..."

Myalism, a form of African spiritism, endowed its practitioners with curative powers while bridging the worlds of the dead and the living. "The door to the spirit world was the trance and the trance could be induced by movement of the dance and by music," the author explains.




The clash of cultures unveiled a tormentous psychic struggle in the African.

Constrained by the Christian superego, Africans struggled and failed to repress their natural spiritual impulses, long part of their archetypal construct. Wild displays of neurotic conversions were misconstrued. Viewed by the missionaries in damning religious terms. They were, arguably, projections of their own psychopathologies.

The author elaborates, "When first confronted with this ecstatic or violent form of religious devotion, the missionaries were deluded into thinking that it was a purely Christian experience, but when they realised that this behaviour was an intrinsic part of Myal rituals, they condemned it as devilish possession and excluded many of their church members in this account."

For the most part, hubris, cultural naivety, and language barriers made it that more difficult to uproot an entrenched Afro-religious ideal.

Arguably, the Church, very much integral to the pervasive ethos of the island, dissected the moral, spiritual, and cosmological structure of the African Mind, Producing a dialectic wrought with difficulties.




Amid the dissociation that accompanies child abuse and trauma, in this setting, slavery, some might argue that Archibald needs to be convinced of his salvation. Indeed, there is no better case of defence mechanism, in this case, sublimation. It is within Christianity that he must find existential meaning to (subconsciously) deny the impulse of the 'death drive.'

The author writes, "So here is an inversion of the portrayal of suffering. The inversion, however, then reverts when, for his part, Archibald is willing to serve as slave to his Saviour."

Archibald himself reveals that much: "My only wish and prayer is, that the Lord who brought me, a lost and undone sinner, who purchased me with his previous blood and delivered me from the power of Satan, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood, may more, and more, gain ascendancy in my heart, that I may 'be and remain his property,' until he calls me from earth." (author's emphasis)

Fittingly, in the end, Archibald's doctrinal position is detailed. A missive discusses his relationship with his master, the purchase of his freedom, church eschatology, and his ecclesiastical service.

Excerpts of his note, seen here, will prove unsettling to many. Moreover, for the psychoanalyst, it exemplifies a classic case of splitting (as per Melanie Klein): "That the faithful Saviour took me, a poor African negro slave, who was living in ignorance and sin, and taught me to know and love my Redeemer, and to be the means of teaching others also; that by his blessing I have learnt to read, and even write the English language, and done so much for me - all this makes me so happy that I cannot describe my feelings ... Many slaves brought upon themselves severe punishments by thinking that what was the property of the master, was also theirs. I taught the people very different! Oh, the yoke of slavery! How it oppresses the poor negro ... Oh, that all my black brethren and sisters may soon hear the precious Word of God ... to repent and believe so in that great day when we must render an account how we have made use of the precious Word of God, our fathers in Africa who are still living in darkness and the shadow of death may not rise up in shadow against us ..."

Revealing indeed.

Archibald Monteath

Igbo, Jamaican, Moravian

UWI Press, Mona, Jamaica

ISBN- 978-976-640-197-9

Available at Amazon

Ratings: Essential

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