Jacob Myers

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Marguerite Bartlett Hamer Dissertation FellowPh.D. Candidate in English, University of Pennsylvania

"Noxious Life: Figuring Vermin in the Natural Histories of the British Caribbean"

I research transatlantic eighteenth-century literature and the history of science with focuses on race, empire, and public health. My dissertation explores how British colonizers conceptualized Caribbean-island fauna as a novel threat to West Indian slavery and plantocracy. Eighteenth-century planters in the Caribbean routinely framed pests as agricultural, medical, and psychic hazards. Such creatures, they said, could bring a plantation to ruin or cause the mental and bodily degeneration of Europeans. My project tracks how resident writers – like Hans Sloane, Edward Long, James Grainger, Thomas Thistlewood, and Benjamin Moseley – developed climatic theories, health interventions, and land management practices that codified their crops and bodies as subject to the threat of wild animals and their contagions. I argue the planter class assigned menacing creatures with racial subjectivity through a language of “pestilence,” whose cure required white intervention. My project traces how this racialization responded to the survival strategies of enslaved laborers and freed African and Creole peoples, who honed alternative material and cosmological approaches to Caribbean life. Their engagements with animals were often better integrated with the existing environment and more sustainable, and because of this, their methods were often hostile to European extractionist efforts. I contend that such Afro-Caribbean knowledges were simultaneously essential and antagonistic to the plantation’s restrictive focus on productive monoculture. Bringing together folklore, literature, colonial histories, and scientific treatises, my dissertation takes up these intellectual histories in case studies on classic pest figures: insects, rats, snakes, and vultures. In doing so, I reveal how noxious life defined early Caribbean identities, the emergence of "modern" medicine and agriculture on the plantation, and resistance to the islands' political and epistemological hierarchies.