Adventures in the Archives
Feeling Grief: On Emotions in the Archive of Enslavement

Feeling Grief: On Emotions in the Archive of Enslavement

In September, when an archivist at Fisk University asked me to help identify a ten-page manuscript from 1776 Saint-Domingue, my mind began to race. Saint-Domingue was the French Caribbean colony that became Haiti after a long revolution that lasted from 1791 until November 18, 1803. In the 1770s, the colony was in the throes of ensuring that enslaved persons and free people of color remained subservient to the political power of the white population of the island made up of both European and island-born Creoles.

At once, I felt all of the usual emotions that one feels when an archivist tells you about interesting holdings: the senses of allure, fever, and anticipation. I had a number of unanswered questions that I batted around in my head and texted some close friends and colleagues. Was this a document of great consequence for the Atlantic World? Given the year of its drafting, I wondered if it pertained to the US war for independence. The archivist mentioned that the document referred to a king — was this Louis XVI of France or was it possible that the date was misinterpreted and its true provenance the Kingdom of Haiti (1811-1820)?

These questions and more floated through my mind as I arrived at the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library Archives and Special Collections. The archivist led me to the table where I sat with the slim manuscript for about 15 minutes. Using scrap paper and a golf pencil, I placed scrawled transcriptions around the document in the margins of the furled pages; words like “inventaire (inventory),” “greffier (court clerk),” “Nègre (Negro)” and the French forms of the word for women and children, and “Mandingo” and “Congo.”

It was clear to me, after a few quick scans, that this manuscript was a rather routine, banal document in colonial slave societies — the inventory of an enslaver’s estate. However ordinary in its form (colonial scribes and court clerks frequently drew up these documents), this particular manuscript was unique, the only one held by the Fisk Special Collections. It is also perhaps unique in its accounting for the lives and deaths of the enslaved people listed in its contents.

A close-up of cursive handwriting.
L’Inventaire des effets de M. du Pottier, 18 Decembre 1776. Section listing the descriptions and values of the enslaved people working on his plantation. (Courtesy: Fisk University Special Collections)

The inventory of M. du Pottier’s estate, composed at exactly 7 a.m. on December 18, 1776 , lists eight enslaved people — four male and four female, between the ages of a few months and 27 years old — living in captivity on his plantation in Petit-Goâve. Each description includes the person’s presumed nation, their age, a name if they were given one, their estimated value, and what marks, if they had any, were branded on their flesh.

When handling this document, I struggled to handle the weight of the slim volume. Since not every person was given a name, the violence of the bold capital letters indicating branded skin stand in stark contrast to the rest of the lettering on the page. My emotional response continued as I noticed that an enslaved man named Télémaque, a man of Congo origins, was listed in the inventory, but at the bottom of the page his estimated value was numerically subtracted from the total value of enslaved property.

A close-up of cursive handwriting.
Annotation noting Télémaque’s death, along with the numeric subtraction of the value of his life. (Courtesy: Fisk University Special Collections)

In harsh, rushed lettering scrawled below, the scribes add the annotation that Télémaque had recently died. When I told the archivist, I felt like I was pronouncing someone dead. For Télémaque, the archive offers no evidence of the grief caused by his passing, only the foreclosure of sentiment in favor of accounting. The inventory excludes kinship ties, making it impossible to know whether or not the other people in Télémaque’s life knew him intimately enough to mourn his death. These are details that, frustratingly, the archive of enslavement is often incapable of providing.

When I looked across the page, where the women and girls were described, I noticed a miniscule value of 150, which I initially thought was a typo. However, as I kept reading, the description explains that this child was still breastfeeding; she had yet to be weaned. Beyond the emotions I felt about Télémaque’s death was the sadness of this unnamed infant’s loss of childhood and the absurdity of placing price tags on human beings, let alone infants. The fact of the matter is almost all of the enslaved were teenagers — children in bondage. This is all a violent case in point of what Marisa Fuentes means by the “unmaking” humans and “manufacturing” slaves.

My training and my experience doing archival work on eighteenth-century Saint-Domingue have taught me about the realities of transatlantic slavery, but on this day I felt the emotional impact of its violence in a new way as I helped identify this manuscript. I am aware that these types of historical documents affect African descended peoples differently, and emotional responses to the history of the slave trade have been historically a part of the “sentimental machinery” of abolitionist movements throughout the Atlantic world.1

What is more, reading and interpreting emotion in the history of slavery is a rapidly developing field in and of itself. For instance, Sasha Turner refers to the process of reading affect in the archive as “[giving] life to the possibility of grief.”2 Other historians and archivists have discussed these emotional matters recently on Twitter, both Jessica Parr and Sowande’ Mustakeem relate their experiences of exhaustion as a part of the process of researching and writing the history of slavery.

Where there is death and dispossession all around, the choice to acknowledge one’s own affective response to the historical record leads to, as Turner explains in an interview, another form of witnessing and evidence. The potential for reading emotions in archives of slavery is crucial because if the only affective responses a researcher is permitted are desire, bewilderment, excitement, and even disgust, there is a whole range of humanity that we are closing off for the subjects of our work, like Télémaque and the unnamed infant.

By denying the capacity for a whole spectrum of emotional responses to enslaved subjects, scholars working with the archive are limited in how we relate the events in the lives of human beings ensnared in the inhumane system of chattel slavery. I went home from the archive that day and found myself incapable of doing any more work, paralyzed by a sense of grief for Télémaque and the other seven people listed in the inventory. To work with these types of documents, “archival materials antithetical to black life,” is an emotional endeavor, one that researchers should be open to feeling and learning to cope with.3


  1. Lynn Festa, Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). Return to text.
  2. See the linked interview with Sasha Turner on the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery as well as her article: Sasha Turner, “The Nameless and the Forgotten: Maternal Grief, Sacred Protection, and the Archive of Slavery” Slavery & Abolition 38, no. 2 (2017): 232–50. Return to text.
  3. Jessica Marie Johnson, “Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads” Social Text 36, no. 4 (2018): 57-79. Return to text.

Nathan H. Dize is a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in Haitian theater, poetry, and performance from the colonial era to the present. He is a content curator, translator, and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. He is also the co-editor of the H-Haiti series “Haiti in Translation,” which interviews translators of Haitian writing. Nathan has published articles, reviews, and translations in journals such as sx archipelagos, the Journal of Haitian Studies, Contemporary French Civilization, and sx salon.