Flesh-eating ants, water lettuce, fly-carriers, mangroves, breadfruit trees, flamingos, and alligators are a few of the populations, places, and plants we encounter in Christopher Iannini’s Fatal Revolutions: Natural History, West Indian Slavery, and the Routes of American Literature. In plainspoken, meticulous, and dramatic prose, Iannini, an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, illuminates the intimate and intricate networks that brought together and advanced two seemingly unrelated fields of power: natural history and the institution of slavery. Through this coalescence, the “fundamental conditions” for literary traditions in the Americas were set.
Iannini tells an explosive yet fluid story that centers on the 18th-century colonial Caribbean. In this world, boundaries are porous. Literature is more than fiction. It includes science. The map of the Caribbean expands beyond the archipelago to take in continental territories like Virginia, the Carolinas, Louisiana, and Dutch Guiana. Nation-states and empire-states fall away as central agents, and the transnational and trans-imperial circuits of the circum-Atlantic world emerge as major forces forging the modern in the Americas.
These circuits, which mainly consist of well- and little-known texts, take us around the region. Rich analysis of Hans Sloane’s reflections on trekking in the Caribbean brings us to Jamaica. Through him, we soak in heat, hear tree frogs, watch black healers, unearth dead humans, and experiment with decay. Clever examination of William Bartram’s writings and sketches sends us to Florida, a place where growing antislavery sentiments overlap with the cultivation of crops. From Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts about meteorology, rebellion, and race to John Audubon’s views on oppression and birds, this book recovers how locations like Saint-Domingue and events like the Haitian Revolution profoundly shaped what Iannini calls the “American Enlightenment.”
Fatal Revolutions teaches important lessons. It shows how scientific racism took root through routes, and it sheds light on the ways travel turned black bodies into specimens. It reconnects words and deeds, dealing with the presumption that saying and doing are different forms of active engagement. Its excavation of the ideologies influencing how people made sense of edible things like rice and bananas closes the gap between the natural and the cultural. It works against the tendency to forget the pivotal role of the West Indies in the world, forcing us to confront the historical baggage brought to and carried by the Caribbean.
Chandra D. Bhimull is assistant professor anthropology and African-American studies