Whence Newton in the Seventeenth-Century Afro-American Tropics?

Pablo Gómez’s The Experiential Caribbean identifies healers in seventeenth-century Cartagena and Tierra Firme who produced early-modern epistemologies comparable to those of Bacon, Newton and the Royal Society in London and Cambridge. Both groups privileged empiricism over dogma, the materiality of the experiential over the metaphysical, the utilitarian and the pragmatic over the theoretical. Yet Gómez’s Cartageneros thrived in a milieu characterized by death, slavery, deracination, and migration. Cartageneros were also blacks.



Gómez’s Caribbean is one in which tens of thousands of Africans disembarked every year to become household slaves. This was not a society of integrated plantations but of slaves-for-hire in a commercial hub. Cartagenero slaves did not necessarily live under their master’s roof. Slaves were sailors, traders, artisans, and, most important, itinerant healers. This was a world in which first generation African slaves could save, self-purchase manumit, and become vecinos and settlers. Africans could also achieve citizenship by running away to maroon communities. After resisting military campaigns, maroons often signed treaties; ran-away slaves could therefore become vecinos of autonomous towns.

Gómez zeroes in on Cartagenero black healers to demonstrate that these practitioners, called Mohanes, developed languages of the “experiential” to address the cosmopolies that was Cartagena, a veritable Babel where slaves spoke more than 70 languages as they came from all regions of West Africa, from Cacheu to Benguela. There were also Europeans of all nationalities as well as the survivors of a variety of indigenous communities.

These deracinated cosmopolitans, however, could not communicate through the language of dominant medical doctrines. Healers did not seek to explore the black box that was the body. Galenic medicine offered a hydraulic model in which four bodily fluids were in constant transmutation. Diet, climate, sleep, sexual activity, and exercise could alter this hydraulic equilibrium; so too could enemas, leeches, and emetics. Yet Galenic medicine was just one of many models striving for attention among Mohanes in the medical bazaar that was Cartagena. Practitioners were promiscuous in their eclecticism. Practice was not subordinated to the creation of systems; rather systems were subordinated to the specificities and contingencies of each individual case

How did healers communicate to individuals and communities the nature of disease wrecking the body within? Gómez’s contends that black practitioners spoke through the performance of materiality. As bundles of strange objects emerged from cavities onto the surface of bodies, audiences were exposed to the unintelligible mechanics of the body. Practitioners communicated with patients by smelling, tasting, and touching. Mohanes did not seek to be understood by their audiences. They uttered strange sounds in obscure languages. Unintelligibility was the very source of their authority. What most mattered was the materiality of the performance itself.

Gómez emphasizes that healers built huge pharmacopoeias without seeking to identify the universal properties of each drug. Healers manipulated materia medica in the same way that they consumed theories: each substance was deployed to address the individuality of the contingent. In short, there was no search for a language of the universal. The world of Mohanes was a world of particulars.

Yet performance was also a theater of the social. Mohanes cured the body by curing the body polity. Gómez insists that Mohanes were attuned to conflict within communities and saw equilibrium within the body as social peace. Bodily purges in rituals were symbolical exercises to identify troublemakers or to excise miscreants. These healers were powerful because they were dexterous readers of the palimpsest of the social.

Finally, Gómez also argues that authority came from the miraculous and the marvelous. Practitioners built epistemological authority in displays of preternatural power, not supernatural ones. In fact, practitioners adamantly denied any intervention in the realm of the supernatural when providing testimony to the Inquisition.

Remarkably, Christian bishops seeking relief from disease relied on those very black practitioners the bishops themselves had found guilty and condemned. Gómez offers many examples of practitioners that the Inquisition scattered into hospitals all over the urban landscape. Black practitioners used the massive infrastructure of charitable hospices and hostels, originally created to tend to the poor and the infirm, to peddle their wares.

Gómez follows one hundred Mohanes over the course of the seventeenth century through the archives of the Inquisition. Yet Gómez’s is not the story of victimized slaves disciplined by both physical coercion and ideologies of racial subordination. He repurposes documents on alleged black wizards and sorcerers to claim that these healers were among the most creative and powerful intellectuals of the global early-modern period. This upsets powerful and normative historiographies in both Latin American history and the history of science, therein lies the power of this study.

There are patterns, however, that indicate that the black practitioners of his story might have not been as exceptional and as modern as Gómez suggests. He follows some Mohanes whose authority depended on the ability to manipulate the weather through preternatural means. Yet, in seventeenth-century Spanish America, there were pious non-Mohanes who also stopped storms, calmed the seas, and caused ferocious animals to behave like pets. Moreover, these virtuous men and women could also cure. Like the Mohanes, the saintly-pious never sought to provide theoretical models for their actions. Each healing act was singular. The virtuous also acted through the materiality of performance, extracting bundles of objects (including spindles and frogs) from within the bodily cavities of the exorcised. Using a vast pharmacopoeia of unclassifiable individual objects, these men and women cured the ill. The sacristies of parishes, cloisters, and cathedrals acted as pharmacies, housing the materia medica of Catholic Christianity: relics. Churches and cloisters were also sites for the empirical creation of knowledge and healing in the early-modern Atlantic. The modernity of the experiential in the vast global medical markets of America was every bit as Catholic as it was Afro-Caribbean.

Review of Pablo Gómez’s The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic (UNC, 2017).

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