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'Part of the blood and dream': surrogation, memory and the National Hero in the postcolonial Caribbean

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According to Joseph Roach, 'surrogation' is a key mechanism for the reproduction of collective social memory within the 'circum-Atlantic world', a term he uses in Cities of the Dead (1996) to describe the oceanic system connecting the Americas, Africa and Europe that emerged in the sixteenth century and that was forged, in particular, through the trade in and enslavement of millions of African people. Surrogation consists of a process through which attempts are made to fill 'cavities' created by death or other forms of departure with replacements. While this idea has mainly been used to understand processes of cultural representation in the colonial circum-Atlantic world, it can also be applied to postcolonial contexts, such as the processes of nation-building in the formally decolonized Caribbean that rest on the articulation of history and memory. In Barbados, this process involved the creation in 1998 of a pantheon of ten National Heroes. First among these is Bussa, an enslaved man commemorated by politicians, academics and, to some extent, ordinary people for leading the largest revolt against slavery on the island in 1816. Bussa is a 'surrogate' in at least three ways: 1) his heroic reputation fills the space left by others who suffered the physical and epistemic violence of slavery, and about whom little is known; 2) he represents 'Africa' in a thoroughly creolized society searching for its pan-African roots; and 3) he makes good the (supposed) absence of a national tradition of radicalism on the island. Yet, surrogation is rarely successful in exactly replacing loss because substitutes invariably fail to meet - or even exceed - expectations. Symptomatic of this has been the controversy over Bussa's status as rebel leader and African, with angry exchanges taking place between and among local and foreign historians. Although issues of archival integrity and folk memory have been to the fore in these debates, Lambert neither considers 'formal' and 'informal' histories in antagonism, nor contrasts 'Caribbean' with 'metropolitan' historiographic traditions. Instead, he considers how the conflict and division surrounding the creation of this National Hero reveals the difficulties with surrogation and, hence, the problematic nature of the articulation of memory and history in the post-slavery/postcolonial circum-Atlantic world.

Keywords: Barbados; Bussa; Caribbean; circum-Atlantic; commemoration; heroes; historiography; memory; slavery; surrogation

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2007-07-01

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