Molly Farrell, Counting Bodies: Population in Colonial American Writing

Molly Farrell, Counting Bodies: Population in Colonial American Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016) 296 pp. £48.99 Hb. ISBN: 9780190277314

Until the end of the seventeenth century, the word ‘population’ was defined in dictionaries as the loss of people. As Molly Farrell outlines in the introduction to Counting Bodies: Population in Colonial American , the negative definition of the word and the unwillingness to enumerate groups of people stemmed from a biblical prohibition. The association between counting and cataclysmic loss of life was a powerful one and the necessity of counting in the colonies played a key role in undermining this association. ‘Tense and potentially hostile early colonial interactions [between European and indigenous peoples] elicited heightened attention to counting bodies,’ writes Farrell (21). However, European counting practices were not simply imported to a novel context – indigenous peoples of the Americas produced and influenced colonial counting practices. Farrell deploys the historicist model now familiar due to the work of Laura Ann Stoler, amongst others, to deepen our understanding of what, precisely, biopolitics is, of how it manifested in the colonial context, and of what exactly it means to find such networks of power dispersed across the Atlantic.

Farrell’s Counting Bodies examines ways of counting people in the British Colonial Atlantic using forms of literature such as poetry, captivity narratives and travel writing and mortality bills. Farrell makes the claim that such texts, disparate as they may be, nonetheless offer insight into what she terms ‘human accounting’ in the seventeenth and eighteenth century colonial context. They thus serve as a necessary supplement to the state science of political arithmetic developing across this period. Through these texts, Farrell attempts to present a ‘forgotten history of how beginning to conceive of people as populations spurred numerical representations of communities’ (3), and how these representations relied largely upon the cultural work done by the bodies of women, slaves and indigenous peoples. Drawing upon such ‘forgotten’ histories leads to one of the book’s key structural idiosyncrasies: instead of a comprehensive study of human accounting in her period of study, Farrell presents four case studies from the Colonial Atlantic which reveal how writers and communities grappled with the transition from counting humans as an act of blasphemy towards becoming a standard tool of state control.

In the first chapter, Farrell examines the epic poetry of Anne Bradstreet. Bradstreet’s poetry reveals the way in which early censuses not only made women visible, but brought ‘their sexuality, their labor, and their mothering work’ under state scrutiny as well (37). Farrell traces the influences of Bradstreet’s poetry, such as Sir Walter Raleigh’s Historie of the World (1604), and demonstrates how in her poetry Bradstreet anchored population concerns in the realm of motherhood. Cultural fears linking population and cataclysm are related to infant mortality in Bradstreet’s poetry, demonstrating the affective aspect of counting (or being unable to). The domestic and affective mode are harnessed to biblical and philosophical ideas around counting, returning women to the centre of narratives of generation.

The second chapter, ‘Measuring Carribean Aesthetics,’ explores the influence of European aesthetics on the practice of bookkeeping and cartography, and the melancholy this mingling of art and accounting elicited. Examining Richard Ligon’s True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657), Farrell reveals how Ligon’s account of the island of Barbados uses text, numbers and images to render racialized bodies simultaneously visible and indistinct. It emerges that Ligon is not interested in presenting a numerically accurate account of Barbados but rather in producing a guide advising would-be investors on setting up a plantation. Thus, Ligon draws upon numbers in order to ‘attend to the means by which bodies enter a social space’ (114). Aesthetic theory, in particular, geometry, becomes a way of presenting the landscape and inhabitants of Barbados – its flora, fauna and people. The bodies of female slaves are compared to the artwork of Albert Dürer, ‘the great Mr of Proportion’ (120). This allows Ligon to measure female value, both sexual and financial, eliding the two. Old female slaves, whose bodies seem grotesque to Ligon, ‘stand outside of two globalizing systems at once’ (122). They have little value in the slave market and they fail to meet European aesthetic standards of racialised beauty. The chapter reveals the way in which Ligon’s counting engages with multiple disciplines, aesthetic and philosophical, and creates links between aesthetics and value, proportion and desire. Ligon’s counting and diagrams mark one beginning of the enumeration of black bodies, a brutal process which would continue for two centuries as the slave trade continued to grow and which would have lasting consequences for black people both in Europe and in the Americas.

Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682) is the focus of Chapter Three. Rowlandson’s account of King Philip’s War reveals the need to count accurately in the midst of war but also its difficulty. After an attack on her town by Native Americans, Rowlandson was captured along with her three children. Her youngest child died soon after but Rowlandson and her other two children were held captive for eleven weeks before being ransomed by donations from the women of Boston. Farrell uses Rowlandson’s narrative to reveal how ‘counting population becomes ingrained as a way to structure relationships’ in this period (129). Rowlandson’s inability to count her captors reveals both the necessity of finding new ways of counting and the difficulty of separating friend from foe in a situation in which the identities of the two are liable to shift. Reproduction becomes central to this argument as captive children risk being assimilated by the Native Americans and so ‘counting’ for the other side. Rowlandson uses counting to control the chaos around her, tying her ‘to a familiar system in the midst of traumatic events’ (138). However, she frequently repeats Native American accounts of English deaths without questioning them, even as others such as Increase Mather are attempting to discredit Native American counting ability. The ability to count accurately becomes a weapon for both sides.

In the final chapter, Farrell explores the role of colonial mortality bills in establishing community identity. Drawing upon the work of Benedict Anderson and Michel Foucault, mortality bills are understood as being both a form of biopolitics and the creator of imagined communities. Not only did they provide information as to the health and demographics of a town or city, but they also created group identities. Farrell also brings in Achille Mbembe’s concept of necropolitics to show that it was death, rather than birth, that brought colonial populations into print. More importantly, ‘colonial printers invent a way of printing and circulating a new set of social and special relations of their own design’ (184), one in which race decided who counted and who did not, who mattered and who didn’t.

Farrell does not provide a method for understanding counting in the early modern period, but rather a series of snapshots which offer novel approaches to texts such as poetry and captivity narratives which have been overlooked by scholars examining the history of population in the Colonial Americas. The choice of texts is somewhat idiosyncratic and Farrell often stretches the term ‘counting’ to its limit. However, the book’s greatest value is in the special attention it pays to the ways in which the desire and necessity of counting intensified in the colonial context and how the bodies of women, Africans and Native Americans were integral to the new study of populations, even as their bodies were frequently rendered invisible in censuses, mortality bills and ledgers.

Philippa Chun, Cornell University