Altergott on Munro (2022)

Munro, Martin. Listening to the Caribbean: Sounds of Slavery, Revolt, and Race. Liverpool UP, 2022, pp. 216, ISBN 9781802070224

In this expansive study, Martin Munro draws attention to the sonic aspects of Caribbean history, from the soundscapes of the slave plantation to the noise of rebellion and the silence of resistance. Drawing from key scholarship in sound studies, Munro seeks to enrich traditional visual approaches to the history of race and empire in the Caribbean through renewed attention to their corresponding auditory dimensions, which he hopes will spark a “radical and revealing shift in the study of the region” (30). In the introduction, he provides an overview of foundational scholarship on imperial scopic regimes, from Edouard Glissant’s critique of ethnography as the continuation of the “slave master’s power to define the seen world” (7) and his metaphor of “opacity” (9) to Saidiya Hartman’s work on the “racist optics” of black suffering (12). While this study primarily focuses on the former French colonies of Saint-Domingue, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Guyane, these spaces are brought into dialogue with further examples from Louisiana, Jamaica, Surinam, and Trinidad, and will be of interest for Caribbeanists more broadly.

In order to bridge the gap between the visual and the auditory, Munro first evokes the strategy of ear cropping—a form of mutilation stipulated by the Code Noir as a means to punish runaway slaves resulting in sensory deprivation—for controlling the enslaved population. This practice, which Munro examines through close readings of the legal precedents documented by Moreau de Saint-Méry as well as the indictments made by Baron de Vastey in The Colonial System Unveiled, demonstrates the place of listening in relation to power, subjectivity, spirituality, and freedom. Munro’s elaboration of the “Atlantic culture of the ear” extends beyond punishment, however; he gives equal consideration to adornment, reframing the disruptive flamboyance or rebelliousness of earrings as “noise” (55). While Munro himself admits that his own reliance on a single anthropologist’s findings in Ghana in the 1990s is somewhat tenuous (65), the question he raises of how diverse West African cultures might have conceived of a different sensorium, or placed different value on listening, is significant and worthy of further attention.

In the second chapter (“Sounds of Slavery”), Munro examines the soundscapes of Caribbean slavery found in accounts by white European slave owners, namely Moreau de Saint-Méry and Jean-Baptiste Labat. However, building on the idea of culturally-determined senses, he proposes that European travelers and colonists were “poor listeners” (74), and thus approaches their written accounts of colonial-era sounds with appropriate skepticism. The strength of this study lies in Munro’s detailed close readings of the wide variety of sounds contained within these texts, ranging from African musical traditions to blossoming creole forms of music and dance, Afro-religious ceremonies and funerary rituals, and oral cultures such as storytelling, proverbs, and insults. By expanding the chapter’s corpus to include the anonymous Scottish-Creole novel Marly, Or a Planter’s Life in Jamaica (1828), Munro develops his concept of “poor listening,” as Marly is unsettled by the human-industrial noise of the plantation, and consistently misinterprets sounds. Of particular interest is Munro’s contrast of Moreau and Labat’s documented instances of silence of the enslaved as a form of resistance to corporeal punishment (98) with Marly’s noted examples of verbal resistance. In fact, Munro reads the slaves’ deliberate camouflaging of meaning as a powerful anticipation of Glissant’s concept of the “detour” (10910). These utterances, reconsidered through Munro’s sonic approach, destabilize the scopic regime of the colonizer by reclaiming control over meaning and knowledge for the listener.

Chapter three (“From Slavery to Resistance”) explores the relationship between sound, listening, and political action, illustrating how misheard sounds actually contributed to some of the key rebellions that brought about the abolition of slavery (such as the Sam Sharpe Rebellion of 1831 in Jamaica). Here, French physician and naturalist Michel-Etienne Descourtilz provides an important counterpoint to Marly, as he appears more acutely aware of the meaning of the sounds around him in colonial Saint-Domingue (Voyages d’un naturaliste, et ses observations, 1809). Munro offers an astute reading of how Descourtilz viewed the French colonial soundscape of Saint-Domingue as “disharmonious,” thereby underscoring the sonic metaphor underpinning racist theories of “natural order” and “progress towards civilization.” Additional readings of a “seditious ditty” about the Haitian Revolution circulating in Trinidad and John Gabriel Stedman’s travel account of Surinam (1790) illustrate the power of oral networks across the Caribbean, most notably the sonic strategies of survival developed by maroon communities. Painting Stedman as a sympathetic, attentive listener who even records a handful of stories told by the enslaved, Munro makes the most persuasive claim of the book: that listening is a “counter-colonial strategy” (145) because it radically humanizes the other and cultivates an awareness of complexity and diversity, which “undermines the entire institution of slavery” (145).

The first half of the Coda, “Sensing Difference, Measuring Race,” leaps forward to consider the impact of the sensory tests on auditory acuity conducted during the Torres Straits expedition of 1898. Given the attention devoted to Jennifer Stoever’s Sonic Color Line (2016) in the introduction, it is surprising that Munro did not engage more deeply with her theorization of the “listening ear” and the “sonic color line,” both productive frameworks for analyzing the sonic dimensions of racism. Likewise, Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier’s theorization of “aurality” (2014) is introduced in the last five pages of the book, whereas it could have played a bigger role in his critique of colonial approaches to writing and measuring indigenous sounds. Nevertheless, Munro has gathered a fascinating corpus of material that resonates with the sonic traces of Caribbean history and, to date, has not been studied together. By showing how individual acts of listening were leveraged to negotiate power and freedom within the plantation complex, this important study brings fuller understanding to the colonial past, and as such, lays the groundwork for further analysis of the auditory dimensions of the former French empires.