CSHM Paterson Lecture 2015: Natalie Davis on Healers in Colonial Suriname

In Afro-Caribbean, Conferences, History of medicine by Steve Palmer1 Comment

Physicians, Healers, and their Remedies in Colonial Suriname

Natalie Zemon Davis, University of Toronto

University of Ottawa, Sunday 31 May, 10:45-12:00, Room: FSS 1007

The Canadian Society for the History of Medicine knows how to honour those who made it. The annual keynote lecture is named for G. R. “Pat” Paterson, a very important figure in the history of the society. Paterson was a pharmacist, a historian of pharmacy and the first executive director of the Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine. He was recruited as a CSHM Vice-President in the mid 1970s when the society received its letters of patent and incorporation from the federal government, and just as it was about to host a meeting of the International Society for the History of Medicine. The lecture series, begun in the early 1980s with help from the Hannah Institute to facilitate guest speakers, was renamed in honour of Dr. Paterson when he stepped down from the CSHM presidency in the mid 1980s. There have been many wonderful Paterson lecturers over the years, but surely none more distinguished than this year’s luminary, Natalie Zemon Davis.


Natalie Davis giving an impromptu “guest lecture” on an Amsterdam tour boat with Surinam-connected passengers.

It’s tough to know how to present Professor Davis – Natalie – but that’s not such a big deal since, for most of those who are reading this, she needs no introduction. Some of us will have heard her thoughtful radio interview with Michael Enright on the Sunday Edition some few year’s ago after she was awarded the Holberg International Memorial Prize, presented by the Government of Norway for work in the arts, humanities, social sciences, law and theology:


Winston Churchill excepted, the Holberg is as close to the Nobel Prize as a historian can get for their work. The fact that previous recipients include Julia Kristeva, Jurgen Habermas, Frederic Jameson and Bruno Latour will give some idea of the company Natalie keeps on the Olympian mount of knowledge-making.

It almost goes without saying that Professor Davis is more demotic than Olympian in spirit and historical focus. Her best known work is, after all, the screenplay she co-wrote for the 1982 French film, Le retour de Martin Guerre (The Return of Martin Guerre), a successful vehicle for the great actors, Gérard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye. As good as the film is – and I assume its compelling and nuanced portrayal of peasant life in the Languedoc was in large measure due to Natalie’s historical consultancy on the film – for my money it pales in comparison with Davis’ modern historical masterpiece of the same name published in French and English to coincide with the release of the film.

An absorbing combination of microhistory, women’s history, anthropology, gender history, labour history, book history, religious history and legal history, Davis’ modern take on an extraordinary tale of early modern imposture is also a brilliant re-telling of a ripping yarn. It showed her to be in absolute command of the exciting historiographical currents that were merging and peaking in the Atlantic community of historians in the early 1980s, and established her as a prose stylist of the highest order. Amazingly, The Return of Martin Guerre, a majestic work ranging from the nitty-gritty of peasant women’s culture to legal culture high and low, to crucial questions of the Reformation, was rendered in an enviable 125 pages!

But like any real artist, when I visit her at her Toronto home Davis wants to discuss her latest project, not dwell on earlier glories. I’d heard her talk about the Surinam research a few years ago in Windsor when she was a headliner in our Humanities Research Group lecture series, and I was lucky enough to speak with her on that occasion. She’s a fully engaged intellectual: interested in everyone and what they’re up to, and with a long history of progressive activism on social, political and academic issues. She also bakes, and treats me and my niece, Ava Salzer, a History major at U of T, to tea and lemon cake made from an old family recipe.  After insisting that we tell her about our work first, Natalie charts her research journey from early modern France to the healers of Surinam’s slave-based plantation colonialism.

At first glance I thought her a surprise Paterson choice, since the name Natalie Zemon Davis doesn’t ring the “history of medicine” bell. On second thought, of course, it’s no surprise that she is quite at home in the medical universe. She’s long been a practitioner of history of science (going back to some early work on mathematics, she tells me), and dedicated one tranche of her 1995 triptych, Women on the Margins to Maria Sibylla Merion, a natural historian and artist who worked in Surinam at the turn of the eighteenth century. In any case, she’s always been a border crosser and started moving beyond the borders of France and of Europe in the early 1990s, following Marie de l’Incarnation to New France, and Merion to “new Holland” precisely to explore the issue of women in borderlands — in spaces without tight boundaries separating one language from another, resistance from domination, exchange from gifts.

This world “across the water” of dizzying crossovers, cultural and racial mixture, and the tensions arising from them, is the backdrop for Davis’ Paterson lecture on physicians and healers in colonial Suriname. Her talk concentrates on the 18th century, when this Dutch colony was thriving thanks to the work of some 50 to 60 thousand slaves from Angola, Congo, Gold Coast, kingdoms along the Bight of Benin and elsewhere in Africa. The riverine plantations of sugar, cotton, cocoa, coffee, and timber were owned and managed by a mixed slaver elite of Dutch, English, French Huguenots, Portuguese Jews, Germans, Swiss, Swedes and German Jews.

What Davis calls “a Babel of tongues” was refashioned, primarily by elite male and female slaves, into two creole languages.  Medicine and healing played a large role in the circulation and development of these creoles, and Davis’ talk will follow healers as they negotiate the complex terrain.  Expect a many-layered analysis, starting from African sources, in which medicine and medicinals are thoroughly enmeshed in social relations of power and exchange.



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