Early American Places


UGA PressUGA Press

Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean:

Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit

by Kristen Block

An ambitious recasting of early Caribbean history, told through the lives of six people

312 pages

15 black & white photos

2 maps

ISBN: 978-0-8203-3867-5 (h), 978-0-8203-3868-2 (p), 978-0-8203-4375-4 (e)



Block’s study is based on a very impressive archival base, and she narrates the stories with skill.
— M. Mulcahy, Choice

Cannibalism, for medieval and early modern Europeans, was synonymous with savagery. Humans who ate other humans, they believed, were little better than animals. The European colonizers who encountered Native Americans described them as cannibals as a matter of course, and they wrote extensively about the lurid cannibal rituals they claim to have witnessed.  

In this definitive analysis, Kelly L. Watson argues that the persistent rumors of cannibalism surrounding Native Americans served a specific and practical purpose for European settlers. These colonizers had to forge new identities for themselves in the Americas and find ways to not only subdue but also co-exist with native peoples. They established hierarchical categories of European superiority and Indian inferiority upon which imperial power in the Americas was predicated.  

In her close read of letters, travel accounts, artistic renderings, and other descriptions of cannibals and cannibalism, Watson focuses on how gender, race, and imperial power intersect within the figure of the cannibal. Watson reads cannibalism as a part of a dominant European binary in which civilization is rendered as male and savagery is seen as female, and she argues that as Europeans came to dominate the New World, they continually rewrote the cannibal narrative to allow for a story in which the savage, effeminate, cannibalistic natives were overwhelmed by the force of virile European masculinity. Original and historically grounded, Insatiable Appetites uses the discourse of cannibalism to uncover the ways in which difference is understood in the West.

Based on both a wide-ranging scholarly literature and a broad and deep archival base, Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean raises important questions about the relationship between Christianity and profit seeking in the early modern Atlantic. Block’s use of personal stories to advance her arguments allows her to address big questions with a clarity and specificity that should appeal to undergraduates and specialists alike.
— April Hatfield, author of Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century
Block enhances our appreciation of how religion was manifest in the lives of ordinary Caribbean sojourners by drawing upon an expanded archival base and by imaginatively re-creating the world of her subjects.
— Carla Gardina Pestana, William & Mary Quarterly

About the Author


Kristen Block is an assistant professor of history at Florida Atlantic University.

Kristen Block’s case studies of ordinary men and women in the Caribbean, and her creative use of the fragmentary sources they left, illuminate the ways in which they negotiated the spaces within and between empires, and their use of religious identification in those negotiations. By taking religion seriously and looking across colonial empires, she has produced a study that will be must reading for everyone interested in the early modern Atlantic.
— Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Silver Professor of History, New York University
In this innovative work, Kristen Block uses the life stories of a handful of individuals to create an entry into the religious realm of the early Caribbean. . . . Individual experience is commonly complex, flawed, and contradictory, as wonderfully exemplified by the people brought to life in Block’s excellent book.
— B.W. Higman, American Historical Review
Overall, Block’s work provides a unique window into the conflict between increased commerce and religion in the seventeenth century. The dual focus on Spanish and British colonies creates an excellent comparison of how Protestantism and Catholicism dealt with similar issues of race, slavery, and social control.
— Robert C. Schwaller, The Americas
Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean is a richly documented and theoretically sophisticated contribution to the fields of Atlantic and Caribbean history. . . . [T]he proof of Block’s achievement is in the seamless narrative she weaves, and of course in her thought-provoking conclusions. . . . [S]he’s gone straight to the heart of the matter.
— Kris Lane, The Florida Historical Quarterly
In an engaging and elegantly written text narrating the lives of five individuals, Kristen Block illuminates the nuances of the seventeenth-century shift from religion to race as the key determinant in political and social identities, rightly centering this history on the Caribbean, a crucible for Spanish, English, and French interactions in the early modern era. Drawing from archival research in five countries and a broad historiographical base, Block explores how colonial subjects in the seventeenth-century Caribbean used their religious identity to negotiate with imperial authorities. Her sensitive and nuanced narrative demonstrates a subtle understanding of enslaved Afro-Caribbeans. Block juxtaposes juridical and theological understandings of slavery and free will alongside everyday encounters between masters and slaves. She also presents a unique, in-depth, and witty analysis of Protestants’ interactions with the Caribbean branch of the Holy Office of the Spanish Inquisition and the multiple ways the Caribbean created a population of ‘religious chameleons.’ Block discusses how Catholicism, Protestantism, and Quakerism parsed their connections to slave ownership, Afro-Caribbean identity, and efforts to force slaves to conform with these various interpretations of Christianity. Block’s unique contribution is her parallel reading of English and Spanish attitudes toward slavery and religion and how slaves understood and worked within these multilayered world views.
— Nicole von Germeten, author of Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social Mobility for Afro-Mexicans