Recent headlines about Michigan, California, and India have disabused a public conventional wisdom that water is free of charge. Cases such as these, where human needs directly compete with institutional forces, are not new. Water, as a substance essential to production and reproduction in eighteenth-century Caribbean plantations, created a predicament, the resolution of which was unevenly borne by human beings held as slaves. Building on Barbara Voss’ concept of the mesoscale and Maria Zedeno’s insights about index objects, I present an assemblage-based analysis of slave life that compares “water ways” at two plantations occupied during Dominica’s brief sugar boom (1760-1830). I combine material characteristics of objects used to capture and transform water with their biographies in a landscape, circulations in peripheral flows, and supporting roles in social relations. Pottery and glass used to store, capture, and serve water were part of the creative strategies used by enslaved laborers to resolve some of the predicaments of slavery. At the same time, they created predicaments of their own, as media for some of the cultural politics that supported plantation colonies. As such, a focus on water ways allows us to examine exclusionary forces, such as regulation, markets, violence, and legitimation, at the human scale.
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