Skip to main content
Harvard University Press - home
The Reaper’s Garden

The Reaper’s Garden

Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery

Vincent Brown

ISBN 9780674057128

Publication date: 09/30/2010

Request exam copy

Winner of the Merle Curti Award
Winner of the James A. Rawley Prize
Winner of the Louis Gottschalk Prize
Longlisted for the Cundill Prize

“Vincent Brown makes the dead talk. With his deep learning and powerful historical imagination, he calls upon the departed to explain the living. The Reaper’s Garden stretches the historical canvas and forces readers to think afresh. It is a major contribution to the history of Atlantic slavery.”—Ira Berlin

From the author of Tacky’s Revolt, a landmark study of life and death in colonial Jamaica at the zenith of the British slave empire.

What did people make of death in the world of Atlantic slavery? In The Reaper’s Garden, Vincent Brown asks this question about Jamaica, the staggeringly profitable hub of the British Empire in America—and a human catastrophe. Popularly known as the grave of the Europeans, it was just as deadly for Africans and their descendants. Yet among the survivors, the dead remained both a vital presence and a social force.

In this compelling and evocative story of a world in flux, Brown shows that death was as generative as it was destructive. From the eighteenth-century zenith of British colonial slavery to its demise in the 1830s, the Grim Reaper cultivated essential aspects of social life in Jamaica—belonging and status, dreams for the future, and commemorations of the past. Surveying a haunted landscape, Brown unfolds the letters of anxious colonists; listens in on wakes, eulogies, and solemn incantations; peers into crypts and coffins, and finds the very spirit of human struggle in slavery. Masters and enslaved, fortune seekers and spiritual healers, rebels and rulers, all summoned the dead to further their desires and ambitions. In this turbulent transatlantic world, Brown argues, “mortuary politics” played a consequential role in determining the course of history.

Insightful and powerfully affecting, The Reaper’s Garden promises to enrich our understanding of the ways that death shaped political life in the world of Atlantic slavery and beyond.


  • Brown’s study ought to be read by scholars and students of Caribbean history as well as specialists of the black diaspora and the Atlantic World.

    —Philip Howard, The Americas


  • 2009, Winner of the James A. Rawley Prize
  • 2009, Winner of the Merle Curti Award
  • 2009, Winner of the Louis Gottschalk Prize
  • 2009, Joint winner of the Merle Curti Award


  • Vincent Brown is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of The Reaper’s Garden, winner of the James A. Rawley Prize, the Louis Gottschalk Prize, and the Merle Curti Award, and of Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, winner of the Anisfield–Wolf Book Award, the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, the Elsa Goveia Book Prize, the James A. Rawley Prize, and the Harriet Tubman Prize. His documentary Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness, broadcast nationally on PBS, won the John E. O’Connor Film Award and was chosen as Best Documentary at the Hollywood Black Film Festival.

Book Details

  • 368 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

From this author