Stigma: Letters of Blood and Fire

Below is an extract from the Introduction from my forthcoming book Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality. In this extract, I  draw on the etymology of stigma to begin to theorise stigma as a form of power which is impressed upon people. Understanding stigma as power written into the body is a major theme of the book, and is explored in more historical depth in Chapter 1, ‘The Penal Tattoo’

What is stigma?

In Historical Ontology, Ian Hacking reminds us all ‘concepts have their being in historical sites’.[i] The word ‘stigma’, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, is a figurative noun that means: ‘a distinguishing mark or characteristic (of a bad or objectionable kind)’ and ‘a mark of disgrace or infamy; a sign of severe censure or condemnation, regarded as impressed on a person or thing’. Everyday uses of the word ‘stigma’ draw on both these definitions; we employ ‘stigma’ to describe the degrading marks that are affixed to particular bodies, people, conditions and places within humiliating social interactions.

These two definitions of ‘stigma’ were composed by lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary in 1916, and they don’t reflect the ways in which the word acquired an increasingly psychological meaning from the mid-twentieth century onwards. [….] When people use the term ‘stigma’ today, they also tend to use it experientially, to describe the debilitating psychological effects of being stigmatised, with a particular emphasis on how the shame induced by stigma corrodes well-being and damages your sense of self. However, psychological understandings of stigma often focus on individual experiences of being stigmatised in ways that occlude an understanding of stigma as a material force, a structural and structuring form of power.

This book develops a more psycho-political understanding of stigma, reconceptualising stigma as a form of power that is written on the body and gets under the skin.

The Oxford English Dictionary also defines stigma as ‘a mark made upon the skin by burning with a hot iron (rarely, by cutting or pricking), as a token of infamy or subjection’. This literal definition emphasises stigma as a material practice of bodily marking and subordination. Indeed, it is difficult for us to imagine activities that involve burning somebody with ‘a hot iron’, or cutting or pricking their skin for the purposes of indicating ‘infamy’ and ‘subjection’, as actions that aren’t saturated with power.

To illustrate this definition, the Oxford English Dictionary includes a phrase penned by the nineteenth-century London Times journalist William Howard in My Diary North and South (1863), a book composed from diary entries and letters written while he travelled in North America during the American Civil War. The phrase reads: ‘advertisements for runaway negroes…the description of the stigmata on their persons—whippings and brandings, scars and cuts’.[ii]  This use of ‘stigmata’, to describe the marks left by torture on the skin of runaway slaves, furnishes stigma with a vicious and bloody meaning, binding the etymology of stigma to the four-hundred-year history of chattel slavery.

The legal right of English people to own human beings as ‘goods and chattel’ was first established by English colonialists in the Barbados Slave Code: ‘An Act for Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes’ (1661). This Act mandated that if a slave ‘shall offer any violence to any Christian …he shall be severely whipped, his nose slit, and be burned in some part of his face with a hot iron. And being brutish slaves, [they] deserve not, for the baseness of their condition, to be tried by the legal trial of twelve men of their peers, as the subjects of England are.[iii]

It seems likely that the Oxford English Dictionary definition of stigma as ‘a mark made upon the skin by burning with a hot iron’ derives in part from these seventeenth-century legislative codes.[iv]  Other histories of stigma unfurl from this submerged etymology, histories of torture and slave labour, but also histories of British citizenship, for in legalising torture what these slave codes legislated is that chattel slaves and their descendants were not citizens; indeed, they were not considered human at all. 

A mark made upon the skin by burning with a hot iron

In Black Reconstruction in America (1935), the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois (1863–1963) described the Atlantic Slave Trade as ‘the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell.’[v] From the beginning of this trade in the sixteenth century, ‘Europeans took control of slave bodies by branding them, burning symbols of European ownership into the flesh’, permanently stigmatising people as chattel.[vi]

In 1527, Nzingna Mbemeba Affonso, then ruler of the African Kongo Kingdom, wrote to the King of Portugal asking him to cease the trade.[vii] Describing how his ‘black free subjects’ were being kidnapped en masse, he wrote ‘as soon as [they] are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron’.[viii] 

Once stigmatised, people were stored in prison hulks, barracoons and factories (the terms used for the barracks and pens used to temporarily hold the enslaved) on the coast of West Africa, before they were shipped across the Atlantic. Those who survived the terrors of this factory complex, and the death ships of the Middle Passage, were often further branded or tattooed when they were auctioned in Caribbean and North American slave markets. Violent stigmatisation continued in the ‘psychopathic’ plantation regime in the Americas, where ‘the technology of the whip’ was employed to turn ‘sweat, blood, and flesh into gold’.[ix]

To understand what the literal definition of stigma adds to our understanding of the meaning of this word, let’s consider a fuller example of a runaway slave announcement.  The following is an advertisement posted in The London Gazette, seeking the return of a young woman called Sabinah, who has escaped the ship Hannah while it was docked in London on 6 June 1743, at the height of British involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade:

A Black Negro Woman, about nineteen Years old, with two Letters on her Breast and Shoulder, made her Escape out of the Ship Hannah, Capt. Fowler, for Jamaica, the 6th inst. goes by the Name of Sabinah, is suppos’d to be deluded away by some other Black about Whitechapel, Rag-Fair, or Rotherhith. Whoever brings her to the late Mr. Neale’s, on Lawrence-Pountney-Hill, shall have three Guineas Reward; or if put on board the Ship again any time between this and next Tuesday, Ten Shillings more.[x]

This advertisement is one of 800 similar advertisements published in English and Scottish newspapers between 1700 and 1780, and recently collected in the Runaway Slaves in Britain database.[xi] When reading the descriptions of runaway slaves like Sabinah, branded with ‘two Letters on her Breast and Shoulder’, we can begin to ascertain how stigma marks functioned as a visual form of identification; that is, as technologies of surveillance and mechanisms of capture.[xii] We might also consider the stigmatising gaze these advertisements seek to inculcate in the public they address. The readers of eighteenth-century London newspapers are being solicited to search for identifying stigmata on the bodies of those they encounter; encouraged, with the inducement of financial rewards, to apprehend and return this lost property.

The US-based Freedom on the Move database has amassed over 20,000 runway advertisements, many of which are similarly ‘festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds’.[xiii] 

Stigma is certainly not metaphorical in these examples: these are marks that have quite literally been impressed on people.

The symbol/brand mark of the Royal African Company, an elephant and castle, can be seen under the bust of James II on this gold coin (Guinea) from 1686.

The coining of blood into capital

In 1663, the Royal Mint in London began striking a new gold coin ‘in the name and for the use of the Company of Royal Adventurers of England trading with Africa’. [xiv] Impressed with the figure of an elephant, these coins were originally made of gold from Guinea in West Africa and were designed for use in ‘the Guinea trade’. As Sukhdev Sandhu writes, ‘Not for nothing did a coin – the guinea – derive its etymology from the West African region of that name, the area from which hundreds of thousands of indigenous people were seized against their will. For traders in 17th and 18th-century Britain, the stigmatised African was quite literally a unit of currency.’ [xv]

Slaves were an extremely valuable commodity. Identifying Sabinah by the letters impressed on her breast and shoulder, and returning her to Captain Fowler on his slave ship bound for the Jamaican market, would have netted you as a reward the equivalent of £260 in guineas.

The tattoos, brand and whip marks inscribed on the bodies of the enslaved and the reproduction of these stigmata in the publicity produced by slave traders reveal the extent to which stigma was an integral part of the machinery of ‘the Guinea trade’. As Simone Browne argues, ‘branding was a measure of slavery, an act of making the body legible as property that was put to work in the production of the slave as object that could be bought, sold and traded’.[xvi] The violence of stigmatisation was part of ‘the work of commodification, of “producing” slaves’.[xvii]

An example of the branding irons used in barracoons and plantations can be seen at the Liverpool Museum of Slavery, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has in its collection an 1863 photograph of a freed slave called Wilson Chinn, who is branded on his forehead with the letters ‘V. B. M.’, the initials of his owner, a sugar planter called Volsey B. Marmillion (see image above). This stigma archive reminds us of the ways in which the catastrophe of slavery was written on the skin – with stigmata that transformed human beings into property, into things, into commodities, and into guineas. A stigma practice captured in Karl Marx’s phrase ‘the coining of blood into capital’.[xviii]

This other etymology of stigma is entangled with the history of the small city of Lancaster, in which I live. In 1754, a Lancaster-born slaver called Miles Barber established one of the most significant commercial slaving hubs in the history of British involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. This place of horror was called ‘Factory Island’, and was located on one of the Îles de Los, a group of islands off the African coast of Guinea, at the mouth of the Sierra Leone River. Over the course of the following decades Barber developed and managed an estimated 11 slave factories and barracoons along this stretch of West African coast, and by 1776, was being described by his contemporaries as the owner of ‘the greatest Guinea House in Europe’. [xix]

In the eighteenth century, Lancaster was heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade. It was the fourth largest slave-trading centre in England, and Lancaster slavers developed extensive commercial networks in the West Indies and Americas, importing slave-produced goods such as mahogany, sugar, dyes, spices, coffee and rum, and later cotton for Lancashire’s mills, from plantations, and exporting fine furniture, gunpowder, woollen and cotton garments. Young men from Lancaster slave-trading families worked as agents and factors across the West-Indies. Over generations these families accumulated land and property, plantations and slaves.

As Eric Williams details in Capitalism and Slavery (1944), slave traders and their descendants dominated local political life in towns such as Lancaster ‘as aldermen, mayors and councillors’. [xx] Some invested their inherited fortunes in the development of local mills and businesses. [xxi] It was the profits from slavery that financed the industrialisation of England and the development of its civic infrastructure and welfare estate.

The history of slavery is the history of capitalism, and it remains, as the American novelist and essayist James Baldwin put it, ‘literally present in all that we do’.[xxii]

Letters of blood and fire

Situating stigma within the historical scenography of chattel slavery foregrounds the violence within the more passive conceptualisation of stigma that we have inherited from twentieth-century social sciences. It binds stigma to practices of bodily marking, and emphasises the role of stigmatisation in systems of social discipline and punishment.

When we use the word stigma today we don’t tend to use it to mean the literal acts of inscription that this definition suggests. In supplementing the meaning of stigma with this other etymology, I am aware that I am already asking you to think about stigma from a strange perspective. You likely already associate stigma with suffering and cruelty. Certainly, we know from contemporary social scientific literature that stigma often has devastating effects on people’s health and well-being. You might even imagine stigma as a form of subjection which is socially embroidered, pressed and needled upon people through hurtful words or degrading looks. However, we don’t ordinarily associate stigma with physical violence, use the word stigma to describe physical wounds or scars, relate stigma to the branding iron, or associate it with the ‘whipping-machines’ of plantation labour. [xxiii]

If we imagine stigma as a form of violence at all, we tend to think of it as a more nuanced form of persecution. For example, in 1970 the sociologist Robert Pinker argued that what distinguishes stigma from other forms of violence, is that it is often ‘slow’ and ‘unobtrusive’: ‘a highly-sophisticated form of violence which can best be compared to those forms of psychological torture in which the victim is broken psychically and physically but left to all outward appearances unmarked’.[xxiv] Pinker is correct: in liberal democratic societies the violence of stigma is often symbolic, diffuse, slow and indirect – but not always. Stigma argues that recoupling the concept of stigma to economic and materialist histories of bodily marking deepens our understanding of the social, political and economic function of stigmatisation.

As Michel Foucault suggests, even when systems of government ‘do not make use of violent or bloody punishment, even when they use “lenient” methods involving confinement or correction, it is always the body that is at issue – the body and its forces, their utility and their docility, their distribution and their submission’.[xxv]

Stigma marks people out: ‘it is intended either by the scar it leaves on the body, or by the spectacle that accompanies it, to brand the victim with infamy’.[xxvi]  

Of the source materials drawn on by the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary to build a definitional picture of stigma, the use of the term ‘stigmata’ to describe the marks on the bodies of runaway chattel slaves, is the most instructive for understanding the ‘historical being’ of the concept of stigma. Critically, this other etymology emphasises the ways in which stigma is bound to ‘the voraciousness of capital, the capitalization of human misery, and the profits of immiseration’.[xxvii]

In Chapter One of Stigma,  ‘The Penal Tattoo’, I examine in much more detail the harrowing practices that unfold from histories of stigma. As you will discover, we cannot disentangle stigma power from histories of slavery, colonialism, Empire, capitalism, the history of enclosures, the industrial revolution, and the formation of the liberal democratic state. The history of stigma ‘is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire’.[xxviii]. 

slave brands

[i] Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004), 12.

[ii] William Howard, My Diary, North and South (Boston: T.O.H.P Burnham, 1863).In My Diary North and South Howard is using the stigmata on the bodies of the enslaved to illustrate ‘the misery and cruelty’ of North American plantation slavery, a system of exploitation and dehumanisation he describes as grounded in ‘radical evils’. Howard, 170, 332.

[iii] The Barbados Slave Code was reprinted in David McCord, The Statutes at Large of South Carolina: Acts Relating to Charleston, Courts, Slaves, and Rivers, vol. 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A.S. Johnston, 1840). This book includes several of legal statues for the branding and torture of enslaved people. The note which prefaces this collection reminds the reader that as many of these bloody laws are ‘British, not American Laws’, ‘the free people of South Carolina have no cause to blush’ at the legalised torture of unfree black lives.

[iv] Catherine Hall, “Gendering Property, Racing Capital,” in History After Hobsbawm: Writing the Past for the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 17–34. As Catherine Hall notes while ‘law was not the original basis for slavery… the slave codes of the British Caribbean were essential for its continuance’. Hall, 23.

[v] Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking, 2008), 4.

[vi] Rediker, 268.

[vii] The Kongo Kingdom covered a large area of west central Africa, it was an independent state from circa 14th until 1857, when it became a vassal state of the Portuguese Empire.

[viii] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (London: Pan, 2012), 13.

[ix] Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), xvii, 354, 142.

[x] The Captain Fowler referred to in this runaway advertisement might be John Fowler, who worked as a slave trader and as an agent for a Bristol slave trader in this period. If it is the same Fowler, he later settled in Jamaica as a plantation owner, and his will lists the 167 enslaved people that he owned. See ‘Legacies of British Slave-Ownership’

[xi]The abolitionist Granville Sharp, estimated that there were 20,000 black people living in London in the mid-18th century. See Gretchen Gerzina, Black England: Life before Emancipation (London: John Murray, 1995).

The social position of black Georgian’s, and their place and treatment within society varied. The available evidence suggests that those who were settled in Britain, as distinguished from those who had escaped ships at ports, mostly worked in roles such as indentured apprentices, domestic servants, or as sailors or dock workers.

William Hogarth depicted black servants in London living ‘very much part of the community of the poor’. David Dabydeen, “The Black Figure in 18th-Century Art,” BBC History, 2011,

The database Runaway Slaves in Britain project (begun in 2018) is further developing our understanding of black life in Georgian Britain. Many of these adverts are for slaves runway from ships, in some cases they appear to be waged sailors. Others are children run away from apprenticeships or domestic servants.

[xii] Historical practices of black surveillance (and counter-practices of black sousveillance) are tracked by Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2015).

[xiii] Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, 141.The US based Freedom on the Move database is the first major digital database of fugitive slave ads from North America, it was begun in 2018 and is online at

[xiv] In Anon, Oxford English Dictionary (Online) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, n.d.).

[xv] Sukhdev Sandhu, “The First Black Britons,” BBC History, 2011,

[xvi] Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2015), 26.

[xvii] Catherine Hall, “Gendering Property, Racing Capital,” History Workshop Journal 78, no. 1 (2014): 23.

[xviii] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, First English Edition (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1887), 181, Throughout this book I am drawing on the editions of Marx’s writing which are freely available at

[xix] Melinda Elder, “The Liverpool Slave Trade, Lancaster and Its Environs,” in Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery, ed. David Richardson, Suzanne Schwarz, and Anthony Tibbles (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 121. See also Melinda Elder, The Slave Trade and the Economic Development of 18th Century Lancaster (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992). Bruce Mouser, “Iles de Los as Bulking Center in the Slave Trade, 1750-1800,” Outre-Mers. Revue d’histoire 313 (1996): 77–91.

[xx] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, N.C: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), 95.

[xxi] Williams, 95.

[xxii] James Baldwin in Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave (London: Harper Collins, 2018), 136.

[xxiii] Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, 146.

[xxiv] Robert Pinker, “Stigma and Social Welfare,” Social Work 27, no. 4 (1970): 13–17.

[xxv] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995), 25.

[xxvi] Foucault, 34.

[xxvii] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2016), 25.

[xxviii] Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 508.

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