Friday, March 13, 2015

Slavery, Abolition and the New World

In 1772, a Scotch-Dutch captain named John Gabriel Stedman journeyed to the northeastern coast of South America, sent by the Dutch military to help quell a slave rebellion in its colonies there. Nineteen years after his return, Stedman published an extensive record of his travels--equal parts travelogue, naturalist description, political and military history, and personal narrative--titled Narrative, of a Five Year’s Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America; from the year 1772 to 1777: Elucidating the History of that Country, and Describing its Productions, Viz. Quadrupes, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, Trees, Shrubs, Fruits, & Roots; with an Account of the Indians of Guiana, & Negroes of Guinea (London: J. Johnson, 1796).

While Stedman’s text overflows with vivid descriptions of landscapes and wildlife, as well as the native Arawak population, it became popular--and remains compelling--for its depictions of colonial slavery. The Dutch military sent Stedman to join its campaign against the  maroons, or the escaped slaves who formed inland communities and waged guerrilla warfare against the colonists and their plantations. While he did so, Stedman also developed sympathy for the enslaved population; he condemns the inhumane torture and punishment that they suffered, and describes it in lurid detail in his narrative (see illustrated examples: vol. 1 pg. 111, 327). While Stedman’s outspoken sympathy made him unique for his time, he remained undeniably ethnocentric. In his introduction, he muses, “while the Colony of Surinam however is reeking and dyed with the blood of the African negroes, truth compels me to observe, that the Dutch there are not the only guilty; but that to most other nations, and particularly the Jews, is owing this almost constant and diabolical barbarity” (vol. 1 pg. v).

Stedman’s contradictory perceptions of race and slavery surface most clearly in his relationships with women. He paints a picture of a romantic love affair with a mulatto (mixed-race) slave named Joanna, waxing poetically: “Her face was full of native modesty, and the most distinguished sweetness; her eyes, as black as ebony, were large and full of expression, bespeaking the goodness of her heart” (vol 1. pg. 87, pictured p. 89). Stedman praises Joanna and other African slaves in comparison with European women; however, his narrative omits several unromantic sexual exploits with slave women, recorded only in his personal journal. Over the course of Stedman’s relationship with Joanna, she gave birth to a son named Johnny. While he managed to emancipate Johnny, Stedman failed to free Joanna--and, allegedly, she refused to go to Europe as an outsider and a slave. Ultimately, Stedman left both Joanna and Johnny behind, returning to Europe and marrying a Dutch aristocrat.

Stedman likely supported some reform within the system of slavery--but certainly not its eradication. Despite this fact, and his problematic personal life, his Narrative became popular within the British abolitionist movement, largely due to its vivid condemnations of torture. Abolitionist intellectuals attempted to recast Stedman’s text in support of their cause. J. Johnson, the radical abolitionist printer who published the text, captioned its first illustration--which shows Stedman standing over a dead slave--with his own sentimental verse:
'From different Parents, different Climes we came,
At different Periods”; Fate still rules the same.
Unhappy Youth while bleeding on the ground;
‘Twas Yours to fall--but Mine to feel the wound.
Many of the illustrations are based on Stedman’s own sketches, but are actually the work of abolitionist artist and poet William Blake. The final illustration, and one of Blake’s most famous, depicts “Europe supported by Africa and America” (pictured, vol 2. pg. 395); with it, Blake criticizes European colonialism, not just for its exploitation of African and Native American populations, but also its dependence on them.

While Stedman’s Narrative made some contributions to the abolitionist cause, it also served colonial governments; his detailed military planning maps and battle descriptions made the text into a useful handbook for anti-guerrilla combat in the colonies. Ultimately, Stedman’s legacy is a mixed one--steeped in slavery as much as early abolitionism. He ends his Narrative with one last ethnocentric plea for tolerance: “Thus, if it has not pleased fortune to make us equal in rank and authority, let us at least use the superiority we possess with moderation, and not only proffer that happiness which we have to bestow on our equals but let us extend it with chearfulness [sic] to the lowest of our deserving dependants” (vol 2. pg. 395).

To read Stedman’s fascinating Narrative and see William Blake’s illustrations, request Rare Book F2410.S815 copy 2.

Posted for Emily Estelle ‘15

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"Her mind appeared uncommonly spiritual"

Chloe Spear (c. 1767-1815) was an enslaved African woman living in Boston who became the subject of a posthumous biography, Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear: A Native of Africa, Who was Enslaved in Childhood, and Died in Boston, January 3, 1815, Aged 65 Years, by an unidentified “Lady of Boston” in 1832.

Chloe was twelve years old when she was “taken from country and kindred” and sold to the prominent Bradford family in Boston whom she served until she was freed in 1783. Chloe Spear spent her first few years of captivity in Andover, Massachusetts, and later moved to Boston where she was baptized at Second Baptist Church. Following her emancipation, Spear worked as a housekeeper and washerwoman before opening up a boarding house with her husband, Cesar. She and Cesar had seven children, all of whom she outlived.

The Memoir of Mrs. Chloe Spear is a spiritual biography—central to her story are the ways in which her spirituality and deep commitment to Christianity evolved. Following her baptism, Spear read the Bible with incredible fervor, opened her home to white and black Christians for prayer meetings, and engaged in mission work in Boston and Andover. As noted by her biographer: “She was kind and benevolent to the poor and distressed. Whenever objects of charity were presented, her hand was open for their relief.”

Spear died of “rheumatic complaints” in 1815. In her will, she left her home, money, and possessions to her church with hopes that it be applied to—in her words—the “relief of the sick and poor—particularly those of colour.” Following her death, one prominent white Boston minister posited of her: “Several of the last years of her life, her mind appeared uncommonly spiritual. As she advanced in life, she seemed to ripen for glory. Few Christians with whom we have been acquainted have appeared to maintain so near a walk with God, or to enjoy so much of heaven.”

Spear's Memoir is currently on display in Rauner Library in a student-curated exhibit, "Snatched from Africa's fancy'd happy seat": Gender and Slavery in New England. You can see it there until the end March.  After that, ask for 1926 Collection, L325 1832.

Posted for Jordan Terry '15