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,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.
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.
To read Stedman’s fascinating Narrative and see William Blake’s illustrations, request Rare Book F2410.S815 copy 2.
Posted for Emily Estelle ‘15