Contributed Essay: Introduction to the Early Caribbean Slave Narrative

Introduction to the Early Caribbean Slave Narrative

The Early Caribbean Slave Narrative: An Introduction

To read the full length essay by Nicole N. Aljoe that helped shape this curated exhibit please see, "Caribbean Slave Narratives.” In The Oxford Handbook of African American Slave Narratives. Ed. John Ernest. New York: Oxford University Press.

As a genre, the slave narrative is often primarily associated with the Southern United States. However, just as the institution itself was global, so too, was the genre. Slave narratives, defined as testimonies and narratives that focus on providing details about the experiences of African Atlantic enslavement, were written in a variety of locations, including the Caribbean colonial islands. And contrary to popular belief, there are many extant examples of Caribbean slave narratives. Their absence in prevailing understandings of the slave narrative is due to the fact that none of the Caribbean slave narratives discovered thus far resembles the self-written, separately published slave narratives with which we are most familiar, such as texts by iconic United States narrators like William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Jacobs. Instead the Caribbean narratives appear in the archives in more complex manifestations: dictated, unsigned, and undated testimonies, portraits embedded in other texts, court depositions, spiritual conversion narratives, letters, interviews, brief narrative and ethnographic portraits, representations of conversations, etc.

And though not as numerous as in the United States, by my conservative count there are at least 20 separate and many other embedded narratives from the Caribbean and Latin America that satisfy the general definition of slave narratives. Examples of Caribbean slave narratives begin with the interviews of recently arrived enslaved Africans conducted in 1624–1627 in Cartagena, Colombia by the Jesuit missionary, Father Arturo Sandoval, and include the 1709 “Speech Made by a Black of Guardaloupe [sic]”; Joanna’s narrative, embedded in John Gabriel Stedman’s travel and military narrative, A Narrative of a Five Year’s Expedition Amongst the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796); interviews with two Fantee Barbadian slaves from 1799 found in the Bodleian library; the circa 1820 “Memoir of Florence Hall”; Mary Prince and Ashton Warner’s 1831 dictated narratives; Salone Cuthbert’s spiritual narrative dictated in 1831; Abu Bakr al-Sadiqa’s narrative, which was originally self-written in Arabic then translated into English by magistrate Robert Madden in his 1835 travel narrative; James Williams’ 1836 narrative of the apprenticeship period in Jamaica; Archibald Monteith/Monteath’s 1864 narrative of his conversion to Moravianism; and concludes with Miguel Barnet’s 1968 testimonio of the 105-year-old former maroon slave, Esteban Montejo.

Although these ephemeral, fragmentary, explicitly mediated documents may seem very different from the more familiar slave narratives, in fact they are similar in that they, too, endeavor to describe the experiences of enslavement. And while, to date, no one has found a ‘Caribbean’ Douglass or Jacobs (though he or she may yet be discovered), it is nonetheless still important to consider these texts on their own terms, as they exist, rather than viewing them as too contaminated by other voices or poor imitations of their U.S. counterparts. Moreover, in addition to offering a paradigm for exploring the myriad ways in which print culture sought to represent the lives and worlds of enslaved Afro-Caribbean peoples, Caribbean slave narratives also evidence the hybrid foundations of the slave narrative genre. Indeed, as illuminated by Marion Wilson Starling’s scholarly bibliography of slave narratives (researched during the 1940s but not published until 1981), of the over 6,000 documented slave narratives found in U.S. archives, only 3–4%, or 150–250, were self-written and separately published. Consequently, the extant Caribbean slave narratives actually more closely resemble the majority of texts Starling identified as slave narratives, and thus they contribute to a more comprehensive and nuanced portrait of the genre.

Indeed, narratives of the lives of enslaved Caribbean peoples appeared in a great variety of venues, particularly at the highpoint of the abolitionist movement in England during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many forums, such as newspapers, novels, poems, and essays, were specifically created in order to highlight slave voices. For example, when the Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter was created in 1823, the monthly and then eventually weekly newspaper provided an explicit forum for the publication and circulation of “authentic facts” about the institution of enslavement as it existed in Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, and India. Excerpts from Ashton Warner’s 1831 slave narrative appeared in the newspaper, as did “The narrative of Louis Asa Asa,” which was appended to Mary Prince’s 1831 narrative, along with many others. In addition, by documenting and tracking the development of several slave engagements with the British courts, whether as victims of injustice or as plaintiffs in freedom suits, the newspapers reprinted court testimonies and depositions, which also included details about the lives of the enslaved. Moreover, representations of slave voices and life experiences were also included in stories about medicine and science as well as in narratives and essays about spirituality. Scholars have noted that over three million documents were published by the Anti-Slavery Society alone (Cooper, 1998, 195-6). It stands to reason that a significant number of these documents would have included narratives of the lives of the enslaved in the Caribbean.

In addition to describing the experiences of enslavement in the Caribbean, Caribbean slave narratives exhibit a number of formal distinctions from their US counterparts. The most significant distinction is that every Caribbean slave narrative discovered so far (2013) is explicitly mediated in some way by a white transcriber, editor, or translator. All of the narratives are either dictated or translated. Only two of the narratives are self-written, and both of these, one written in Spanish the other in Arabic, were translated into English before publication. Certainly these explicitly mediated Caribbean narratives are distinct from those narratives, which can be historically verified. And while the narratives may make it difficult to speak with historical certainty about the specifics of the experiences described in the narratives, they nonetheless can be said to offer representations or glimpses at what life might have been like for the enslaved in the Caribbean.

Additional distinctions include the fact that many of the Caribbean narratives are also not necessarily organized as progressive narratives of fugitiveness moving toward salvation and redemption. Moreover, many of the Caribbean slave narratives were not explicitly associated with official abolitionist discourses and include texts such as Salone Cuthbert’s 1831 spiritual narrative and Abu Bakr al-Sadiqa’s 1835 narrative that lack sustained engagement with explicit abolitionist ideologies. And finally, many more of the narratives produced in the Caribbean communicate specific details and memories of a life lived in freedom in Africa.

On the whole, these seemingly simple texts not only provide important resources for understanding the complexities of the experiences of slavery, but they also communicate the inherent diversity of the slave narrative genre and illuminate its historical and continuing effects across the Atlantic African Diaspora. These slave narratives of the Caribbean provide key testimony, no matter how tenuous, and give textual “voice” to the complexities of slave cultures within early Caribbean colonial histories.

Works Cited

Cooper, Helen. "'Tracing the Route to England': Nineteenth-Century Caribbean Interventions into English Debates on Race and Slavery." In The Victorians and Race. Ed. Shearer West. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996: 194-212.

Starling, Marion. The Slave Narrative: It’s Place in American History. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 2nd Edition, 1988.


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