Darlington Memorial Library, University of Pittsburgh
Early Caribbean Slave Narratives
University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796): A Scholarly Introduction
By: Elizabeth Polcha
In 1771 John Gabriel Stedman, a Scots Brigade soldier who had served previously for eleven years in the Dutch military, volunteered to combat marooned escaped slaves in the Dutch colony of Suriname. Stedman spent four years (1773-1777) in Suriname, during which he kept a diary detailing his observations on plantation slavery, flora and fauna, and Dutch military activity against the maroons. After returning from Surinam, Stedman spent a few years in the Netherlands before settling in Devonshire, England with his Dutch wife, Adriana Coehron, to work on a manuscript version of his diary. In 1791, fourteen years after his return to the Netherlands in 1777, Stedman sent the edited manuscript based on his Suriname diary “as well as a list of seventy-six subscribers (for ninety-two copies)” to London publisher Joseph Johnson (Price and Price, “Introduction” xxxvii). Along with the manuscript and list of subscribers, Stedman also sent Johnson 106 illustrations. Johnson assigned Stedman’s drawings and watercolors to several engravers, including artist and poet William Blake, who is responsible for at least sixteen of the eighty-one engravings (“Introduction” xxxviii). The first edition of Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam was then published by Johnson in London in 1796. The 1796 version was extensively edited from Stedman’s original 1790 manuscript, which greatly angered Stedman. In a letter to his sister-in-law, Stedman wrote, “my book was printed full of lies and nonsense, without my knowledge” (Price and Price, l). Nevertheless, Stedman’s Narrative was highly popular and would result in more than twenty editions in six languages (Price and Price, “Introduction,” xiv-xv).
The editorial changes to Stedman’s manuscript represented “a rigid proslavery ideology” as the editor “altered Stedman’s middle-of-the-road humanitarianism and strong penchant for cultural relativism to read almost like Edward Long’s (1774) acidulous proslavery apologetics” (Stedman’s Surinam lviii). Despite the pro-slavery edits, contemporary readers of Narrative of a Five Years took note of Stedman’s detailed account of the violence of slavery. One reviewer of Narrative in the Analytical Review from September 1796 writes, “it will be impossible to peruse the numerous relations of shocking cruelties and barbarities contained in these volumes without a degree of painful sympathy.” Another reviewer from The English Review in 1796 referred to Stedman as “a man of sense and penetration; a friend to humanity.”
Scholars have drawn links between Stedman’s Narrative and Richard Steele’s “Inkle and Yarico” because of Stedman’s focus on his romantic love affair and marriage to a 15-year-old enslaved girl named Joanna. Later editions of the text centered entirely on Joanna, as the love and marriage plot between Stedman and Joanna was popular with abolitionists, most notably Lydia Maria Child, who published an edited version of Stedman and Joanna’s story in The Oasis in 1834. Scholars such as Tassie Gwilliam, Mary Louise Pratt, Jenny Sharpe, and Nicole Aljoe have drawn attention to Joanna’s narrative and to Joanna and Stedman’s relationship, which Pratt refers to as a “romantic transformation of a particular form of colonial sexual exploitation” (93).Volume I: Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam
Gwilliam, Tassie. “‘Scenes of Horror,’ Scenes of Sensibility: Sentimentality and Slavery in John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.” ELH, vol. 65 no. 3, 1998, pp. 653–673.
Price, Richard and Sally Price. “Introduction.” Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam: Transcribed for the First Time from the Original 1790 Manuscript. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
---. Stedman’s Surinam: Life in an Eighteenth-Century Slave Society. An Abridged, Modernized Edition of Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. JHU Press, 1992.
Aljoe, Nicole N. Creole Testimonies : Slave Narratives from the British West Indies, 1709-1838. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Bohls, Elizabeth A. Slavery and the Politics of Place: Representing the Colonial Caribbean, 1770–1833. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Kennedy, Dustin. “Going Viral: Stedman’s Narrative, Textual Variation, and Life in Atlantic Studies.” Circulations: Romanticism and the Black Atlantic. Edited by Paul Youngquist and Frances Botkin. Romantic Circles Praxis, University of Maryland: 1 Oct. 2011. http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/circulations/HTML/praxis.201 1.kennedy.html
Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Beacon Press, 2000.
Parrish, Susan Scott. American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. UNC Press Books, 2012.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Routledge, 2007.
Sharpe, Jenny. Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Sollors, Werner. Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature. Harvard University Press, 1999.
How to cite this scholarly introduction:
Polcha, Elizabeth. “ Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796): A Scholarly Introduction." The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Boston: Northeastern University Digital Repository Service, 2016.