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Contributed Scholarly Introduction: Stedman, John Gabriel, Five Years Narrative (1796) vol1

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Stedman, John Gabriel, Five Years Narrative (1796) vol1

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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. During his five year mission from 1773-1777, Stedman kept a diary detailing his observations on plantation slavery, flora and fauna, and Dutch military activity against the Maroons. This is Vol. 1 of 2.


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 an enslaved woman named Joanna. Later editions of the text centered entirely on Joanna, as the love and marriage plot between Stedman and Joanna was popular with American 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).



Works Cited

Ditchfield, G.M. “Sharp, Granville (1735-1813), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Sept 2012.

Greene, Jack P. Creating the British Atlantic: Essays on Transplantation, Adaptation, and Continuity, University of Virginia Press, 2013.

Morgan, Kenneth. “Long, Edward (1734-1813)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004, online edition, May 2014. Accessed 2 October 2016.

Nadelhaft, Jerome. “The Somersett Case and Slavery: Myth, Reality, and Repercussions.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 51, no. 3, July 1966, pp. 193-208. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/2716061. Accessed 30 September 2016.

Secondary Bibliography

Greene, Jack P. Evaluating Empire and Confronting Colonialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Greene, Jack P. Exclusionary Empire: English Liberty Overseas, 1600-1900, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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