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The Ends of Slavery

Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam

by John Gabriel Stedman. transcribed for the first time from the original 1790 manuscript, edited by Richard Price, by Sally Price
Johns Hopkins University Press, 708 pp., $95.00

The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848

by Robin Blackburn
Verso, 560 pp., $49.50

Robin Blackburn’s monumental book The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery reproduces on the front of its dust jacket the extreme right-side portion of John Trumbull’s patriotic painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill. A young American lieutenant, “wounded in the sword hand, and in the breast,” as Trumbull described the scene, turns in hesitation as he flees the American redoubt on Breed’s Hill, wondering if he should sacrifice his life in a vain attempt to save General Joseph Warren. Close by his side stands “a faithful negro,” actually a black combatant named Peter Salem, who holds in readiness a cocked flintlock musket. So at the outbreak of the American Revolution, a black rifleman stands shoulder to shoulder with a white American patriot holding a sword in his left hand and wearing a plumed hat.1

General Thomas Gage’s Redcoats were not the only European troops shipped out to quell a colonial revolt. During the week in June 1775 when the Americans inflicted over one thousand casualties on the British at Bunker Hill, Captain John Gabriel Stedman reported that a detachment of Dutch colonial troops in Suriname had, while wading through a deep marsh, been ambushed by the rebels they were pursuing. As we learn from the account Stedman later wrote, now published for the first time in an accurate edition, the news jolted Stedman’s professional marines, who had been sent over from Holland more than two years earlier, into a state of high alert.2

In Suriname, in contrast to the North American colonies, the rebels in this “First Boni War” (1765–1777) were all escaped black slaves or the descendants of fugitive slaves. Such people were called maroons thoughout the Caribbean islands and marronnage had been a chronic problem for Europeans from the time of their first settlements in the New World; communities of maroons appeared and often flourished in the wilderness from Río de la Plata to Virginia.3 Nowhere, however, were maroons more successful in defending their independence than in the Dutch colonies of Guiana, particularly in the colony of Suriname. Today the six tribes descended from these maroons, living primarily in the interior rain forests, make up over 10 percent of Suriname’s population.

In 1760 and 1762, after a century of struggle, the two major groups of Surinamese maroons—the Djuka and Saramaka—had won treaties from the Dutch colonists acknowledging their independence and even promising a regular supply of arms and supplies. But in the colony of Berbice, to the west of Suriname, the black slave population rose in a mass revolt in 1763, seizing control of much of the sugar colony until troops sent from Holland, Suriname, and other neighboring colonies finally crushed the rebels’ dreams of founding an independent black kingdom.

Although the Djuka and Saramaka of Suriname had pledged themselves to return fugitive slaves (as had Jamaican maroons in 1739), their inland communities were an inducement to slaves to desert. In the late 1760s and early 1770s new maroon groups in Suriname began to coalesce in the forests, close to the plantations on the banks of the Cottica and Commewijne rivers. As these rebels set plantations ablaze and massacred their white inhabitants, more black slaves took to the woods. White settlers fled in panic to Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, and it soon appeared that the entire colonial economy was on the brink of collapse. As Stedman’s Narrative makes clear, “the revolted Negroe Slaves…may with truth be called the Terror of this Settlement if not the total loss of it—.” A New World Haiti might well have emerged in some form without benefit of French Revolutionary ideology.4 It was to prevent such an outcome that the Dutch States-General dispatched a corps of professional soldiers, later followed by reinforcements, to assist the jaded colonial troops.

The son of a Scots army officer and his Dutch wife, Stedman had grown up partly in Scotland and partly in Holland, joining at age sixteen the Scots Brigade that served the Dutch government. Proud of his physical strength and exploits at brawling, drinking, and wenching, Stedman was also an acute and intelligent observer who had a talent for drawing and an ardent interest in flora, fauna, and ethnography. His hot temper and the toughening exposure to frequent violence and death failed to blunt his unusual sensitivity to human or animal suffering. Fluent in English, Dutch, and French, he learned to speak Sranan, the creole language of Suriname’s slaves and many whites. Stedman was ideally prepared to write what Richard and Sally Price, its editors, accurately term “one of the richest, most vivid accounts ever written of a flourishing slave society.”

After retiring from military service in his early forties, Stedman settled in England and began drafting an account of his experiences abroad based on his notebooks and the log he had kept of daily events. The Prices, during their years of research in Holland, England, Suriname, and the United States, discovered that Stanbury Thompson, an English antiquarian who had acquired Stedman’s diaries around 1940 from a London junk dealer and had sold them before his death in the late 1960s, had flagrantly distorted the text in his 1962 edition of Stedman’s Journal. In addition to locating the original manuscript diaries and arranging their sale to the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota, the Prices found fifteen of Stedman’s drawings and watercolor paintings, which as anthropologists they assure us are “ethnographically careful and accurate—considerably more so than many of the engravings modeled after [them].”

Stedman finished his long Narrative in 1790 and was later pleased when Joseph Johnson not only agreed to publish the book but engaged four engravers, including Francesco Bartolozzi and William Blake, to cut plates. Stedman established close ties with Blake, whose sixteen engravings included scenes of slave life that helped form the core of international abolitionist iconography for generations to come. What Stedman didn’t know was that in 1794 Johnson hired William Thomson, a professional editor and man of letters, to rewrite the entire manuscript. In 1795, when Stedman saw the “mard” and bowdlerized printed book, “full of lies and nonsense,” he exploded in anger and claimed to have burned two thousand copies. Although Johnson finally agreed to reinstate portions of Stedman’s text, the Prices conclude that the edition finally published in 1796 was an “unhappy compromise.”

It was the 1796 Narrative, however, that became a classic, was republished in twenty editions and translated into six languages. Eleven years ago, thanks to the alert eye of Professor Stuart B. Schwartz, a distinguished Latin American historian at the University of Minnesota, Richard Price found Stedman’s original 1790 manuscript at the James Ford Bell Library. So after the passage of two centuries, we now have a superbly edited critical edition of the book Stedman actually wrote.

The 1790 Narrative is mostly written in direct, earthy prose that evokes the emotional response of a young European captain to the naked breasts of “beautiful Negroe Maids,” to the clouds of ravenous “muskitos,” to the tremors of tropical fever, and to the delight of stripping off all his sweat-soaked clothing and diving daily into the cool depth of a Surinamese river, a therapeutic secret confided to Stedman by Cramaca, a wise old slave. Cramaca also convinced Stedman that the motion from vigorous swimming would protect him from alligators and piranhas, or “p–k biters,” as Stedman called them in his diary.5

Stedman’s first editor deleted such references to nudity as well as frequent passages expressing anger and contempt for Colonel Fourgeoud, Stedman’s commanding officer. He also diluted Stedman’s portrayal of Suriname as a cornucopia of sexual pleasure for European males, who could choose between casual one-night stands or acquiring a slave mistress who, in addition to providing sex, “preserves their linnens clean and decent, dresses their Victuals with Skill, carefully attends them/they being most excellent nurses/during the frequent illnesses to which Europeans are exposed in this Country.”6 Thomson could not eliminate references to Joanna, Stedman’s own beautiful mulatto mistress, but the 1796 edition gives no sense of Stedman’s loving admiration of Joanna’s dignity and superior talents, or of his belief in racial equality, repeatedly underscored by such affirmations as “in every respect I look on [the African Negro] as my brother,” or “I love the African Negroes, which I have showed on numberless occasions.”

Thomson’s most significant revisions, the Prices believe, pertain to Stedman’s views on race, slavery, and moral justice. The 1796 edition was published when British troops had suffered appalling casualties in order to preserve plantation slavery in the Windward Islands and were struggling to restore the institution in Saint Domingue, where black rebels and the French government had tried to abolish it. Stedman, as a retired army officer and conservative royalist, surely had sympathy for the British Caribbean troops and may well have approved the attempt to transform his Narrative into a proslavery tract. By the mid-1790s even the most conservative abolitionists were being denounced as covert Jacobins.7

In 1792 Stedman refused to sign one of the immensely popular petitions against the slave trade. Even in the 1790 manuscript he urges the reader to consider the “Proof” presented in an obdurate proslavery work by James Tobin, a wealthy planter who had written a blistering response to the Reverend James Ramsay, perhaps the most cautious and conservative of British abolitionists. Indeed, throughout the 1790 edition Stedman repeats the standard proslavery arguments that were voiced in Parliament and marshaled in pamphlets commissioned by the Committee of West India Planters and Merchants. Britain’s tropical colonies, he wrote, could not be cultivated without the labor of African slaves; the colonies would inevitably be lost if Parliament interfered by adopting “rash” measures, a lesson supposedly proved by the recent American War of Independence; many of the West Indian slaves were treated with indulgence and enjoyed such diversions as fishing, swimming, dancing, making baskets and musical instruments, and socializing with their friends and families; they were infinitely happier and more secure than European soldiers, sailors, paupers, and prostitutes, or for that matter the millions in Europe who “annually expire under the name of Liberty, loaded with the pangs of want & disease, and crushed under the galling chains of oppression.” 8

But these proslavery passages seem perfunctory and lifeless, as if dutifully inserted to prove Stedman’s “Manly” impartiality to potential subscribers and the readers of travel literature. Far from counterbalancing Stedman’s descriptions of appalling torture, brutality, and slaveholder debauchery, unforgettably illustrated by Blake’s engravings, the proslavery arguments could lend strength to the belief that Stedman was an objective eyewitness, untainted by effeminate abolitionist sentimentality. As Stedman first glimpsed Surinamese society, after stepping ashore, he saw

a most miserable Young Woman in Chains simply covered with a Rag round her Loins, which was like her Skin cut and carved by the lash of the Whip in a most Shocking Manner. Her Crime was in not having fulfilled her Task to which she was by appearance unable. Her punishment to receive 200 Lashes and for months to drag a Chain of several Yards in length the one end of which was Lock’d to her ancle and to the other End of which was a weight of 3 Score pounds or upwards. She was a beautiful Negroe Maid.

  1. 1

    Trumbull, who had watched the Battle of Bunker Hill from a distance, painted this scene in London in 1786. It now hangs in the Yale University Art Gallery. As Hugh Honour points out in his magnificent new work, The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. IV: From the American Revolution to World War I, Part I: Slaves and Liberators (Harvard University Press, 1989), Trumbull’s painting bore strong thematic and stylistic resemblances to John Singleton Copley’s The Death of Major Peirson, in which a beplumed black soldier, fighting with the British who are resisting a French invasion of the Channel Island of Jersey, aims in Copley’s words “his musquet at the French officer by whom his master was slain” (pp. 41–44). The two paintings, intended for American and British audiences respectively, reflect the fact that blacks fought on both sides in the American Revolution, many escaping by this means from slavery (for further illustrations and historical information, see Sidney Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770–1800, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973).

  2. 2

    Stedman later mentions the “Havock” of the Battle of Bunker Hill (p. 558) and encounters Tory refugees in Suriname, as well as American seamen who denounced Lord North and swore they would be willing to die in defense of American liberties.

  3. 3

    The English word “maroon” and the French marron derived from the Spanish cimarrón, which first referred to domestic cattle that roamed off into the hills of Hispaniola. See Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), and Gad Heuman, ed., “Out of the House of Bondage: Runaways, Resistance and Marronage in Africa and the New World,” Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Comparative Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3 (December 1985). For fascinating accounts and illustrations of the persistence of maroon culture in modern Suriname, see Richard Price, First-Time: The Historical Vision of an Afro-American People (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), and Richard Price and Sally Price, Afro-American Arts of the Suriname Rain Forest (University of California Press, 1980).

  4. 4

    In effect, Palmares, the mocambo or “African state” in Brazil, fits this description. This large community of fugitive slaves resisted conquest through most of the seventeenth century. Unlike Haiti, of course, it did not have a formal constitution based on principles of the Euro-American Enlightenment.

  5. 5

    In the 1790 Narrative Stedman avoids this term but refers to piranhas snapping off “the fingers and breasts of women and private Parts of Men.” This passage was deleted from the 1796 edition and Thompson deleted the more graphic phrase from his edition of the Journal.

  6. 6

    The Prices point out that Stedman himself censored the impersonal, commercial sexual exchanges recorded in his diary. He did make it clear, however, that European men were drained to exhaustion by their frequent relations with remarkably athletic black and mulatto women.

  7. 7

    In an endnote the Prices carefully consider and then reject the possibility that Stedman’s views on slavery may have hardened after 1790 and that he himself may have been responsible for some of the changes in the 1796 edition that they attribute to William Thomson, who had accepted commissions to write proslavery tracts at the time he was revising Stedman’s manuscript. Their reasoning is partly convincing, but to this reviewer they fail to give sufficient weight to the proslavery passages in the 1790 manuscript and to the probable effects on a professional soldier and patriot of the “Black Jacobins” of Saint Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Grenada, who were killing thousands of Stedman’s comrades.

  8. 8

    For an informative description and analysis of proslavery ideology in Britain and the northern United States, which drew on the counterrevolutionary reaction of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701–1840 (University of Georgia Press, 1988).

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