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See also Captivity narrative

The slave narrative is a literary form which grew out of the written accounts of enslaved Africans in Britainmarker and its colonies, including the later United Statesmarker, Canadamarker and Caribbean nations. Some six thousand former slaves from North America and the Caribbeanmarker gave accounts of their lives during the 18th and 19th centuries, with about 150 narratives published as separate books or pamphlets. In the 1930s in the United States, during the Great Depression, additional oral narratives on life during slavery were collected by writers sponsored and published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration.

Some of the earliest memoirs of enslavement were written by white Europeans and Americansmarker captured and enslaved in North Africa, usually by Barbary pirates. These were part of a broad category of "captivity narratives", which later included accounts by colonists and American settlers in North America and the United States who were captured and held by Native Americans. Several well-known ones were published before the American Revolution. Later accounts were by Americans captured by western tribes during 19th century migrations.

In addition, the division between slaves and prisoners of war, for example, was not always clear. A broader name for the genre is "captivity literature". As more attention is paid to the problem of contemporary slavery in the 20th and 21st centuries, additional slave narratives are written and published.

North American slave narratives

Slave narratives by slaves from North America were first published in Englandmarker in the 18th century, and they soon became a mainstay of African-American literature. Slave narratives were publicized by abolitionists. During the first half of the 19th century, the controversy over slavery in the United States led to impassioned literature on both sides of the issue. In addition to first-person accounts, novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) represented the abolitionist view of the evils of slavery. The so-called anti-Tom novels by white, southern writers, such as William Gilmore Simms, represented the pro-slavery viewpoint.

To present the reality of slavery, a number of former slaves such as Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass published accounts of their enslavement. Eventually some six thousand former slaves from North America and the Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives, with about 150 of these published as separate books or pamphlets.

These can be broadly categorized into three distinct forms: tales of religious redemption, tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle, and tales of progress. The tales written to inspire the abolitionist struggle are the most famous because they tend to have a strong autobiographical motif, such as in Frederick Douglass's autobiographies and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861).

Tales of religious redemption

From the 1770s to the 1820s, the slave narratives generally gave an account of a spiritual journey leading to Christian redemption. The authors usually characterized themselves as Africans rather than slaves.

Examples include:

Tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle

From the mid-1820s the genre became much more the conscious use of the autobiographical form to generate enthusiasms for the abolitionist struggle. They became more literary in form often with the introduction of fictionalized dialogue. Between 1835 and 1865 over 80 such narratives were published. Recurrent features include: slave auctions, the break-up of families and frequently two accounts of escapes, one of which is successful.

Examples include:
  • Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, New Yorkmarker 1825
  • The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Londonmarker 1831
  • Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, A Black Man, Lewistown 1836
  • A Narrative of Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery, Londonmarker 1837
  • A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Bostonmarker 1845
  • Narratives of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke, Sons of a Soldier of the revolution, during a Captivity of more than Twenty years among the Slaveholders of Kentucky, Boston 1846
  • Narrative of William Wells Brown, a fugitive Slave, Boston 1847
  • The Life of Josiah Henson, formerly a Slave, now an Inhabitant of Canada, Boston 1849
  • Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, New Yorkmarker 1849
  • The Fugitive Blacksmith, or Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington, Londonmarker 1849
  • Twelve Years a Slave, narrative of Solomon Northup, Auburn, Buffalomarker and Londonmarker 1853
  • Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings and Escape of John Brown, Londonmarker 1855 ISBN 0-8369-8865-5
  • The Life of John Thompson, A Fugitive Slave, Worcester, Massachusettsmarker 1855
  • The Kidnapped and the Ransomed, Being the Personal Recollections of Peter Still and his Wife "Vina," after Forty Years of Slavery, by Kate E. R. Pickard, New York, 1856
  • Running a thousand Miles for Freedom, or the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery, Londonmarker 1860
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, Boston 1861
  • The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina by John Andrew Jackson, Londonmarker 1862
  • Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave from Kentucky, Huddersfieldmarker 1864
  • Mary Reynolds (ex-slave) Louisianamarker, 1827

Tales of progress

Slave narrative published in 1871
Following the defeat of the slave states of the Confederate South, the narratives lost their urgency and were less concerned with conveying the evils of slavery. Some times they even gave a sentimental account of plantation life and also often ended with the narrator adjusting to their new life of freedom. In this the emphasis frequently shifted conceptually more towards progress than freedom.

Examples include:

WPA slave narratives

During the Great Depression the New Deal Works Projects Administration (WPA) used unemployed writers and researchers from the Federal Writers' Project to interview and document the stories of surviving African-Americans who had been part of the American slave system up until the Thirteenth Amendment. Produced between 1936 and 1938, the narratives retell the experiences of more than 2,300 former slaves.

North African slave narratives

In comparison to North American and Caribbean slave narratives, the North African slave narratives were written by white Europeans and Americans captured and enslaved in North Africa in the 18th and early 19th centuries. They have a distinct form in that they highlight the otherness of their Islamic enslavers, whereas the African American slave narratives call their fellow Christian enslavers to account.

Examples include:
  • The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow, In South Barbary, 1740
  • A Curious, Historical and Entertaining Narrative of the Captivity and almost unheard of Sufferings and Cruel treatment of Mr Robert White, 1790
  • A Journal of the Captivity and Suffering of John Foss; Several Years a Prisoner in Algiers 1798
  • History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs Marian Martin who was six years a slave in Algiers, 1810
  • History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs Lucinda Martin who was six years a slave in Algiers, 1806
  • The Narrative of Robert Adams, An American Sailor who was wrecked on the West Coast of Africa in the year 1810; was detained Three Years in Slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, 1817

Other historical slave narratives

As slavery has been practised all over the world for millennia, some narratives cover places and times other than these main two. One example is the account given by John R. Jewitt, an English armourer enslaved for years by Maquina of the Nootka people in the Pacific Northwest. The Canadian Encyclopedia calls his memoir a "classic of captivity literature" and it is a rich source of information about the indigenous people of Vancouver Islandmarker.

  • Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, only survivor of the crew of the ship Boston, during a captivity of nearly three years among the savages of Nootka Sound: with an account of the manners, mode of living, and religious opinions of the natives. Middletown, Connecticut, printed by Loomis and Richards, 1815. Full digital text available here.

Contemporary slave narratives

A contemporary slave narrative is a memoir published now, written by a former slave, or ghost-written on their behalf.

Examples include:
  • Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity - and My Journey to Freedom in America (2003) by Francis Bok and Edward Tivnan
  • Restavec by Jean-Robert Cadet vividly recounted his life as a restavec in Haiti
  • "Peter's story", by Peter Doyle, in A tribute to The Lost People of Arlington Housemarker, The National Archivesmarker, London 2004
  • Slave by Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis

Neo-slave narratives

A neo-slave narrative is an account of slavery written in contemporary times. The authors use their imagination, oral histories, and already-existing slave narratives to construct these stories. They are not writing of their own experiences, or acting as an amanuensis for a former slave. They may be classified as novels.

Examples include:

See also


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