All posts by Hannah Rogers

One of the authors of the Deeps Project: Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic, more specifically of the "History" sub-section. Homepage: History:

Early American Ideology, Literature, and The Haitian Revolution

By Hannah Rogers

Republican and liberal values supplied a significant portion of the ideology that founded the United States. This democracy formed in the 18th-century was not the only government produced by a revolution or that looked to the ideals of equality and liberty for inspiration. Despite the power placed in the hands of citizens, however, segments of the population were barred from enjoying rights of political participation. And, in opposition to this model of individual rights, slavery continued to stand as a protected and justified practice.

The Declaration of Independence’s ideals have been noted, including in fiction, as conflicting with the institution of slavery.

This conflict asserts itself in early-American fiction. The novel Sheppard Lee by Robert Montgomery Bird, for instance, illustrates the hypocrisy between “all men are created free and equal” and the enslavement of a race. A segment of the book, taking place on a Virginia plantation, follows contented slaves until a political pamphlet illustrating the horrors of slavery falls into their hands. Reading the book, suddenly the slaves develop an understanding after reading about liberalism: “A new idea had entered their brains […] for the first time in their lives, [the slaves] began to think of their master as a foe and usurper” (353).[i] This leads to a revolt on several neighboring plantations — although it is eventually put down.

Sheppard Lee, published in 1836, contains echoes of the American colonies’ — not just those contained within the borders of the United States — past with slavery. Most obviously, in 1791 the Haitian Revolution began. This revolution began as a slave revolt inspired, to some degree, by the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Just as the slaves in Bird’s fiction were inspired by the founding principles of the United States to take their rights, the slaves in Saint Domingue sought to fight for virtues given to more dominant segments of society. This is not to say Sheppard Lee was directly inspired by the events that created Haiti; I simply assert that the tension between democracy’s promise and its restrictions manifested itself throughout early American history in various forms.


The Haitian Revolution itself produced mixed reactions in the United States. According to Tim Matthewson, southern slaver holders feared that Haiti’s success would lead to the spread of rebellion.[i]  Yet, citizens such as northerner Abraham Bishop, who penned “The Rights of Black Men,” supported the Haitian Revolution and believed it was “part of the great global revolution which began in 1776 and would soon sweep away the last vestiges of barbarism and slavery” (148).[ii]

As for President Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves yet claimed to oppose slavery his policies and views toward Haiti and slavery were contradictory:

Like other Americans,  Jefferson expressed a strong aversion to slavery, but it had not been possible for him to maintain anything more than a theoretical commitment to emancipation during this period of racial warfare, outhern reaction, and expansion of slavery” (38).

The events in Haiti inspired more than political writing and discussion, however. For instance, Lenora Sansay — an American novelist who had a relationship with Vice President Aaron Burr — traveled to Saint Domingue with her husband during the revolution and ended up writing a somewhat fictionalized account of her experiences there. The novel’s full title is Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, in a Series of Letters Written by a Lady at Cape Francois to Col. Burr, late Vice-President of the United States, Principally During the Command of General Rochambeau. Secret Histories acts as a semi-autobiographical narration of Sansay’s time in Haiti from 1802-03. The story focuses on two sisters Mary, the narrator and friend of Burr, and Clara whose husband St. Louis who lost his plantation during the earlier period of the revolution. Clara, having married St. Louis on advice despite her lack of love for him, finds herself trapped in an unhappy and eventually abusive marriage.

The title page of Lenora Sansay’s Secret Histories, which was published in the United States in 1808.

The focus on Clara, who becomes caught in a failed marriage and a seduction plot, may not be the expected focus of a novel taking place during the end of the Haitian Revolution. As Elizabeth Maddock Dillon argues, however, “the focus of the novel on elite, white domestic relations against the backdrop of warfare over colonial race slavery does not bespeak sustained delusion (or colonial nostalgia) so much as an astute analysis of the relations of production and social reproduction that stand at the core of colonial politics” (78). She concludes by  stating domestic reproduction in colonies would need to “think against, through, or around the presumptive sterility of the creole” and the colonial ideology (99) [iv]. There is, of course, tension in the novel between unstable nature of the creole family, and Dillon’s assessment of the early American life and the colonial shows the politics of the white property owners in Haiti. I, however, believe the novel also, intentionally or not, shows the radical break of American democracy with its own principles.

Michael Drexler puts it this way, “Leonora Sansay’s Secret History illuminates the early republic’s “unknown known”—its political unconscious—with incredible precision. It makes manifest the young republic’s dominant but repressed problem: a republic founded on liberty that held a vast population in bondage.[v]” And yet, despite his astute observation, Drexler does not specifically spend time analyzing the passages in the novel of Haitians rebelling against the French, but on the creole reactions to the revolution.

How does Sansay portray the revolutionaries then? As disloyal, bloodthirsty, insurrectionists[vi] .

It was discovered that the negroes in the own intended to join those who attacked it from without and to kill the women and children, who were shut up in their houses, without anyone to defend them..”

Former slaves turn against “family:”

[One of my Creole friends] told me that her husband was stabbed in her arms by a slave whom he had always treated as his brother; that she had seen her children killed, and her house burned, but had been herself preserved by a faithful slave.”

When a family refuses to give its eldest daughter in marriage to a revolutionary, they are hung. And when the girl refuses, she finds herself in peril:

A fate more dreadful awaited her. The monster gave her to his guard, who hung her by the throat on an iron hook in the market place where the lovely, innocent, unfortunate victim slowly expired.”

And yet, Sansay recognizes, to an extent, the desire the blacks have for freedom:

The negroes have felt during ten years the blessing of liberty, for a blessing it certainly is, however acquired, and they will not easily be deprived of it.”

Perhaps, then, Sansay only can dehumanize the former slaves by making them “dangerous” and “savage” stereotypes to deal with the tension between freedom and enslavement. Drexler, Dillon, and others question and posit answers for why Sansay and the Haitian Revolution have been forgotten and ignored until fairly recently in scholarship and history. Each answer, in one way or another, ties into the fact that the United States, and other white nations, could not imagine a black nation — even if racial equality was the next step for “all men are created free and equal.” As more segments of the population fought for liberty, the arbitrariness of these classifications made itself evident.

How does this resonate with us? For mainstream purposes, the Haitian Revolution still remains marginalized. How many history courses in United States middle or high schools teach the Haitian Revolution? While Hollywood has begun to focus on American slavery, Toussiant Louverture’s story has been unable to find a backer. Although Sansay’s novel has gained more critical attention, it has been ignored by prominent scholars.

The Haitian Revolution, and the values that became tied to it and other revolutionary nations, show the need to push back against the “established order” and find a way to recognize minority voices to avoid an exclusionary model that provides rights to some but not to all. Sansay’s novel shows us that the power of representation exists and in working with historical events and, perhaps in producing contemporary fiction, we must seek to avoid reenforcing harmful fictions. More representation of Haiti can show the direct, important connections between the events of the Haitian Revolution and the United States. By learning about the global network that produced the Americas, we can move from a U.S.-centric view to a more expansive view. I hope that by bring exposure to Haiti’s history, we can recognize modes of thinking that may encourage productive research while preventing repetition of past mistakes.


 [i] Bird, Robert Montgomery. Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself. New York: NYRB Classics, 2008. Print.

[ii] Matthewson, Tim. “Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haiti.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 140.1 (1996): 22–48.

[iii] Matthewson, Tim. “Abraham Bishop, ‘The Rights of Black Men,’ and the American Reaction to the Haitian Revolution.” The Journal of Negro History 67.2 (1982): 148–154.

 [iv] Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonora Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 40.1/2 (2006): 77–103.

[v] Drexler, Michael. “The Displacement of the American Novel.” Common-Place 9.3 (2009).

[vi] Sansay, Lenora. Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, in a Series of Letters Written by a Lady at Cape Francois to Col. Burr, late Vice-President of the United States, Principally During the Command of General Rochambeau. 1808.

Public Opinion, the Trial of John Kimber, and Research Ethics

By Hannah Rogers

Time, sentiment, and unreliable witnesses have obfuscated the “truth” of the events that happened on board the slave ship Recovery in 1791. After the death of a slave girl during the voyage, Captain John Kimber found himself and the events on his ship pulled between abolitionist and pro-slavery public opinion.

In Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman says of details the case depended on your perspective:

“No one saw the same girl; she was outfitted in a different guise for each who dared look. She appeared as a tortured virgin, a pregnant woman, a syphilitic tart, and a budding saint […] The captain, the surgeon, and the abolitionist all disagreed about what happened on deck of the Recovery, yet they all insisted they were trying to save the girl’s life. In this respect, I am as guilty as the rest. I too am trying to save the girl, not from death or sickness or a tyrant but from oblivion.”[1] (136-137).”

Hartman, using different transcripts of the trial and other documents surrounding the case, tries to reconstruct possibilities in which the dead girl may have existed. She makes the attempt to remember a girl who was mostly forgotten after the court proceedings over her death ended.


Srividhya Swaminathan, writing for the journal Slavery & Abolition, notes that some trials dealing with the slave trade have received more emphasis than others: “The trial of Captain John Kimber has received almost no scholarly attention despite a substantial newspaper record. Instead, scholars have focused on the slave ship Zong as the most evocative symbol of abolitionist discourse”[2] (483).

In her article, Swaminathan looks at the newspaper archives of both cases of the Zong and the Recovery to explore the court of public opinion’s role in the struggle between pro-slavery lobbyists and abolitionists both in Britain and the United States. Through a reconstructed timeline, Swaminathan shows how the events led up to the Kimber trial: William Wilberforce gave a speech in 1792 that detailed atrocities in the slave trade (including the death of the girl on the Recovery), newspapers printed versions of the speech based on reporters’ memories, Kimber himself published a response to salvage his reputation, the captain is soon taken to trial, and then he is acquitted.  Kimber’s name, however, continued to be used as “an example of proslavery excess until 1795. The repercussions of this case on the public imaginary are manifold. A slave-ship captain, though inherently corrupt, was held accountable for his actions on board ship in the court of public opinion. The ‘cargo’ of a slave ship could not be dismissed as merely property” (495-96).

 Although Zong case did not recognize the death of 132 slaves as murders in court, the trial of Kimber at least imagined the possibility of a slave girl’s humanity. Arguably, Kimber’s trial and the events surrounding it had more positive influence on the public, in terms of abolition, than did the case of the Zong massacre.


The case of Kimber inspired the political cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank,  above, which was published shortly after Wilberforce gave his speech in Parliament. As noted by scholars discussing the case, the title’s description of the girl (“a young Negro girl of 15 for her virjen modesty”) valorizes her as an innocent while depicting the crew as callous and cruel; for example, the sailor holding the rope is depicted as saying:  “Dam me if I like it I have a good mind to let go.”

Printed accounts of the trial results were just as biased (one way or another).

In the retelling titled, “The trial of Captain John Kimber, for the murder of two female Negro slaves, on board the Recovery, African slave ship,” the introduction states:

“Whatever the public opinion may be relative to the profecution carried on againft Captain Kimber, who has been (we fuppofe fairly) acquitted by an Englifh Jury, it was evidently a neceflary and a ufeful meafure. It may afford a falutary leffon to thofe captains of flave fhips, and matters of flaves who fhould hereafter attempt to commit fuch horrid outrages as he has been charged with : and it may, from the circumftances here related, (for fuch barbarities have doubtlefs been often praftifed) fill the minds of men univerfally with horror againft the prefent fyftem: until tyranny fhall at length give way to public opinion, and liberty and hap- pinefs be reftored to human beings.”[3] 

On the other hand, the alternate account titled, “The trial of Captain John Kimber, for the supposed murder of an African girl” suggests another side of the trial:
“In vindication of innocence, we have published this trial in the exact manner in which it was held. It is not lengthened to anfwer one party—nor abridged for the other. The public will now judge for themselves […] By exercifing their own judgment they will fee, on what principle CAPTAIN KIMBER (who was fo honourably acquitted) was brought to his trial.”[4]

 As examined by Srividhya, attention was paid to the public opinion. Words and details were carefully chosen to incite the public one way or the other through printed medium, for example, the pro-slavery description states Kimber was “honourably acquitted” rather than the neutral “acquitted.”

Multiple scholars, including those who do not explicitly explore the Kimber trial, point to the use of sentiment by abolitionists to end the slave trade. Presenting certain instances (real or fictional) in a specific way has been seen as method to sway opinions, and public opinion has been noted as a catalyst (or one of the catalysts) for change.
But what about the ethics of sentiment? Or even the recovery of these victims’ existence? In a time that does not resemble the ethical journalism age, how can we trust these reports (which, as has been shown, clearly have a bias in the cause)? If unbiased journalism gives only a snippet of the actual event, how can we trust 18th-century journalism? William Wilberforce’s speech selected details about the girl on the recovery to suit his ends; he heard the story from someone else; the reporters who heard him speak all wrote different accounts due to imperfect memory and notes; the witnesses at the trial had different perspectives; the images of the girl were wrapped up in the culture of the time. What can we really glean from these archives except the mechanisms used to motivate a public in one direction or another?
And, if fact, how much influence did (or do) any of these narratives have on the slave trade and the laws surrounding it?
The cases of slaves chosen were used to make a point by the abolitionists. What does it mean to treat a person (or a group of persons) as an example of a greater horror, especially someone who never intended to become the “face” of a cause? The lives, and more empathetically, the deaths of the slaves in the cases of the Zong and the Recovery became some sort of symbol for a “greater good.”
In telling the story of the slave girl on the Recovery, at least, the abolitionists, the slave ship crew, the reporters attending these events, the illustrators of the “event,” and even the scholars trying to recuperate something of the original girl appear to obfuscate the “real” individual that lived and died more and more. Those who viewed her death as murder, or as a tragedy, or horrific want to recover some meaning from what happened. I’ve asked, in relationship to the events of the slave trade, “what does it mean?” and noted about text “none of us knew what it meant.”
But in trying to find meaning in something we view horrific, trying to find some kind of positive counter to the dehumanizing slave culture, are we making an attempt to comfort ourselves and let go or recuperate the past? Or are we trying to turn something into a didactic lesson or can we find details between the lines that show more to the slave trade than the commodification of human bodies?
I do not have a definitive answer. Throughout reading about the Black Atlantic and researching this case, I’ve come to think about the ethics of research. Researchers and critics do not act in tandem in how they approach their work. Research has clearly been done in this field (and others) without crossing the line between recovering voices and (re)-commodifying the oppressed by imagining and creating a narrative for these individuals. However, in considering this line of research, I believe it’s important to acknowledge the possible problematic turn this research can take and how public and individual bias in archived documents may distort the past.
Although this topic clearly needs more thought, I believe that asking the question of how to approach this research and what considerations need to be taken when writing about specific events will help build a stronger foundation for the scholarly work done in all areas.

[1] Hartman, Saidiya. “The Dead Book.” Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Print.

[2] Swaminathan, Srividhya. “Reporting Atrocities: A Comparison of the Zong and the Trial of Captain John Kimber.” Slavery & Abolition 31.4 (2010): 483–499. Print.

[3] The trial of Captain John Kimber, for the murder of two female Negro slaves, on board the Recovery, African slave ship

[4] Kimber, John. The trial of Captain John Kimber, for the supposed murder of an African girl, at the Admiralty sessions, before the Hon. Sir James Marriott … and Sir William Ashurst … on Thursday, June 7, 1792. London, [1792]. The Making Of The Modern World. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.