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From Dessalines to Laferrière and Martelly: Past & Present in Haitian Diaspora Literature and Public Discourse in Haiti

The presence of the past in present times is an aspect of Black Atlantic Studies that interests me – and probably many others – a lot. I guess that it’s also one of the reasons why I am so interested in writers of the Haitian diaspora. With the Haitian Revolution that occured from 1791 to 1804, the creation of the first black independent country, and then the various regimes that followed, with the historical influence of France and the US, the way Haitian writers construct their identity, and writers of the diaspora negotiate it as exiles, reveals to be fascinating.

One of the writers of the Haitian diaspora that I read and studied the most is Dany Laferrière, now member of the French Academy since December 2013. Born in Port-au-Prince in 1953, raised by his grandmother in Petit-Goâve, he left Haiti for Montreal, Canada, in 1976, just after one of his best friends and colleague Gasner Raymond was killed by the Haitian milice – Jean-Claude Duvalier’s “tontons macoutes.” Intellectuals and opponents to the Duvalier regime did not have much of a choice at that time; Laferrière’s real first name, Windsor Kléber, was changed to “Dany” in the public and private sphere because his father, former mayor of Port-au-Prince who left when Laferrière was only a child because of his political ideas, was on the black list of the Duvalier militia and was also forced into exile to escape it.

Dany Laferrière

Dany Laferrière has spent more than 25 years in Montreal, 12 in Miami, and the series of 10 autobiographical novels formed what he called his “American autobiography.” One of them, entitled Pays sans chapeau (1996) – translated as Down Among the Dead Men in the English version, or, more literally; “Country with no hat” – focuses on the narrator’s return to Haiti after spending 20 years abroad. Laferrière splits his narrative in two: chapters alternate between “pays réel” and “pays rêvé” (“real country” and “dream country”). In chapters on the “dream country,” the narrator is warned that while Haiti belongs to the living during daytime, an army of zombies occupies it at night.

When I read Laurent Dubois’s Avengers of the New World (2004) in which he cites what Dessalines is believed to have said:

“Dessalines had convinced the ‘Congos’ who fought for him that it would be a blessing if they were killed by the French, for they would ‘immediately be transported to Guinea, where they would once again see Papa Toussaint, who was waiting for them to complete his army, which was destined to reconquer Saint Domingue’” (275)

I couldn’t help drawing some kind of parallel with Pays sans chapeau. I clearly do not know enough about vodun to have a really informed argument about this, but from what I understand, Laferrière’s army of zombies strangely reminded me of Dessalines’s army.


“L’au-delà. Est-ce ici ou là-bas?” (Laferrière, 63)

Moreover, a second connection between Dessalines and Laferrière is to be found in the title of the book. Indeed, as Laferrière says it, the title of the book, Pays sans chapeau, refers to Heaven (“ce curieux pays où personne ne porte de chapeau” p. 222). However, in writing a narrative specifically about Haiti and wondering where the hereafter is, the author links Heaven with Haiti, hereby echoing Dessalines’s promise that all dead slaves would find Toussaint in Africa in order to ultimately go back to Saint-Domingue. Haiti was seen as a reward for fallen slave soldiers, like Heaven. Therefore, the presence of this past in contemporary diaspora literature is clear, and I am sure that many more links than the few I have just mentioned could be drawn.


“Le jour à l’Occident. La nuit à l’Afrique” (Laferrière, 58-59)

My last point focuses on the narrator’s Haiti as a two-face country: both turned towards the Western world and the US with its fast red cars and the evolution of its society, and turned towards Africa and its culture through art, the reign of vodun and zombies at night. Can we read something in the time of the day allotted to the two worlds? Western during the day, African at night – is Laferrière writing about himself, contemporary Haiti, or only his narrator’s Haiti? This division of time seems quite revealing. If we associate day and night with our state of consciousness, and the way Laferrière refers to them also shows us the way, the African Haiti is the “dreamed” country, or in other words, corresponds to the world of dreams: the unconscious. The Western/American Haiti is what the narrator sees during the day, that is to say, in the world of “reality,” when he is conscious. I cannot go into to many details here, but as many of us have already read or heard, Freud referred to the conscious state as the tip of the iceberg, the public world, and the unconscious as what is beneath the water; the “repressed,” the private world, the one of desires and fantasies. As much as African culture is part of contemporary Haitian culture, Laferrière here associates it with the unconscious, the “repressed.” It’s almost as if the narrator’s Haiti was wearing a mask – a western mask – but was hiding its true self and roots. This idea of masks actually makes me think of Frantz Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs (1952) – Black Skin, White Masks in English…


“On parle français [en Haïti]” (Michel Martelly, TV5 Monde)

Finally, another telling anecdote about this division in present times happened recently. While current Haitian President Michel Martelly was being interviewed by a French journalist on TV5 Monde in February of this year, he said that Haitians spoke French in Haiti, but « forgot » to mention Creole as the other official language (the only one that all Haitians speak, compared to French which is actually spoken by only about 10%). When Martelly said that Haitians spoke French in Haiti, the French journalist added “and Creole!” and Martelly nodded, only to state again a few seconds later than French is the official language – instead of saying it’s one of the two official languages, “forgetting” Creole again. But is it really an oversight? This goes back to the idea of masks and the dichotomy between public and private: on the one hand, French as a western language is what Haitians speak in the public world, it is used in the government, administration, is seen as one of the language of culture, and is the language Haitians speak, according to Martelly. But on the other hand, Creole, which is the language used in the private sphere and the only language all Haitians speak, has roots in both French and African languages, and seems to be, as a result, publicly repressed.


Here is a link to the video in French. Go to 11:00 to watch the extract I am discussing above.


Works cited:

Laferrière, Dany. Pays sans chapeau, Outremont, Québec: Lanctôt Editeur, 1996.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World, Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

Revolutionary Ideology: The Threat and Promise of Haiti

By Davide Carozza

Note: This blog post dovetails with Hannah Rogers’ piece here.

The photograph above shows a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Marquis de Lafayette, dated June 16, 1791. Both the photograph and a full transcript of the letter are courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Jefferson addresses Lafayette as an old friend: the latter was a major-general under George Washington during the American Revolution and also a key figure in the French Revolution, which he saw as an ideological continuation of the struggle for American independence. In the letter, Jefferson asks Lafayette about the Haitian Revolution:

What are you doing for your colonies? They will be lost if not more effectually succoured. Indeed no future efforts you can make will ever be able to reduce the blacks. All that can be done in my opinion will be to compound with them as has been done formerly in Jamaica. We have been less zealous in aiding them, lest your government should feel any jealousy on our account. But in truth, we as sincerely wish their restoration, and their connection with you, as you do yourselves. We are satisfied that neither your justice nor their distresses will ever again permit their being forced to seek at dear & distant markets those first necessaries of life which they may have at cheaper markets placed by nature at their door.

The letter links three revolutions that occurred at essentially the same historical moment and that arguably shared the same revolutionary spirit. Yet Thomas Jefferson, who in 1791, and as late as 1799, was calling for the gradual emancipation of US slaves in his private correspondence[i],  expresses almost no sympathy for the Haitian struggle.  Instead, he justifies in pragmatic and economic terms the continued rule of the French government over the colony. Upon the outbreak of violence in Haiti in 1791 President Washington immediately sent aid to the white government, and Jefferson wrote this letter while Secretary of State. So, in one sense, he was bound by his official position when composing this letter. But even when he became President, Jefferson had a back and forth policy regarding Haiti that always put US security issues and economic interests ahead of the right to liberty. At various time he played both sides of the struggle, marking the revolution as a practical issue more than a moral one. It’s jarring considering Jefferson once penned these lines, part of his accusations against King George III, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

The two sentiments are not as inconsistent as they initially seem, at least within the racist environment of Jefferson’s time. According to the official organization of Monticello, Jefferson believed “that blacks were racially inferior and ‘as incapable as children’,” and part of his emancipation scheme called for the deportation of freed American slaves. He added “that slavery was like holding ‘a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.’” Jefferson felt that so long as slaves or former slaves remained in America, war was the inevitable outcome: either “a large-scale race war” if slaves were emancipated, or “a civil war that would destroy the union” if they remained enslaved. He was, ultimately, right in his second prediction. But the incredible thing is that the same man who gave the world the phrase “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” couldn’t imagine a third possibility. That is, he couldn’t fully embrace the very words he wrote. In his accusations against King George III he stresses that it is “MEN” who are being “bought & sold,” and it is “Men” who are created equal. But whatever form this equality takes, it nevertheless includes for Jefferson the inferiority of Africans.

Dipesh Chakrabarty draws a distinction between two ways of understanding history, which he calls History 1 and History 2. History 1 is a narrative of the Enlightenment, founded on reason and an assumption of human progress. And while this assumption of progress ostensibly includes a rejection of intolerance, Enlightenment thinking is also fundamentally hierarchical. David Hardiman, summarizing the argument in his review of Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, says that societies that don’t share in Enlightenment beliefs “are considered ‘backward’ and ‘undeveloped’—an inferior ‘Other’.” The tension between the Enlightenment’s supposedly progressive views and its hierarchical impulse mirrors that in Jefferson’s writing. In other words, the ideology of History 1 allowed Jefferson to make the claim “all Men are created equal,” but it also allowed him to view Africans as “incapable as children.” History 2, on the other hand, is the history of the subaltern, which challenges the reductive narrative of progress that History 1 assumes. This distinction helps us understand the nature of the Haitian Revolution. The slave revolt in Haiti refused to wait for the Enlightenment model of history, which had gestured toward the possibility of equality, to refine its ideology to the point of truly embracing that equality. History 1 put the terms of equality on the table; History 2 refused to wait for that vision to be fulfilled.

In many ways, Chakrabarty’s insight helps make sense of the extraordinarily complex nature of the Haitian Revolution. Dessalines sent a letter to Jefferson just before Haiti declared its independence hoping to strengthen ties with the US. Jefferson ignored the letter because of Dessalines’ policy of exterminating the French and US fears of the slave revolt expanding.[ii] Making moral claims about violence is always difficult, but it seems especially so given the Haitian context. When the revolutionaries of the country couldn’t even depend, at least consistently, on the support of nations and governments trumpeting principles of freedom and equality, they were left with few options. In a clash between History 1 and History 2, and here I speak for myself, not Chakrabarty, it is difficult to sort out precisely where ethical responsibilities lie. Thus, for example, the markedly different positions of L’Ouverture and Dessalines, including Dessalines’ brief defection from L’Ouverture and then his quick return. These complications arose precisely because those who should have been staunch allies of the Haitian struggle were only intermittent ones, or, even worse, only posed as such. Time and again, it wasn’t possible to know what others would do or whether they could be trusted. It wasn’t possible to know if they would live up to the ideals they nominally espoused, or if they would ultimately sacrifice them to economic or practical concerns. The Haitian Revolution was always simultaneously a threat and a promise: the threat of violence begetting always more violence, the promise of Enlightenment ideals truly realized, even if through bloodshed. In the end, it represents the explosion of energy generated the moment an untenable ideology fractures.

[i] I draw this fact from page 23 of the Tim Matthewson article I link to, which is unfortunately mangled in the free PDF above. It is also available through JSTOR for those who have access.

[ii] Again from Matthewson, page 24.

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.

Another Take on the Middle Passage

I’d like to compare a couple different literary approaches to narrating the experience of the Middle Passage. Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage offers an account with a distinct, and interesting narrative. Instead of choosing the kind of non-narrative, experimental form used in the poem Zong!, Johnson speaks through the mouth of a freed slave, born in the US, and previously owned by a relatively civil master in Indiana. His name is Rutherford Calhoun.

Cover design by Tom Stvan, painting by Wilberforce House.
Cover design by Tom Stvan, painting by Wilberforce House.

The novel tracks Rutherford’s journey on an illegal slave ship as it makes its journey from New Orleans to Africa and back again in the early 1830s. He originally finds himself on the ship as a way of avoiding his debts and an impending marriage, and so in many ways, feels bound to the ship in a way not unlike slavery. And in fact, that was one of the reasons that I enjoyed this novel so much; it manages to simultaneously teach the reader something about the awfulness that was the Atlantic slave trade, while simultaneously managing to remind the reader o all his own bonds, whether financial, societal, or marital, which act their own kind of very small slavery on the lives of any person.

This relatability is the key difference between this work and Zong!. Where the poem absolutely rejects narrative, the novel embraces it wholeheartedly, as Rutherford himself is writing it in order to preserve his memories of the ill-fated ship. That narrative allows the reader to very comfortably fit himself into the novel, to track his own way through Rutherford’s shoes. And that is the beauty of the character himself; as he is a total outsider to any of the societies in which we see him, he is forced to describe them in the most basic of terms, allowing the reader the needed education without taking on a tone of lecturing. This relatability then translates into the reader quickly making his way through the novel, and enjoying it all the way. If the goal of the novel is to remind and teach about the horrible history of this shipping channel, then it would seem that Jonson’s novel very successfully treads the line between weightiness and readability, appealing to a wide swath of readers.

I understand that the goal for Zong! was in some ways very different. Philip admits openly that she embraced the idea of a non-narrative as it was, to her, the only appropriate way to memorialize the slaves who had been thrown overboard during the Zong’s journey. As the poem quickly moves from semi-coherence into total chaos, I find that the effectiveness of the poem to effectively attract readers as well as memorialize is more limited. Yes, there might be meaning in piecing together word fragments that may ultimately provide some satisfaction, but the exercise is laborious. The reader finds himself (or at least I found myself) guiltily skimming through the last pages, which for the most part are nearly identical from one to the next for the last fifty or so, before briefly pausing to more closely consider the faded text, only to realize its utter incomprehensibility. We end exhaustedly with Philip’s own journal of her thoughts and feelings as she wrote, and at that point we just want it to be over.

As a memorial, perhaps the poem serves its purpose perfectly, capturing the exact lack of voice that those who died were given. If the poem could somehow stand in a physical place, visited by tourists with reverence, then I could see it as something a little more successful. But it isn’t purely monumental. It is a book, and as a book, it needs a reader in order to be experienced. While readers have no doubt appeared, if the goal of a memorial piece of literature is to maximize the number of people who learn and remember, then this seems to be a poem that will swiftly fall into unremembered history itself. And while it might genuinely be a good piece of poetry, I can’t help but deem it unsuccessful if it isn’t going to be remembered.

That said, Johnson’s book might be criticized for not taking the issue of the countless number killed in the passage seriously enough. he frames the book almost as a satire, and while the novel has its serious moments and themes, one would be hard pressed to call it a depressing read. And while it doesn’t necessarily memorialize any one group of slaves brought to the Americas, it doesn’t necessarily adopt a voice for them either. The slaves on-board Rutherford’s ship are of a fictional tribe, created by Johnson. Their fictitious nature seems to stand in then for all those brought across the Atlantic. They are mystical and for the most part silent. Only three or four of a couple hundred are given voice, and that silence seems to speak for all those who were forced through that horrible journey.

The novel, as a piece of fiction, is of course allowed more imagination than Philip’s more historical reconstruction (particularly when she has bound herself to such a limited dictionary of language). With that, Johnson is able to give th reader some sense of justice through the destruction of the ship. While nearly all the slaves as well as the crew die, at least it was not just slaves as it no doubt historically was. This justice though may most erode the value of the novel as a simultaneous memorial and fictive piece. Zong! so effectively captures the feeling of total tragedy, where Middle Passage somewhat skirts it. Yes, the plight of the slaves is recounted, but they are not our focus. We are not forced to uncomfortably experience any of the mental chaos they felt; instead our minds are happily satiated by the taming and tempering of Rutherford’s personality, ending with his marriage to his previously fled from fiance. The end is too tidy, and invites comfortable meaning of just the sort that Philip rejects.

At the end of the day, Middle Passage will draw more readership. It is simply more accessible. Hopefully readers will bring with them the level of thought to reject the simple emotional satiation in favor of a deeper sense of the tragedy of the Middle Passage itself. But even if read without that level of awareness, I believe the novel is still a more capable memorial than Zong!, and while I’m glad I read both, I would only recommend the novel to a friend.


“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” : The Political Power of the Image

In this endlessly interconnected internet age, the idea that an image can have a profound and widespread impact hardly needs to be explained; it’s implicit. The advent of both photography– the way in which potent images of current events could be quickly and realistically produced– and the internet–the way in which they could be widely and rapidly disseminated–hastened and increased the importance of this phenomenon of images used to provoke political discussion.  And an image can in fact be worth a thousand words; in cases from India’s struggle for independence, to the 1960’s civil rights movement, to the war in Syria today, images of social injustice and war have been able to provoke if not a direct solution, the conversation that brought that solution about.  But while modern technology expedited the rise of disseminated images provoking social change, it was not solely responsible; this phenomenon was able to take place before the camera was invented, before the internet was invented.  It took place, for instance, in 1787, with the engraving by Josiah Wedgewood of a kneeling, chained and supplicant slave, with the powerful words below: “Am I not a friend and a brother?”





This image didn’t come out of the blue; it was made for specifically for the purpose of moving hearts and minds.  The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787 by Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson.  While the founders themselves were Anglican, the movement was popular amongst Quakers, who made up the other 9 founding members; these were William Dillwyn, John Barton, George Harrison, Samuel Hoare Jr., Joseph Hooper, John Lloyd, Joseph Woods, James Phillips and Richard Phillip, and later Josiah Wedgwood. Clarkson had campaigned for the movement previously and became the first historian for Britain’s abolition movement; Wedgewood was the 13th son of Thomas Wedgewood and a political reformer involved with the Unitarian Church.


Just a quick glance at the image reveals how pathos-evoking it must have been at the time.  The figure is strong, vital, well-muscled; yet his circumstances have bent him in two, forcing him to beg for the basic rights that should be his due. His wrists are shackled to his ankles; it’s unlikely he’s able to stand up to full height. Even were he not in this unnatural position of supplication, he would not be able to stand as an autonomous agent should be able to do. His facial expression is nearly blank, numbed; but his lips are parted, as if to enunciate the words at the bottom of the image. Like Shylock asking “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” the caption states baldly that what in the distorted current structure of society should be a rhetorical question, is a genuine question because of how warped standards had become. “Am I not a man and a brother?” Is he? Whether or not a black man is human is of course a rhetorical question to the modern reader– but whether it was rhetorical or not would be less evident for the 19th century reader, and would force reflection. The question became the catchphrase of the British and American abolition movements, and the image was widely reproduced. Men purchased snuffboxes with the image; ladies wore bracelets and hairpins. According to David Dabydeen for BBC History, the image became “the most famous image of a black person in all of 18th century art.” In Joseph Hothschild’s book “Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery,” the author argues that “Wedgewood’s kneeling African, the equivalent of the label buttons we wear for electoral campaigns, was probably the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause.” This particular image wasn’t just harrowing and politically effective; it was landmark.


Sidiya Hartman notes in her book “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route” that the image is perhaps more insidious than it may at first seem. While it is clear that the figure is on bended knee, she argues that he is less begging God for freedom than the people of Britain, France and America, which, to the modern ancestor of slaves, is far more demoralizing. To ask God for your freedom is one thing; to ask fellow humans is quite another.   The man in the image is begging for freedom, and the image itself begs those who see it to open their minds and hearts.


Other images were used towards the same end as Wedgewood’s, though none were quite as widespread or as effective. In 1792, John Kimber, the captain of the Recovery, was tried for the murder of two female slaves while the ship embarked on the infamous Middle Passage.  While the cause of the captain’s displeasure isn’t clear, we do know that he ordered the girl hoisted up by ship’s rigging by one leg and flogged, with the process repeated on her other leg.  Tragically and unsurprisingly, she died from her injuries.  The image is stark, and disturbing; though in contrast to “Am I,” the image is deliberately and perversely sexualized, intended to provoke certainly, though to what end remains to be seen.


Slavery is a dark and peculiar case in the history of politically motivated imagery; but even as it is atypical (because it was the most severe of causes, because it predates the examples that followed), it is crucial to understanding how to make people understand problems they wish not to see.  The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade didn’t succeed in their goal for Britain until 1833, and for the United States until 1864.  But that goal was in fact ultimately realized; and, in part, due to the ubiquitous image that branded the painful image of the subjection of slavery into the consciousness of those who would have, and could have, otherwise turned a blind eye.







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.