Slave Narratives of the Caribbean and Latin America
Slave Narratives of the Caribbean and Latin America
Research by historians and literary scholars has discovered that a significant number of narratives by Caribbean and Latin American slaves have survived to the present day—albeit not quite as many as the extant slave narratives from the United States. Generally defined as the written testimony of enslaved black human beings, these stories of slave lives manifest a vital yet complex presence within the narratives of the global slave era. Although the majority of these documents exist in the colonial archive—and as such are entangled with the politics of domination, these narratives provide an important resource for understanding the experience of slavery and its aftermath throughout the African diaspora. Attention to the varied yet global institutional nature of New World slavery—and, more specifically, the slave narrative—is a crucial component in mapping the literary history of the African diaspora.
Although there are some similarities among all slave cultures, there are also very important cultural distinctions. For example, slaves in the Caribbean and Latin America were more likely than their U.S. counterparts to live on large plantations with fifty or more slaves; the white settler population was much smaller than that in the United States; more U.S. slaves in the nineteenth century were native-born than were Caribbean slaves (ninety percent in United States, versus less than seventy-five percent in Jamaica); and finally, due to their larger numbers, slaves in the Caribbean and Latin America were more likely to retain elements of their African cultural heritage than those in the United States.
These distinctions among slave cultures are also reflected within the slave narrative form. In addition to separately published narratives (which predominate in the United States), stories about the lives of slaves in the Caribbean and Latin America were more frequently incorporated or embedded within other texts, such as travel narratives, diaries, letters, and abolitionist newspapers, as well as church documents, spiritual conversion narratives, legal records, and other forms. Caribbean and Latin American slave narratives share a number of formal and structural characteristics, in addition to offering specific descriptions and details of Caribbean slavery. Like most slave narratives, they not only provided documentary, historical, and persuasive evidence for European readers but also a means to satisfy curiosity about Africans and their descendants.
One of the most striking features of slave narratives produced in the Caribbean and Latin America is that an overwhelming majority of them were narrated to an editor or transcriber. Consequently, these narratives must be viewed as composite texts in which both the narrator and transcriber/editor work together to create meaning. Although the narratives are mediatory in nature, it is important not to view these narratives as "corrupted and inferior forms," but rather to read them as Creole texts emblematic of the dialectical relationships of power in the slave system. Numerous scholars have pointed out the polyvocal nature of the documents such as manumission papers and letters frequently appended to U.S. slave narratives. In the case of the Caribbean and Latin American texts, this polyvocality also exists within the body of the narrative as well. As a result, rather than placing an emphasis on the notion of voice as a historical fact, these narratives make clear the manner in which voice also operates as a discursive act.
For a number of critics, one of the primary problems of dictated narratives is the concern that the voice of the editor/transcriber, rather than the slave, controls the narrative. Others contend that due to the mediated nature of these narratives, there can be no "authentic" subject or author behind these words. However, critical work on the genre of testimonio, or dictated narratives, from Latin America and those of Native Americans has made it clear that assumptions of an all-encompassing editorial power are unsupportable. Dictated narratives are written dialogues, in which both the voice of the narrator and the voice of the transcriber work together to create the text. Although the editor or transcriber might have the final word in arranging and ordering the final narrative, the oral storytelling of the narrator is a vital component of the eventual written product. The narrative could therefore not exist without the participation of the narrator.
The multiplicity signaled by the polyvocality of the Creole testimony of Caribbean slaves illuminates the complexity of the slave narrative form. Far from a rigid or unchanging genre, it incorporates numerous rhetorical and narrative strategies that develop out of each narrative's particular cultural context. Plantation slavery was an incredibly complex and varied system of power relationships. It is vital to embrace this complexity by attending to the various ways in which slaves communicated their stories. Although the Caribbean narratives are not always easily accessed, it is necessary to engage with them because they have so much to say. To ignore them is to silence once again the voices of Caribbean slaves.
Caribbean and Latin American Slave Narratives
A Dreadful Account of a Negro Who for Killing the Overseer of a Plantation in Jamaica Was Placed in an Iron Cage Where He Was Left to Expire (1834).
The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself. Transcribed by Susanna Strickland and edited by Thomas Pringle, 1831.
Lee, Hannah Farnham Sawyer. Memoir of Pierre Toussaint. Boston: Crosby, Nicols, & Company, 1854.
"Letter from W. A. Gilbert, a Runaway Slave from the Danish West Indies to the Danish King (1847)." In Slave Society in the Danish West Indies, edited by B. W. Higman, pp. 137–138. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Manzano, Juan Francisco. Autobiography of a Cuban Slave. Transcribed and translated into English by Robert Madden, 1830s–1850s.
Moore, Samuel. Biography of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua. Detroit, Mich.: Geo. E. Pomeroy & Co., Tribune Office, 1854.
Montejo, Esteban. Autobiography of a Runaway Slave. Transcribed by Miguel Barnet, 1963. Translated by Nick Hill, 1999.
A Narrative of Events since the first of August, 1834 by James Williams, an Apprenticed Labourer in Jamaica. Transcribed by Dr. Palmer, 1836.
Narratives of Sibell and Ashy, two Barbadian Slaves. Transcribed by John Ford, 1799. (Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. b.4, fols. 50–51.)
Negro Slavery Described by a Negro: Being the Narrative of Ashton Warner, a Native of St. Vincent. Transcribed and edited by Susanna Strickland, 1831.
Archibald Monteith: Native Helper & Assistant in the Jamaica Mission at New Carmel (1853). Moravian conversion narrative, edited by Geissler and Kummer.
The History of Abon Becr Sadika. In Robert Madden, A Twelve-months Residence in the West Indies. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1835.
Memoir of the Life of the Negro-Assistant Salome Cuthbert (1831). Moravian conversion narrative.
The Narrative of Joanna, a Female Slave, a Tale of the West Indies (1824). Excised from John Gabriel Stedman, A Narrative of an Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796).
nicole n. aljoe (2005)