4 Slave Narratives

Dr. Md. Monirul Islam

epgp books


  1. Introduction
  2. Historical Perspective on Slave Trade
  3. Abolitionism
  4. Abolitionist Literature
  5. Development of Slave Narratives
    • Slave Narratives in the Eighteenth Century
    • Antebellum Slave Narratives
    • Postbellum Slave Narratives
  6. Slave Narratives: Themes and Conventions
  7. Neo-slave Narratives
  8. Summary of the Module

1.   Introduction


Slave narratives are autobiographical accounts of fugitive slaves or former slaves. Slave narratives form an important part of African American literature and culture. It emerged as a form of abolitionist literature in the eighteenth century and became a popular genre in pre- Civil War America and it continues to exercise considerable influence on reading public even today. The narratives opened up the world of slavery for wider readers and helped spreading massage against the institution of slavery. As firsthand account of slavery, slave narratives are considered important historical sources on slavery and slave life. The purpose of this module is to familiarise the students with slave narratives as a literary genre. The students will be introduced to the historical context of slavery and emancipation, and the development of the slave narrative as a genre, its themes and conventions.

2.   Historical Perspective on Slave Trade


Slavery in some form did exist in African, Asian or European societies during the ancient and the medieval ages, but the enterprise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and modern form of chattel slavery originated only in the fifteenth century when the European navigators and merchants started capturing Africans and sold them to the planters in the New World. The systematic form of slave trade was set in motion in the sixteenth century when fifty African slaves were transported by the Spanish merchants to Santo Dominigo with the authorization of the King Ferdinand of Spain in 1510. Within a century slave trade became one of the most profiteering business enterprises and every European navigational nation participated in the trade. According to the estimate provided in Cassell’s Companion to Eighteenth Century Britain the British merchants alone shipped three and a half million slaves between 1660 and 1807 (352) and a total of twenty million Africans are estimated to have transported as slaves to the Americas. Nearly nineteen percent of the millions of Africans forced into slavery died in the Middle Passage due to rough conditions on slave ships. Slaves who reached alive were auctioned in open platforms to plantation owners, merchants, farmers, tradesmen, and other slave traders. It has been the most sustained and systematic form of human trafficking ever. Slave trade was often referred to as Triangular Trade that involved three continents and a three way passage: from Europe to Africa, from Africa to the Americas and to Europe from America.


The basic premise that was used to justify the trade and enslavement was the inferiority and bestiality of the Africans. The Africans were not considered humans. The notorious slave owner Edward Long in his History of Jamaica (1774) and Charles White in his Account of the Regular Gradation of Man (1799), for example, argued that the whites and blacks were two distinct species. This theory of polygenesis, however, went against the Christian concept of creation; the pro-slavery lobby, therefore, replaced the concept of racial polygenesis with the theory of racial hierarchy. The argument was: though all are created by God, certain people have degenerated since. Following the Biblical traditions, Africans were argued to be the cursed descendants of Ham. Various scientific and pseudo-scientific discourses were used to support this argument. Blumenbach’s argument in The Anthropological Treatises that the white was the primitive colour of mankind and it was very easy for white to degenerate into brown but much more difficult for dark to become white was used by the pro-slavery group to justify their claim to superiority. Blumenbach’s  division of races according to the colour was not meant for defining the white as superior or the black as inferior. Charles White’s An Account of the Regular Gradation of Manpublished in 1799, arranged the African and European in polar opposites. He placed Africans nearer to the brute creation. The hot and humid climate of Africa was argued to be the reason behind the degeneration of the Africans. Buffon in his Histoire Naturelle, (44 volumes, translated into English from 1780 onwards) tried to establish a relationship between climate change and human condition and proffered the argument that in hot and humid climate the Africans degenerated into their present condition of bestiality. Similar perspective was also offered by John Reinhold Forster by in Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World (1778).

Slavery: Some Facts


1510: Systematic transportation of African slaves to the New World starts. King Ferdinand of Spain authorises a shipment of 50 African slaves to be sent to Santo Domingo (Saint Dominigo).


1619: The first Africans arrive in Virginia as indentured servants, but the institution of hereditary lifetime service for blacks develops very soon. In the 1660s the practice of slavery becomes a legally recognized institution in British America. 1660: King Charles II of England charters state sponsored slave trading company, the ‘Royal Adventurers into Africa.’


1.   Abolitionism


The term ‘abolitionism’ refers to the eighteenth and nineteenth century campaign by both, whites and blacks for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and North America. Beginning from the middle of the seventeenth century certain Christian religious groups started voicing their opinion against the slave business. Quakers, Methodists, Puritans went on to criticise the institution of slavery as anti-Christian in spirit. The Puritan Richard Baxter urged to the conscience of the fellow Christians to oppose this inhuman practice in A Christian directory, or, a summ of practical theologie, and cases of conscience (1673).


George Fox, a Quaker, published his Gospel Family-Order, being a short discourse concerning the Ordering of Families, both of Whites, Blacks and Indians (1676), which appealed to the Quakers in America to treat their slaves humanely. In 1684, Thomas Tryon published two tracts on slavery: “The Negro’s Complaint of Their Hard Servitude, and the Cruelties Practised upon Them” and “A Discourse in Way of Dialogue, between an Ethiopean or Negro-Slave and a Christian, That Was His Master in America”. Anti-slavery discourse saw a gradual rise and a strong anti-slavery current surfaced in the second half of the eighteenth century. In 1758, The Society of Friends in London and Philadelphia condemned the institution of slavery at their annual meetings. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was established in 1775. The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (or The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade), was formed in 1787. 1787 also saw William Wilberforce introducing twelve resolutions against the slave trade in the British Parliament, but his move in the House of Commons was defeated. The same year saw former slaves Olaudah Equiano, Cugoano, and others campaign as “Sons of Africa” against slavery by sending letters to prominent people and periodicals. American States like Delaware and Virginia prohibited importation of African slaves during the American War of Independence. The Maryland Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes and Others Unlawfully Held in Bondage was founded in 1789.

2.   Abolitionist Literature


The abolitionist fervour on either side of the Atlantic fuelled the growth of a large body of abolitionist literature that comprised of miscellaneous writings and documents, poetry, novels, songs, pamphlets, speeches, court rulings, anti-slavery periodicals, and slave narratives. Aphra Behn’s Oronooko can be considered as one of the first abolitionist novels. The greatest work in this novelistic tradition, though, is Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. In poetry Chatterton voiced his disgust at the evil practice of slavery in his African Eclogues (1770). He was followed by Hannah More and other Bristol abolitionist poets. Writing on race, slavery and the desire for liberty, the first African American poet, Phillis Wheatley employed the rhetoric of salvation in her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (published in London in 1773). In 1767 Anthony Benezet published his prose tract A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and the Colonies and in 1769 Granville Sharp published A Representation of the Justice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery in England expressing their discontent with slavery. Benezet condemned the exploitative tendency of the Europeans who destroyed the idyllic life of the inhabitants of Guinea in Some historical account of Guinea: its situation, produce, and the general disposition of its inhabitants, with an inquiry into the rise and progress of the slave trade, its nature and lamentable effects (1771). Thomas Clarkson in his An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1788) opposed the idea of the Africans as subhuman and degenerate and made some effort to show the resourcefulness of the Africans. In 1787 an African abolitionist, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano made a strong pitch against slavery in Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species.

Emancipation: Some Facts


  • 1776: The Declaration of Independence proposes:”All men are created equal,” but slavery remains a legal institution in most of the American states.
  • 1807: British Parliament votes to abolish slave trade.
  • 1833: Slavery is abolished throughout the British Empire. Resolutions are passed in the House of Commons in July, followed by the House of Lords on August 1. 
  • 1862: Emancipation Proclamation is issued by US President Abraham Lincoln. 1863: Emancipation Proclamation comes into force.
  • 1865: Thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States proposes to abolish slavery.
  • 1865: On December 6, the amendment is ratified prohibiting all forms of slavery.

5. Development of Slave Narratives


According to the estimate provided in the website of Oxford African American Studies Center (OAASC) some six thousand narratives written by African American slaves were published between 1700 and 1950. The large oeuvre of slave narratives and its development as a genre can be discussed by dividing it into three distinct phases: in the first phase of its development in the eighteenth century the narratives were highly dependent on the tradition of spiritual autobiography and the rhetoric of salvation; in the antebellum phase slave narratives became a political tool to counter the institution of slavery and, therefore, the emphasis in this phase was more on the atrocities of the slave holders in the American South; in the postbellum phase the narrator is more concerned with some distinctive acts on part of the freed slaves than with the atrocities committed by the slave masters.


 5.1. Slave Narratives in the Eighteenth Century David Brion Davis in The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture argues that there were three reasons behind the rise of abolitionism in the late eighteenth century. Firstly, the rise of secular social philosophy of Baron Montesquieu and John Locke whose ideas were based on humanitarian principles and on the theory that government and people are in a social contract. The ideal of social contract weakened the traditional Christian rationale for slavery as the natural extension of the “slavery” of human sin. A second development was the escalating sentimentalism in the eighteenth century which celebrated the virtues of sympathy and benevolence. A third development, especially in the last decade of the eighteenth century,  was the propagation of more radical ideas about natural rights of man. The ideal of natural rights finds its reflections in the first American slave narrative, Briton Hammon’s Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man published in Boston in 1760. It recounts the adventures of Briton Hammon during an  absence from his master. It is a sort of picaresque narrative that includes incidents like shipwreck, capture by Indians, imprisonment by pirates in Havana, fighting for the British against the French and ends with his reunion with his English master whom he finds far better compared to the American natives or the Spanish in Havana. Apart from the picaresque tradition, Hammond draws upon the genre of captivity narrative and spiritual autobiography. Similar combination of elements from spiritual autobiography and captivity narrative is seen in A narrative of the Lord’s wonderful dealings with John Marrant (1785). Most of the early slave narratives are characterised by a language that combines the rhetoric of physical liberty and spiritual salvation. One obvious reason behind this was the Christianised black writer’s use of the Bible as the source of the language of liberation. Another reason was that most of these narratives were mediated by evangelical groups like Methodists and Baptists who often had a hand in publishing these narratives. The evangelicals were more interested in disseminating the spiritual ideals than in the horrifying tales of oppression of the slaves. Murrant’s narrative, for example, was edited by an English Methodist and David George’s An Account of Life of Mr David George, from Sierra Leone in Africa was published in The Baptist Annual Register (1793). The first narrative to address the evils of slavery in direct terms is Gronniosaw’s A Narrative of the Most remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukasaw Gronnisow an African Prince, which appeared in London in 1770. It recounts Gronniosaw’s memories of Africa where he was kidnapped and sold as a slave and transported to Barbados. Afterwards he was sold to a man in New York and later to a minister after whose death he regained freedom. Though the narrative is critical of the institution of slavery, Gronniosaw imitates the genre of spiritual autobiography and acknowledges his debt to spiritual like John Bunyan and Richard Baxter. Gronniosaw’s narrative influenced Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equino or Gustavas Vasa, the African (1789). Following the tradition of spiritual autobiography Equiano takes his epigraph from Issiah 12:2, 4: “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid,   for the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. And in that day shall ye say, Praise the Lord, call upon his name, declare his doings among the people.” The narrative recalls his childhood memories in Africa, his experience of hardships as a slave and his freedom from slavery. Written at a time when abolitionism was an important political issue in England, Equiano represents the scenes of torture and punishment of the slaves to help sharpening the rhetoric of abolitionism. In chapter IX of his narrative, for example, we are given some details of the inhuman condition of the slave ships and suffering of the slaves in the Middle Passage. Equiano’s narrative also argues against economic rationale for slavery and draws attention to the economic benefits of free labour. The first person narrative includes a number of letters that strengthens the authenticity of his story. Equinao’s narrative became the model for the fuure slave narratives that developed in the antebellum America.

Spiritual autobiography documents an individual’s journey from the state of sin and disgrace to salvation. The journey from sin to salvation is effected by the individual’s epiphanic realisation of the presence of God, seeing His will manifest everywhere. John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding (1666) is an example of the genre. Daniel Defoe uses the form of spiritual autobiography in his novel Robinson Crusoe. Slave narratives borrowed the rhetoric salvation from the spiritual autobiography and deployed it to represent their quest for physical liberation.

5.2 Antebellum Slave Narratives


Slave narrative emerged as a major literary form in pre-Civil War America (1830 – 1865), and these narratives became a major tool for the organised abolitionist movement during this period. The rise of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society in the 1830s under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison added tooth to the movement against slavery. Most of the antebellum narratives pitched for full humanity of the Africans and focused on deprivation of the slave of basic needs: lack of adequate food, clothing, and shelter, denial of basic familial rights, enforced ignorance of most religious or moral precepts. In 1835 Garrison started publishing The Liberator , in which the first slave narrative authored by a woman, The History of Mary Prince, appeared in 1835. Mary Prince dictated her story to Susanna Strickland. Born a slave, Frederick Douglass’s public lectures and his tale of suffering and escape told in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) became a sensation in the years before emancipation. Douglas narrative covers almost twenty years period of his life as slave from his birth in1817 or 1818 until his escape from his master in Baltimore in 1838. Douglass’s narrative exercised a considerable influence on the struggle to end slavery. The central focus of the narrative was to expose the evils of plantations in the South and breakdown any existing myths of benevolence of the slave masters. Autobiographical narrative of Solomon Northup, a free man abducted into slavery became another important document against slaveholding in the antebellum phase. Northup was born a free man in 1808 in New York, but was abducted by two men in 1841 and made to work as a slave for twelve years. His memoir Twelve Years a Slave (1853) has been adapted into a film in 2013. The first slave narrative written by a woman, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, came out in 1861. Through her narrator Linda Brent, Jacobs makes her personal story of enslavement, degradation, and sexual exploitation public. The antebellum slave narratives served multiple functions. They were primarily antislavery abolitionist texts that condemned the evil practice of slavery and slave trade. They could also be inspiration and guide for other slaves to escape from slavery. They also acted as spiritual guides to the slaves as elements of spiritual autobiography remained embedded in these narratives.

The Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. It was the secret route that the slaves in American South used to escape to the Northern states or to Canada beyond the fugitive-slave hunters. The members of the free black community, abolitionists, and philanthropists actively assisted slaves to escape by way of this secret path. The facts of their escape from slavery through this ‘railroad’ is recounted in a number of slave narratives like Henry Box Brown’s Arrived by Adams’ Express William, Wells Brown’s Narrative of Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave and in many others. H. B. Stowe made use of such escape stories in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

5.3 sustained its popularity became a thing of the past. There was a shift in narrative paradigm in the postbellum phase. Instead of discussing hardships of slavery post-bellum narratives focused on some distinctive acts on part of the freed slave. A milder form of slavery is depicted in these narratives and slave women often occupy a central role in them. Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes; or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Year in the White House published just after the Civil War in 1868 can be cited as an example of this paradigm shift in post-Civil War narratives. Though it relates the harsh treatment she faced under slavery and sexual assault of a white man on her, the narrative’s focal point is her success as a dress maker. Born into slavery Elizabeth becomes a dress maker and buys her freedom. She achieves greater success when in 1860, when she moves to Washington D. C. and sets up a dress making shop. Here she becomes a dresser and confidante of Mary Tod Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s wife. After Lincoln’s death Elizabeth wrote the narrative to help Mrs. Lincoln, but the reading public disapproved of her narrative about personal details of Mrs. Lincoln, and in sense the publication of the book ruined her career as a dressmaker. There were other interesting slave narratives coming from former slave women. Kate Drumgoold’s A Slave Girl’s Story: Being an Autobiography of Kate Drumgoold (1898) starts with the narration of the incidents of her early life. She was born in Old Virginia to slave parents, her mother was sold off when she was still young. After the mother is taken away the family gets scattered. Drumgoold and her mother are reunited after the Civil War, and most of the family members are relocated relocated to Brooklyn, New York. In New York Drumgoold works as a domestic help and educates herself ultimately becoming a teacher working for the African Americans. The autobiography remains unfinished and abruptly ends in 1897. Lucy A. Delaney (Lucy Ann) published her narrative From the Darkness Cometh the Light, or, Struggles for Freedom sometime in the 1890s. A significant portion of the narrative is devoted to her mother’s attempts to prove that she was once a free woman. The rest of the narrative provides as outline of Lucy’s life after slavery, the death of her mother and her reunion with her father who stayed in Vicksburg following the Civil War. The emphasis on some significant contribution on part of the freed slaves to improve the life of African Americans is also seen in Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901). Washington does not show the brutality of the slave holders as did the earlier narratives. The central focus of the narrative is on the value of education in the lives of the black people, who were deprived of it under slavery.  The narrative tracks his progress through his education and his role as an educator  in establishing of the  Tuskegee Institute  for the  African  Americans.   Washington also puts emphasis on developing harmonious relationship between the blacks and whites. Other examples of such narrative would include, Nat Love’s The Life and Adventures of Nat Love; Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” by Himself (1907) and William Henry Singleton’s Recollections of My slavery Days(1922).

A great addition to the number of postbellum slave narratives was made in the 1930s when as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), of the Works of Progress Administration (later Works Projects Administration) 2300 first person accounts of slavery and 500 photographs were collected from the former slaves. The collection is now archived in the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs divisions of the Library of Congress. These memoirs had varied lengths and topic. Some of them were transcribed interviews some were newspaper articles and others book

6. Slave Narratives: Themes and Conventions


Following the preceding discussion slave narratives can be broadly defined an oral or written autobiographical account of slavery by a former slave who has been freed or has escaped from slavery. The hardships of a slave’s life is recounted with its focus on him/her being captured as a slave, the middle passage, the days of labour in the sugar plantation or cotton farms, the cruelty and brutality of the masters, and the final escape to freedom. The readers’ attention is drawn to the plights of the slaves and the readers’ empathy is sought. The narrative conventions are simple and regularly repeated in narrative after narrative. Before  the start of the actual text every slave narrative would contain some regular paratextual elements, such as, the engraved portrait of the narrator and his signature; a title page with the words “Written by himself/ herself;” a preface or some introduction by an abolitionist friend; an epigraph, often taken from the Bible or form the poems of William Cowper; an appendix that appeals to the readers to support the abolitionist cause. The main text of the narratives normally starts with the history of the birth and childhood of the narrator and moves on to the description of the cruelty of the master and the other white members associated with the master’s family; most narratives also contains description of their work in the sugar or cotton plantations; there are scenes of whipping and blood dripping out of the body of the whipped slave, often a women; the narrator records the obstacle to literacy of a slave ; incorporates incidents that shows how Christianity has been used by the slavers not to alleviate the pain of the slaves but to justify their torture; narratives of a fugitive slaves would invariably have the description of the circumstances of their escape and their failed attempts at it; and the narrative would normally end with the narrator as a freeman reflecting on slavery. The narrator’s quest for freedom from slavery would often be conflated with his spiritual salvation.


Frederick Douglass’s Narrative contains almost all the stock elements of a slave narrative. The 1845 edition of Douglass’s narrative contains a photo and signature of the author. It has a title page that reads, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An African Slave, and the title is followed by the words “Written by himself.” It contains a Preface by the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison. The appendix forms a sort of postscript to the narrative which contains the author’s reflection on slavery and ends with the hope that the book would serve the abolitionist cause. The narrative starts with the stock clause: “I WAS born in…” In chapter IX and IX of the narrative we find scenes of torture and flogging of a female slave; Douglass also points to the use of religious texts to justify punishment meted out to the slaves. Chapter XI relates the facts about his escape from slavery, though the escape route in his case is not the ‘undergorund railroad:’ he escapes by train.

7.  Neo-Slave Narratives


Neo-slave narratives are works of contemporary historical fiction based on the era of slavery and guided by historical information and research on slavery. The term was coined by the novelist Ishmael Reed, who himself wrote in this genre, his Flight to Canada (1976) being anexample. The term received wide circulation in critical arena after its use by Bernard Bell in The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (1987). Bell defined neo-slave narratives as “residually oral, modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom” (289). Black Thunder (1936) by Arna Bontemps, written during the depression, is considered a precursor of this genre and Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966) to be the first novel in this tradition. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy in Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form (1999) gives a more specific definition of neo-slave narrative. He considers it a genre of “contemporary novels that assume the form and adopt the conventions, and take on the first person voice of antebellum slave narrative.” Rushdy had in focus fictions like Ishmael  Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Shirley Ann Williamson’s Dessa Rose (1986) and Charles Johnson’s  Oxherding  Tale  (1982)  and  Middle  Passage  (1990).  Toni  Morrison’s Beloved (1987), J. California Cooper’s Family (1991), and Lorene Cary’s The Price of a Child (1995) are some other examples of works in the genre.

7. Summary 


It was proposed at the outset that the module would provide an introduction to the development of the slave narrative and themes and conventions of this genre. We started  with a discussion on slave trade and slavery which was a precondition to the growth of the slave narratives. We moved from contexts to the texts themselves and marked that slave narratives, though originated in the eighteenth century, emerged as an important narrative genre in the antebellum America. Although the slave narratives lost much of their appeal in the post-Civil War America, tales of slavery continue to hold sway over the literary imagination. The appearance of the neo-slave narratives in the 1970s and its subsequent growth is an indicator of the readers continued engagement with this narrative genre.

you can view video on Slave Narratives