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Slavery, Resistance, and Rebellion across the Americas

Module by: Cory Ledoux. E-mail the author

Summary: This module suggests strategies for incorporating George Dunham's nineteenth-century travel journal, A Journey to Brazil, into literature and history classrooms engaged with the topics of slavery and slave revolt.

Slavery, Resistance, and Rebellion across the Americas

The history of African slavery in the Americas is deeply intertwined with a correspondent history of conspiracy, resistance, and insurrection among the enslaved population. Though not the earliest of these revolts, the Haitian Revolution stands as both the most successful and arguably the most significant one. A series of violent confrontations that lasted over a decade and that involved at various points Saint Domingue’s enslaved, mixed race, and Creole populations as well as French, Spanish, and British colonial forces, the revolution saw the emancipation of the island’s slaves as well as the establishment of an independent Haitian republic in 1804. Therefore, this monumental event proved to be not only the first and last triumphant slave revolt in the western hemisphere, it also turned into the second successful anti-colonial movement within the Americas, after that of the United States. The Haitian Revolution’s larger significance can be measured by its impact on other countries and colonial spaces throughout the Americas. Many of these locales, including the United States as well as British and Spanish colonial holdings in the Caribbean, restricted trade with the new island nation out of fear that Haiti’s revolutionary heritage would spread, causing unrest among both colonized and enslaved peoples. The U.S., in particular, experienced a number of foiled slave conspiracies during the first half of the nineteenth century, frequently attributed to the influence of the Haitian Revolution. The most notable of these planned revolts included Gabriel Prosser’s aborted rebellion in Richmond in 1800, Denmark Vesey’s widespread anti-slavery conspiracy in Charleston in 1822, and Nat Turner’s famously defeated revolt in 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia. Vital and vivid histories of the Haitian Revolution have been and continue to be produced, including C.L.R. James’s foundational The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Alfred Hunt’s examination of Haiti’s influence, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean, and newer historical narratives such as Laurent DuBois’ Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution.

George Dunham’s travel journal, A Journey to Brazil (1853), is a fascinating piece of the ‘Our Americas’ Archive Partnership, a collection of rare documents focused on a hemispheric approach to the study of the history and literature of the Americas. This journal, physically located in Rice University's Woodson Research Center, offers several valuable instances for the study of slave resistance in either the history or literature classroom. Dunham takes up residence at a plantation belonging to one of the planters for whom he has agreed to work; therefore, he has ample opportunity to observe the relationships, and more specifically the tensions, between the enslaved and free populations. The anxiety is palpable in the following passage: “I got scared a little last night for the first time since I have been here the old man had gone away and not coming back until Monday and the Negroes act different when he is gone and about midnight the farmer White that sleeps in the room with me hollered and waked me up and said he thought there was some one in the room” (see Figure 1). As can easily be detected from this passage, the fear of a violent slave revolt is firmly implanted in the minds of the white population. At various points in his text, Dunham points out slaves’ singing and participating in other forms of alternative communication, a familiar signal that a conspiracy may be simmering under the surface of a seemingly docile plantation setting. These anxieties would have been commonplace for slaveholders in the U.S. South, so it is fascinating to see them manifested so explicitly within a different geopolitical site at the middle of the nineteenth century.

Figure 1: An excerpt from page 59 of George Dunham's travel journal.
A Journey to Brazil, 1853
Dunham.png

While the implications of revolutionary violence in the journal jump out the most to a contemporary reader, Dunham touches upon other forms of slave resistance that are worth noting. He observes behavior among some of the slaves that he seems to interpret as laziness, stating, “there is several negroes lying round sick and some do not appear as sick as they pretend” (89). Many historians of New World slavery have pointed to the pretence of sickness and the refusal to work among slaves as a subtle and effective form of protest, given the circumstances. Slave owners and drivers would, of course, write this behavior off as mere laziness and further evidence of the racial inferiority of blacks to whites. Determining the agency of individual slaves within a system designed to render them so powerless has been a demanding endeavor for these scholars, and primary texts such as Journey to Brazil are crucial in piecing together a comprehensive narrative of slave systems and all their players. Yet another moment that shines a light on the unrest of Brazilian slaves comes in a brief but telling passage: “Three young negroes that belong here took each of them a horse out of the barn here Tuesday night to ride off somewhere and the German that has charge here caught two of them that night and the other run into the woods or some other place and has not come back yet” (109). The history of runaway slaves in the U.S. is a familiar one, primarily represented by the Underground Railroad and its most famous actor, Harriet Tubman. This phenomenon was a common one throughout the slaveholding Americas, resulting in a widespread community of runaway slaves known as “maroons.” Maroons would often flee to mountainous or swampy terrain (not easily accessible to the planters), and they were frequently implicated in the fomenting of anti-slavery conspiracy and potential insurrection.

Utilizing this approach to Dunham’s journal should produce great rewards for the U.S. literature instructor, in particular. The above passages from Journey to Brazil can be productively paired with any number of important literary works that touch upon the topic of slave rebellion. Frederick Douglass’s short story “The Heroic Slave” (1852) chronicles the true-life events of a revolt on board the slave ship Creole, led by a slave named Madison Washington. The story concludes with the commandeering of the ship by the freed slaves and their successful escape to an island in the recently emancipated British Caribbean, gesturing toward the hemispheric entanglements of slavery and emancipation in the nineteenth century. Benito Cereno (1856), the famous novella by Herman Melville, operates similarly to “The Heroic Slave,” recounting an actual overthrow of a slave ship by its cargo, though in this instance the slaves are recaptured and either resold or sentenced to execution for their “crimes.” Eric Sundquist convincingly argues Melville’s narrative as a sort of metaphorical re-staging of the Haitian Revolution, designed to demonstrate the violence and injustice inherent to the institution of slavery. Of particular interest to a reader of the Dunham travel journal might be Martin Delany’s complex, fragmented novel Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859). The protagonist of Blake evolves from a slave in the U.S. South to a revolutionary leader in colonial Cuba; the international machinations of Delany’s narrative – with its emphasis on travel, border crossings, and the transnational exchange of institutions and ideologies – mirrors many of the dynamics that we have been tracing in Dunham’s writing. Finally, one cannot forget Harriet Beecher Stowe’s follow-up to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). Many radical abolitionists criticized Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a lack of revolutionary content, claiming that its black characters were too passive in the acceptance of their lot. Stowe attempted to answer her critics with the character of Dred, a revolutionary maroon and descendent of Nat Turner living in the swamps and planning an insurrection (which never comes to fruition) against southern slavery.

Though Stowe’s Dred comments more directly on the issue of slave revolt, it is the discovery of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Brazil that occasions Dunham to once again reflect, though somewhat circuitously, on the constant possibility of rebellion within a slaveholding society. He writes, “I find that Uncle Toms Cabin has got into Brazil and the people will read it. It is translated into Portuguese by a French man and several of them have got into the country but the Government has prohibited the sale of it. I have seen a Brazilian that can read English reading a book that he appeared very cautious about any one seeing the title of but I saw on the cover, Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (168-9). Here, Dunham implicitly recognizes the power of this book to incite anger and resentment toward the slave system. The attempt by the Brazilian government to limit its circulation reveals the fear that Stowe’s novel, alone, may lead to the wider spread of violence and other forms of anti-slavery resistance throughout the country. Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s influence ranged far beyond U.S. borders, contributing to the ongoing struggles against slavery in locations such as Brazil and Cuba. Its sudden and unexpected appearance in Dunham’s journal reminds us that literary texts not only depicted but also played a vital role in the various movements against slavery throughout the nineteenth-century Americas.

Figure 2: An Uncle Tom's Cabin cover contemporaneous with Dunham's trip to Brazil.
Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852
cover22.png

This module will conclude with a brief overview of a few of the scholarly works that have contributed to our ever-expanding awareness of the transnational dimensions of African slavery within the Americas. From a literary studies perspective, there is perhaps no better place to start than Sundquist’s To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Sundquist takes the Haitian Revolution to be a foundational event in the construction of an American literary tradition. Moreover, as he centralizes slavery and its shaping of racial relations within his analyses of literary texts, he continually charts the connections between U.S. and Caribbean models of slavery and emancipation. Anthropology and history have perhaps done an even better job in charting the crucial interdependencies among national and colonial slave systems in the Americas. More specifically for the questions that we have asked here, there are several important works that look at anti-slavery movements from a transnational perspective. Richard Price’s Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas provided an early contribution to this conversation. More recently, in his The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850, Lester Langley investigates the intersections between anti-colonial and anti-slavery movements across a variety of national and colonial locales. Finally, The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas, a collection of essays published through Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, examines how both pro-slavery practices and abolitionist sentiment and action traveled along a variety of international routes throughout the nineteenth century. Dunham’s Journey to Brazil marks another potential moment within this dialogue. It helps to illustrate that, like the institution itself, resistance to slavery possessed a certain type of mobility, a hemispheric circulation.

Bibliography

Delany, Martin. Blake; or, The Huts of America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970.

DuBois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2004.

Hunt, Alfred N. Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1988.

James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.

Johnson, Walter, ed. The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2004.

Langley, Lester D. The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1996.

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. Barre, MA: Imprint Society, 1972.

Price, Richard. Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1979.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.

-----. Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. New York: J. W. Amerman, 1856.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1993.

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