Just Teach One

Late 18C Anti-Slavery Texts

Winter 2020 – Just Teach One no. 16
Text prepared by Duncan Faherty (Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center) and Ed White (Tulane University)


Late 18C Anti-Slavery Texts
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In a well-known scene in the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a 12- or 13-year-old Douglass (then Frederick Bailey) purchased a copy of a popular school text, The Columbian Orator, compiled by the educator Caleb Bingham.  “Among much of other interesting matter,” writes Douglass,

I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave. The slave was made to say some very smart as well as impressive things in reply to his master–things which had the desired though unexpected effect; for the conversation resulted in the voluntary emancipation on the slave on the part of the master. (Chapter 7)

Douglass says he read the dialogue “over and over again with unabated interest,” adding, “The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder.”  

The Columbian Orator had been published first in 1797, its dialogue contributed by David Everett, a friend and associate of Bingham’s in Boston.  Everett (1770-1813) was a young lawyer active in publishing in New Hampshire and in his home state of Massachusetts, and fairly consistently a radical opponent of slavery.   He wrote his contributions to the Columbian Orator, in other words, in the print environment from which we have drawn the following abolitionist texts, most of which appeared in Boston’s Massachusetts Magazine in the early 1790s.[1]

Some of these materials seem to have been written locally, though many were reprinted from British, French, and other regional contexts.  In many instances, the details and tropes which we associate with the later slave narrative tradition are absent or just being developed.  “The Desperate Negro,” for instance, explains the use of “the cart whip” on human beings, with the resulting wounds, as if they needed explication and clarification.  Institutional politics are rarely addressed, the immorality of hypocrisy being the more common object of satire, as in “A Modern Anecdote.”  Still more common is the depiction of slavery through the trappings of sentimental romance, featuring princes and princesses, as with “The Wretched Taillah” or the French “Phedima and Abensar.”  The African focus also speaks to a greater focus on the slave trade than on daily conditions of enslavement.  Occasionally, the conditions of slavery were somewhat veiled by utilitarian or scientific concerns, as with the extremely popular “Cure for Poison” credited to “the Negro Cesar.”  The rudimentary and exoticizing nature of these small narratives speaks to the state of the political and moral discourse around slavery, as well as the strength of colonization projects, seeking to “return” the enslaved to Africa.  Nonetheless, recent scholarship, as we discuss below, explores how texts like these might illuminate the Atlantic world.

“The Wretched Taillah: An African Story,” appears to have originated in the Massachusetts Magazine (April, 1792), and reappeared in New York’s Weekly Museum (July, 1792) and in the New Hampshire Magazine (June, 1793).  

“The Desperate Negroe” appeared in the October, 1793 issue of the Massachusetts Magazine, but originated in James Ramsay’s 1784 book-length Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies (see Chapter 4, “Natural Capacity of African Slaves Vindicated,” Section V, “African Capacity vindicated from Experience”).  The Ramsay excerpt appeared in London’s Westminster Magazine that same year (July, 1784) and in the influential Gentleman’s Magazine: and Historical Chronicle a month later (August, 1784); it was reprinted in the New London Magazine in November, 1786 (where Ramsay is credited with the anecdote) and in Philadelphia’s American Museum, or Universal Magazine in December, 1789.

“The Negro Cesar’s Cure for Poison” first appeared in The South-Carolina Gazette in May, 1750, and was frequently reprinted for decades after, in almanacs, newspapers and magazines.  In some instances, portions of the various cures were credited to white authorities.  To give just a sampling, the cure was reprinted in the Boston News-Letter in January, 1751, the New-York Evening Post in February, 1751, American Museum in May, 1789; the Virginia Gazette and Weekly Advertiser in July, 1789; in the Massachusetts Magazine in February, 1792 (the version we reproduce here), in Walpole’s New Hampshire Journal: or, The Farmer’s Weekly Museum in May, 1793; in Poughkeepsie’s The Rural Casket in July, 1798; in Boston’s Columbian Centinel in April, 1815.

“A Modern Anecdote,” sometimes published as “Black and White,” may have first appeared in the Massachusetts Centinel in 1788 (Oct 25 issue); it appeared in New York and New England papers through the winter of ‘88-89, but reappeared in waves in 1790, 1793, 1794, 1800, and beyond.

“Phedima and Abensar: an African Tale” appeared in the September 1796 issue of the Massachusetts Magazine.  The story originated in the novel Lettres Africaines by the Swiss author Jean-François Butini, published in 1771.  The story was quickly reviewed and excerpted in Paris’s influential periodical, Mercure de France, in November of the same year.  By 1772, an English-language version appeared in London (The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, October) and Dublin (The Hibernian Magazine, or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge, November), with a later appearance in the British periodical Weekly Miscellany: or, Instructive Entertainer (Sherborne, January of 1776).  The Village Messenger of Amherst, MA, republished the text in July, 1797.

Suggestions for further reading

Christy L. Pottroff deftly argues that, “circulation” has long served as a key “critical category” for early American studies because “the term’s capaciousness” allows scholars interested in the print public sphere “many different entry points for thinking about information exchange” (621). After tracing the critical genealogies of key methods for examining circulation in early America, Pottroff considers the racialized dimensions of early American print circulation by inspecting materials from the archive of the United States Postal Service. In so doing, Pottroff uncovers not simply “how the circulation of information in early America worked, but also” explores how scholars might “be better attuned to the ways in which circulatory systems shaped and constrained information itself” (624). Pottroff’s essay explores the ramifications of an 1802 policy which “dictated,” that no one other than “a free white person shall be employed in carrying the mail,” a policy which Pottroff notes was adopted in response to the Haitian Revolution. For Pottroff, the policy demonstrates how the very idea of “a networked African American community bound together by mobile black postal workers” was an “inherently dangerous” idea to white politicians and civil servants (624). At the heart of Pottroff’s essay resides the keen observation that “racial inequality and exclusion structured access to circulation” within the early American Republic (625); see, Pottroff, “Circulation,” Early American Studies 16.4 (2018), 621-627. 

These federal prohibitions against carrying mail are but one nodal point within larger systemic attempts to prohibit African American participation in the print public sphere. State and local ordinances around the early Republic prevented African Americans from literacy acquisition, and white supremacist fears likely kept many literate African American writers from having access to mainstream publication networks for much of the early national period as well. Still, as Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein have argued, “during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, African Americans also established numerous literary societies, circulating libraries, political conventions, and church organizations, all of which articulated themselves through print media. African Americans worked alongside whites as compositors in print shops, as sailors transporting both raw and printed materials, and as educators instructing with books” (2); see Cohen and Stein, “Introduction: Early African American Print Culture,” Early African American Print Culture, edited by Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 1–16. Complicating the matter even more is the fact that, as Leon Jackson has observed, “scholars of slave culture and print culture have rarely shared agendas, nor have, more broadly, African American social, cultural, and literary historians and those within the community of book historians;” see Jackson, “The Talking Book and the Talking Book Historian: African American Cultures of Print—The State of the Discipline,” Book History, 13 (2010), 252. All of which is to say that while the field of early American studies has mapped a portion of early African American literary production, much work remains to be done until we have a fuller sense of this rich and complicated literary history.

We have no direct evidence to indicate that any of the pieces in this collection were “written” by diasporic Africans, but given that all of these pieces were published anonymously and circulated widely, we have no evidence to prove definitely that there was no African American involvement in their production or dissemination. What is clear is that these pieces do indicate African American participation in the circulation of knowledge within the early Republic. In some ways, they also gesture towards possible African American participation in early abolitionist networks as well. One way to approach the question of authorship in regards to these texts would be to follow the compelling insights of Nicole Aljoe’s concept of “embedded narratives.” While Aljoe is writing about West Indian slave narratives, her injunction to change our reading practices so that we can register how many long eighteenth century white authored texts incorporate evidence of diasporic African voices and experiences has much wider ramifications as a reading methodology. Indeed, Aljoe argues that many texts which register the presence of diasporic African knowledge and cultural practices “were not separately published and were often embedded in other texts such as travel narratives, diaries, and journals or appear in records kept by legal, medical, and religious institutions” (13). Reading with Aljoe’s reframing in mind allows us to understand (for example) that while Cesar may not have prepared his cure for poison for publication, he is indeed the author of that knowledge and of that cure; see, Aljoe, Creole Testimonies: Slave Narratives from the British West Indies, 1709-1838 (Palgrave, 2011), 13.

Of all the texts gathered in this edition, “The Negro Cesar’s Cure for Poison” may well have the longest and most promiscuous circulation. As Keri Holt argues, texts like Cesar’s cure exemplify how publications like “the South Carolina and Georgia almanacs” regularly contained “domestic advice [that] was acquired from slaves” which was subsequently reprinted in other venues; see Holt, Reading These United States: Federal Literacy in the Early republic, 1176-1830 (The University of Georgia Press, 2019), 65. The historian Kathleen Murphy has explored how eighteenth century white physicians often positioned themselves as authenticators of “the collective know-how of peoples of Amerindian and African descendent.” In so doing, she argues that cures like Cesar’s were not considered “true knowledge” but the product of “rude Experience” until reframed by western science as proven medical knowledge. Murphy demonstrates how operant racist prejudices against “remedies used” by people of color were maintained even when they were known to be effective; see Murphy, “Translating the vernacular: Indigenous and African knowledge in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic,” Atlantic Studies, 8.1 (2011), 39. Lisa Wood charts how Cesar’s cure was reprinted in several British domestic manuals and home medical guides.  For Wood, these reprintings are evidence of a cultural interest in linking “the material practices of cooking and curing (in the medical sense)” and part of an effort to promote nutritional health; see Wood, “‘Wholesome Nutriment” for the Rising Generation: Food, Nationalism, and Didactic Fiction at the End of the Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 21.4 (2009), 620. The geographer Judith A. Carney details the ways in which white planters both simultaneously relied on diasporic Africans knowledge of botanical cures even as they consistently feared “being poisoned” by people they enslaved. Carney argues that “enslaved medical practitioners” like Cesar often “relied upon pharmacopoeias of roots and herbs” to “treat medical problems” in ways that continued to elude white physicians; see Carney, “African Traditional Plant Knowledge in the Circum-Caribbean Region,” Journal of Ethnobiology 23:2 (2003), 170.

There are scattered other references to the other texts in this edition across the work of a variety of literary critics and historians of abolition and enslavement. Among these, we would recommend John Saillant’s work on “The Desperate Negro,” which argues, “the meaning of Quashi’s narrative is that benevolence can characterize black-white relations, while slavery is essentially a violation of benevolence.” For Saillant, “Quashi’s beauty is joined to benevolence, while the violation of his beauty by the whipping his master plans is joined to slavery and its abnegation of benevolence. Quashi’s body, in his skin and even his thighs, is central to the narrative, while his master, a typical white character, hardly appears as a body;” see Saillant, “The Black Body Erotic and the Republican Body Politic, 1790-1820,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 5.3 (1995), 416. Mukhtar Ali Isani generatively examines how “antislavery writing” often constructed “literary persona” of diasporic Africans by using “a sentimental depiction of their African past;” see, Isani, “Far from “Gambia’s Golden Shore”: The Black in the Late Eighteenth-Century American Imaginative Literature,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 36.3 (1979), 353. Similarly, Jack B. Moore in writing about the “The Wretched Taillah” argues that “she was sentimentalized almost beyond recognition,” even as “her story is in several ways a paradigm of the technique and content of early American stories about” diasporic Africans; see Moore, “Images of the Negro in Early American Short Fiction,” The Mississippi Quarterly, 22.1 (1968-69), 47. For readers interested in the relationship between capitalism and enslavement surfaced in “A Modern Anecdote” we recommend chapter six of Cedric J. Robinson’s path-breaking Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (University of North Carolina Press, 1983) and Ian Baucom’s  “Specters of the Atlantic,” The South Atlantic Quarterly, 100.1 (2001), 61-82.  Edward Derbyshire Seeber argues that Butini’s Lettres Africaines, ou Histoire de Phédima et d’Abensar was a major French anti-slavery text alongside Gabriel Mailhol’s Philosophe Nègre (1764) and Jean-François de Saint-Lambert’s Ziméo (1769): see Anti-Slavery Opinion in France during the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century (Johns Hopkins, 1937).  Roger Mercier, in “Les Debuts de l’Exotisme Africain en France,” notes that Aphra Behn’s short and popular novel Oroonoko (1688) was translated into French in 1745, inspiring a wave of anti-slavery fictions.

For those interested in more in-depth discussions of the larger abolitionist and antislavery print cultures of which these texts are a small subset, we recommend the following: Philip Gould’s Barbaric Traffic: Commerce and Antislavery in the 18th Century Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2003); chapter two of Seth Cotlar’s Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of  Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (University of Virginia Press, 2011); James G. Basker’s “American Antislavery Literature, 1688 to 1865: An Introduction,” Études anglaises 70.3 (2017), 259-278; and, Paul J. Polgar’s Standard-Bearers of Equality: America’s First Abolitionist Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[1] We draw on David Blight’s detailed discussion of the Orator in his 2018 biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (Simon & Schuster), 43-46.  For further details on Everett and the Orator, see Granville Ganter’s “The Active Virtue of The Columbian Orator (New England Quarterly 70.3, 463-76.

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