Excerpts from Slave Narratives
Steven Mintz, University of Houston
Benedict Carton, Robert Edgar
George Mason University, Howard University
Unadorned and easy to navigate, this comprehensive website based at the University of Houston contains 46 first-person accounts of slavery and African life dating from 1682 to 1937. The majority of these statements were written in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although there is no general essay explaining why these primary sources were chosen, the website’s editor, American historian Steven Mintz, introduces each document with an illustrative sentence or short paragraph that describes the historical context; these prefaces provide additional information that make the narratives more accessible to a general audience. Mintz groups the documents under the following themes: “enslavement,” “Middle Passage,” “arrival,” “childhood,” “family,” “religion,” “punishment,” “resistance,” “flight,” and “emancipation.”
There are both recognizable and unknown actors in this website. Former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, as well as white abolitionists like John Brown express forceful, if familiar, condemnations of slavery. In addition, Mintz features unheralded historical voices that not only speak poignantly, but also reflect different (African-centered) perspectives. When taken together, the assembled testimonies, including those by women, present slavery as a deeply entrenched institution that provoked a wide range of compelling commentary: for example, a ship doctor’s searing report of the Middle Passage; the “memoir” of a literate religious African’s odyssey into New World bondage; a slave husband’s anguished letter to his wife after she was sold away; and black social reformers’ protests against the cruel punishments of slave owners.
Among the powerful narratives, a naval surgeon Alexander Falconbridge, stands out. He offers a description of mealtime and slaves’ resistance in an 18th-century cargo hold. “Upon refusing to take sustenance,” he writes, “I have seen coals of fire, glowing hot, put on shovel and placed so near their lips as to scorch and burn them. And this has been accompanied with threats of forcing them to swallow the coals if they any longer persist in refusing to eat.” A 1734 memoir of Thomas Bluett tells of the odyssey of an Arabic-writing Muslim slave, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, renamed Job in the New World. In 1730 “Mandingoes” captured Suleiman Diallo near the Gambia River in West Africa, while he conducted an errand for his father to dispose of “two Negroes for some cows” and “buy paper, and other necessities” from a docked English vessel. Taken by slavers to Maryland, Suleiman Diallo continued to practice Islam and speak his Wolof language.
Several 19th-century documents will also catch viewers’ attentions. In 1846 Lewis Clarke, championing the “Glorious Struggle Now Making for Complete Emancipation,” recalled regular beatings as a slave child in Kentucky. His “mistress” used “an oak club, a foot and a half in length, and an inch and a half square, [and with] this delicate weapon she beat us upon the hands and upon the feet until they were blistered.” And then there is Laura Spicer’s husband who in the late 1860s wrote his first wife several letters begging her to find another spouse after she was taken from him and bought by another master: “I do not think I would die satisfied till you tell me you will try and marry some good, smart man that will take good care of you and the children; and do it because you love me; and not because I think more of the wife I have got than I do of you.”
This website is unique in the growing number of Internet sources that explore African experiences and slavery. Teachers will find Mintz’s documents invaluable in promoting classroom discussion. One way of integrating this material into a lesson is to ask students to compare disturbingly similar sentiments expressed by slave owners and slaves alike that prompts this question: Was slavery so entrenched that the cruelties of bondage became as routine for those who endured dehumanization as those who carried it out?