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Slave narrative

The slave narrative is a literary form that grew out of the written accounts of enslaved Africans in Britain and its colonies, including the later United States, Canada and Caribbean nations. Some six thousand former slaves from North America and the Caribbean gave accounts of their lives during the 18th and 19th centuries, with about 150 narratives published as separate books or pamphlets. In the 1930s in the United States, during the Great Depression, more than 2300 additional oral histories on life during slavery were collected by writers sponsored and published by the Works Progress Administration[1] (WPA) of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. Most of the 26 audio-recorded interviews are held by the Library of Congress.[2]

Some of the earliest memoirs of captivity known in England and the British Isles were written by white Europeans and later Americans captured and sometimes enslaved in North Africa, usually by Barbary pirates. These were part of a broad category of "captivity narratives" by English-speaking Europeans. Beginning in the 18th century, these included accounts by colonists and American settlers in North America and the United States who were captured and held by Native Americans. Several well-known captivity narratives were published before the American Revolution, and they often followed forms established with the narratives of captivity in North Africa. Later North American accounts were by Americans captured by western tribes during 19th-century migrations.

For the Europeans and Americans, the division between captivity as slaves and as prisoners of war was not always clear. A broader name for the genre is "captivity literature". Given the problem of international contemporary slavery in the 20th and 21st centuries, additional slave narratives are being written and published.


  • North American slave narratives 1
    • Tales of religious redemption 1.1
    • Tales to inspire the abolitionist movement 1.2
    • Tales of progress 1.3
    • WPA slave narratives 1.4
  • North African slave narratives 2
  • Other historical slave narratives 3
  • Contemporary slave narratives 4
  • Neo-slave narratives 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

North American slave narratives

Slave narratives by African slaves from North America were first published in England in the 18th century. They soon became the main form of African-American literature in the 19th century. Slave narratives were publicized by abolitionists, who sometimes participated as editors, or writers if slaves were not literate. During the first half of the 19th century, the controversy over slavery in the United States led to impassioned literature on both sides of the issue.

To present the reality of slavery, a number of former slaves, such as Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, published accounts of their enslavement and their escapes to freedom. Lucy Delaney wrote an account that included the freedom suit waged by her mother in Missouri for their freedom. Eventually some 6,000 former slaves from North America and the Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives, with about 150 of these published as separate books or pamphlets.

Because of the participation of abolitionist editors, influential historians, such as Ulrich B. Phillips in 1929, suggested that, as a class, "their authenticity was doubtful." With increased emphasis on using the slaves' own accounts and the research of broader classes of information, since the late 20th century historians have more often validated the accounts of slaves about their own experiences.[3]

The slave narratives can be broadly categorized into three distinct forms: tales of religious redemption, tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle, and tales of progress. The tales written to inspire the abolitionist struggle are the most famous because they tend to have a strong autobiographical motif, such as in Frederick Douglass' autobiographies and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861).

Before the American Civil War, some authors wrote fictional accounts of slavery to create support for abolitionism. The prime example is Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The success of her novel and the social tensions of the time brought a response by white southern writers, such as William Gilmore Simms and Mary Eastman, who published what were called anti-Tom novels. Both kinds of novels were bestsellers in the 1850s.

Tales of religious redemption

From the 1770s to the 1820s, the slave narratives generally gave an account of a spiritual journey leading to Christian redemption. The authors usually characterized themselves as Africans rather than slaves, as most were born in Africa.

Examples include:

Tales to inspire the abolitionist movement

From the mid-1820s, writers consciously chose the autobiographical form to generate enthusiasms for the abolitionist movement. Some writers adopted literary techniques, including the use of fictionalized dialogue. Between 1835 and 1865 more than 80 such narratives were published. Recurrent features include: slave auctions, the break-up of families, and frequently two accounts of escapes, one of which is successful. As this was the period of the forced migration of an estimated one million slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South through the internal slave trade, the experiences of auctions and break-up of families were common to many.

Examples include:

  • Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, New York, 1825
  • A Narrative of Some Remarkable Incidents in the Life of Solomon Bayley, Formerly a Slave in the State of Delaware, North America, by Solomon Bayley, 1825
  • The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, by Mary Prince, London, 1831
  • Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, A Black Man, Lewistown, 1836
  • A Narrative of Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery, London, 1837
  • The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, N.C. Embracing an Account of His Early Life, the Redemption by Purchase of Himself and Family from Slavery, and His Banishment from the Place of His Birth for the Crime of Wearing a Colored Skin. by Lunsford Lane, 1842
  • A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass, Boston, 1845
  • Narratives of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke, Sons of a Soldier of the Revolution, during a Captivity of More than Twenty Years among the Slaveholders of Kentucky, Boston, 1846
  • Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Boston, 1847
  • Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Boston, 1849
  • The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself (1849), by Josiah Henson, Boston, 1849
  • Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, New York, 1849
  • The Fugitive Blacksmith, or Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington, London, 1849
  • Twelve Years a Slave, Narrative of Solomon Northup, Auburn, and Buffalo, New York and London, 1853
  • Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England by John Brown, 1855
  • The Life of John Thompson, A Fugitive Slave, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1855
  • The Kidnapped and the Ransomed, Being the Personal Recollections of Peter Still and his Wife "Vina," after Forty Years of Slavery, by Kate E. R. Pickard, New York, 1856
  • The Rev. J. W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman, a Narrative of Real Life by Jermain Wesley Loguen, 1859
  • Running a thousand Miles for Freedom, or the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery, London, 1860
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, Boston, 1861
  • The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina by John Andrew Jackson, London, 1862
  • Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave from Kentucky, Huddersfield, 1864
  • Jim, "Recollections of Slavery by a Runaway Slave", The Emancipator, August 23, September 13, September 20, October 11, October 18, 1838, retrieved 09/15/2014[6]

Tales of progress

Slave narrative published in 1871

Following the defeat of the slave states of the Confederate South, the authors had less need to convey the evils of slavery. Some gave a sentimental account of plantation life and ended with the narrator adjusting to the new life of freedom. The emphasis of writers shifted conceptually toward a recounting of individual and racial progress rather than securing freedom. Frederick Douglass's second biography is, for example, more sentimental about his early boyhood in slavery (which was generally a less oppressive time than the working years of a slave).[7] Slaves interviewed as part of the Federal Writers' Project during the Great Depression noted the relative advantages of slavery in terms of better medical care and food supplies, regular festivities, lack of financial concerns, a "double sense of belonging," being taken care of, less gambling, drunkenness and violence, greater stability, care in their old age, and the advantages of rural life over the urban environment into which many ex-slaves moved.[8] Economically, the slave economy with efficient division of labor was highly productive; its abolition, extensive property damage from the American Civil War, and over-reliance on agriculture contributed to economic weakness in the South for at least 20 years.

Examples include:

WPA slave narratives

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the New Deal Works Projects Administration (WPA) employed writers and researchers from the Federal Writers' Project to interview and document the stories of African Americans who were former slaves. Most had been children when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed. Produced between 1936 and 1938, the narratives recount the experiences of more than 2,300 former slaves. Some interviews were recorded; 23 of 26 known audio recordings are held by the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.[2][9] The last interview of a former slave was with Fountain Hughes, then 101, in Baltimore, Maryland in 1949.[2] He was a grandson of a slave owned by President Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.

North African slave narratives

In comparison to North American and Caribbean slave narratives, the North African slave narratives were written by white Europeans and Americans captured and enslaved in North Africa in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These narratives have a distinct form in that they highlight the otherness of their Muslim slave traders, whereas the African-American slave narratives often call their fellow Christian slavers to account.

Some captives used their experiences as a North African slave to criticize slavery in the United States, such as William Ray in his book Horrors of Slavery. Slaves in North Africa suffered from many of the same conditions as their African counterparts in the United States, including hard labor, poor diet, and demeaning treatment. But, unlike those in America, slaves in North Africa could sometimes escape their condition by converting to Islam and adopting North Africa as their home, or in some cases could be ransomed by European powers. Religious conversion rarely resulted in freedom for slaves in North America.

Examples include:

  • Tyrkja-Gudda, 1952 and 2001.
  • The History of the Long Captivity and Adventures of Thomas Pellow, In South Barbary, 1740.
  • A Curious, Historical and Entertaining Narrative of the Captivity and almost unheard of Sufferings and Cruel treatment of Mr Robert White, 1790.
  • A Journal of the Captivity and Suffering of John Foss; Several Years a Prisoner in Algiers, 1798.
  • History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs Lucinda Martin who was six years a slave in Algiers, 1806.
  • Sufferings in Africa, 1815, by Captain James Riley
  • The Narrative of Robert Adams, An American Sailor who was wrecked on the West Coast of Africa in the year 1810; was detained Three Years in Slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, 1816.
  • The Captives, Eleven Years a Prisoner in Algiers by James Leander Cathcart, published in 1899, many years after his captivity.

Other historical slave narratives

As slavery has been practised all over the world for millennia, some narratives cover places and times other than these main two. One example is the account given by John R. Jewitt, an English armourer enslaved for years by Maquinna of the Nootka people in the Pacific Northwest. The Canadian Encyclopedia calls his memoir a "classic of captivity literature"[10] and it is a rich source of information about the indigenous people of Vancouver Island.

  • Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, only survivor of the crew of the ship Boston, during a captivity of nearly three years among the savages of Nootka Sound: with an account of the manners, mode of living, and religious opinions of the natives. Middletown, Connecticut, printed by Loomis and Richards, 1815. Full digital text available here.[11]

Maria ter Meetelen (1704 in Amsterdam – fl. 1751), was a Dutch writer of an autobiography. Her biography is considered to be a valuable witness statement of the life of a former slave (1748).

  • Maria ter Meetelen, The Curious and Amazing Adventures of Maria ter Meetelen; Twelve Years a Slave (1731- 43), Translated and Introduced by Caroline Stone. (Hardinge Simpole, 2010). [1].

Contemporary slave narratives

A contemporary slave narrative is a recent memoir written by a former slave, or ghost-written on their behalf. Modern areas of the world in which slavery occurs include the Sudan, and two narratives, Escape from Slavery: The True Story of My Ten Years in Captivity – and My Journey to Freedom in America (2003) by Francis Bok and Edward Tivnan, and Slave by Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis, derive from slavery experiences in the Sudan.

Neo-slave narratives

A neo-slave narrative is a modern fictional work set in the slavery era by contemporary authors or substantially concerned with depicting the experience or the effects of enslavement in the New World.[12] The works are largely classified as novels, but may pertain to poetical works as well.

Examples include:

See also

Biographies of individuals with slave narratives
Other links


  1. ^ Bob Greene, "America's 'Slave Narratives' should shock us", CNN, February 17, 2013.
  2. ^ a b c "Interview with Fountain Hughes, Baltimore, Maryland, June 11, 1949", American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, World Digital Library, accessed 26 May 2013.
  3. ^ Nichols, William W. (1971). "Slave Narratives: Dismissed Evidence in the Writing of Southern History". Phylon 32 (4): 403–409.  
  4. ^ "Boyrereau Brinch and Benjamin F. Prentiss (Benjamin Franklin), 1774 or 5-1817", Documenting the South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (accessed 2013-03-04)
  5. ^ "Taken Aback in Vermont, Seven Days, July 6, 2005.
  6. ^ Susanna Ashton, "Slaves of Charleston", The Forward, September 19, 2014, pp. 13 and 16.
  7. ^ My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass (1855) @, Ch. I – Childhood, pgs 31-32.
  8. ^ Gleissner, John Dewar (2010). Prison & Slavery: A Surprising Comparison. Denver: Outskirts Press. pp. 109–143.  
  9. ^ Library of Congress Project: WPA. Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves: Volume II, Arkansas Narratives, Part 3. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1941 (retrieved 31 Dec 2010)
  10. ^ Jewitt, John Rodgers
  11. ^
  12. ^ Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, "Neo-slave narrative", in William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster & Trudier Harris (eds), Oxford Companion to African American Literature, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 533–535.

External links

  • "Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938", American Memory, Library of Congress.
  • "North American Slave Narratives, Beginnings to 1920", Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina.
  • "Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology" – WPA oral histories of former U.S. slaves collected in the 1930s, American Studies, University of Virginia.
  • eTexts – Oral histories of former U.S. slaves collected in the 1930s by the WPA, Project Gutenberg.
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