SLAVE NARRATIVES - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SLAVE NARRATIVES. Beginning in the eighteenth century and flourishing through the three decades before the Civil War, autobiographical narratives written by freed or fugitive slaves depict both the literal and metaphorical significance of the sea in the lives of their authors.

Early narratives by Briton Hammon (1760) and Olaudah Equiano* (1789), while primarily documentary in their approach, also suggest metaphorical possibilities. (Within this entry, with one exception, specific titles of the narratives are omitted because they are all lengthy and can be easily accessed using the word “narrative.”) Hammon’s narrative recounts his shipwreck* en route from Plymouth to Jamaica, his eventual escape from Havana to London, his service aboard several British naval and merchant ships, and his final return to New England. Adopting the pattern of the sea- deliverance* tale, a popular colonial form of spiritual autobiography, Hammon interprets his deliverance from shipwreck and his safe return home as a sign of Providence.

Equiano similarly portrays his safe return from many sea voyages as a sign of God’s favor. His narrative is the first, and one of only a few, to describe the horrors of the Middle Passage. With his first owner, a British naval lieutenant, Equiano spent six years aboard gunships in the Mediterranean Sea; for his next owner, a Philadelphia merchant, Equiano worked aboard several ships in the West Indies trade. After purchasing his freedom and settling in London, he embarked on additional voyages to the Mediterranean, the West Indies, Greenland with the 1773 Phipps Expedition, and Honduras. While his narrative never romanticizes the sea, it frequently credits his independence and status in life to the knowledge and skills he gained aboard ships. By invoking religious imagery to portray his life as a seagoing pilgrimage, he further asserts the value of his autobiography.

The function of the sea as an avenue for advancement or escape emerges in several nineteenth-century narratives as well. The account of Charles Ball (1836), for example, describes his work as both cook and seaman in the American navy, which gave him the knowledge, as well as the inspiration offered by free black seamen with whom he worked, to escape to Philadelphia aboard a coastal trader. Moses Grandy’s narrative (1844) similarly documents how the sea provided a means of escape. As a slave bargeman in the tidewater region, Grandy was hired out to run the British blockades that precipitated the War of 1812. By splitting his earnings with his owner, Grandy finally was able to buy his freedom. After moving to Boston, he shipped out on several coastwise voyages and two trips to the Mediterranean, thereby earning enough money to purchase his wife’s freedom as well. Yet another account of escape by sea appears in the narrative of Harriet Jacobs (1861), who, after a seven-year confinement in a dark attic hideaway, finally escaped her master by bribing the captain of a Northern-bound vessel. Her description of the voyage is brief but memorable, recalling her exhilaration as the ship set sail on Chesapeake Bay.

The image of ships sailing out of Chesapeake Bay is central to Frederick Douglass’* Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave (1845), the most familiar example of the genre. In his famous apostrophe to the ships, Douglass fashions the sea and the outward-bound vessels upon it into an emblem of liberty. Combining popular romantic imagery of the unfettered ocean as symbolic of natural freedom with patriotic sentiment that celebrated the country’s golden age of sail, Douglass employs romantic maritime nationalism to advance his appeal for the liberation of fellow African Americans.*

Narratives by Lunsford Lane (1842), Henry “Box” Brown (1849), James W. C. Pennington (1849), and Henry Bibb (1850) also use romantic sea imagery to endorse abolitionism and resistance. Rather than documenting actual voyages, these writers go to sea metaphorically, using imagery of the wild, unruly sea to suggest slaves’ natural yearning for freedom and elemental right to resistance. Literal slave mutiny* is addressed in Solomon Northup’s narrative (1853), which recounts his aborted mutiny plot on a coastwise slaver.

Except for Equiano’s early account, John Thompson’s narrative (1856) provides the most extensive treatment of the sea in the slave narrative tradition. Combining literal experience with seagoing metaphor, Thompson crafts a strong indictment of slavery and endorsement of slaves’ yearning for freedom. Fearing pursuers after he had escaped by land, Thompson took to the sea as a cook on a whaling vessel. Drawing on this experience, his narrative describes in concrete detail the tools and techniques of the whaling industry. Thompson also turns this cetological material to metaphysical use. Adapting the tradition employed by Hammon and Equiano, he ends his narrative with a sermon about a Christian seafarer on a metaphorical ship whose rigging and instruments provide the means of safe passage from earth to heaven. Fusing this nautical image of a Christian’s pilgrimage with that of a fugitive slave’s progress, Thompson ends his narrative with a metaphysical conceit proclaiming both spiritual and political liberation. [See also BLAKE; MIDDLE PASSAGE; SEA-DELIVERANCE NARRATIVES] FURTHER READING: Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988; Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997; Farr, James Barker. Black Odyssey: The Seafaring Traditions of Afro-Americans. New York: Peter Lang, 1989; Malloy, Mary. African Americans in the Maritime Trades: A Guide to Resources in New England. Sharon, MA: Kendall Whaling Museum, 1990; Schultz, Elizabeth. “African-American Literature,” America and the Sea: A Literary History. Ed. Haskell Springer. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995, 233-59.

Brad S. Born