When it comes to the history of slavery historians have tended to look at the events through the perspectives of slaves or abolitionists. Autobiographies such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or films such as Amazing Grace (2006) have been incredibly popular. They have also contributed to an established narrative about the persecuted slave, their struggle and the heroic abolitionists who fought for their cause.
However, there has been a tendency to avoid or overlook the perspectives of slave perpetrators. One possibility for this is the belief that by paying attention to these perpetrators we validate their actions. Do we believe, as Ana Araujo suggests, that by paying attention to the perpetrators, some may come to justify their actions in the same way that Neo-Nazism has denied and/or justified the Holocaust?
There is this danger when examining their story, but arguably censoring history is a danger in itself as we miss out on opportunities to broaden our understanding of the trade.
For example, most slave narratives would accurately show black female slaves as being vulnerable under slavery. There were however women who made the best of their situation and gained some degree of power. In many they used their sexuality as an advantage to gain privileges. One sea crew member of a slave ship complained in a poem about the influence a slave woman had on his Captain:
‘Whose sooty charm he was so wrapt in,
He strait ordain’d her second captain;
So strict was she in ev’ry manner;
She even lock’d the jar of water;
And whil’st in that high station plac’d,
No thirsty soul a drop must taste.’
Jamaican slave master Thomas Thistlewood, and his slave Phibbah had a unique relationship, growing to love each other and raise a son together. Phibbah would become more like a partner in running the plantation than a slave. Thistlewood notes in his diary that she had no qualms about carrying punishments out against other slaves, having ordered a thief’s hands to be tied ‘behind her [and left] naked for the mosquitoes to bite her tonight.’ The fact that female slaves could have such an influence over their masters and even use this against fellow slaves is arguably not common knowledge.
There are also testimonies of “good slave owners” such as Mr. Henry Coor who preferred the carrot rather than the stick approach, rewarding slaves ‘for fidelity and good behaviour’. Such individuals are overlooked as they don’t fit the abolitionist vs anti-abolitionist dichotomy. Instead they fit into this grey area of slave history as they were opposed to abolition, but actively pushed the British parliament to make tougher regulations on ownership.
Also not widely researched were the customs and practices of native-African traders, such as Antera Duke. The fact that Nigerian traders like him felt he needed to be ‘dressed as white men’ when negotiating with Europeans speaks volumes about their struggle to appear civilised to white traders like Nicholas Owen who described them in his journal as deceitful and drunkards individuals who ‘wander in absurdity as black as their faces.’ We can learn from this that racism not only affected white relations with black slaves but also their black trading partners creating many instances of distrust.
The narratives of these perpetrators are useful in finding contradictions to some common ideas about the slave trade. However, through these narratives there is also evidence supporting commonly held convictions. Horrific examples are in the diary entries of Thomas Thistlewood. In one example he describes a punishment in which he had slave ‘Derby well whipped, and made Egypt shit in his mouth’ for eating sugar canes out of hunger. His punishments were not limited to physical abuse, once having the musical instruments of his slaves ‘chopped all up in pieces with my cutlass’ for disturbing the night’s peace. Narratives of perpetrators can therefore also support commonly accepted facts that slaves were often underfed and were often punished cruelly by their masters.
Today when someone is accused of a horrific crime, it is not enough for us to simply get the facts convict them and leave it at that. We must understand what led to them committing this heinous act and what their thought processes was. When it comes to the history of Trans-Atlantic slavery we can all agree that it was wrong. However, lessons can only be learned by acknowledging that the story is not black and white, and that those on the wrong side of history must be heard too.
Ana Lucia Araujo ‘Transnational Memory of Slave Merchants: Making the Perpetrators Visible in the Public Space’ Politics of Memory: Making Slavery Visible in the Public Space (New York, 2012).
Antera Duke, The Diary of Antera Duke, an Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader, edited by Stephen D. Behrendt, A. J. H. Latham and David Northrup (London: Oxford, 2010)
Douglas Hall, In miserable slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica (Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1999)
Great Britain, Parliament, House of Commons Sessional Papers of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Shiela Lambert, (Wilmington, Delaware, 1975)
James Walvin, The Trader, The Owner, The Slave (London: Vintage Books, 2008)
Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship (London: John Murray, 2008)
Nicholas Owen, Journal of a Slave Dealer, edited by Eveline Martin (London: Routledge, 1930)
Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (USA: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004)