When seeking to understand the experiences of slaves who underwent kidnapping from their native lands, transportation across the sea in horrific conditions and forced to labour, then many would suggest reading the narratives of those who encountered these scenes first hand. However the authenticity of many of these narratives needs to be questioned in order to determine the truth from fictional elements that reflect the politics and subjectivities of the times in which they were written.
The eighteenth century saw the British Empire hit the peak of its slave practice, and the prominent accounts of Afro-British slaves of Olaudah Equiano (1789), Ottobah Cugoano (1787), and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronnisaw (1770) present their experiences during this time. These narratives are claimed by many as ‘authentic’ and ‘truthful’ in the presentation of their experiences being slaves, however do not fully take into consideration the abolitionist and religious rhetoric found in them. These elements serve to form a demanded genre at the time of the late eighteenth century as well as to create an identity out of these experiences.
The evidence found throughout these three narratives indicating the presence of these features can question the authenticity of these three primary sources. Having being written years after the events they depict suggest another reason for the narratives containing rhetoric to make meaning for the authors.
The works of Equiano and Cugoano can arguably be shown to present their experiences to support the abolitionist cause in the late eighteenth century whereby they present critical commentary of certain events recounting acts of brutality and oppression. The historian Abigail Ward, in David Dabydeen’s a Harlot’s Progress (2007) claimed: “We must look at the 18th century slave narratives as products of the abolitionist movement, and that their writing was restricted by issues of form, readership and editors.” As Ward suggests, the politics surrounding the abolition of the slave practice within the British Empire was highly influential and the writing and publication of slave narratives were used as tools in supporting these arguments. From this influence can we trust the narratives as being records of slave accounts or altered experiences to serve a political cause after the events happened?
Religious rhetoric is also a key feature of the 18th century Afro-British slave narrative as it can be seen to serve in all three of the narratives as a way of creating meaning out their experiences. Equiano, Cugoano, Gronnisaw all claim that ‘God’ was responsible for their liberation and emphasize the importance of providence throughout their accounts. The historian Ian Finseth, in Irony and Modernity in the Early Slave Narrative: Bonds of Duty Contracts of Meaning (2013) claimed that “black Atlantic writers used a providential emphasis in their work and views about slavery in order to create an understanding about suffering and to characterise the context of slavery.” The role of religion in the narratives while reflecting how the authors want to make sense of their experiences being slaves, could lead to a misconstrued account of what happened.
The construction of an identity in all three of the slave narratives is also a feature that brings into question their authenticity as reliable sources. This ‘identity creation’ can arguably have re-shaped the experiences of the ex-slave writers in their attempt to make meaning from them. The historian Vincent Carretta, in Olaudah Equiano: African British abolitionist and founder of the African American slave narrative (2004) stated: “Any autobiography is designed to influence the reader’s impression of its author, and often, as in the case of the Interesting Narrative, to affect the reader’s beliefs or actions as well. No auto biographer has faced a greater opportunity for redefinition than has a manumitted (freed) slave.” The opportunity provided to the ex-slaves in writing a recount of their past experiences with slavery allowed them to redefine who they were. This creates some scepticism regarding what they faced, and how their works influenced late eighteenth century views of slavery.
These features in the eighteenth century Afro-British slave narrative contribute to forming a literary genre that creates a strong sense of similarity between them. These publications strongly support the point that their purpose was to present slavery under the British Empire in a way that suited how their audience wanted to view it. The historian Phillip Gould, in “The rise, development, and circulation of the slave narrative” (2007) emphasized that these publications were also intended to combine the features of a spiritual journey, travel narrative and political commentary into a text that would be of interest to many reader ships within London. Therefore if these narratives were published to suit the politics of their time, can we view them today in the twenty first century as entirely authentic accounts of slavery?
If you would like to read the narratives, please follow these links:
James Albert Ukawsaww Gronnisaw