In 1796, a Scotsman by the name of John Stedman published an autobiographical book, which – according to the literary magazine “Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung” – one has to put down multiple times while reading due to the many descriptions of barbaric practices. In this book, the writer describes the colony of Surinam, where he had travelled to as a soldier: its history, its botany, its geography – and the inhumane treatment of the people enslaved there. His work was therefore highly topical.
In a Land of Plantations and Jungles
Surinam was a Dutch colony on the northern coast of South America, and it still exists today as the Republic of Suriname. Here, the Dutch colonists established plantations, where they grew sugar, coffee and tobacco for the European market. The plantations were farmed by Africans, who were abducted, transported by ship to the colony and sold at markets to the plantation owners as slaves. Many of them attempted to escape the inhumane conditions on the plantations, fleeing into the swamps and jungles in Surinam’s hinterland, away from the cleared areas on the coast and rivers. Since the slave catchers did not dare to venture onto this impassable terrain, numerous villages of former slaves formed over the years. From these villages, the escaped slaves also raided the plantations and freed more slaves, who then joined them. These insurgents posed a real danger to the colonial administration, so the Netherlands sent a special army brigade to the colony to take action against them. One of the soldiers serving in this unit was John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797), who would later publish his recollections of the colony.
In The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, he provides an impressive account of his experiences during his five years in Surinam. He writes about the arduous marches through the swamps and jungles of South America, the fever that ravaged the men and the gruesome wounds he sustained. He also describes his profound love for a certain Joanna, whom we’ll discuss more later.
At the same time, Stedman makes an effort to vividly describe the country’s geography, as well as cities, wildlife, botany and the instruments of the indigenous people. But it was his personal experiences of the slave-owning society that left a lasting impression on his readers.
Stedman writes, shocked, about the everyday cruelty with which the slaves in Surinam were treated. He describes diabolical punishments that were imposed even for minor offences, and the powerlessness of the slaves, who were entirely at the mercy of the whims and caprice of their owners. We’ll just leave it at one example: Stedman writes about a mistress who threw an enslaved woman’s baby into a river because the child’s crying was bothering her. The mother tried in vain to rescue her child – and then received 200 lashes for her insubordination. Stedman describes many stories like this and also captures the inhumanity in a few striking drawings. These drawings then served as the basis for the copper engravings produced by William Blake, which became very famous.
Matters of the Heart
It’s worth mentioning that what we read in the text isn’t always what Stedman actually experienced. Before his account was published, 20 years after Stedman’s return, it was heavily revised. Some passages were not approved by the publishers, others were changed by Stedman himself, who was by that time an honourable officer with a family, and wanted to portray himself differently than in his youth. Since Stedman’s original manuscript was discovered in 1978, we now know that a certain degree of artistic license was taken when it came to describing some of the facts. Just take Stedman’s great love Joanna, who is described frequently in his Narrative, often with flowery language. The book tells us that Joanna was a “mulatto”, a term used at the time to describe a slave with a black mother (also a slave) and a white father. He loved this girl dearly, had a son with her and ultimately bought her freedom – but alas, she did not wish to return with him to Europe, because she could not bear to leave her world behind. This “mixed-race” love story between John and Joanna was even published separately later by opponents of slavery; a revealing portrait of Joanna became one of the best-known engravings from Stedman’s work.
However, it seems Stedman and the publishers agreed that a romance would sell much better than the truth. Because, according to the original manuscript, Joanna was actually an enslaved girl whom Stedman had purchased from her mother. She managed his household, and it seems that her duties also included sexual services. We don’t know what she thought of him; we only see his perspective. Stedman’s many other sexual encounters, described in the original manuscript, are also omitted here in favour of this romance – there’s a reason we call this period the Romantic era, after all. The stories that people wanted to read had very little to do with the reality of daily life in the colonies.
However, many other parts of Stedman’s account, especially those regarding the treatment of slaves, are considered to be authentic. It was published in numerous languages.
The German Version
In our library, we have a copy of the first German version of Stedman’s report. Stedman’s Nachrichten von Surinam was published in Hamburg just one year after the English first edition. It was the eighth volume of the hugely popular series “Neuere Geschichte der See- und Land-Reisen” (English: “Recent history of sea and land travel”), which brought new travelogues from all over the world to a public fascinated by unknown places. Stedman’s work was greatly abridged in this version. In particular, the publishers felt that his lengthy botanical observations had, by that time, long since been described more successfully elsewhere. They also cut back on the brutal parts, which they did not wish to impose on their own readers in all their cruelty. After all, it was the “adventures” in faraway lands that interested their readers. The publishers wrote that they had decided to shorten the descriptions “in order to spare the delicate sensibilities of our readers, and in some cases to omit them altogether”. At the same time, they condemn “how far man is capable of going in the most despicable of all refinements – the art of torturing his fellow man”.
This version also includes hardly any of the illustrations; it omits depictions of torture and violence, featuring instead illustrations of the beautiful Joanna and the method of skinning of a boa constrictor.
Slavery and Human Dignity
By the way, nobody could claim that Stedman was opposed to slavery. He repeatedly defends it in his report; he considers it unavoidable and also not much worse than the conditions prevalent in the poorest sections of European societies. What he does criticise, however, is the cruelty towards slaves and the treatment of black people as though they were not also human beings made in God’s image. He therefore advocates for significantly more rights for slaves, which makes him one of the more progressive contemporaries of slavery, at least outside the universities.
As you can see, Stedman was a man with his own convictions. His moral compass may only partially align with ours today. But he was also a product of his time. And whether or not he was in favour of slavery, his book contributed towards its abolition. Because it showed the people of Europe – among whom the ideas of the Enlightenment had, by now, taken hold – the appalling the conditions under which the people enslaved in the colonies had to live. Stedman’s report was not the only one of its kind, but it is the most impressive and the most widely known.
The insistence of the opponents of slavery soon bore fruit: in the decades that followed, slavery was gradually outlawed. The British Empire outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833. Slavery was abolished in the colony of Surinam in 1863, and the state paid out substantial sums in compensation – not to the former slaves, of course, but to their owners, to compensate them for the loss of their “property” ...
Other Things You Might Be Interested in:
On the SLUB Dresden website, you’ll find a digital version of the German edition.
The original English version is available on Archive.org
You can read the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung’s report on Stedman’s book here.
Since slavery still remained a problem in some parts of the world in 1839, Thomas Fowell Buxton wrote a book on how to defeat the evil of slavery.