Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



The fate of the slave and prisoner of war echoes through the literature of empire. Scripture and chronicle resound with empathy for bondsmen and serfs, the heroes of the Hebrew book of EXODUS (ca. 450 B.c.) and the underdogs in HERODOTUS'S Histories (440 B.c.); THUCYDIDES' The History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 400 B.c.); and Euripides' Andromache (ca. 425 B.c.), Hecuba (424 B.c.), and The Trojan Women (415 B.c.), the latter a resilient GREEK tragedy mourning the defilement of female prisoners of war. In History of the Jewish War (A.D. 75) and Jewish Antiquities (A.D. 93), the historian FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS, an adopted Roman citizen, sorrowed at the despair of Jews under the imperial sword of the emperors Vespasian and Titus. Like the Nigerian ethnographer AMOS TUTUOLA, the Russian writer IVAN TURGENEV, and the Bermudan autobiographer MARY PRINCE, Josephus knew sadism and menace from experience with arrogant slave owners. Another source of bondage lore, The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa (1874), turned the TRAVELOGUE into fuel for world abolitionism. A postcolonial backlash, the PROTEST play A Tempest (1969) by Nigerian dramatist Aime Cesaire, refocused WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S The TEMPEST (ca. 1610-11) by sharpening images of abasement and bondage in the Caribbean, where slaves enriched European cane planters.

During the rule of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius, Rome's first novelist, Lucius Apuleius Platonicus (ca. A.D. 123-ca. 180), a philosopher, wit, and orator from the Roman colony of Numidia (present-day Algeria), wrote SATIRES of the moneyed classes. He produced an episodic fool tale, Metamorphoses (A.D. 158) commonly known as The Golden Ass, the first work of the Roman Empire to assess the lives of the underclass. The aristocratic protagonist, Lucius the magician, overshoots his powers by turning himself into an ass, thus introducing him to the sufferings of beasts of burdens, herders, and slaves. The narrative depicts the crude tests of a sound body and mind in captives offered for inspection at the slave market. To bolster his argument for civil rights, the author dramatizes the immurement of a maidservant in a cave and the scorn of a slave's testimony against nobles in criminal court. In the 13th episode, a bondsman becomes the dowry of an aristocratic bride. After she uses him as a cat's-paw to purchase poison for the murder of a son-in-law, she suffers exile while the slave, who has no choice but to obey her, dies on a cross.

Enslavement and pillaging were the expected rewards of the Viking conquests, which spread terror over coastal Europe from 775 to 1100. In the Icelandic bard SNORRI STURLUSON'S Heimskringla (Orb of the world, 1220), a blind sage remarks on the worthlessness of a bondsman: “Red gold and clay are things very unlike; but the difference is still greater between king and slave” (Sturluson 1833, 123). In Sturluson's Prose Edda (1225), the Norse imperialist pictures routine torture and on- the-spot execution of those captives not worth selling into bondage: “He who put to shame the Host-Duke thrust out the eyes of prisoners,—he who speeds the sacrifices; in song I chant his praises” (Sturluson 1916, 226). The welcoming of death attests to the gruesome torments awaiting the hapless prisoner of war.

New World Bondage

Literary achievements struck a blow for equality and against white European supremacy. BARTOLOME DE LAS CASAS, the first European author to condemn imperialism and enslavement in the New World, studied law and religion before mounting a defense of the oppressed of the Spanish Empire. Having served as a priest in the New World, he expressed revulsion at the capture and burning at the stake of the Taino chief Hatuey on February 2, 1512, and he dedicated his literary canon to the liberation of black and Indian slaves in the Greater Antilles, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru. To convince complacent courtiers on the inhumanity of their New World enterprise, Las Casas issued a confrontational history, Brevisima relation de la destruction de las Indias (A brief report of the devastation of the Indies, 1542), in part expressing European outrage against Spain's atrocities against the indigenous tribes whom Columbus encountered and whom Spanish overlords in Central America and the West Indies worked to death in mines and on plantations.

In 1782, publication of The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African introduced a black perspective to British abolitionism. Born on a slave vessel on the way from Guinea to the West Indies, the author, dramatist, and essayist Ignatius Sancho (ca. 1729-80), lived in New Granada, the broad expanse of territory in the far north of South America, until his preferment at age 20 by the Duke of Montagu to the post of valet. In 1772, Sancho urged a friend to show kindness to blacks. In his last two years, he declared in a letter, “The grand object of English navigators—indeed of all Christian navigators—is money—money—money” (Sancho 1782, 149). He surmised that the vices of nonwhite Caribbeans derived from lessons learned from deceitful white colonials who introduced Christianity, greed, firearms, and liquor.

The French human rights champion Victor Marie Hugo (1802-85) chose the Haitian Revolution of 1791 for his second novel, Bug- Jargal (1826), a jungle melodrama begun in 1818 and featuring a noble black martyr. Set at a sugar plantation on Cap Frangais, Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti), in the days leading up to a wedding on August 22, 1791, the action dramatizes the destruction of Fort Galifet. A slave insurrection rings the death knell of African forced labor and of easy money for European exploiters of New World resources. Symbolizing the romantic ideal of the aristocrat, Marie's bower, the shooting of a menacing alligator, and the blossoms crushed by a black serenader presage disillusion about the permanence of French imperialism. The text exploits both the motif of the noble displaced African prince and the myth of African males sullying white womanhood. At the climax, Hugo depicts Pierrot, a giant black rebel from Kakongo, kidnapping the bride-to-be, whom he clutches while his dog Rask carries off a white infant in a cradle. From the perspective of the French hero, Captain Leopold D'Auverney, the slave represents not only a threat to the colony but also “the loathsome ravisher of Marie” (Hugo 2004, 101). By reversing the normal racial stereotypes, Hugo accuses the French of contradicting their own slogan liberte, fraternite, egalite.

Slavery and Vulnerability

In literature worldwide, the impressment of children into bondage echoes a distaste for dehumanizing the innocent. In Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799), Mungo Park (1771-1806), an explorer of the Niger River, describes the blistering of feet and rubbing of chained ankles during the 30-mile-a-day passage of a slave coffle. The slave Nealee is so wearied that she is unable to flee a hive of bees on the rampage. Park describes how she “crept to the stream, in hopes to defend herself from the bees by throwing water over her body, but … was stung in the most dreadful manner” (Park 1816, 323). Because she fails to rally, guards whip her pitilessly until she can travel only by litter. Contributing to her collapse is the daily ration, which slave mongers limit to a handful of meal and sips of water. The slaves who bear her litter and her load raise a cry, “kang-tegi, kang-tegi (cut her throat, cut her throat) ” (325). The slave driver chooses instead to leave her behind to starve or be eaten by beasts.

With his adventure novel Kidnapped (1886), the Scots author ROBERT Louis STEVENSON recalled the previous century, when “white men were still sold into slavery on the plantations” of the Carolinas (Stevenson 1921, 61), a fate awaiting hero David Balfour. Over a decade before American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe denounced bondage in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the Cuban fiction writer Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda y Arteaga (1814-73) attacked native- born slavery within a creolized people when she published the melodramatic novella Sab (1841), the ill- starred love story of a mulatto slave who adores his white master's daughter Carlota. The story centers on the exploitation of nonwhite laborers to ensure Cuba's vast sugar industry, a cornerstone of Spanish imperial wealth and aristocratic luxury. To Teresa, an Ursuline nun, Sab grieves that his children “will be condemned to see fortune and ambition facilitate a thousand ways to glory and power for men no better than themselves” (Gomez, 1993, 107). Although published in Madrid in 1841, the story was banned in Cuba until 1914.

The inhumanity of the imperial slave era lives on in the postcolonial age. The Guadaloupian historical novelist MARYSE CONDE earned a Grand Prix Litteraire de la Femme for Moi, Tituba, sor- ciere noire Salem (I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, 1986), originally a research project completed at Occidental College in Los Angeles on a Fulbright scholarship. The story examines multiple crimes against Tituba, an Anglo-Ashanti martyr conceived by white-on-black rape of her mother Abena on a slave galley on the Middle Passage. In 2001, JAMAICA KINCAID, an Antiguan columnist and novelist of Afro-Carib-Scots ancestry, mused on conquerors and the conquered in her essay “Sowers and Reapers: The Unquiet World of a Flower Bed,” published in the New Yorker. She remarked on the daybook that the U.S. founding father Thomas Jefferson kept at his home at Monticello, Virginia. A meticulous survey of herbs and vegetables, Kincaid's writing has a minor footnote on the 12 slaves who did Jefferson's bidding during planting, hoeing, and harvesting. The future president referred to a mixed-race cultivator, Beverly Hemings, a son whom Jefferson allegedly sired on Sally Hemings, his concubine. To Sally, Beverly, and Sally's other three half-white children who worked the neat terraced gardens, Jefferson provided shoes and linen and wool yardage for clothing but withheld both acknowledgement of his paternity and manumission. At a Methodist church door in Kincaid's novel The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), the protagonist, Xuela Claudette Richardson, imagines entering the church to remind worshippers of the Caribbean status quo. She asserts that the sources of world power lie within the usurper's triad: “connive, deceive, murder” (Kincaid 1996, 134).


Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Translated by P G. Walsh.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Gomez de Avellaneda y Arteaga, Gertrudis. Sab and Autobiography. Translated and edited by Nina M. Scott. Austin: University of Texas, 1993.

Hugo, Victor. Bug-Jargal. Translated by Chris Bongie. Buffalo, N.Y.: Broadview, 2004.

Kincaid, Jamaica. The Autobiography of My Mother. New York: Plume, 1996.

----- . “Sowers and Reapers: The Unquiet World of a Flower Bed.” New Yorker 76, no. 43 (January 22, 2001): 41-45.

Park, Mungo. Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa. London: John Murray, 1816.

Raser, Timothy Bell. The Simplest of Signs: Victor Hugo and the Language of Images in France, 1850-1950. Cranbury, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 2004.

Sancho, Ignatius. Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African. Translated by Joseph Jekyll. London: J. Nichols, 1782.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Kidnapped. New York: Blue Ribbons Books, 1921.

Sturluson, Snorri. The Heimskringla; or, Chronicle of the Kings of Norway. Edited by Samuel Laing and Rasmus B. Anderson. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1833.

----- . The Prose Edda. Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. New York: American-Scandinavian Foundation, 1916.