Discussion: Slave Narratives

In slave narratives such as those written by Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, and Frederick Douglass, diametrically opposed images of the agricultural 'colony' and industrial 'colonist' emerge. The West Indes and the American South, both agriculturally-based entities that depend on a 'colonist' with an industrial economy, are depicted as morally backwards and barbaric, corrupting both master and slave. In contrast, the Northeastern United States and England are given a position of moral superiority and rectitude that is impinged upon by the existence of a slaveholding 'colony'. Thus discourses on slavery often defined themselves through the language of colonialism.

These narratives show audiences an image of an immoral, depraved 'colony' that both contrasted with and contained the potential to degrade the industrial 'colonist' powers. As the editor of Mary Prince's narrative delineates the two positions by noting that Mr. Wood's position "may be West Indian ethics, but it will scarcely be received as sound doctrine in Europe" (222), he delineates the difference between the two societies. Frederick Douglass describes the religion of the South as a "partial and hypocritical Christianity" (326), in which the true religious tenets are reversed; "we see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery. We have men sold to build churches" (327). The ethics of the 'colony' and the 'colonist' are thereby set against each other.

These forces are a corrupting influence, both on the slaves and their oppressors. The system of the 'colonies' served to degrade the oppressed slave; "I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!" (293). A major component of the debasement of slaves was the moral debasement of slave women, touched upon by all three authors. "It was almost a constant practice with our clerks, and other whites, to commit violent depredation the chastity of the female slaves" (74). Oppressors were also degraded, as in the case of Sophia, whose gentle nature is soon overwhelmed as she is given power over another human being. "Her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music. But, alas! this kind heart had a short time to remain such. The fatal position of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage" (274). In this way, the immoral practices of the slaveholding 'colony' can be seen as making all its members barbaric and degraded.

Significantly, these ills are not only confined to the 'colony', but can infiltrate the society of the 'colonists'. The differences in the laws pose a major threat to the societies in the Northeast and in England. The freedom earned by the narrators could easily be challenged, undermining 'colonist' morality and notions of freedom, allowing the barbarism of the dependent 'colony' to overtake it. Because of Fugitive Slave laws, Frederick Douglass' freedom in the North remained in flux. "I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery" (320). Likewise, Mary Prince's freedom is challenged by her old master, and is thus limited by the 'colonial' laws; "the laws of England could do nothing to make me free in Antigua" (212). Thus the barbaric 'colony' is set to destroy the morally righteous 'colonist' states.

The discourses in slave narratives address the problems of slavery by creating a dichotomy between the slaveholding 'colony' and its free 'colonist'. What was described as the moral backwardness of the 'colony' had many dire consequences, among which were the degradation of all members of the society and the inevitable spreading of this ethical system to the 'colonists' themselves. Slavery thus presented itself as a de-civilizing force on all levels, from the slave in the 'colony' to the member of 'colonist' society.

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