A Soldier in Suriname Accidentally Wrote an Anti-Slavery Memoir
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a soldier’s frank, honest memoir changed how people thought about slavery.
John Gabriel Stedman was a man who lusted after adventure. He’d been serving in the Scots Brigade since he was 16, and, 11 years on, in search of money and something new, he responded to a call from the Dutch States-General for volunteers willing to sail to the West Indies.
In February 1773, Stedman arrived in the colony of Suriname in South America, at the southern end of the Caribbean. His assignment: Stop enslaved people from escaping and protect plantations from attacks by these so-called Maroons. While he was there, he managed to keep an exhaustive, meticulous diary that would become one of the most successful anti-slavery books at the turn of the 19th century.
By the time Stedman reached Suriname, the Dutch had been fighting two tribes of Maroons, the Saamaka and Njuka, in the First Boni War. Enslaved Africans had been escaping into the jungle since they’d first arrived in the colony, but in the mid-1700s, they started actively attacking plantations, and maroonage was deemed out of control.
[Stedman’s Narrative became] one of the strongest indictments ever to appear against plantation slavery.
Richard and Sally Price, historians
In his diary, Stedman described the Maroons, the armed tribes he was fighting, the lush landscape and the indigenous Arawaks who lived in the dense tropical jungle. He also wrote about his relationship with an enslaved woman named Joanna, the many sexual encounters he had and the lives of both masters and the enslaved. What he did, the music he heard, the unusual foods he ate and the indigenous plants he saw — everything was recorded in his journal. In addition, he collected “curiosities” — now part of the collection at the Museum Volkenkunde (the National Museum of Ethnology) in Leiden, the Netherlands — and painted vivid watercolors of scenes from Suriname.
When he returned to the Netherlands in 1777, Stedman set to crafting a story from his diary entries, eventually selling the rights to Joseph Johnson, a London publisher. Starting in 1790, Johnson devoted six years to transforming Stedman’s watercolors into engravings — he commissioned William Blake to produce several plates — that could be reproduced for the book.
That book — Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America — came out in 1796 and became an immediate popular success. While slavery existed in Europe, large plantations did not, and Stedman’s evocative, at times graphic account of both free and enslaved lives was richly illuminating to people across the Continent. “[Stedman’s book] was fundamental to people’s understanding of slavery” in the late 18th and early 19th century, says Karwan Fatah-Black, assistant professor of history at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Narrative was quickly translated into Dutch, Swedish, Italian, French and German, and became an international best-seller that would ultimately appear in 25 editions.
It was the kind of overnight success that would have thrilled most authors. But Stedman was enraged. It turned out that Joseph Johnson had secretly hired an editor to revise the original text and then published a version Stedman condemned as an outright distortion. “My book was printed full of lies and nonsense,” he wrote to his sister-in-law, and he claimed to have burned 2,000 copies.
It took nearly two centuries before readers were given an accurate account of Stedman’s Suriname adventure, after historians Richard and Sally Price painstakingly compared his diary to the published version and came out with a new edition in 1988. In some cases, the Prices, who are professors emeritus of American studies and anthropology at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, determined that the changes involved softening Stedman’s phrasing and word choice: The slightly derogatory “Smouse” had been replaced with “Jew,” while “a couple of hungry whores” became “a brace of the frail sisterhood.”
What’s more, descriptions of Stedman’s sexual conquests had been entirely removed, along with his comments on the relationship between enslaved women and their White European masters, a quite common union known as a “Suriname marriage.” Johnson’s editor had also taken Stedman’s middle-of-the-road opinions and made them more pointedly pro-slavery, altering his words to say that slavery in Suriname was worse than in the British West Indies (it wasn’t) and that the fleeing Maroons were “savage.” Even with those unauthorized changes, however, the Narrative became “one of the strongest indictments ever to appear against plantation slavery,” the Prices write.
Stedman could not have imagined that his chronicle of one man’s adventure would one day be read the world over as a definitive firsthand account of an 18th-century slave society. Today, you can find engravings and passages from Narrative in scholarly articles, museum exhibits and books related to the Afro-Caribbean and trans-Atlantic slave trade — and the author even shows up as a central character in Quaco: Life in Slavery, a Dutch educational children’s comic book.
Nor, sadly, could he have imagined that material from his book would be distorted anew. John Njenga Karugia, a researcher at the Inter-Centre-Programme on new African-Asian Interactions at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, notes an image from Stedman’s book of an enslaved man being tortured and hanged appears in textbooks in Zanzibar with a new caption identifying Arabians as the enslavers on the East African island. Another regrettable bit of “nonsense,” but Stedman’s legacy of exposing slavery in the New World lives on.