Slavery and Oppression in Early America: Three Different Viewpoints

Published Aug. 27, 2019, 11:54 a.m. by Moderator


This essay delves into the subject of slavery and oppression in the early American society. The books that have been chosen to facilitate the understanding of this emotive and sensitive issue: ‘The History of Mary Prince a West Indian Slave related by herself’ and Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives (Panther Captivity) edited by Kathryn Zabelle Derounian`- Stodola which will give an account of slavery and oppression narrated by two female protagonists namely Mary Prince who narrates her ordeal with several different slave masters and her quest for the freedom of her people and herself. The second book is a fictional account of a strong female character with masculine qualities who elopes with a lover after the refusal of her father’s blessing. It tries to depict the fight against oppression from men and to show the industry of women.


                    The third book is white farmer’s letter describing his ideals of his new country; Letters from an American farmer and sketches of eighteenth century America by J. Hector St John de Crevecoeur. He describes his quest to understand the balance between westernization and the traditional way of life of other people. He makes a choice to start a new life as a native Indian fending and hunting from the land. This letter tries to advocate the merging of different cultures and the possibility that cultures are rooted more in nature than the artificial vanity of modernity which is based on self more than community.


                          The ‘History of Mary Prince a West Indian Slave related by herself’; this story is written from a first- person point of view. Mary Prince explains that she was born in a farm in Bermuda owned by Charles Myners where her mother worked as a house slave and her father was a sawyer slave to a ship builder named Mr. Trimmingham. At an early age Mr. Myners passed on and the slaves were divided among the families. She was bought along with her mother by a Captain Barrel who gave a young Mary Prince to her granddaughter, little Miss Betsy Williams who was of the same age as her. Her father Captain Williams oversaw a shipping vessel and was seldom at home. Mary’s early life is the picture of youthful innocence, just playing and having fun with her siblings and Miss Betsy. At age twelve she was sent to work for Mrs. Prudens as a babysitter, her stay was cut short after three months when she was sold off to pay for her master’s wedding expenses. Her journey then takes her through a set of different owners, the first one known as Captain I and his wicked wife who unleash untold suffering on their slaves which now includes Mary Prince; she got daily floggings and gets to witness the beating to death of a French slave named Hetty( Prince).


                           She is later sold off to a cruel Master D who hires her out to work in salt water with other slaves. She describes the terrible conditions that the slaves have to work in. They hardly eat and are infected with boils from the salty conditions. She mentions the savage beating of an old disabled slave named Daniel as an example of the new master’s sadistic tendencies. The master strips him naked and then would beat him till he was cut everywhere and then pour salt, he then proceeded to watch as he writhed and howled in pain. She also mentions a slave named Ben who stole a little rice and got a thorough flogging and even got stabbed in the feet by the master’s son who wanted revenge for outing him out. She explains how the son shoved an old slave named Sarah on to some poisonous prickly bushes which led to her death a few days later. Her next master is Mr. Woods who had a home in Antigua and this story is narrated through her battle with rheumatism. She had been secluded in a far off pest infested outhouse and were it not for the efforts of a kind slave who brought her food and gave her a hot bath, her demise would have been certain. She mentions a mulatto named Martha Wilcox who creates mischief for other slaves to show her color dominance over them. She shows industry when she does small jobs during the absence of the master to be able to secure her freedom (Prince).


                          She introduces the subject of religion and how it was forbidden among the slaves. She becomes involved in church where she meets a young carpenter named Daniel James who she describes as reliable and well-mannered. They English laws prevented the union of a free man and a slave woman and blacks were not allowed to marry in an English church. They get married in a Moravian Chapel and this leads to the confrontation with Mr. Woods and his wife who go on to flog her for getting married. She goes on to explain her tribulations about being denied the chance to negotiate her freedom. Her trip to England tells the return of the rheumatism and her never ending workload. She eventually takes refuge with the church and gets to learn of the anti – slavery society who facilitates her with living essentials. Her parting shot is a clarion call for the freedom for her oppressed people, she goes on to shred into pieces the stereotype that blacks would rather be enslaved than be free. She wants freedom for her people. This heart wrenching story captures the struggles of the black people and the history of the United States of America (Prince).


                             Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives: is an edited account of the narrative ‘Panther Captivity’ done by Kathryn Zabelle. She writes that the ‘Panther Captivity’ is thought to have been written in the late eighteenth century. She goes on to explain the narrative which is written in the format of a letter written by a fictional character Abraham Panther to an unnamed male recipient describing a hunting expedition that he and another companion undertook. This undertaking led to the discovery of a woman singing at the entrance of a cave who faints upon meeting them. She then recovers and offers them accommodation in her humble abode. The woman explains her rich background and the reason for her seclusion from civilization. She had eloped with her lover after the father refused to acknowledge the liaison. She goes on to explain that her lover was killed by marauding Indians and she had taught herself to feed off the wild.     


                      The greatest threat to her life came in the name of a giant that tried to sexually assault her. She outwits the giant and then goes on to cut into pieces. She had lived in the wilderness for nine years at the time when Abraham Panther and his companion stumbled upon her and was reluctant to return home. She eventually went back when her father passed away and inherited a hefty inheritance. This fictional story tells the story of the oppression of women in early American society. The father’s refusal to the marriage shows that the father was charged with making the marriage decision for the daughter. The daughter follows love which portrays the power of belief and love. She goes on and lives for nine years without help from male companions which is a feminist ideology. She however gets her penance with her inheritance from the demise of the father. It shows that courage and hard work are the ingredients needed for women to succeed (Stodola).


                    Letters from an American farmer and sketches of eighteenth century America by J. Hector St John de Crevecoeur; is a letter describing the passion and fervor that the conquering Englishman had in establishing the new country in the Americas. This is a sharp contrast to the two accounts by the two female protagonists in the previous two stories. The letter is expected to elicit pride and patriotism among the citizens of the new country. St John goes on to portray the American society as a perfect society where the threshold of freedom is upheld; a place where dignity and equality exist with no equal in the world. He explains that an American is a person of many cultures and is united by the social beliefs that the country has been founded upon. He predicts America would be a melting pot for changes in the world. He proposes unconditional love for the new country and depicts Americans as victorious people who fought and won against the imperialist British Empire (St John).


                    He divides American society according to location; the ones who inhabit the coastal region are more bold and enterprising and are likely to travel and engage in trade. The intermediates are the land owners who engage in agricultural activities with a strong belief in Christianity. He gives the impression of the superiority of this class in terms of sophistication and decorum in this ‘farming class’ as compared to the poor and lower classes of Europe. He tries to create a distinction between an American and the European. He explains that interactions between the new Americans and other should by them adopting American rather than American adopting the latter. He is advocating for an idealized American society that is more sophisticated but connected.


                    This ideal reads through the whole monologue; he notes his frustration to the challenges faced by this ideal, he gives the example of the attachment of natives to their own traditional cultures and even naturalization of some Europeans into this simple lifestyle instead of embracing the new model of society. He explains that there is something more powerful and fulfilling in this life that is not discernible from an outsider’s point of view. He says this is something innate and part of nature’s great mysteries. He says that an Indian lad can be given western education but when an occasion presents itself. He would abandon the modern lifestyle and join his tribes mate in the woods. He accepts that they are more in touch with the nature than his own Englishmen (St John).


                     He urges his own slaves to be free and regard him as an equal rather than as their former master. He strongly believed in the equality of humans and the respect for different cultures. He makes a choice join and live as a native Indian. He wants his children to be taught and brought up in the native lifestyle. He juxtaposes the stresses of modern life and his new adopted simple life which is devoid of the frightful nightmares that prevailed in his former life. He tries and separates himself from the adventurous European types who go for the thrill or the treasure and says he wants to become and part and parcel of this new lifestyle. He is seeking peace and tranquility and he considers the new as a sanctuary from past hardship and heartache.


                    This account by St John brings into the light the other side of the European colonization that is seldom heard. He is a white European farmer in a society where the other races are considered inferior and primitive. His decision to live in a wigwam away from the modern pleasures of his old life brings into focus the truth about the desires of one’s heart which are not solved by channeling hate and violence but these cultures can also be embraced to help understand the extent of the power of the human race. This reading gives an example of the kind of people who led to the formation of the antislavery movements (St John).


 


Works Cited


Crèvecoeur, J. Hector, Henri Louis Bourdin, Ralph Henry Gabriel, and Stanley Thomas Williams. Sketches of eighteenth century America: more "Letters from an American farmer". New Haven: Yale University Press, 1925. Print.


Gutman, Herbert George. The Black family in slavery and freedom, 1750-1925. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. Print.


Johnson, Charles Richard, and Patricia Smith. Africans in America: America's journey through slavery. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998. Print


Prince, Mary, and Moira Ferguson. The history of Mary Prince: a West Indian slave. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. Print.


 


Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle. Women's Indian captivity narratives. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.


 

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