How Slave Narratives Give Voice to the Enslaved

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│By Ellen Boucher, Gale Ambassador at the University of Bristol

A source often overlooked in the study of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans is slave narratives. They are crucial to the work of decolonising the history of slavery because they allow us to remove the emphasis on those in power and give agency to enslaved persons. Gale’s Archives Unbound gives us access to many of these slave narratives, from the well-known stories of Olaudah Equiano and Harriet Jacobs to less well-known narratives of Martha Griffith Browne and Noah Davis.

Gustavas Vassa or Olaudah Equiano
Gustavas Vassa or Olaudah Equiano
The life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African. I. Knapp, 1837. Archives Unbound, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/O0100011020/GDSC?u=univbri&sid=bookmark-GDSC&xid=013f7aa9&pg=1

The Archives Unbound collection: Introduction to U.S History: Slavery in America

The narratives of enslaved people are easy to locate in Gale’s archives, where they have been grouped together in one place. The subject categories within Archives Unbound allowed me to find the Introduction to U.S. History: Slavery in America, in American Studies, where I used the bibliographies of the contextual essays to find narratives written or told by enslaved persons. It is important that slavery is represented in this way, to give the voice back to those it impacted most, rather than the white masters who benefitted heavily from slavery.

“American Studies” topic area in Archives Unbound
Just a small selection of the fascinating collections found within the “American Studies” topic area in Archives Unbound. It was here that I found the collection Introduction to U.S. History: Slavery in America.
Screenshot showing where users will find contextual Essays in this Archives Unbound collection
A screenshot showing where users will find the Contextual Essays in this Archives Unbound collection.

The True Brutality of Slavery

One way we can use these narratives is to change the story about slavery. They show us the extent of the brutality towards enslaved persons, which would have been glossed over by their masters. In the Narrative of the Life of James Watkins, the brutality of the masters is clear. Watkins talks about being whipped as a young boy ‘on my bare back till the blood ran down my heels.’ He also discusses the horrific sexual abuses that occurred between enslaved persons and their masters; Watkins’ father was the overseer on the plantation where he was born and ‘has often punished me [Watkins] very severely, never recognising me as his son.’ This description of brutality, along with others from other enslaved narratives, has helped to challenge the portrayal of the ‘sunny south’ that plantation owners and slave traders attempted to push.

Recognition of Relationships and a Sense of Community

To suggest that slave narratives only show us the brutality of slave owners, however, is to deny how rich a source they are, how expressive and complex, and how diverse and varied the lives of these individuals were too. These narratives present us with a unique opportunity to explore enslaved communities outside of and despite the influence of their white masters. For example, in Charles Ball’s Fifty Years in Chains (below) he discusses his marriage to another enslaved person named Judah, subverting the western tradition of marriage that was typically denied to enslaved persons.

Ball, Charles. Fifty years in chains, or, The life of an American slave. H. Dayton, 1859
Ball, Charles. Fifty years in chains, or, The life of an American slave. H. Dayton, 1859. Archives Unbound, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/O0100011449/GDSC?u=univbri&sid=bookmark-GDSC&xid=2a35ebad&pg=1

Pursuit of Education – Disproving Depictions of Passivity

Similarly, efforts to educate themselves seen in these slave narratives highlight a desire for autonomy amongst the enslaved, disproving Stanley Elkins’ suggestion in Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1976) that enslaved persons were controlled to the point that they reached an infantilised state of passive acceptance of their situation.1 In contrast, The Life of John Thompson, a fugitive slave outlines Thompson’s active effort to learn to read and write behind his master’s back. This form of resistance highlights the complex existence of life on a plantation and how enslaved persons pushed back against authority to form their own education and gain more autonomy.

Thompson, John. The life of John Thompson, a fugitive slave : containing his history of 25 years in bondage, and his providential escape.
Thompson, John. The life of John Thompson, a fugitive slave: containing his history of 25 years in bondage, and his providential escape. John Thompson, 1856. Archives Unbound, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/O0100009977/GDSC?u=univbri&sid=bookmark-GDSC&xid=5fb5b2f6&pg=1

Resistance to Slavery

The slave narratives available in Archives Unbound also highlight the agency that should be afforded to enslaved persons by demonstrating more active forms of resistance, such as fleeing enslavement and in insurrection. Many of the narratives available detail escape or attempted escape. Perhaps the most famous of these is The Confession, Trial and Execution of Nat Turner, which details one of the most severe cases of escape and agency by enslaved persons. The text also details a desire to read and write. From this we can see that enslaved persons were not just passive victims of enslavement. The latter representation is paternalistic in its simplicity, and ignores the widespread active resistance carried out by enslaved persons.  

Lesser-Known Examples of Slave Narratives

Archives Unbound also gives us access to less well-known examples of fugitivity. The Narrative of Henry Watson (1848) outlines his elaborate plan to escape enslavement and the fear associated with something which risked his life. However, his courage and desire to resist won out: ‘the thought of freedom – delicious freedom – came rushing over me, and filled my soul with pleasure, and I determined to persevere.’ This represents the determination present in many slave narratives and a desire to succeed despite the worst oppressions of enslavement, providing a representation of slavery that foregrounds the incredible feats of enslaved persons who continued to resist despite the risk.

Watson, Henry. Narrative of Henry Watson : a fugitive slave. Bela Marsh, 1848
Watson, Henry. Narrative of Henry Watson : a fugitive slave. Bela Marsh, 1848. Archives Unbound, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/O0100015592/GDSC?u=univbri&sid=bookmark-GDSC&xid=b48e3ef7&pg=35

Limitations of Slave Narratives as Sources

Slave narratives in the Gale archives highlight resistance and agency as well as brutality from white slaveowners. However, there are limitations to the use of slave narratives as a source. Being published for a largely white audience, it is important to recognise the colonial context surrounding these narratives. In addition, many of the narratives, such as that of Phillis Wheatley and Nat Turner, were actually written or interpreted by  a white amanuensis (a person employed to write what another dictates), which sometimes involved heavy influence on the narrative to make it digestible and palatable for a white audience shielded from the worst brutalities of slavery. The fact that the enslaved persons in these narratives lacked an independent voice is suggested because they all follow a very similar chronological structure, suggesting enslaved persons did not have a choice in how they told their stories, because it is unlikely they would have all chosen to structure their work in such a similar way.

Left: Title Page, Right: Image of the Phillis Wheatley included in this book. Thatcher, Benjamin Bussey. Memoir of Phillis Wheatley: a native African and a slave. 2nd ed., W. Light, 1834.
Left: Title Page, Right: Image of the Phillis Wheatley included in this book.
Thatcher, Benjamin Bussey. Memoir of Phillis Wheatley: a native African and a slave. 2nd ed., W. Light, 1834. Archives Unbound, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/O0100003110/GDSC?u=univbri&sid=bookmark-GDSC&xid=a9c4e488&pg=2

The True Extent of Slave Agency

The fact that Archives Unbound is grouped into subject categories made finding narratives by enslaved persons very easy. The accompanying contextual essays provide further historiographical information and are of great use to students. The wide range of enslaved narratives available through the archive allow (to some degree) a representation of slavery outside of that defined by white authority. This allows a richer, more accurate depiction of slave communities, as well as the agency of people enslaved in this way, and their resistance to the oppressive regime.


If you are interested in reading more about the representation of slavery in Gale Primary Sources, check out:

For more on how students can use Gale to aid our efforts in decolonising representations, check out ‘Unearthing and Decolonising the Rasta Voice.’

Blog post cover image citation: Montage created from images in this post, combined with Berkley ‘Slavery in the Southern United States’ https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~arihuang/academic/abg/slavery/history.html available on Wikimedia commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slavery.1.gif

About the Author

Ellen is the Gale Ambassador at the University of Bristol, currently in her second year studying History and French. She has enjoyed modules on American history but is currently engaging in a specialist unit on smugglers in Bristol which she hopes to take forward to study for her dissertation. Outside of university, she loves to play rugby and travel, and is really looking forward to her year abroad teaching English in France next year.

  1. Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).