Spectators of Oppression: Depictions of American Slavery in Travel Journals, 1792-1840

The following essay  by Michael Brenes of Hunter College has been awarded first place in the 2007 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Michael!


Spectators of Oppression:

Depictions of American Slavery in Travel Journals, 1792-1840 


            In Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic tome on American life in the nineteenth century, Democracy in America, he famously denounced Southern slavery while presciently conveying his opinion that it “is not an institution which can last.”[1] De Tocqueville was profoundly disturbed by slavery; it was for him a glaring contradiction to the ideas and values that America was founded upon, among them the individual right to liberty and freedom. The “peculiar institution” was simply incompatible with the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment, and its life was dwindling to an end. Slavery might not abolished through the volition and goodwill of Southern whites, Tocqueville reasoned, but if “freedom is refused to the Negroes of the South, they will end up by seizing it themselves.”[2]  

            But de Tocqueville was only the most famous expatriate traveler to America in the 1800’s that took a position toward slavery. Many writers of travel journals, while passing through the United States, recorded anecdotes of interactions with slaves, depictions of plantation life and the dynamics between slave and master. Most authors of travel journals were predominantly from Europe—specifically England—who had the means to travel extensively. Many were highly educated at elite universities and had intimate relationships with American leaders in government. One author even dedicated his book to Thomas Jefferson.[3]

Coming from this educated, enlightened background, most of these writers were vociferous opponents of slavery. If they did not outright petition for the abolishment of slavery, they at least denounced its practice. They often categorized slavery in the southern United States as an evil enterprise that rested on fallacious ideas of African-Americans. These authors believed that slavery remained in perpetuity simply because it kept the Southern economy profitable; however, like de Tocqueville, they felt it could not last for long. Indeed, thirty years prior to de Tocqueville’s journey through America, author Isaac Weld used uncannily similar words as his successor to predict that “there will be and end to slavery in the United States…[as] negroes will not remain deaf to the inviting call of liberty forever.”[4]

            It is no surprise that cosmopolitan, European elites had anti-slavery sympathies around the turn of the eighteenth century. What is more revelatory—and more relevant—are the diverse perspectives travel writers held toward slavery at the time. This paper will examine these various viewpoints of slavery as recounted by writers of travel journals. Furthermore, they will be set against the historiography of slavery in order to decipher their factual validity. In the end, I conclude, these authors of travel journals in the early 1800’s did not intend to embellish or downplay the reality of slavery; most were attempting to be objective and to offer themselves to their readers as impartial observers trying to understand slavery within its context.

            Travel narratives were popular forms of literature even before the American Revolution, but they experienced a surge in publication following the end of the first administration. An overwhelming interest in the political experiment that was the United States spurred this rapid increase in readership. Wanting to understand what made Americans tick, travel writers went out into America to survey the topography of the land, record the intricacies of its economy, and observe the social milieus of the people, all in an effort to discover what differentiated America from other countries.[5]

            It must be said that while travel writing made an attempt to be objective, subjectivity underlay all of its insights. Most authors wrote travel books under the influence of Enlightenment philosophers like the Scottish thinker David Hume, who felt that “the senses alone are not implicitly to be depended on; but we…must correct their evidence by reason.”[6] Authors of travel journals abided by this philosophical conviction almost to the point of faithful devotion: they did not believe that their interpretation of events was the definitive one, but if they saw something, it must indeed be true because they reasoned that their observations were true. As modern research in the field of psychology has proven, this is not always the case.[7] Nonetheless, empiricism was deemed by travel authors to be at the time the most scientific approach one could use in order to arrive at some universal truths.

            Using the method of empirical research, travel writers acted essentially as modern day reporters: they indiscriminately went out into the field of study, conducted interviews, viewed the circumstances which confronted them and weighed them against their subjective interpretation. Their facts were their observations, and their sources were reliable, ipso facto, because they were observed. When they went to the South to uncover the particulars of slavery, this was the mentality travel authors set out with. John Davis exemplified the attitude of colleagues when he wrote in the introduction of his narrative that he had “entered with equal interest the mud hut of the negro, and the log house of the planter.”[8]

            When they directed their attention toward the practice of slavery in the South, writers of travel journals saw a barbaric practice, rooted in and supported by in the avariciousness and pitilessness of Southern plantation owners. Writers of travel journals deplored the fierce hardships that the slaves were forced to undergo. With forcible prose, Thomas Anburey saw that slaves were forced to work all hours of the day with nothing to eat but a lunch that “consists of hominy and salt.”[9] If they refused to work under such harsh conditions, it was expected that they would be whipped or bound. Isaac Weld saw that slaves were neglected in both body and spirit as they were malnourished, given rags to wear as clothing and were publicly humiliated.[10] Charles Janson wrote that slaves in South Carolina labored in rice fields that are “overflowed with stagnant water” and that they “endur[ed] the scorching rays of the sun, in raising tobacco and different kinds of grain” all to preserve the wealth of the very people who enslave them.[11]

            While the work was backbreaking, the living conditions of the slaves were decrepit. Blacks were described by various writers as living in conditions of squalor. Slaves usually lived in quarters that feigned “the appearance of a small village” which were comprised of large, wooden huts.[12] These structures intended to provide shelter for the entire population of slaves. Many took notice of the stark, economic dichotomy between the slave and the master. Some authors had difficulty reconciling the destitution slave quarters when contrasted with the fecundity of the owners’ estates.[13]

            Travel writers blamed the coexistence of the owner and the overseer for this cruel treatment of slaves. The role of the overseer on the plantation was integral to the machinations of the plantation, while the master was the arbiter of plantation rules. The overseer, these authors felt, was the individual who had a greater and more negative impact on slaves.  The overseer was the everyday authority on the plantation; the presence of the owner of the plantation was largely absent from the regular operations of the plantation. The master’s presence was largely symbolic, while the overseer’s was ubiquitous and palpable. Indeed, the “eye is assailed in every direction with the unpleasant sight of…slaves toiling under the harsh commands of the overseer,” wrote Isaac Weld.[14] The overseer was employed under the owner but entirely independent from him; he acted with caprice in dealing with the slaves and appeared not to answer to the owner for his savagery.[15] Overseers were thought to be worse than the owners; they were “unfeeling monsters,” whose rapacious nature knew no bounds since it could be unleashed on the slaves with impunity.[16]

            As a result of what they had seen when traveling through plantations in the South, it reinforced their preexisting ideas regarding slavery, the most conspicuous being that it must be abolished through whatever means. There was simply no logic—no “casuistry” to use one writer’s word—that could permit the ownership of slaves.[17] These writers looked to slaves as human beings who have human qualities and claimed that they should be given the rights that whites had already taken for granted. One writer claimed that since slaves shared the ability to communicate through language, it was obvious that they are “men” and should be free.[18]

            But they took great pains to absolve themselves for slavery’s existence in their time. It was not their contemporaries’ fault that slavery continued in the United States, these authors reasoned; however, they did have a resolute responsibility in ending it. One writer wrote that “the present generation” is not at fault for slavery, but that its must carry out its duty to “mitigate its evils as far as possible.”[19]

            Moreover, although writers of travel journals felt that slavery should be abolished, that did not mean that they felt that blacks were equal to whites, or that they had the mental capabilities and faculties of white Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, many, if not all, harbored virulent stereotypes of blacks—ones that we now recognize today as preposterous. None of the authors of travel journals thought that slaves were, or had the potential to be their intellectual equals. To think such a think would have been a departure from years of intellectual tradition. Just because African Americans were human beings who deserved to live unfettered from oppression, this did not make travel authors adopt the position that blacks were somehow equal to them.

            Indeed, the racism of many authors comes through multiple times in their books. James Kirke Paulding claimed that blacks “seem a gay, harmless, and unthinking race.”[20] Upon encountering an elderly black slave, Paulding reasons that he has witnessed the personification of his stereotype because the man possessed an “unreflecting gayety, which, happily for his race, so generally falls to their portion.”[21]  He thought it was a wonderful sight to see slaves overwhelmingly “jovial and vivacious in a Christian land.”[22] It was frequently felt by authors that blacks “appear jovial, contented and happy,” despite of their hardships.[23] Another writer felt that it “is a fortunate circumstance that they possess and are blessed with such an easy satisfied disposition” otherwise, the writer felt that slaves would inevitably “sink under…misery and wretchedness.”[24]

            These anecdotes reasserted the image of the “happy Sambo” in the American imagination as whites interpreted this behavior amongst African Americans as a sign that slaves acquiesced to their condition; and that the depravity of their bondage was alleviated by their own personal attitudes. Travel writers did not interpret this behavior for what it was: a tool of survival employed by blacks that assuaged whites’ suspicion of slave rebellion: an action that would be punished with whippings, beatings, torture, and possible death.

            But white, travel writers could not understand this. They were blinded to this explanation by their deep-seated racism. The ability to be racist and at the same time anti-slavery, which, according to most contemporary viewpoints, seems contradictory if not irreconcilable, but was nevertheless the attitude of most authors in the early 1800’s. To any historian of the nineteenth century, the mental compartmentalization of slavery and African Americans is no surprise. Nevertheless, it deserves elaboration since this mode of thought played a key role in the intellectual foundation of slavery.

            As modern historians have amply demonstrated, racist portrayals of blacks stemmed from slave owners’ attempt to justify the inequity of slavery. Many historians have developed hypothesis about the origins of black stereotypes and the reason for their recurrence in the lexicon of supporters of slavery. Eugene D. Genovese and Kenneth Stampp have asserted that these stereotypes were a product of the paternalistic relationship between blacks and whites which owners insinuated into the minds of their slaves.[25]  There is some veracity to this argument, as it is certain that racial stereotypes served to protect the hegemony of the master, but this is not the end of the argument. More likely is James Oakes’ theory that racial stereotypes served to keep slaves under “total subordination,” thereby guaranteeing that owners could obtain their comprehensive labor while at the same time preventing dissension.[26]

            The impact of these travel journals on the American reading public is difficult to assess. However, it would be a fair supposition that their publication was minimal on what one historian called “the slaveholding republic.”[27] Since literacy rates were still low at this point, it is unlikely that a wide array of Americans read these books. More likely is that these books gained more of a following in places like London, but that the reading public in America, while ever-growing, was not as significant.  These travel journals did not revolutionize the American outlook towards blacks, nor did they facilitate the demise of slavery.

            What these travel journals demonstrate is the opinion of prominent intellectuals of the day. Since it was these men—and a select group of women—who were responsible for the liberation of slaves in Europe and America, their insights provide an indication as to the direction of the anti-slavery movement. Their books are valuable historical documents that lend insights into the intellectual thought toward slavery at the time. Furthermore, they help contemporary audiences understand the ideological evolution toward thinking about African Americans. Contained within the writings of these authors are the glimpses of our society today. Indeed, the insights of travel narratives in the early nineteenth century continue to be salient, as they allow us to understand why racism in its entirety has yet to be extirpated from the American consciousness.

[1] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America (New York: Penguin Classics edition, 2003), 496.

[2] Ibid., 496.

[3] See, for example the introduction to John Davis, Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; during 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. Dedicated by permission to Thomas Jefferson, Esq. President of the United States. (London: Sold by T. Ostell and T. Hurst, 1803). Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[4] Weld, 94.

[5] Richard Gassan, “The First American Tourist Guidebooks: Authorship and the Print Culture of the 1820s,” Book History 8 (2005): 51-74, http://muse.jhu.edu/

[6] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), 104. For a valuable synthesis of Enlightenment thought see Isaac Kramnick, The Portable Enlightenment Reader (New York: Penguin, 1995).

[7] There has been much research conducted by psychologists in the past fifty years alone that discredits the viability of empiricism as being an accurate method through which to ascertain whether any object or individual presented visually exists in the world objectively, and is in fact real, or in a state that one recognizes to be “real.” The process of seeing an object inherently means interpreting it, these psychologists say, and that is where the problem of empiricism lies: interpretation differs according to how the information is processed. The use of heuristics affect how an observed image will be processed within the brain, where it will be imbued with meaning within the context of its external surroundings.  See the work done by Richard E. Nisbitt and Timothy DeCamp Wilson, “Telling More than we Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes” Psychological Review 84 (1977) 231-259; Ziva Kunda, Social Cognition: Making Sense of People (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999) chapter 3.

[8] John Davis, Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; during 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. Dedicated by permission to Thomas Jefferson, Esq. President of the United States. (London: Sold by T. Ostell and T. Hurst, 1803). Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading Room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[9] Thomas Anburey, Travels through the Interior Parts of America; in a Series of Letters (London: Printed for William Lane, 1791), 296-6. Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading Room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[10] Isaac Weld, Travels through the State of North America, and the provinces of upper and lower Canada, during the years 1795, 1796, and 1797 Vol. II (London: Printed for J. Stockdale, 1800), 149, Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading Room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[11] Charles Janson, Stranger in America: containing observations made during a long residence in that country, on the genius, manners and customs of the people of the United States; with biographical particulars of public characters; hints and facts relative to the arts, sciences, commerce, agriculture, manufactures, emigration, and the slave trade (London: Albion Press, 1807), 373. Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading Room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[12] Anburey, 287.

[13] Weld, 133-140.

[14] Weld, 133.

[15] See Janson, 375.

[16] Anburey, 296

[17] Davis, 85.

[18] Davis, 85.

[19] Paulding, 26.

[20] James Kirke Paulding, Paulding, Letters from the South, written during an excursion in the

Summer of 1816 (New York: James Eastburn & Co., 1817), 118, Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th-Century Reading Room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.

[21] Ibid., 24.

[22] Paulding, 120.

[23] Anburey, 298.

[24] Ibid., 296.

[25] Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. (New York: Vintage 1976), 323; Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery and the Antebellum South (New York, Vintage, 1989), 322-323.

[26] James Oakes, Slavery and Freedom (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1990), 145.

[27] Don Edward Feherenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).




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Filed under 1790's, 1800's, Early Republic, Essay Contest, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Slavery, Travel Literature

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