The name John Gabriel Stedman may not mean a lot to a lot of people today, but the memoir he wrote and the images that were produced from his drawings for his book still influence how we envision slavery today. Read more about Stedman's legacy and Suriname.
Captain Stedman set sail from the Netherlands for Suriname in December 1772. He was one of 800 soldiers sent to the tropical Dutch colony to help the local troops fight against Maroons, the name given to enslaved who'd escaped into the jungle and formed their own communities. Although he was an experienced soldier, he didn't seem ready for what he was about to experience during four years in a harsh climate with a hard job, while witnessing and being a party to one of the most brutal systems of slavery in the Americas.
Stedman's mission was to fight the Saamaka and Njuka maroon communities living in the interior of Suriname. Along the rivers closer to the city of Paramaribo, plantations growing sugar and coffee were forced labor camps with seventeen times the number of enslaved people working on them compared to plantations in Virginia around the same time. According to Suriname expert and anthropologist Richard Price, at the time that Stedman was in Suriname, about 70% of the Surinamese population was born in Africa. The enslaved were brutalized --something Stedman wrote about in his diary and later in his memoir-- and for the plantation owners, the death of an enslaved person simply meant buying someone as a replacement. The Maroons not only escaped themselves, but often attacked plantations in hopes of freeing more people from bondage.
Stedman's memoir is partially about his time in the city of Paramaribo, but also his troops' movements in the jungles. The Europeans were totally unprepared for the interior of Suriname: the insects, the wet climate, and the dense vegetation. Stedman and others relied on slave labor as they travelled and fought the Maroons.
Stedman was not the first European, and definitely not the last, to write about his trip to the Americas and observations of slave society. However, as Richard and Sally Price point out in their edition of Stedman's Narrative (which is more like his diary than the published book-- read my article on OZY for more on that), his book was "one of the most detailed “outsider’s” descriptions ever written of life in an eighteenth century slave plantation society." The memoir became a best-seller and was translated into many languages.
He detailed troop movements, but also observed the lives of the enslaved in Suriname. In his diary, he commented on, described, and even drew the torture of enslaved Africans. He noted that even though so many enslaved Africans arrive in Suriname each year, the population isn't growing. And if the population isn't growing, it shows how many people are allowed to die, are killed, or commit suicide (which he also describes). He writes, “Thus in twenty years, two millions of people are murdered to provide us with coffee and sugar.” It's almost a little too matter-of-fact. And he was not against slavery; he was not against coffee and sugar at cheap prices. He simply believed that the enslaved should just be treated better.
One of the most interesting story lines in Stedman's memoir is his relationship with an enslaved woman named Joanna. He fell in love with her, and she saved his life by caring for him when he's ill. He admitted it was a mistake to fall in love with a woman who literally belongs to someone else. He did marry her in a so-called Suriname marriage: a marriage between a white man and an enslaved or free woman of color that wasn't considered 'until death do us part,' but instead just until the European man departed Suriname. He also impregnated her, and then had to contend with the fact that the woman he was "married" to and his son were both enslaved. He managed to buy them from their owner and free them, but he claimed that Joanna wanted to stay in Suriname to work off her debt. When she died, she did send their son John to live with Stedman in Europe.
Another impact of Stedman's memoir were his drawings of slavery. He made watercolors and sketches in-country, and his illustrations were turned into engravings for the memoir. Master engraver William Blake did some of the most well-known images in the book. But Stedman also complained about journeymen engravers who did some of the other works. Although he wasn't a great artist, the Prices point out that Stedman's works, "do attest that his own work was ethnographically careful and accurate—considerably more so than many of the engravings modeled after it." Most notably for me are the engravings of instruments. Since Stedman collected a banjo called the Creole Bania and included an engraving (the original drawing is lost) in his memoir, we can see how much cruder those engravings were from the real objects.
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