White on “Listening to the Enslaved” | openDemocracy

Sophie White on slave testimony and engaging the archive:

“Indeed, far from seeing a court appearance as exclusively antagonistic, the enslaved sometimes seized the opportunity to testify. When they did so, they tended to move past the specifics of the court case. The importance of this archive therefore lies not in its presentation of factual evidence: what happened, when, where, and to whom, or in documenting slaves’ strategies for giving certain answers. Instead, the value becomes apparent when slaves veered from the questioning to introduce new topics that privileged their concerns and foregrounded their own viewpoints, not those of their interrogators. In the process, these enslaved individuals produced an extraordinary corpus of autobiographical narratives that we can draw on to understand how they sought to convey their perspectives and their sense of self.


“For example, in the 1753 prosecution of a soldier accused of committing bestiality with a mare, the sole eyewitness was the slave François, who had stumbled upon the soldier in the stables. It is here, in this highly unusual court case, that François gives us a very immediate and profound sense of his worldview. In his testimony, François repeatedly sought to convey his disgust at what he characterised as an unnatural and criminal act. He informed the court that he had recounted what he had witnessed to a whole series of colonists, starting with a bystander, then his master, then the soldier’s friends (they all corroborated this). He then claimed that the soldier had tried to buy his silence, a bribe which he stated he had resisted. He finished by declaring that when he saw the soldier in the act “he wanted at first to throw himself” on the soldier, and that “if [the accused] had been a slave, he would have stopped him…”

Read the rest: Listening to the enslaved | openDemocracy

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