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The Grateful Slave : The Emergence of Race

in Eighteenth-Century British and American Culture


George Boulukos.


Cambridge : University Press, 2008. Hardback. viii + 280 p., ill.

£52.00 / $93.00. ISBN: 052188571X ; ISBN: 9780521885713


Reviewed by Marie-Jeanne Rossignol

Université Denis-Diderot, Paris VII


Boulukos contends that the trope of the grateful slave, as exemplified mainly in fiction and other prose works in the eighteenth century, was a key element in the production of a theory of human difference, and racial inferiority, at the end of the century. Thus sentiment paradoxically worked against the slaves, suggesting that through an amelioration of their fate, they could be reconciled with slavery. Boulukos openly challenges such scholarly luminaries as Winthrop Jordan and David Brion Davis on this point, and their conviction that racial prejudice originated in the first contacts between whites and blacks, long before the development of slavery in the Americas. However he also dissociates himself from Eric Williams, who believed that the institution of slavery had led to racial thinking and discrimination.

The first chapter examines ‘the prehistory of the grateful slave’ in texts from the late seventeenth century to the early eighteenth century, such as Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688), Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1718) and Captain Singleton (1720). When Africans were criticized in travel narratives, this was part of a xenophobia that applied to other foreign people: ‘(…) colonists (…) justified white supremacy and dehumanization to themselves in material, rather than philosophical, terms’, Boulukos writes [61]. Yet the English felt the need to dissociate themselves from the colonial violence they knew existed, thus paving the way for the rise of the ‘grateful slave’ trope.

Chapter 2 studies ‘the origin of the grateful slave’ in Defoe’s Colonel Jack (1722), in which slaves are expected to express their gratitude to their master merely for refraining from beating them. But the English servants in the novel are not held to the same standard, which thus prophetically hints at a difference. Only in the second half of the eighteenth century did racial difference emerge in the slavery debate and the novel, Boulukos explains in the third chapter. Starting in the late seventeenth century, British colonies in North America had institutionalized ‘white supremacy and racialized slavery’ [98], yet that did not mean an intellectual rationale for such racial exploitation had been elaborated: the most brutal slave-owners could justify their practices by referring to the state of war they and their slaves were involved in. They did not need to argue for the inferiority of the slaves. At the time of the Somerset case in 1772, even pro-slavery pamphleteers believed in the essential humanity of slaves, yet the first openly racist views of Africans were then being (privately) voiced by Edward Long. But more influential in the evolution of racial thinking was the publication of sentimental novels which expressed a paternalistic belief in the possibility of better slave management. Thus ‘sentimental depictions of slave reform loudly insist that they are recognizing African humanity, but in fact they are carefully circumscribing it’ [138].

In chapter 4, Boulukos declares that the 1780s was a transition decade in which racial difference was further elaborated on by Raynal and Jefferson, while other participants in the antislavery debate such as James Ramsay still opposed the idea yet believed slavery had made Africans ‘unfit for independent life’ [168]. The views of black Atlantic writers of the end of the eighteenth century (Sancho, Cugoano, Equiano), radically questioning the trope of the grateful slave, are examined next in chapter 5. Equiano denounced British colonists who could both ‘consciously recognize the humanity and capacity of blacks but nonetheless conspire to support white supremacy for material benefits’ [185]. By the 1790s however the rise of the campaign to end the slave trade in Britain led to an insistence on the amelioration, not the eradication, of slavery, and to the emergence of the ideas of essential racial difference and slave gratitude [chapter 6]. Boulukos convincingly connects these trends with the later pro-slavery plantation fiction in the South of the United States.

Fifteen years in the making, this essay on the complex connection between sentiment and slavery in the Anglo-American world is thorough and stimulating. It brings together literary history and intellectual history with a broad grounding in all the other relevant historiographies (history of slavery and abolition, history of visual representations, philosophy and cultural studies). Boulukos’s thesis is very clear, well-argued and based on a large body of sources, from anti- or pro-slavery essays to novels. His own writing is dense but devoid of jargon. Although some social historians may be tempted to dismiss Boulukos’s argument as insufficiently based on the racial realities of slavery on farms and plantations, and on the slave codes of British colonial America, yet it helps the reader understand how a massively antislavery eighteenth-century public opinion could gradually rally around notions of  racial difference in the early nineteenth century, both in Britain and the United States.






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