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A Colorado State University faculty member is poring over 18th-century newspapers for a book and online repository focused on accounts of slavery from colonial America.
Buoyed by an eight-month, $33,600 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Assistant Professor Zach Hutchins of CSU’s Department of English plans to read 1,500 issues of newspapers published between 1704 and 1760. He’s already read approximately 4,500 issues — and completed all but two chapters of a book about representations of slavery found in articles and advertisements.
Hutchins became interested in the topic while completing his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and working as an editor at its Center for Documenting the American South. After contributing to the NEH-funded North American Slave Narratives project at UNC, he saw firsthand the reactions of individuals grateful for the effort, a collection of every autobiographical slave narrative ever published in English.
“I gained an appreciation for how sharing these accounts could have a meaningful effect on people’s lives,” said Hutchins, whose first book was about religion in colonial New England.
The next logical step, he said, was to look at what preceded a 1760 account by Briton Hammon that is widely regarded as the first autobiographical slave narrative. One of the most striking things he’s found so far in the early newspapers is that African-American slaves and their masters were quite knowledgeable about global politics and thought about how an individual’s experience of slavery could affect international relations.
“Enslaved people wanted to help sway those outcomes if they could,” Hutchins said, citing slaves’ refusal to give up arms after a skirmish with French troops, lest their English masters surrender to the French (an outcome that would have meant worse conditions for the slaves). “The new thing, from my perspective, is that individual slaves and masters alike saw themselves as participating in global networks, helping to shape international relations.”
Another revelation he’s uncovered: Samuel Sewall, who is widely considered the first American abolitionist, actually sold more than a dozen slaves over the 25 years that followed the publication of his anti-slavery essay The Selling of Joseph in 1700.
“Sewall was an active participant in the system he was purportedly trying to bring down,” Hutchins said. “He continued placing advertisements for slaves in the newspaper.”
One of the two book chapters remaining to be written will be about Sewall and the slaves he sold; the other will focus on celebrity newspaper coverage of Africans who were enslaved but subsequently freed when it was discovered that they were royalty in their native lands. Hutchins’ book, which he expects to complete by next August, will be titled Before Equiano: Newspaper Reading and Early American Narratives of Slavery.
Among the other stories he is chronicling in his book is the tale of Daniel, an enslaved shipwright who ran away from his masters four times, stowing away on the ships he built — ships that encountered pirates and transported human cargo in the Caribbean. During Hutchins’ research, he made the unsettling discovery that one of Daniel’s owners was John Scott, one of Hutchins’ ancestors.
“It was a real wake-up call, the reality that my position of privilege is a result of wealth and social prestige passed down through the generations from the slave trade,” he said. “I hope, in some small part, that the work I do with this grant will restore a knowledge of the lives damaged or lost because of Scott’s actions, even if it’s just a tiny fraction of what Daniel and others suffered.”
Virtually all of the newspaper accounts he’s reviewed were written by white men and reflect the biases of the time.
“So even when the enslaved are praised, those moments suggest the privilege of the praiser,” Hutchins said. “These accounts are clearly written through the lens of white observers.”
The vast majority of newspapers he’s reading have been scanned, but their quality is often too low to be searched using optical character recognition, so he’s had to do a lot of transcribing in preparation for the work of converting the accounts to XML files for his searchable database.
“I want to facilitate access to the best surviving records of the collective experience of slavery,” Hutchins said. “I hope it gives descendants of the enslaved a better understanding of their own past. And those who, like me, didn’t feel connected to slavery in a personal way might reconsider. Slavery affected almost every aspect of colonial American life, and I suspect that most white Americans would find a ‘slaveholder-in-the-attic’ if they were to look closely at their family tree.”
Hutchins is one of only about a dozen CSU faculty who have received this type of NEH funding since 1972, according to the organization’s database.
“I think the reason the NEH was excited about this project is that these are resources that are vastly underused,” he said, explaining that people relied primarily on newspapers for information and entertainment during the 18th century, not the books we now hold up as classics. And the papers were even an important source for those who were illiterate, as they were often read aloud in public spaces.
“Colonial newspapers helped shape the public’s understanding of important social issues, like slavery,” Hutchins said, “and this project will restore an awareness of their centrality in our effort to understand what enslaved Americans experienced during the colonial period.”