Going Viral: Stedman’s Narrative, Textual Variation, and Life in Atlantic Studies

Going Viral: Stedman’s Narrative, Textual Variation, and Life in Atlantic Studies

Romantic Circles Praxis Series
Circulations: Romanticism and the Black Atlantic
October 2011
47 paragraphs

Dustin Kennedy
English Department
The Pennsylvania State University

The current multiplex configuration of Stedman’s Narrative emerged in 1988, the result of Richard and Sally Price’s new scholarly edition. The Prices’ text transcribed Stedman’s 1790 manuscript version aiming to restore his original authorial intent and exposing the extent to which the text had been altered by Stedman’s first editor, Joseph Johnson. Both versions of the Narrative are troubled by what they cannot contain, whether it be the sexual exploitation made possible by plantation-slavery, or the inter-racial desire that would eventually mark Stedman’s Narrative as a singular example of resistance to the exploitations inherent in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. Stedman was more than a traveler in Surinam, and he was also more than a colonial agent and oppressor. The Narrative can be read as the outgrowth of social subjectivity categories that typify the operation of the larger plantation slavery system in the West Indies and South America, but it must also be recognized in its particularity. In the following sections, I will consider what happens when Stedman’s authorship becomes displaced in the larger archive – how critics rewrite what they read, how an author becomes a character, and above all else, how textual changes challenge criticism’s reduction of Stedman to imperialist.

John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) is a very complicated text. It tells the story of an officer in the Scots Brigade deployed in 1772 to the Dutch-controlled colony of Surinam to suppress an armed black revolt against plantation slavery. It also exposes the cruelty of both slavery and military authority, while providing a rare account of a wide spectrum of colonial society. It takes advantage of Stedman’s role as a colonial authority, writing from the privileged perspective of the colonial gaze, but it also challenges many assumptions and prejudices natural to the colonizer’s world view. Stedman’s Narrative is gaining importance in Atlantic Studies, because it both reflects the larger experience of circum-Atlantic circulation in the Age of Revolution and provides a unique perspective that differs from other primary material from the period. It should be possible to differentiate between what is typical of society and what is particular to an individual’s perspective in Stedman’s Narrative, right? There is just one problem: there is more than one Stedman’s Narrative.

Today’s reader is in a position to understand the role that variation plays in the construction and interpretation of Stedman’s Narrative. Contemporary culture is comfortable with the idea of media going “viral,” taking on a life of its own as it is experienced and altered by users on the net. Likewise, a type of reading that is attentive to reference and mutation is necessary for Stedman’s Narrative because of the proliferation of versions that have emerged over the more than two-hundred year history of its publication legacy…

…Stedman altered the conventions of British society both in his daily life and in his public writings by incorporating new experiences of eighteenth-century life within the familiar narratives. Following his return to Europe, Stedman produced his Narrative for print while keeping a journal that records his exceptional family’s experience in British society. In order to make sense of his time in Surinam, Stedman drew from literary conventions, characters, and narratives to tell his story. His private writings from the same period record his mixed-race, mixed-nationality household from the domestic perspective, depicting both the strained relationship between Stedman’s Dutch wife, Adrianna, and Johnny, as well as Stedman’s emphatic inclusion of Johnny within traditional familial relationships. If Stedman “re-wrote” his and Joanna’s relationship into the normative codes of domesticity, then his journalistic evidence of an analogous effort to establish Johnny socially within the codes of relation and inheritance tempers the critical assumption that such re-writing is necessarily aligned with a system of colonial domination..Stedman’s readiness to bend the normative forces of domesticity to include the potential for legitimized inter-racial relationships is a radically destabilizing social scenario. While the racial power dynamics of plantation slavery made Joanna sexually available to Stedman in Surinam, his continual effort to endow their relationship with consent and love in his writings generated cultural tension by denying Joanna’s reduction to a sexual commodity. Stedman’s “cleaning up” of the sexual relations in the colonial system by scripting them within the codes of the British middle class family is then both at once a problematic erasure of colonial power and a powerful challenge of the homogenous constitution of British society. Stedman’s re-writing of Joanna denies her reduction to a sexual commodity, implicitly denying his own association as a white male consumer of subjugated women. The mitigating quality of this particular recorded relationship is that the denial does not transpire in silence as so many others did.

At the end the five years expedition, Stedman left Joanna and Johnny in Surinam to return to Europe. In the Narrative, Joanna is depicted as having the agency to decide not to return with Stedman “first from a Consciousness that with propriety she had not the disposal of herself – & Secondly from pride, wishing in her Present Condition Rather to be one of the first amongst her own Class in America, than as she was well Convinced to be the last in Europe at least till such time as fortune should enable me to establish her above dependance” (1988, 603). The only record of Joanna’s choice is inundated with Stedman’s narrative authority, and in itself is at best a compromised version of what grounds their domestic relationship may have entailed. Joanna’s choice in this moment signals a much wider comprehension of what her and Stedman’s relationship would mean in the wider context of colonization, rather than being limited to the local plantation society. When the Narrative gives Joanna agency, however, it exonerates Stedman of not only his role as a colonial exploiter of women (Joanna’s choice of separation is made on other grounds), but also his abandonment. If the Stedman Archive was limited to the core texts, it would be difficult to argue that Stedman has been judged unfairly as a practitioner of the colonial romance and the mystification that authorship has the power to produce over any scene. By reading this moment in the Narrative against the wider collection of journals and textual variation in the archive, it becomes clear that their domestic relationship remained in place even while they were separated by vast geographic distance. Following Joanna’s death three years later (reputedly by poisoning), Johnny, who had been manumitted before Stedman’s return, traveled to Europe to live with his father. The Stedman family in Europe was then composed of Stedman, his Dutch wife Adrianna (whom he married while Joanna was yet alive), and Johnny…

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