Terri Snyder is Professor of American Studies at California State University at Fullerton who specializes in slavery and gender. She received her PhD in 1992 from the University of Iowa. In 2003, Cornell University Press published her first book, Brabbling Women: Disordered Speech and Law in Early Virginia. The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British America is her second book.
JUNTO: Can you tell us a little about how you came to work on this project?
SNYDER: For my first book, I was researching county court records from seventeenth-century Virginia and came across a spate of suicides by young, mostly male, English indentured servants. I tried to trace their origins and backgrounds, but I mostly came up blank. Their deaths stayed with me, however. I started collecting any references to suicide that I came across in legal and legislative records, newspapers and periodicals, and diaries and letters. I initially imagined a study that ranged across the multiple populations (Native, African, European) of early North America. Ultimately, I focused on the suicides of enslaved men and women because their deaths carried larger political, social, and cultural meanings in the context of slavery, and, in particular, exposed the institution’s paradoxes and contradictions. In addition, by the era of the American Revolution, accounts of slave suicide were used to attack the injustice and inhumanity of slavery. Given what I had uncovered about the visibility, meanings, and politics of self-destruction, I felt that the history of slavery and suicide needed to be written.
JUNTO: There have been a couple of great books in recent years about slavery and the regulation of enslaved bodies. Jennifer Morgan’s book, Laboring Women, discussed enslaved women and control over reproduction and labor. Vincent Brown’s book, The Reaper’s Garden discusses what he calls “mortuary politics,” and questions of agency and power in death. Brown’s book seems to have been particularly influential for you. What, to your mind, is the most important thing that slave suicides, and the public reaction thereto, can tell us about the control of enslaved bodies?
SNYDER: In the context of slavery, death by suicide was often construed as a politically powerful act. Regardless of what enslaved women and men intended, their acts of self-destruction sent the very visceral message that their enslavers did not fully control enslaved bodies. The power of the slave suicide can be gauged, in part, from the reactions of enslavers. On the Middle Passage, suicide destabilized shipboard order; crews used netting to restrain captives from jumping overboard and force fed those who refused food, water, and medicine. When these prevention mechanisms failed, some captains desecrated the corpses of suicides or fed them to the sharks that followed the ships. In North American slave societies, well into the antebellum era, the corpses of enslaved men and women who died by suicide continued to be physically desecrated — decapitated, dismembered, or left to rot in gibbets or on riverbanks – as a warning to other members of the slave community. While it is true that early modern European penalties for suicide could include post-mortem desecration, these practices were used to defile the corpses of enslaved people long after they had been abandoned for those who were free. Desecration practices mimicked early modern penalties for treason precisely because slave suicides were understood to be political violations of enslavers’ authority.
Public reactions to slave suicide also varied. In newspapers, periodicals, novels, and plays, for instance, suicide, particularly when undertaken by enslaved men, was depicted as a courageous and honorable act. In effect, some texts outwardly admired slaves for choosing the liberty of death over the tyranny of enslavement. And, of course, the reactions of enslaved men and women to suicide differed from those of the enslavers. African American abolitionists and ex-slaves do not routinely condemn suicide and in WPA interviews of ex-slaves and their children conducted in the 1930s, at least some informants discussed enslaved people’s suicides as a victory over owners, overseers, and patrollers.
Suicide by enslaved men and woman could also publicly expose the contradictions of slavery. Although in British North American law slaves were defined as property with, in theory, no legal standing as persons, their acts of self-destruction were visible and powerful statements of personhood. Their deaths by suicide shockingly challenged the legal fiction of human commodification. That contradiction was evident not only on slave ships and plantations, but also in newspapers, on the stage, and in literature. The earliest antislavery activists recognized the political implications of this paradox, and that is why they used accounts of self-destruction to protest the immorality of slavery. The title of my book is taken from one of the earliest printed examples of this genre, first published in 1773.
JUNTO: You discuss the development of both European and African ideas about “good death” and “bad death,” and specifically how in some African cultures, suicide was more culturally acceptable as a “good death.” At one point, citing Michael Gomez, you note that for some West Africans, suicide could be a “conduit for ancestral reunion.” (29) Can you tell us more?
SNYDER: For many early modern West and West Central Africans, such as the Igbo, suicide was an extraordinary legal and spiritual transgression, much as it was viewed in Europe. Michael Gomez’s point is that the accelerating scale of the slave trade to the Americas changed the ways in which the Igbo and other African societies regarded self-inflicted death. In the context of slavery, suicide became more plausible and acceptable. And death – even by suicide – brought the possibility of rebirth and transcendence. The soul might return to Africa, transmigrating to homelands, rejoining ancestors, or experiencing spiritual rebirth into families. The emphasis on reunion and rebirth can be seen in the flying African folklore recounted in the interviews of ex-slaves. The folklore is based on a collective suicide of newly imported slaves that occurred on Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina in 1803; rather than suicide, some informants reported that the captive Africans dropped their hoes in the fields and flew home to Africa. Thus, the ex-slaves’ had their own, powerful explanations of slave suicide, ones countered the views of the enslavers. Modern African-descended artists have also considered these themes of flight and transcendence in relationship to slavery. Two examples would be Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) and the image by Manuel Mendive, The Slave Ship (1976), used as the cover of my book. For many viewers, this painting will call to mind the famous antislavery illustration of the slave ship Brooks (1788) because Mendive similarly focuses our attention on the hold of a slave ship. In his depiction, however, many captive figures engage the viewer’s gaze; they are positioned in various states — some lying down, some rising up — and are caught in the crossroads between death and life. Below the bow of the ship, a figure is going overboard into the sea, perhaps a suicide. At the stern, fish leap out of the ocean and, along with other marine forms, ascend toward a hovering figure in the upper reaches of the sky. Death may lead, but transformation and rebirth follow.
JUNTO: How did those involved in the slave trade (including plantation masters) respond to slave suicides? Did you find any variance according to location, such as ship versus plantation? Or, West Indies versus the Carolinas?
SNYDER: Slave suicide was punished through violent, corporal measures that were intended to terrorize other enslaved people on ships and plantations. As I mentioned, some ship captains ordered the corpses of suicides to be fed to the sharks. Other enslavers decapitated suicides – or ordered other slaves to do so – and declared that the dismembered corpse could not spiritually rejoin their ancestors. No evidence suggests that the enslaved people who were compelled to watch these grisly scenes absorbed or believed this message.
Another form of continuity between ships and plantations was the drive for enslavers to disarticulate enslaved people’s suicides from the processes and institutions of enslavement. In other words, enslavers attributed suicide to African ethnicities, temperament, and fears, rather than to the forcible enslavement of women and men. And, yes, surviving evidence suggests that slave suicide varied by location and region. High mortality rates seem to have fostered suicide aboard ships as well as in regions, like the Caribbean sugar colonies, where large numbers of enslaved people perished within the first year of their importation. It is important to note, however, that an eighteenth-century parliamentary investigation into the slave trade to the British West Indies directly queried multiple witnesses about slave suicide; no equivalent for their testimony exists for the slave societies of North America.
JUNTO: What did slave suicides mean for antislavery politics?
SNYDER: There is a direct link between the suicides of enslaved people and the earliest antislavery activism. In 1773, for instance, a report of slave suicide was printed in the London papers; it later found its way into colonial newssheets as well. The account featured the story of an unnamed enslaved man who was brought to London and escaped his owner. He was baptized and intended to marry his betrothed, a white servant, when he was captured and confined to a ship on the Thames. Awaiting return to the West Indies, he shot himself. In response to the newspaper story, two lawyers penned The Dying Negro, one of the earliest literary attacks on slavery, and it became popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Later, in the antebellum era, with the emergence of ex-slaves narratives, we have more sustained accounts of suicide that were observed by enslaved people. In these, enslaved men and women reveal their own self-destructive thoughts and recount the suicides of other enslaved people. This changes the perception and meaning of suicide in slavery. In earlier examples of antislavery poetics, like The Dying Negro, free sympathetic onlookers provided accounts of slave suicides. While the death of the protagonist was represented as a tragic and morally defensible response to slavery, it also foreclosed the possibility of freedom. In contrast, the framework of the slave narrative allowed protagonists to disclose their own suicidal thoughts and divulge acts of self-destruction by other members of the slave community. Suicide continues to measure the harms of slavery — rape, forcible sale and separation of families, brutal punishments, and violent labor regimes — but the survival of the narrator also allows for the possibility of freedom, the prospect of citizenship, and the hope of domestic stability.
JUNTO: What do you see as the most significant challenges you encountered while researching and writing this book?
SNYDER: Any historian of slavery has to reckon with the dearth of evidence from enslaved people themselves, particularly for period before the formation of the United States. Moreover, because suicide by slaves reflected badly on the reputations of their enslavers, the latter sometimes concealed or suppressed information about its incidence. For instance, some news reports and legal suits laid the blame for suicide on intemperate masters or overseers; one slave reported that his master admonished him to never speak of a suicide; and a planter from eighteenth-century Virginia claimed that he had never heard of a single instance of slave suicide. In addition, surviving documents underestimate the prevalence of suicide in slavery. Nothing required most colonial officials or slave owners to account for the deaths of enslaved people, although the latter did so in certain circumstances, for instance, if enslaved people died after allegedly committing crimes or were insured, mortgaged, or under warranty. In these cases, slaveowners might be compensated for the self-inflicted deaths of their enslaved people, so surviving legislative petitions, legal suits, and coroner’s reports provide evidence of those suicides. Obviously, these sources must be used with caution. But before the publication of slave narratives in the nineteenth century, however, the sources described above and others — those from captains, surgeons, traders, and owners — are useful in investigating suicide by enslaved people, as long as they are read in light of their limitations.
JUNTO: What are you working on next?
SNYDER: I have several things in the mix. I am researching a project on freedom suits in the colonies before the Imperial Crisis and trying to trace the origins and traditions of free black legal activism in the courts well before the wave of freedom suits that follow the American Revolution. I am also working on a biography of an early American family. The study begins on the eastern shore of Virginia in 1703, with the marriage of a free woman of color to an enslaved man. The couple had seven children, and my book follows the life stories of those children as they and their descendants mature and migrate across and beyond the Atlantic seaboard. I am particularly interested in using this family history to understand the changing experience of race, law, and freedom in early America.