We met with a great deal of ill treatment after this, and found it very difficult to live—We could scarcely get work to do, and were obliged to pawn out cloaths. We were ready to sink under our troubles. (33)
The first in the series of ten slave narratives collected by the Library of America is the 1772 pamphlet Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw. This was the first slave narrative published in English. What first strikes us is that this small book was presented to the public as a story of religious awakening and not as an anti-slavery tract. The sufferings that Gronniosaw endured (at least from the perspective of the publishers) existed only to clarify the religious transformation of being lifted out of the darkness of idolatry and superstition in Africa into Christianity. This is, anyway, the point of view offered up in the preface by a Walter Shirley.
In what Manner will God deal with those benighted Parts of the World where the Gospel of Jesus Christ hath never reach’d? Now it appears from the Experience of this remarkable Person, that God does not save without the Knowledge of the Truth; but, with Respect to those who hath fore-known, though born under every outward Disadvantage, and in Regions of the grosses Darkness and Ignorance. (3)
That is the opinion of the editor, and as far as we believe the text this is shared by Gronniosaw, who starts the narrative not with his captivity but his feelings that the traditional religious beliefs that he was born with were misguided.
Gronniosaw is a fully Atlantic figure, having been born in Africa, working as a slave in Barbados and New York, working as a sailor, and finally settling in England. He was a working class figure, often struggling to survive and constantly looking for work to support his family. It seems that his story was told orally to several people, including Calvinist ministers in Holland. It comes to us as an oral tradition. The full title specified “related by himself,” whereas other slave narrative often clarified “written by himself/herself” (Douglass, Bibb, Jacobs). Despite this, Gronniosaw was literate. Like Equiano we see claims of being an African Prince before being sold into slavery. As doubts have been cast on Equiano’s past we may doubt these as well, but Gronniosaw was slightly older when taken into slavery and may have had more accurate memories of Africa.
According to the narrative, Gronniosaw was the grandson of a king around Lake Chad. A Dutch trader visited the area and he was invited to see the Gold Coast. He was eager to see ships (floating cities with wings) and the vibrant commercial environment on the coast. While he was there, he was taken for a spy and sentence to death, which was late commuted to enslavement. As a slave, Gronniosaw was sold in Barbados and brought to New York. He was later sold to a Dutch minister, who freed Gronniosaw at his death, although he continued to serve the family. It is at this point, so to speak, that his troubles begin. It is important to notice that Gronniosaw says nothing against slavery or expresses much regret at his circumstances as a slave. His post-enslavement poverty is more troubling and presented as more of a spiritual test than slavery.
One approach to this slave narrative is to stress the importance of slavery in the exploitation of working people in the Atlantic without forgetting that exploitation was broad for many different social groups. Insurgent capitalism imposed horrendous work regimes, terrible poverty, and desperation on free and enslaved alike. That Gronniosaw experienced the worst of this as a free man may be outside of the norm with most slaves being worked to death in Caribbean plantations, yet it does speak to the broader experience of working class oppression.
Another approach is to read the narrative in line with Mary Rowlandson’s account of her captivity among Indians during Metacom’s War. In both of these works suffering, the death of loved ones, and huger are presented as the will of God and a lesson speaking to God’s goodness and his ultimate plan. “The boundless goodness of GOD to me has been so very great, that with the most humble gratitude I desire to prostrate myself before Him; for I have been wonderfully supported in every affliction. My GOD never left me. I perceived light still through the thickest darkness.” (29) Even the death of his child and the constant struggle for basic survival is presented with thanks to God. At one point he expresses more hostility to the idea of his wife working on the Sabbath than the economic exploitation that formed the narrative of his life.
Gronniosaw’s experiences on a privateer after the end of his enslavement is interesting. It does cause us to question the belief (common among some leftist maritime historians) that the ship was a space of solidarity for a transnational working class. He speaks more of persecution by fellow sailors during his time on the privateer than he does about either of his masters or the early capitalist system that was consuming most of his working life.
Gronniosaw likely wanted his reader to see his life as a morality tale narrating the spiritual darkness of his birth and his coming to know Christ. Slavery is merely a background to the story, only covering a handful of pages (7 out of the 30 pages that make up the narrative). In this sense, it is a far cry from the abolitionist narratives of the nineteenth century. More importantly it is very different from the work by the politically conscious Olaudah Equiano, whose narrative was clearly an ant-slavery tract.