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This module considers strategies for teaching George Dunham's travel journal A Journey to Brazil in conjunction with U.S. anti-slavery literature.

Slavery, violence, and exploitation in 19th-century u.s. literature

As sectional tensions within the U.S. escalated toward civil war, African slavery became an increasingly important point of focus for literary texts of the antebellum period. Anti-slavery ideologies feature prominently in works by several canonical authors of the time, including essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Fugitive Slave Law,” (1851) and Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience,” (1849) as well as Herman Melville’s renowned novella, "Benito Cereno" (1856). Though a long-standing genre throughout the Americas, the slave narrative reached its peak of popularity during the ten years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, its most famous iterations now being Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). And the most popular U.S. novel of the entire nineteenth century was, of course, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). This brief catalogue does not even begin to account for the plethora of pro-slavery texts that appeared in the years following the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin , often referred to as “anti-Tom novels.” Some notable examples of these anti-Tom novels include The Planter’s Northern Bride (1854) by Caroline Lee Hentz and The Free Flag of Cuba (1854) by Lucy Holcombe Pickens. Even as these works waged a fierce ideological battle, they shared a common underlying goal in purporting to depict the realities of the slave system in America. While anti-slavery texts highlighted the violence and degradation experienced by slaves within the South, pro-slavery writers countered with images of loyal and happy slaves who depended upon their owners for their own well-being and protection. These debates were no doubt at the front of George Dunham’s mind as he recorded his observations of the Brazilian slave system and its everyday operations.

Positioning Dunham’s experiences with Brazilian slavery in his A Journey to Brazil (1853) - which is held at Rice University's Woodson Research Center as part of the larger ‘Our Americas’ Archive Partnership - among the aforementioned masterworks of U.S. slavery literature offers a host of pedagogical opportunities. That being said, attempting to deduce, from his journal, Dunham’s political views on slavery poses its own set of difficulties. He has been invited by a group of plantation owners to help modernize their operations through an infusion of new technologies and techniques, so he has ample opportunity to witness the treatment of slaves on the plantations. Quite purposefully, it would seem, he sprinkles several instances throughout his writings of violence committed against slaves, always cast in a negative and disapproving light. Early in the journal he writes, “saw the first Negro whipped to day and hope it will be the last” (see Figure 1 [a]). Having spent more time working and living in Brazil, he begins to go into slightly greater detail concerning these outbursts of violence, taking on a somewhat more questioning and critical tone: “There was a Negro woman taken into the building and whipped today I don’t know what for and it will do no good to ask for it is by chance if I could find out and it is no use to say anything here for it would only make a bad matter worse” (see Figure 1 [b]).

Questions & Answers

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