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This module suggests strategies for incorporating George Dunham's nineteenth-century travel journal, A Journey to Brazil, into literature and history classrooms engaged with the topics of slavery and slave revolt.

Slavery, resistance, and rebellion across the americas

The history of African slavery in the Americas is deeply intertwined with a correspondent history of conspiracy, resistance, and insurrection among the enslaved population. Though not the earliest of these revolts, the Haitian Revolution stands as both the most successful and arguably the most significant one. A series of violent confrontations that lasted over a decade and that involved at various points Saint Domingue’s enslaved, mixed race, and Creole populations as well as French, Spanish, and British colonial forces, the revolution saw the emancipation of the island’s slaves as well as the establishment of an independent Haitian republic in 1804. Therefore, this monumental event proved to be not only the first and last triumphant slave revolt in the western hemisphere, it also turned into the second successful anti-colonial movement within the Americas, after that of the United States. The Haitian Revolution’s larger significance can be measured by its impact on other countries and colonial spaces throughout the Americas. Many of these locales, including the United States as well as British and Spanish colonial holdings in the Caribbean, restricted trade with the new island nation out of fear that Haiti’s revolutionary heritage would spread, causing unrest among both colonized and enslaved peoples. The U.S., in particular, experienced a number of foiled slave conspiracies during the first half of the nineteenth century, frequently attributed to the influence of the Haitian Revolution. The most notable of these planned revolts included Gabriel Prosser’s aborted rebellion in Richmond in 1800, Denmark Vesey’s widespread anti-slavery conspiracy in Charleston in 1822, and Nat Turner’s famously defeated revolt in 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia. Vital and vivid histories of the Haitian Revolution have been and continue to be produced, including C.L.R. James’s foundational The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution , Alfred Hunt’s examination of Haiti’s influence, Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean , and newer historical narratives such as Laurent DuBois’ Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution .

George Dunham’s travel journal, A Journey to Brazil (1853), is a fascinating piece of the ‘Our Americas’ Archive Partnership , a collection of rare documents focused on a hemispheric approach to the study of the history and literature of the Americas. This journal, physically located in Rice University's Woodson Research Center, offers several valuable instances for the study of slave resistance in either the history or literature classroom. Dunham takes up residence at a plantation belonging to one of the planters for whom he has agreed to work; therefore, he has ample opportunity to observe the relationships, and more specifically the tensions, between the enslaved and free populations. The anxiety is palpable in the following passage: “I got scared a little last night for the first time since I have been here the old man had gone away and not coming back until Monday and the Negroes act different when he is gone and about midnight the farmer White that sleeps in the room with me hollered and waked me up and said he thought there was some one in the room” (see Figure 1). As can easily be detected from this passage, the fear of a violent slave revolt is firmly implanted in the minds of the white population. At various points in his text, Dunham points out slaves’ singing and participating in other forms of alternative communication, a familiar signal that a conspiracy may be simmering under the surface of a seemingly docile plantation setting. These anxieties would have been commonplace for slaveholders in the U.S. South, so it is fascinating to see them manifested so explicitly within a different geopolitical site at the middle of the nineteenth century.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Slavery in the americas. OpenStax CNX. Jul 18, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11314/1.3
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