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Listening to the enslaved

Archives containing courtroom testimony by the enslaved can be valuable resources for scholars of slavery.

New Orleans in 1803, by J.L. Bouqueto de Woiseri. Wikimedia Commons.

Ali Moussa Iye, Chief of the History and Memory for Dialogue Section of UNESCO, recently wrote on this forum about the “wall of silence around the [European] slave trade and slavery across the world” and points out that “it is difficult to understand how a tragedy of this scale could be ignored and silenced”. One of the glaring reasons for these silences is the muteness of the archive, and the dearth of evidence produced by the enslaved themselves.

Indeed, in a recent article in The New Yorker about the movie ‘Twelve Years a Slave’, Annette Gordon-Reed posed a question that is familiar to historians:

Which historical voices should be deemed legitimate? These questions are particularly fraught when one is dealing with past atrocities, like America’s racially based system of chattel slavery … Then there is history’s cruel irony: the individuals who bore the brunt of the system – the enslaved – lived under a shroud of enforced anonymity. The vast majority could neither read nor write, and they therefore left behind no documents, which are the lifeblood of the historian’s craft.

This problem is especially acute when dealing with North America in the colonial period (pre-1776), before the rise of the autobiographical slave narrative genre associated with Anglo-American abolitionism (other than Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, the most well known is Olaudah Equiano’s narrative). But there is in fact another remarkable body of archival evidence from eighteenth-century North America that has preserved the voices of the enslaved, and that deserves to be brought before a wider audience: the testimony of slaves in court cases.

Hear the slave speak

French colonial law allowed enslaved Africans to testify in certain capacities, and the records from eighteenth-century Louisiana, which have survived in fairly complete form, are especially rich. In this colony, slaves were not only called to testify in court as defendants when they were accused of crimes, but also as witnesses (when there were no white witnesses) and, much more rarely, as victims. In all of these cases their testimony was not voluntary, so their words have to be interpreted carefully through close reading of the texts and extensive contextualisation of the background to the court cases and the individuals involved.

Despite these limitations, this evidence is rife with potential since the opportunity to testify gave the enslaved a rare public forum in which to be heard. Indeed, far from seeing a court appearance as exclusively antagonistic, the enslaved sometimes seized the opportunity to testify. When they did so, they tended to move past the specifics of the court case. The importance of this archive therefore lies not in its presentation of factual evidence: what happened, when, where, and to whom, or in documenting slaves’ strategies for giving certain answers. Instead, the value becomes apparent when slaves veered from the questioning to introduce new topics that privileged their concerns and foregrounded their own viewpoints, not those of their interrogators. In the process, these enslaved individuals produced an extraordinary corpus of autobiographical narratives that we can draw on to understand how they sought to convey their perspectives and their sense of self.

For example, in the 1753 prosecution of a soldier accused of committing bestiality with a mare, the sole eyewitness was the slave François, who had stumbled upon the soldier in the stables. It is here, in this highly unusual court case, that François gives us a very immediate and profound sense of his worldview. In his testimony, François repeatedly sought to convey his disgust at what he characterised as an unnatural and criminal act. He informed the court that he had recounted what he had witnessed to a whole series of colonists, starting with a bystander, then his master, then the soldier’s friends (they all corroborated this). He then claimed that the soldier had tried to buy his silence, a bribe which he stated he had resisted. He finished by declaring that when he saw the soldier in the act “he wanted at first to throw himself” on the soldier, and that “if [the accused] had been a slave, he would have stopped him”.

Let’s pause on that last sentence: what should we make of it? For one, François was able to assert his outrage by telling the court about all the people to whom he had described the crime, and then by twice reiterating his revulsion and urge to physically punish the soldier. This resulted in him successfully having his claim to moral authority publicly recognised and vindicated by the court. It is indeed entirely thanks to him that the soldier was prosecuted, since there were no other witnesses, and François’ words alone carried the court case.

But, by stating that “if the accused had been a slave, he would have stopped him,” was François also making a pointed comment about racial relations in the colony? Namely the laws that required all slaves, and even free people of colour, to constantly perform their submissiveness when in the presence of colonists. François signalled that he had complied with the law, that he had internalised this code of behaviour. At the same time, he managed to implicitly critique this system by demonstrating his powerlessness to act simply because he was a slave, and the soldier not. Testimony has the potential to reveal rare moments such as these when the enslaved dared to critique, however subtly, the premise of their enslavement.

The level of detail that emerges from these sources – touching here on morality, justice, sexuality – is one of the boons of working with eighteenth-century judicial testimony. While at first glance seemingly unrelated to the cases being prosecuted (from a legal standpoint, François’ declarations of outrage were irrelevant), such tidbits are in fact deeply revealing and very often riveting. The medium of testimony allowed the enslaved to present autobiographical snapshots that illuminated their experiences of diaspora and slavery. The courtroom became a space where the enslaved told stories that deviated from the court’s focus and that challenged the assumptions of colonial interrogators and judges. In bringing to the fore their inner thoughts and intimate worlds, the enslaved individuals who testified provided a counter-narrative that rebutted slavery’s intent to dehumanise them and render them anonymous, to silence them. We owe it to them to listen.

Many more examples of enslaved individuals testifying can be found in my forthcoming book, Voices from the African Diaspora Within and Beyond the Atlantic World.

About the author

Sophie White is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, USA). Her current book project examines courtroom testimony by enslaved Africans in eighteenth century Louisiana.

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