KARINA WILLIAMSON (ed.). Contrary Voices: Representations of West Indian Slavery,1657–1834. Pp. xii + 520. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2008

978-976-640-208-2
US$40 (s)

Karina Williamson’s anthology Contrary Voices is, as the book jacket claims, unprecedented in anthologies on slavery. Although there have been a number of recent ones on slavery in the English speaking world—including a six-volume collection from Pickering and Chatto—none attempt such comprehensiveness. Indeed, the range of texts here is staggering, running the gamut from widely reprinted texts (Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative) to ephemera including unpublished manuscriptletters, excerpts of legal testimony and the surviving records of slave songs. Williamson,inarguably, has assembled a bibliographic treasure trove; her anthology will introduce students to the full scope of texts on British West Indian slavery published between 1657 and 1834. Indeed, even the most ardent scholar of the archive of British West Indian slavery will be introduced to new texts and new aspects of long familiar ones. Of course, given the subject matter, and the format, few readers will attempt to read the book in toto; to do so is to be plunged into a relentlessly disturbing, disheartening world, despite the evidence of the spirit, survival skills and even the sense of humour of the enslaved. Indeed, most disturbing may be the defences of slavery offered, especially the repeated dismissiveness of the notion that Africans could even desire to be free.

Although the sheer volume of texts covered can lead to a numbing effect, there is nonetheless much to be learned from the relentless onslaught. The agenda of each writer is brought out by the sense of the rhetoric of slavery that emerges from the whole. This is salutary in particular because it seems to be accidental: Williamson’s principle of selection is to favour ‘writings based on first hand experience or observation of the West Indies’ (p. 2). Williamson explains that ‘the present collection is more concerned with the sociology of slavery than with the political, economic, and ethical arguments advanced for and against it’ (p. 2). The sociology of slavery here means, primarily, lived experiences of slavery, ranging from slave holiday celebrations to overseers’ accounts of plantation disciplinary regimes. Exceptions are made for texts that became overwhelmingly influential; Richard Steele’s version of the ‘Inkle and Yarico’ story is here explicitly for that reason. Nonetheless, Williamson is as little interested in tracing literary tropes about slavery as in the rhetorical nuances of the struggle between abolitionists and the West India Interest. She does comment in brief headnotes on the known politics of the authors, but these comments are not always reliable or convincing; John Collins may not have been involved with either abolition or the West India Interest, as she mentions, but his poem denouncing ‘the despoiler of man’ is not ambiguous politically.

Read More