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Stedman Narrative

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 6 months ago


John Gabriel Stedman’s diary of the events he saw and took part in during his five year expedition in Surinam paints vividly, the many aspects of life on a colonial plantation.  He covers most every facet from the actual terrain of Surinam, to the self-indulgent life styles of the plantation owners.


Stedman describes the leisurely way the privileged spent their days, holding parties and taking “air” in a carriage ride.  Mostly their occupations seem decadent and at one point as he dines with a few aristocratic ladies, are appalled that one makes suggestive advances toward him.  From his perspective, the rich seem pleasant and accommodating. He describes the grandeur and expanse of the architecture of the individual plantations as well as activities held within.


During his time in Surinam, he also was made to travel through the jungle and experienced any number of conundrums.  He and his men were exposed to the strange illnesses of the jungle, to which their bodies had little resistance and their mission kept them from comfort.  Stedman takes interesting measures to ensure his health, although they are not altogether successful; he swims in the river every day and walks barefoot as often as possible to toughen his feet.  Even with his precautions he becomes ill a number of times and his men drop in startling numbers. At one point his camp is so decimated by illness and death that he feels certain if the rebel forces attacked they would have no hope of fighting them off.


Along with the grouse conditions of soldiery, Stedman gives great detail to the wild life in the jungle.  He encounters an anaconda which one of the slaves captures and skins alive.  When food was scarce the soldiers or one of the slaves would shoot a monkey for a meal. Stedman does this himself once but upon seeing the dying animal that looks so human he feels ashamed of his action and no longer eats them.  Also there are descriptions of other various animals such as birds that find their way into the book.


As a soldier, Stedman was privy to the spectrum of inhumanities associated with slavery.  He witnessed the homes where the pretty faced mulatto slaves were treated as pets and punished lightly to preserve their attractiveness.  These slaves were used as coachman and servers at function: expensive pieces decorating a rich home.  The other house slaves that were not often seen tended to be less attractive and treated more harshly.  Stedman comments on how shocked he was to learn that a woman he dined with had that very night pushed her cook into the oven because she was careless with the food.   


But the house slaves were treated gently next to the unfortunate ones who worked in the fields.  They were wiped regularly for any contrary behavior and the standard sentence was one hundred lashes.  Stedman’s book actually became a strong abolitionist tool because of the heinous treatment he witnessed the slaves receive.  In one entry he talks about a man being hung by the ribs for two days and refusing to utter a sound in protest. 


Throughout the narrative Stedman clearly sympathizes with the slave’s plight and his attachment grows deeper when he meets Joanna.  Joanna is a mulatto slave who Stedman falls in love with; they are married and they have a son named John.  He became more openly against the mistreatment of slaves at this point and in one passage tells of how he helped two young slaves escape punishment.  Unfortunately he does not have the money to buy Joanna before he leaves and soon after his departure she is poisoned and dies.    


Stedman’s narrative remains a time capsule with which we may view how the world looked during the time of colonial Europe through the eyes of a soldier.     



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