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John Gabriel Stedman

John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797) was a distinguished British-Dutch soldier and noted author. He was born in the Netherlands in 1744 to Robert Stedman, a Scot and an officer in Holland's Scots Brigade, and his wife of Dutch noble lineage, Antoinetta Christina van Ceulen. He lived most of his childhood in Holland with his parents but spent time with his uncle in Scotland. Stedman described his childhood as being "chock-full of misadventures and abrasive encounters of every description (1)." His years in Surinam were characterized by encounters with African slaves and colonial planters as well as the exotic local flora and fauna. He recorded his experiences in The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negoes of Surinam (1796) which, with its firsthand depictions of slavery and other aspects of colonization, became an important tool in the early abolitionist cause.





Military career

Stedman's military career began at the age of 16. His first commanded rank was ensign, under which he defended various Low Country outposts employed by the Dutch Stadthouder. His rank was later elevated to lieutenant (2). In 1771, Stedman reenlisted due to overwhelming debt after the death of his father (3).



John Gabriel Stedman.



Stedman left Holland on 24 December 1772 after responding to a call for volunteers to serve in the West Indies. He was given the rank of Captain by way of a brevet, a temporary authorization for an officer to hold a higher rank (4). His corps comprised 800 volunteers to be sent to Surinam aboard the frigate Zeelust, to assist local troops fighting against marauding bands of escaped slaves, known as Maroons, in the eastern region of the colony. The corps, which was trained for the battlefields of Europe, was unprepared for battle against the unfamiliar guerilla tactics of its opponents (5).



After arriving in the colony, Stedman received orders from Colonel Fourgeoud, commander of the newly arrived troops. Col. Fourgeoud was notorious for dining on gourmet meats, wine and other delicacies while his troops survived on meager and often spoiled sustenance (6). He treated Stedman cruelly, inventing tasks for him to complete and taking away his ammunition. Stedman believed that Fourgeoud neglected his duties as an officer, ignoring the well-being of his troops, and that he only retained his title through monetary bribes (7). Regarding the issue, Stedman said “I solemnly declare to have still omitted many other calamities that we suffered (8).”



On 10 August 1775, shortly after falling ill in Surinam, Stedman wrote Col. Fourgeoud a letter requesting a furlough to regain health and six months military pay that had been owed him. Fourgeoud refused twice, though similar requests had been granted to other officers. Stedman later wrote, “This so incensed me that I not only wished him in Hell, but myself also, to have the satisfaction of seeing him burn (9).”


In addition to the 800 European soldiers, Stedman fought alongside the newly formed corps of Rangers. The Rangers, slave volunteers purchased from their masters, were promised their freedom, a house and garden plot, and military pay for their involvement in action against the rebelling Maroons of the colony (10). The corps of Rangers originally numbered 116, but 190 more were purchased after the original group displayed remarkable courage and perseverance on the battlefield (11).



Stedman journeyed on seven campaigns in the forests of Surinam, each averaging three months (12). He only engaged in one battle, which took place in 1774 and concluded with the capture of the village of Gado Saby. A vivid portrayal of this battle can be seen in the frontispiece of Stedman’s Narrative, which depicts Stedman standing over a dead native in the foreground and a village burning in the distance (13).


Throughout these campaigns, ambushes occurred frequently and disease spread rapidly, resulting in an enormous loss of troops. These losses were so great that 830 additional troops were sent from Holland in 1775 to supplement the original 800 (14). The campaigns were riddled with sickness, anger, fatigue, and death. Stedman observed the horrors of battle and the cat-and-mouse antics of both sides that resulted in merely pushing the battle across Surinam instead of quelling it (15).




see main entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surinam">Surinam



Stedman first arrived to the islands on February 2, 1772. He landed at the Amsterdam fortress and was quickly overcome with the sights and sounds of Surinam. According to Stedman, the island abounded with delicious smells – lemon, orange, and shaddocks. The natives, dressed in loincloths, were somewhat shocking to Stedman at first, and he described them as “bargemen as naked as when they were born” (16). Stedman described Surinam as a generally fertile area (17).


According to the Narrative, parts of Surinam are mountainous, dry, and barren, but much of the land is ripe and fertile. It enjoys a year-long growing season, with rains and a warm climate. In some parts the land is low and marshy, and crops are grown with a “flooding” method similar to that of ancient Egypt. Surinam is also riddled with uncultivated areas; there are immense forests, mountains (some with valuable minerals), deep marshes, swamps, and even large savannah areas. Some areas of the coast are inaccessible, tainted with rocks, riverbanks, quicksand, and bogs (18).


Two rivers are central to the colonies: the Orinoco and the Amazon. At the time of Stedman’s visit, the Portuguese lived along the river Amazon and the Spanish along the river Orinoco. Dutch colonists were spread along the seaside and the French lived in a small settlement known as Cayenne (19).



Surinam was first colonized by the governor of Barbados in the 1650s, then captured by the Dutch soon after, who quickly began to cultivate sugar. In 1683 Surinam came under control of the Dutch West India Company and was renamed Dutch Guiana. The colony developed an agricultural economy highly dependent on African slavery. The Dutch abolished slavery in 1863, but used indentured laborers from the British Indian colonies to stabilize sugar production. Surinam was granted internal self-governance in 1954, and finally achieved full independence in 1975.






Stedman’s Narrative






The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam is a firsthand account the many experiences encountered by John Gabriel Stedman while living in Surinam from the year 1772 through 1777.  Stedman utilizes vivid descriptions of the landscapes of Surinam, paying great attention to detail.  His observations of life in the colony encompass the different cultures that comprise the melting pot of life that flourishes there: Dutch, Scottish, native, African, Spanish, Portuguese, and French.  Though the colony and the surrounding forests are filled with treachery and violence, in his Narrative Stedman takes time to describe the ordinary life and the happiness of certain situations in the colony.


The first pages of the Narrative record Stedman’s voyage to Surinam.  He spends his days reading on deck, attempting to avoid those sick from the turbulent sea. (20)


Upon his arrival in Surinam, Stedman and the troops are warmly greeted by residents of the fortress Amsterdam, along the Surinam River.  Here, Stedman gives his first description of the sweet, perfumed smells and the beautiful landscape of Surinam. (21)


Stedman contrasts the beauty and sweetness of the colony with his first taste of the violence and cruelty so evident in his surroundings.  On shore is a nearly naked slave woman, chained to an iron weight.  The woman received 200 lashes and carried the weight for a month as a result of her inability to fulfill a task to which she was assigned.  Stedman looks at her turmoil in disbelief and fascination. (22)


Stedman spends the night at an acquaintance’s residence, where on his account a middle-aged female slave makes a sexual advance toward him.  Stedman firmly declines, claiming how appalling the situation was.  Only a few days later, Stedman is offered a young girl to be his “wife” for the duration of his stay in the colony.  Though he denies the offer, Stedman explains that these “wives” were commonplace in Surinam and acted as a personal attendants and lovers to single European gentlemen.      


A short time after his arrival in Surinam, Stedman engages in the first of several skirmishes with the rebelling Maroons.  Captives are taken on both fronts after the Maroons ravage plantations for revenge and supplies.  The plantation owners execute eleven captives, which begins a series of violent confrontations between the two sides.  A large number of slaves begin rebelling in hopes of gaining the same accommodations as the Maroons. 


Stedman soon returns to camp where he is introduced to a mulatto slave girl by the name of Joanna.  He is immediately intrigued by her appearance and demeanor.  He finds her beautiful, and he decides that he should try to buy her and provide her with a European education.  However, he falls ill soon after their introduction.  Joanna nurses Stedman back to health, resulting in his growing affections toward her.   


While Stedman regains his health, conditions in Surinam decline.  Stedman witnesses a number of executions and brutalities against both rebelling and complacent slaves.  Stedman tells of the horrors and his disgust with the punishments.  A fellow soldier tells Stedman of one case in which a rebel was hung by his ribs for two days as punishment for his crimes. It was common practice for the Europeans of the colony to cut off the noses of their slaves, burn them alive, and whip them to death with impunity.  Some slaves were known to swallow their tongues or eat dirt in an effort to take their own lives.


Stedman’s first commanding mission is to row along the rivers of Surinam in search of rebel forces.  Unfortunately, many of his troops become ill.  Stedman asks one of the slaves what he should do in order to remain healthy.  The slave suggests that Stedman should swim in the river each day and walk barefoot while aboard the boat to toughen his feet.  The procedures do not work and Stedman falls ill despite his best efforts.  However, he is forced to continue with his duties after word spreads that the rebels are close.  The nearest encampment, Devil’s Harwar, is said to be suffering heavy casualties from wide-spread pestilence.  


In his Narrative, Stedman relays several stories regarding the wretched state of the slaves and the horrors they are subjected to.  In one story, involving a group sailing by boat, an enslaved mother was ordered by her mistress to hand over her crying baby.  The mistress then threw the baby into the river, drowning it.  The mother jumped into the river after her baby whose body was recovered by fellow slaves.  The mother later received 200 lashes for her defiant behavior.  In another story, a small boy shoots himself in the head to escape flogging.  In yet another, a man is completely broken on the rack and left for hours to suffer.  


At this time, Stedman's life in Surinam is improving, and Joanna gives birth to their child, Johnny.  But this brief stint of domestic happiness is disrupted when the Scots Brigade is recalled to Holland.  Aware of his imminent departure, Stedman attempts to enjoy what little time he has left by spending it with Joanna and Johnny at home.  However, new insurrections erupt and Stedman is ordered to remain in Surinam.


Stedman’s observations of Maroon culture intrigue him.  Though certain aspects are foreign and unsettling, such as the cutting of slits into the cheeks and the sharpening of teeth, Stedman can’t help but admire and praise the culture as a whole.  He writes that Africans are the truest friends one could hope for, generally good natured, both sexes showing great courage and heroism, often in the face of extreme cruelty and mutilation.  


Stedman’s last expedition in Surinam consists of marching his men in search of rebel forces.  To his dismay, the only rebel found is an old man who had been left behind.  The troops march to the nearest encampment for a few weeks rest, and Stedman accompanies Colonel Fourgeoud to the capital of Paramaribo, where Stedman finds a new residence.  There, h encounters a female slave about to be flogged for insubordination.  This event inspires Stedman to have his son emancipated.  Stedman attempts to have Johnny baptized but is turned away by the priests, who claim that because of his imminent return to Holland he will not be in Johnny’s life enough to ensure his proper Christian education.  Stedman says farewell to Joanna, Johnny, and a number of close friends, and laments that he must leave his wife and child.  He asks Joanna to accompany him back to Europe, but she declines because she is still a slave.



Publication history



Stedman’s Narrative was published by Joseph Johnson, a radical figure who received criticism for the types of books he sold. In the 1790s, more than 50 percent of them were political, including Stedman’s Narrative in 1796. The books he published supported the rights of slaves, Jews, women, prisoners and other oppressed members of society. Johnson was an active member of the Society for Constitutional Information, an organization attempting to reform Parliament. He was condemned for the support and publication of writers who voiced liberal opinions, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.


Stedman’s Narrative became a major literary success. It was translated into a half-dozen languages and was eventually published in more than twenty-five different editions. Stedman was highly acclaimed for his insights on the slave trade and his Narrative was embraced by the abolitionist cause (1). Paradoxically, it also became the handbook for anti-guerilla combat in the tropics (185).


Interestingly, it took almost two centuries for a critical edition to be published. An abridged edition published in 1992 by Richard and Mary Price remains in print, as well as an edition published in 1962 by Stanbury Thompson.  An unabridged critical edition published in 1988 is out of print, but a small number of copies still exist (1). Thanks to its portrayal of a strong female slave, abolitionists decided to publish the chapter on Joanna from the Narrative as a pamphlet in 1838. Stedman's Narrative is commonly read in University classes as an example of abolitionist literature.



Blake’s illustrations



Stedman’s Narrative associated him with some of Britain’s foremost radicals. His publisher, Johnson, was imprisoned in 1797 for printing the political writings of Gilbert Wakefield (24). Johnson commissioned William Blake and Francesco Bartolozzi to create engravings for the Narrative. Blake engraved sixteen images for the book and delivered them in December of 1792 and 1793, as well as a single plate in 1794 (25). The images depict some of the horrific atrocities against slaves that Stedman witnessed, including hanging, lashing and other forms of torture. The Blake plates are more forceful than the other illustrations in the book and have the "fluidity of line" and "hallucinatory quality of his original work" (26). It is impossible to compare Stedman's sketches with the Blake plates because none of Stedman's original drawings have survived (27). Through their collaboration, Blake and Stedman became close friends. They visited one another often (28), and Blake later included some of his images from Stedman's Narrative in his poem "Visions of the Daughters of Albion." (29)




Stedman the writer



As a writer, Stedman was intrigued by Surinam, a "New World" full of complexities that were both familiar and foreign (30).  Torn between the roles of “incurable romantic” (31) and scientific observer, Stedman attempted to maintain an objective distance from this strange new world, but was drawn in by its natural beauty and exoticness (32).


Stedman made a daily effort to take notes on the spot, using any material in sight that could be written on, including ammunition cartridges and bleached bone. Stedman later transcribed the notes and strung them together in a small green notebook and ten sheets of paper covered front and back with writing (34). He intended to use these notes and journals to produce a book (35). Stedman also made a point to write clearly and distinguish truth from hearsay. He was diligent about facts and focused primarily on firsthand accounts of events (37).


On 15 June 1778, just a year after returning to the Netherlands from Surinam, Stedman began piecing together these notes and journals into what would ultimately become his Narrative (39). In 1787, Stedman began showing pieces of his journal to friends in an attempt to secure financial backing for the publication of the manuscript. He also attempted to gain potential subscribers in London, Edinburgh, York, Liverpool, Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Portsmouth and Plymouth (40). On 8 February 1791, Stedman sent the first edition of his newly completed manuscript, along with a list of 76 subscribers, to Johnson (41).



In 1786, Stedman wrote a series of retrospective journal entries recalling the events of his life up to the age of 28. In this diary, he portrayed himself in the style and tone of such fictional characters as Tom Jones and Roderick Random (42). He elaborated his opposition to authority figures, which he also described during his time in Surinam, and his extreme emotional sensitivity, which led him to sympathize with creatures and humans unnecessarily punished or tortured (43). In these entries, Stedman tells of occasions throughout his life when he interceded on the behalf of others to alleviate suffering (44). Stedman insisted that he did not describe the events of his life with the intention of gaining success or fortune (45). He explained that he wrote “purely following the dictates of nature, & equally hating a made up man and a made up story (46)."



Discrepancies between published Narrative and personal diaries



Because Stedman wrote his Narrative ten years after the events took place, it is important to view it in relation to his unpublished diaries and contemporary sources. The Narrative sometimes deviates from the diary, but Stedman was careful to provide his sources and state firsthand observations as opposed to outside accounts (47). The main difference between the two works involves Stedman's relationship with Joanna. In the diary, he recounts numerous sexual encounters with slaves before he met Joanna, events which were removed from the Narrative. Stedman omitted a key conversation between himself and Joanna's mother, during which she offers to sell Joanna to him. Stedman also removes the early sexual encounters from the Narrative, and Joanna becomes an object of beauty and desire as opposed to a slave girl used for sex (48). Other than these changes, the Narrative follows Stedman's diary closely.



Stedman and slavery



Stedman’s attitude toward slaves and slavery has been the subject of scholarly debate. In spite of the abolitionist utility of the text, Stedman himself was far from an abolitionist. A defense of slavery runs throughout the text, emphasizing problems that would arise from sudden emancipation and claiming that Englishmen treated their slaves better than other colonizers. (49) In fact, Stedman believed that slavery was necessary in some form to continue allowing Britain and other European nations to indulge their excessive desires for commodities such as tobacco and sugar. A seemingly pro-slavery attitude is espoused throughout much of his text, reflecting his patriotism as much as his attitude toward slaves themselves.


Yet according to his Narrative, Stedman often treats and describes slaves with an implicit dignity unseen in his place and time. His love affair with Joanna further complicates his views toward slavery. Their relationship does not seem, as some critics have claimed, to be rooted in a sort of “colonial sexual exploitation (50),” particularly considering his superlative description of her in comparison with Western women. He describes their relationship as one “of romantic love rather than filial servitude (51).” Their interracial marriage expresses open-minded cultural integration which even many abolitionists were unwilling to pursue; his attitudes about slavery notwithstanding, he demonstrated a very different view toward slaves themselves than was common at the time.


However, while modern readers might be sympathetic to Stedman’s personal encounters with slaves, the Narrative is a hugely ethnocentric text (52). Some critics argue that the book made Stedman seem like a much more consistent pro-slavery advocate than he intended (53). But Stedman’s attitudes toward individual slaves did not coincide with his attitude toward the institution of slavery. His sympathy for the suffering slaves, expressed throughout the book, is consistently obfuscated by his opinion about slavery as an institution, which was “complicated, its representation strongly affected by the revisions (54).”



Stedman and women


According to the editorial introduction to the Narrative, Stedman "larded his autobiographical sketch with amorous adventures (55)." For example, as a young man in England, Stedman had concurrent affairs with his landlord’s wife and her maid until the landlady became jealous and evicted both Stedman and the maid simultaneously (56). Frequent encounters with slave women began on the night he arrived in Surinam and continued throughout his journey. Stedman noted many encounters in his diary, though never in explicit detail (57).


Unsurprisingly, the personal journal that Stedman kept (and the sexual encounters mentioned therein) varies quite a bit from his published Narrative. The image-conscious Stedman, with a wife and children in England, wanted to cultivate the impression of a gentleman rather than the philanderer he might be considered on the basis of his diary. Stedman’s Narrative removes the depersonalized sex with slave women and replaces it with more detail regarding his romantic relationship with Joanna (58).


Stedman’s Joanna


Stedman met Joanna, a mulatto slave, soon after arriving in Surinam. He was immediately taken with her appearance, describing her as:



"Rather taller than the middle size, she had the most elegant shape nature can exhibit, and moved her well formed limbs with unusual gracefulness. Her face was full of native modesty, and the most distinguished sweetness. Her eyes, as black as ebony, were large, and full of expression, bespeaking the goodness of her heart. A beautiful tinge of vermillion glowed through her dark cheeks, when she was gazed upon. Her nose was perfectly well formed, and rather small. Her lips, a little prominent, discovered, when she spoke, two regular rows of teeth as white as mountain snow." (59)


Stedman was captivated by Joanna’s looks and charm, and they soon began a romance. Before long they had a son together, named Johnny. Throughout his Narrative, Stedman praises Joanna’s character and sweet nature. He often describes instances of her loyalty and devotion to him through his absences and illnesses:



"She told me she had heard of my forlorn situation; and if I still entertained for her the same good opinion I had formerly expressed, her only request was that she might be permitted to wait upon me till I recovered. I gratefully accepted the offer; and by her unwearied care and attention, I had the good fortune to regain my health." (60)



Stedman’s primary difficulty with Joanna was securing freedom for her and their son. Through Stedman’s hard work Johnny was eventually freed from slavery, but not Joanna. However, when Stedman returned to Holland in June 1777, Joanna and their son stayed behind in Surinam. Stedman explained this by saying that Joanna refused to return with him:


“She said, that if I soon returned to Europe, she must either be parted from me forever, or accompany me to a land where the inferiority of her condition must prove a great disadvantage to her benefactor and to herself; and in either of these cases, she should be most miserable." (61)


Shortly after his return to Holland, Stedman married a Dutch woman, Adriana Wierts van Coehorn, and started a family with her. Joanna died in 1782, after which their son migrated to Europe to live with Stedman. Johnny later served as a midshipman in the British Navy and died at sea near Jamaica.


Stedman's wife and children in England



Stedman's wife was the wealthy granddaughter of a well-known Dutch Engineer. Together they settled in Tiverton, England, and had five children: Sophia Charlotte, Maria Joanna, George William, Adrian, and John Cambridge. Following the death of Joanna, Johnny joined their household. Adriana made no attempt to hide her feelings of resentment toward Johnny and Stedman often protected his son from her wrath. Stedman favored his first son and later wrote a journal almost entirely devoted to accounts of Johnny’s adolescence. After Johnny's death, Stedman published a poem he wrote for his son, eulogizing their relationship. (62) The last lines are as follows:


“Fly gentle shade, fly to that blest abode,

 There view thy mother – and adore thy God.

 There, O my boy!, on that celestial shore,

 O may we gladly meet, and part no more.”


Stedman's daughters were married to prosperous men of good families.  His other sons joined the military. George William served as a lieutenant in the Navy and died while attempting to board a Spanish ship off the coast of Cuba in 1803. Adrian fought in the Indian War for which he was later honored after the battle of Aliwal against the Siks, and died at sea in 1849. John Cambridge served as captain of the 34th Light Infantry of the East India Company and was killed in an attack on Rangoon in 1824. (63)







1. Price, xiv

2. Price, xix

3. Price, xix

4. Price, xix

5. Price, xix

6. Price, lv

7. Price, lv

8. Price, 123

9. Price, 155

10. Price, xx

11. Price, xx

12. Price, xxii

13. Price, xxiv

14. Price, xxiv

15. Price, xxiv

16. Price, 17

17. Price, 23

18. Price, 23

19. Price, 24

20. Davis, 1

21. Davis, 1

22. Davis, 1

23. Lang, 185

24. Richards, 105

25. Honour, 343

26. Honour, 343

27. Honour, 343

28. Richards, 105

29. Honour, 343

30. Price, xiv-xxiv

31. Price, xxiv

32. Price, xxiv


34. Price, xxv

35. Price, xxv


37. Price, xiii


39. Price, xxvii

40. Price, xxxiv

41. Price, xxxiv

42. Price, xiv

43. Price, xv

44. Price, xv

45. Price, xviii

46. Price, xviii

47. Price, xiii

48. Price, xxx

49. Glausser, 77

50. Pratt, 96

51. Thomas, 132

52. Glausser, 77

53. Sollors, 202

54. Sollors, 202

55. Price, xvii

56. Price, xvii

57. Price, xxx

58. Price, xxxii

59. Price, 5

60. Price, 12

61. Price, 10

62. Richards, 105

63. Richards, 105



General references


Cumming, Laura (15 April 2007). "Mind-Forg'd Madness: William Blake and Slavery." The Guardian.


Davis, David Brion (30 March 1989). 'John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expediton Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam.' (New York Times Review of Books).


Fenton, James (5 May 2007). "Colour Blind." The Guardian.


Glausser, Wayne (1998). Locke and Blake: A Conversation Across the Eighteenth Century. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida



Hoefte, Rosemarijn (1998).  In Place of Slavery A Social History of British Indian and Javanese Laborers in Suriname.  Gainesville, Fl.: University Press of Florida


Honour, Hugh (1975). The European Vision of America. Cleveland, Ohio; The Cleveland Museum of Art.


Lang, George (2000). Entwisted Tongues: Comparative Creole Literatures. Amsterdam: Rodopi Publishing


Pratt, Mary Louise (1992). Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London, England: Routledge



Price, Richard and Price, Sally (editors) (1992). Stedman's Surinam: Life in an Eighteenth-Century Slace Society. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Richards, David. Masks of Difference Cultural Representations in Literature, Anthropology, and Art. Cambrige, England: Cambridge University Press


Sollors, Werner (1997). Neither Black Nor White, Yet Both: Thematic Exploration of Interractial Literature. New York, New York: Oxford University Press


Thomas, Helen (2000). Romanticism and Slave Narratives: Transatlantic Testimonies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press








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