Stedman’s Surinam

Richard Price and Sally Price call John Gabriel Stedman’s NARRATIVE OF A FIVE YEARS EXPEDITION AGAINST THE REVOLTED NEGROES OF SURINAM “one of the richest contemporary accounts of a plantation society in the Americas.” In its original form, though, Stedman’s bestseller was heavily edited and rewritten, so that much of its value as an eyewitness account was lost. The Prices’ 1988 scholarly edition of Stedman’s original manuscript modernized the spelling and punctuation but left unchanged his fresh, earthy descriptions and directly expressed opinions about slavery and life in the tropics. The book under review is an abridgement of the 1988 text, meant to be affordable and accessible to students and general readers.

Stedman, a British officer sent by the Dutch government to its South American colony of Surinam to help quell a slave rebellion, is repelled by the harsh treatment of slaves, yet (in chapter 9) offers a tortuous, ludicrous, apparently sincere justification for the institution of slavery. He refers, not always discreetly, to his own casual sexual adventures in Surinam, and yet writes movingly of his tragic love affair with Joanna, a mulatto slave. And his quaint, polite syntax is well and humorously employed in describing the wretched living conditions and fierce beasts with which he contends: “So very thick were the mosquitoes now that by clapping my two hands against each other I killed in one stroke to the number of thirty-eight, upon my honor.”

Stedman’s NARRATIVE, as painstakingly and brilliantly restored, is a fascinating document of great historical value. It also is an immensely entertaining, picaresque travelogue — (influenced in style, argue the Prices in their excellent long introduction, by the novels of Henry Fielding) — emphatically to be recommended not just to scholars but also to curious laypersons.