Biography

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Briton Hammon is credited with having written the first slave narrative autobiography in America. The complete title was A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man,—Servant to General Winslow of Marshfield, in New-England; Who Returned to Boston, After Having Been Absent Almost Thirteen Years. Although the work is only fourteen pages long and marked by awkward sentence construction, it relates many thrilling adventures. The work belongs to the tradition of spiritual autobiography, and critics have used Hammon’s personal account to trace the development of the slave narrative genre in American literature.

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Little is known of Briton Hammon’s life beyond what he reveals in his narrative. In 1747, he received his master’s permission to sign aboard a vessel bound for Jamaica, which began its voyage prophetically on Christmas Day. On the return journey, however, the ship was wrecked on a reef off the Florida coast. There, Hammon and his fellow crew members were attacked by American Indians. Everyone was killed except Hammon, who was taken prisoner, tortured, and told that he would be roasted alive.

After five weeks of captivity, Hammon was rescued by a Spanish captain and taken to Cuba, where he was placed in bondage and forced to serve in the governor’s castle in Havana. One year later, a gang kidnapped him for service aboard a ship bound for Spain. This time, Hammon resisted. As a result, he was taken to a dungeon and confined there for more than four and a half years. At the end of that time, an Englishwoman learned of his plight and brought about his release.

After being released, Hammon was forced to return to the governor’s service. Later, however, the governor sent him to assist the Catholic bishop. Hammon, a Protestant, found that the bishop was pleasure-loving and greedy: He had himself carried about in a large chair lined with crimson velvet, and he expected a great amount of money from the men and women whom he confirmed and baptized. After several unhappy years and three escape attempts, Hammon was rescued by an English captain and taken to Jamaica.

In the following years, Hammon worked aboard several military vessels. While serving as a cook aboard these ships, he several times experienced naval warfare and was even wounded in one of the battles. During a stay in London, when his circumstances became desperate as a result of illness and poverty, he decided to return to his home in America. On board the ship that took him back to Boston, he met his former master. It had been thirteen years since he had left, and he was delighted to be reunited with the man who had allowed him to leave.

Hammon’s short narrative was published in Boston in 1760. As was the practice of most illiterate slaves who told their stories, Hammon dictated his account to a writer who tried to record the tale in the plain, ungrammatical style in which it was delivered. As is the case with most slave narratives, however, the collaborative effort of black slave and white recorder presents the reader with difficulties in determining authorial responsibility. The tone and style of the short beginning and closing passages of Hammon’s work, for example, seem to be those of another writer. Furthermore, there are elements in Hammon’s story that bear resemblance to other captivity tales of the time, especially to the account of captivity among American Indians that was written by Thomas Brown and also published in Boston in 1760. For the most part, however, the authenticity of Hammon’s narrative is supported by the unschooled, matter-of-fact voice of the slave narrator, who displays a consistency of language and feeling as he relates his story.

Most scholars agree that Hammon’s short autobiography is not a great piece of literary prose. The events described appear contrived, and the story is weighted down with biblical quotations and beginning and closing religious exhortations. However, Hammon’s narrative is credited with being the first autobiographical work of a slave in America, and it is studied for the inclusion of devices that became standard practices for later writers of slave narrative literature in the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Among the techniques found in Hammon’s account are the reference to his concern to find meaning in the agonizing experiences he undergoes (he perceives his sufferings as a test from God); his references to biblical parallels, such as the deliverance of the Hebrews from captivity in Egypt; and his portrayal of himself as a heroic figure resembling the biblical hero David.

Bibliography

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Andrews, William L. “Voices of the First Fifty Years, 1760-1810.” In To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Deals with Hammon’s deference to his white readers, a characteristic trait in early African American narrative autobiography.

Carretta, Vincent, and Philip Gould, eds. Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. Includes the essays “Race, Redemption, and Captivity in the Narratives of Briton Hammon and John Marrant,” by Karen A. Weyler, and “Surprizing Deliverance? Slavery and Freedom, Language and Identity in the Narrative of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man,” by Robert Desrochers, Jr.

Costanzo, Angelo. “Black Autobiographers as Biblical Types.” In Surprizing Narrative: Olaudah Equiano and the Beginnings of Black Autobiography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Discusses Hammon’s portrayal of himself as a biblical hero and examines the hidden meanings within his narrative.

Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of the Ante-bellum Slave Narratives. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. Discusses Hammon’s work as a precursor of the slave narrative genre.

Starling, Marion Wilson. The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American History. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1988. Places Hammon’s account in the tradition of autobiographical slave writing and its development.

Williams, Kenny J. “A New Home in a New Land.” In They Also Spoke: An Essay on Negro Literature in America, 1787-1930. Nashville: Townsend Press, 1970. Relates Hammon’s personal story to the early slave narratives published in the eighteenth century.

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