Form and Content
Briton Hammon’s narrative is the first known slave autobiography in American literature. Hammon dictated his factual story to a writer who probably recorded the account in almost the exact way Hammon delivered it. The narrative style is plain and straightforward and marked by many awkward and ungrammatical sentences.
The slave’s story is only fourteen pages long and, as Hammon himself states, deals mostly with matters of fact. His story is interesting, however, because he describes exciting adventures resulting from his captivities at the hands of Indians and Spaniards. Furthermore, his work is related to spiritual autobiography and contains many biblical references and quotations. Hammon constantly thanks the Lord for delivering him from the dangers of captivity.
Published in Boston, Hammon’s brief account covers his experiences from 1747 to 1760. With his master’s consent, the loyal Hammon signs aboard a vessel bound for Jamaica. After loading up with wood in Jamaica, the ship heads back, but it soon meets with disaster when it is wrecked on a Florida reef. A boat with nine men aboard, including Hammon, is sent out to reach the shore, but a large band of Indians in twenty canoes surprises the sailors. The Indians capture them and then proceed to attack the ship and kill the captain and remaining crew members. Hammon, the sole survivor, is taken prisoner. The Indians treat him cruelly and threaten to roast him alive; but after five weeks of captivity, he is rescued by a Spanish captain who takes him to Havana, Cuba. There, Hammon becomes a slave in the governor’s castle.
Hammon’s service with the governor lasts for about a year. One day while walking on a street, Hammon is kidnapped by a press gang that wants to put him aboard a ship bound for Spain. When he refuses to serve, he is taken to a dungeon and confined there for four years and seven months. Hammon is released when his plight finally reaches the governor’s attention through the efforts of an Englishwoman. His captivity continues, however, as he is placed again in the service of the governor, who later sends him to assist the bishop of the island. In the ensuing years, the despondent slave yearns for his freedom and makes three attempts to escape. The last one succeeds when Hammon is befriended by an English captain, who takes him on board a ship to Jamaica.
Thereafter, Hammon works mostly as a cook on various military vessels that engage in severe naval battles, in one of which Hammon is wounded. Finally, while in London recovering from a fever, Hammon finds himself impoverished and decides to sign up for service on a ship going to Africa. His sudden desire to return home causes him to change his mind, however, and he switches to a vessel leaving for Boston. By coincidence, his old master is sailing on the same ship, and Hammon describes how a happy reunion between master and slave takes place after a separation of thirteen years.
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. Discusses why Hammon found it necessary to defer to his white readers, and explains how this trait of deference characterizes early African American autobiography.
Costanzo, Angelo. “Black...
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