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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Slavery and Freedom Briton Hammon (fl. 1760)

[6830] Peter Canot, A View of the Entrance of the Harbour of the Havana, Taken from within the Wrecks (1764), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-105952].

Briton Hammon’s “Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man,” published in Boston in 1760, is generally recognized as the earliest published autobiography by an African American. Composed in the tradition of the popular Indian captivity genre, Hammon’s narrative tells an exciting tale of travel, shipwreck, bondage among Native American and Spanish captors, and daring escapes. Unfortunately, no details of Hammon’s life are known beyond those recorded in the “Narrative.” Although he does not discuss his race within the body of the text-only the title identifies him as a “Negro Man”–he does refer to himself as a “servant” and makes frequent mention of his “master.” Thus, while it is unclear whether Hammon was held as a slave or worked as a servant, it is evident that he occupied a subordinate position within colonial society. In some ways, the “Narrative” reinforces traditional ideals of servitude as a benevolent institution: Hammon seems delighted when he is finally reunited with his “good old master” and happily returns to Boston with him. But Hammon’s text also implicitly critiques slavery by figuring human captivity as a “barbarous” and “inhuman” practice that should be resisted.

Hammon’s “Narrative” recounts the experiences of a person of marginal social status, someone whose life usually would have gone unrecorded. Sometimes viewed as a hybrid of an Indian captivity and slave narrative, Hammon’s story is complicated by the fact that when he is finally redeemed from captivity, it is into a condition of servitude rather than of freedom. Ironically, he may actually have experienced greater freedom among the Native Americans and Spanish than he would have after returning to Boston with his master.

Teaching Tips

  • Critics have debated whether Hammon composed his “Narrative” entirely on his own or employed a white editor to write all or part of it. Some suggest that the religiously orthodox opening and closing of the text point to the hand of a white minister, while others argue that such formulaic qualities are merely traditional characteristics of the captivity genre and thus offer little insight into its authorship. Ask students what they think of this debate. How would it change our understanding of the text if we could establish whether Hammon wrote it on his own or dictated it to a white writer?
  • Hammon opens his “Narrative” with a modest disavowal of his own ability to properly “read” his experiences: “As my capacities and conditions of life are very low, it cannot be expected that I should make those remarks on the sufferings I have met with, or the kind providence of a good God for my preservation, as one in a higher station, but shall leave that to the reader as he goes along, and so I shall only relate matters of fact as they occur to my mind.” Ask students to consider why Hammon begins his text this way. Why might this opening have been appealing to his audience? How sincere is Hammon’s protestation of his own “low capacities”? Does he in fact restrict himself only to “matters of fact” in recounting his experiences?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How does Hammon view the Native Americans who capture him in Florida? How does he view the Spanish in Cuba? How does he feel about the Catholicism of his Spanish captors? How does captivity compare with servitude in his experience?
  2. Comprehension: What role does Christianity play in Hammon’s understanding of his experiences? When and how does he invoke God in the course of relating his story?
  3. Context: What is the relationship between Hammon’s “Narrative” and the narratives of slave escapes that became popular in the nineteenth century (such as those written by Douglass, Craft, or Jacobs, for example)? What historical factors might have caused the tone and subjects of slave narratives to change so dramatically?
  4. Exploration: At several points in his text, Hammon describes his happiness at seeing the English flag, or “English Colours,” and identifies himself as an “Englishman.” What does being English seem to mean to Hammon? What insights does the “Narrative” provide us into the role of nationalism and national identity within the maritime world along the Atlantic coasts?
  5. Exploration: How does Hammon’s “Narrative” compare with the Indian captivity narratives written by Anglo-Americans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative, for example)? How are Hammon’s concerns different? In what ways are his experiences and reactions similar to those of white captives?

Selected Archive Items

[1742] Homann Hereditors, Guinea Propia Nec Non Nigritiae Vel Terrae Nigrorum Maxima Pars… (1743),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
This map of West Africa (Guinea) shows European slave-trade forts, coastal slave-trading kingdoms, but little of the interior where many slaves were captured. It also depicts ivory and Africans wearing imported cloth and hats, but not slaves.

[2603Harper’s Weekly, The Africans of the Slave Bark “Wildfire”–The Slave Deck of the Bark “Wildfire,” Brought into Key West on April, 30, 1860. African Men Crowded onto the Lower Deck; African Women Crowded on an Upper Deck (1860),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-41678].
This engraving shows the crowded conditions aboard slave ships. Such depictions of the inhumanity of slavery provided powerful imagery that helped strengthen the growing abolition movement in the United States.

[3601] Anonymous, “Slave Auction at Richmond Virginia,” Illustrated London News, Sept. 27, 1865 (1865),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-15398].
This woodcut engraving depicts the auction of an African American woman. As with the figure of the tragic mulatta, slavery is here feminized to invoke sympathy for the abolitionist cause. The Illustrated London News was founded in 1842 by Henry Ingram, a liberal who favored social reform.

[6830] Peter Canot, A View of the Entrance of the Harbour of the Havana, Taken from within the Wrecks (1764),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-105952].
Havana, Cuba, was one of the ports visited by Briton Hammon as a sailor. Trade in sugar, slaves, and other commodities linked the Caribbean, Africa, North America, and Europe.

[6950] Briton Hammon, Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man… [Frontispiece] (1760),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Books and Special Collections Division.
Front page of the earliest-known autobiographical narrative by an African American. Hammon’s model helped establish a close relationship between the autobiographical genres of “captivity narratives” and “slave narratives.”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6