Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lawrence on 19th-Century Child Enslavement

Benjamin N. Lawrance, Rochester Institute of Technology, has posted 'Your Poor Boy No Father No Mother': 'Orphans,' Alienation, and the Perils of Atlantic Child Slave Biography, which appeared in Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 36 (Fall 2013): 672-703.  Here is the abstract:    
Using the life of the nineteenth-century Sierra Leonean child slave and interpreter at the trials of La Amistad James Kaweli Covey as a primary vehicle, this article explores the social and political context embedded in Atlantic child slave biography, such as claims about family, parentage, and orphanhood, in narratives of child enslavement. I examine Covey’s claims of orphanhood and the fictive kinship relations Covey marshaled during his Atlantic passages as examples of the struggle against alienation to "remake" his political and social being. Whereas we shall likely never know the fate of Covey’s biological kin, our interest should not end there. More so than adult slaves, children deployed kinship language and idioms as part of the larger struggle to forge and preserve relationships with benefactors. Although kinship claims are an experience common across slave populations, a focus on child claims draws attention to the extreme vulnerability of child slaves and their more pressing need for patron/client relationships.

Notwithstanding the fact that Covey’s passage through multiple instances of enslavement and freedom appears quite exceptional, data from the Amistad captives suggest that his familial context and path to enslavement were both relatively ordinary for a male West African child, c. 1820-40. Drawing on contemporaneous sources, I move beyond the metaphorical and fictional kinship framework within which Covey’s narrative resides, to speculate about the real biological and familial context of Covey via data he himself assisted in collecting. Covey’s statements and strategies point to a child’s view of the African family, and one that is sensitive to some of the perils of Atlantic child slave biography, such as the frequent inconsistencies and contradictions in child memories of trauma. Set against the generalized cultural context, Covey’s multiple narratives and claims suggest a deliberate struggle to resuscitate family as part of a struggle against alienation via fictional kinship.