The Power to DieSlavery and Suicide in British North America

The Power to DieSlavery and Suicide in British North America

Terri L. Snyder

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9780226280561

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

Acts of suicide by enslaved people carried significant cultural, legal, and political implications in the emerging slave societies of British America and, later, the United States. This study a wide range of evidence from ship logs and surgeon's journals, legal and legislative records, newspapers, periodicals, novels, and plays, abolitionist print and slave narratives in order to consider the intimate circumstances, cultural meanings, and political consequences of enslaved peoples' acts of self-destruction in the context of early American slavery. Suicide reflected the struggles between enslaved men and women and their traders and owners; self-destruction by enslaved people was an ongoing aspect of the culture of colonization that shaped understandings of race and gender in early America. In literary and popular culture, representations of slave suicide were vehicles for considering the character of enslaved people and reflecting on the imperial and national implications of Anglo-American slavery. Acts of suicide by slaves also highlighted tensions in understandings of property and personhood that were fundamental to the legalities and commerce of slavery. Whether or not they intended it, slaves' self-inflicted deaths shaped criticisms of slavery: when the earliest abolitionist literature emerged in the late eighteenth-century Anglo-Atlantic, it used occasions and images of slave suicide to denounce the institution. In short, suicide was central to the history and culture of slavery and anti-slavery efforts in early British America and, later, the United States.