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Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834.

Subject to Others is a book difficult to assess as history, not only because Moira Ferguson is a professor of English whose critical analyses are primarily literary, but because she so often lacks a historical perspective. In her first chapter she can say of seventeenth-century British reaction to black slavery, in contrast to concern over Europeans captured by Barbary pirates, "as long as Africans mere the victims, almost no one seemed to mind" (p. 15). To say that a more accurate statement would be that it was a concern to almost no one may be a subtle difference, but it is nevertheless a difference. A great many things did not concern the seventeenth-century British, some of which they knew about and many of which they didn't; their lack of concern was more a reflection of all the other things that did concern them at that time, and was not primarily racism, though there was certainly an element of that. In addition, to be more concerned with your own community is a human condition. At a later point Professor Ferguson, speaking of Captain James Cook, writes "though History has subsequently condemned . . ." (p. 157). History condemns nothing; historians often do, though in this case it would perhaps be hard to find a historian who has taken Cook so entirely out of his context as to issue Professor Ferguson's particular condemnation. Professor Ferguson does use works by distinguished historians to provide background for her critical study, but it is hard to avoid the conviction that she has used these sources very selectively, and has left out sections that do not support her particular agenda.

What Professor Ferguson has done is produce a detailed survey, with a good deal of useful quotation, and analysis of writings of women on the issue of slavery. Since her clearly set-out agenda is feminist, she emphasizes the extent to which many of the writers equate black slavery with the particular disabilities imposed upon them by society because they are women. She deals with the works of Quaker writers exposed to the West Indian situation, and then launches into a detailed evaluation of Aphra Behn and her Oroonoko. This list is interesting, though it begs the question whether an analysis based so much on a construct of Aphra Behn's life, that could turn out to be total fiction because so little is actually known about her, is rendered valueless if the construct should happen to collapse. Her early eighteenth-century authors include the Countess of Hereford and Sarah Robinson Scott, as she traces the beginnings of a moral conscience about the conditions of black slavery. In the late eighteenth century determined attack on the slave trade, Professor Ferguson details the contributions of writers such as Hannah More, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, and Anna Maria Falconbridge. In the campaign that finally led to parliamentary abolition of slavery in 1833, she considers the works of Elizabeth Heyrick, Harriet Martineau, and other writers from women's organizations that helped so powerfully in the success of this reform movement. She then gives a detailed analysis of the statement of her life provided by Mary Prince, an ex-slave (of which statement Professor Ferguson has previously produced an edition).

The key words applying to Professor Ferguson's study are "codes," "encoded," and "decoded." For Professor Ferguson the writings of women are multi-layered, much like the allegories of the medieval period. The writers have encoded their writings in levels of meaning, and the author, being in possession of the codes which have been revealed by recently developed gender studies, proceeds to decode them at length. The best example of her technique is to be found in chapter 13, in her exposition of Mary Prince's The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. Despite the fact that what Mary Prince has said was filtered through two minds, that of Suzanna Strickland, who took down what she said, and Thomas Pringle, who edited it for publication in 1831. Professor Ferguson contends that Mary Prince chose her words so carefully that levels of meaning, previously hidden, can now be discerned. It is an interesting technique, and can produce valuable insights, but carried to extremes, as Professor Ferguson sometimes has been tempted to do, the effect has been to dehumanize her subjects. The problem of decoding is that ultimately the writer becomes a coding machine, rather than a human being coping with the stress and strains of an individual life, and living within the cultural framework of a particular period. Mary Prince's utterings get so loaded down with meanings that it is a wonder that the poor woman dared to speak at all. Perhaps a truer picture of Mary Prince does emerge just listening to her voice, and not overanalysing the component parts of a complex individual. Something similar can be said about Professor Ferguson's judgements of euro-centrism when she speaks of her eighteenth-century writers. She has clearly missed the point that what she has produced is a study of British literary history, not a study of slavery and its consequences. To successfully do this she would have to go back to the sources on the slave trade that she has so selectively used, and note that there would not have been black slavery in the West Indies without the fully voluntary, and enthusiastic support of African slave raiders and traders. What her writers are writing about are human problems, not specifically the shortcomings of Europeans, or the British, or, perhaps, even men.

Despite such criticisms, it must be noted that Professor Ferguson has produced much that could be useful to cultural historians. That is why it is a pity that she has written it in a style and language that is so difficult. More than anything else, this book is a document of the late twentieth-century development of feminist and gender studies, and as such it incorporates much of the worst of the jargon that has developed around this study. When in doubt, turn nouns into verbs appears to be the rule, even when no obvious reason seems to exist to do so. It is possible to "decode" this language, and arrive at the meaning of Professor Fergusson's discourse, but it is entirely likely that very few readers will find the time to do so.
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Author:Kitzan, Laurence
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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