Annotation: Paul Baepler’s “Introduction” to White Slaves, African Masters (1999)

Peer-Review: 0

Baepler, Paul. “Introduction.” White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

In his introduction to White Slaves, African Masters Baepler directs our attention to the largely neglected genre of Barbary captivity narratives. While many today may be familiar with Mary Rowlandson’s tale of captivity among the “savage” Indians or Frederick Douglass’ famous slave narrative, stories about the seizure of American sailors, merchants, and women along the Barbary Coast have somehow been forgotten, relegated to distant memory. Baepler contends, however, that Barbary captivity played a significant role in shaping the early political policies of the new republic. For instance, it “forced the government to pay humiliating tributes in cash and military arms to African rulers, stimulated the drive to create the U.S. navy, and brought about the first postrevolutionary war” (2). These narratives also deeply influenced public imagination, providing many Americans with their first glimpses of the distant land of Africa, its culture and its people. Consequently, Baepler argues that by examining these once familiar stories, recognizing where they overlap and borrow from the tradition of Indian captivity and slave narratives, allows us to develop a more nuanced understanding of how racial categorization and perceptions of “otherness” developed in America. Perhaps one of the most fascinating qualities of these Barbary captivity narratives is their incredible diversity. The authors present a wide range of oftentimes-contradictory attitudes and perspectives, for example, using their experiences to critique as well as justify chattel slavery in America. But what I found most interesting and perhaps most relevant to my own interests, is the absence of any verifiable female accounts of barbary captivity. Baepler reveals that the two stories in the anthology purportedly written by women are most likely false. Yet, he asserts that the “existence of these ersatz accounts suggests that the demand for ‘true’ African captivity tales, particularly accounts of women in peril, outstripped their availability” (11). I would like to further explore the public fascination with “women in peril,” and particularly the differences between male and female accounts of barbary captivity. Whereas men often pictured themselves as laboring in a “communal space,” the few accounts we receive from females emphasize isolation and confinement (16). How do these disparities provide insight into attitudes towards women’s rights in early America and how are slavery and womanhood intertwined?