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  • Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives: Antebellum Explorations
  • Daphne Lamothe (bio)
Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives: Antebellum Explorations. By Cheryl J. Fish. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004. 224 pp. Library binding, $59.95.

In Black and White Women's Travel Narratives, Cheryl J. Fish contributes to studies of gender, race, nation, and travel with her examination of three nineteenth-century women travelers and writers: Nancy Prince, Mary Seacole, and Margaret Fuller. By focusing on these subjects Fish sheds new light on a group of writers who, particularly in the case of the first two, have been largely neglected. Moreover, she declares her intent to "gender" Paul Gilroy's vision of the Black Atlantic by studying the "mobile working bodies of black and white women of the Americas" and including women as "cultural agents" in discourses of travel and mobility (1993).

This notion of women's bodies at work and in motion is central to Fish's thesis that mobility allows for "the deployment of a critical voice within the global public sphere" (24). All three women engaged in acts of social benevolence and took part in political debates around questions of enslavement, racial uplift, and national expansion. They did so during a period of technological modernization that facilitated their movement to far-off places. Each wrote travelogues between 1840 and 1850 that were meant to function as social critiques of issues such as emigration, nationalism, slavery, and women's rights. Their narratives document how historical conflagrations, such as the Crimean War, transformed frontier places into sites of conflict. They all found themselves at crossroads, Fish argues, in contact zones where people and ideologies collided.

Black and White Women's Travel Narratives begins with an introduction that explains in a preliminary fashion the historical and social context for these texts and that provides a rationale for reading these diverse works together. In it Fish also introduces a number of the issues, themes, and theoretical concepts that concern her, such as "mobile subjectivity," designating the travelogue to be a "hybrid and dialogic genre" so as to decenter the [End Page 216] narrator's authority (15), and the implications of embodiment for the female subject.

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Figure 1.

The Liberator. (The Library Company of Philadelphia).

Chapter 1 focuses on Nancy Prince, a free black woman born in Massachusetts who accompanied her husband to Russia in 1824, where he worked for nine years as a guard to the tsar. After being left a widow, Prince traveled to Jamaica in 1840, where she engaged in missionary work, aiding newly emancipated Jamaicans and helping raise funds for a school for orphans. Fish describes Prince, who traveled by ship, as an anomaly, neither enslaved nor as free as the proverbial seaman. She was free to travel away from home, Fish reminds us, but her lack of race and class privilege necessitated that she justify her travel under the guise of wifely duty and moral obligation. Fish focuses most of her analysis on Prince's travelogues, which include an 1841 pamphlet, The West Indies: Being a Description of the Islands, Progress of Christianity, Education and Liberty Among the Colored [End Page 217] Population Generally, and three editions (1850, 1853, and 1856) of A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince. Prince's travel was motivated, among other things, by her ambivalence over the domestic roles open to her. Thus Fish envisions Prince's migrations as flights from domesticity. Fish's reading of these text centers primarily on the female subject's interrelatedness to others, be it her husband, sister, mother, or others in the communities that she gathered around her. Fish suggests that Prince's representation of her body as alternately strong and powerful or infirm and vulnerable to sickness or acts of violence resonates with the interpersonal relations and social positions she had to negotiate.

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Figure 2.

Mrs. Seacole's Hotel in the Crimea. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

The next chapter attends to Mary Seacole, a Jamaican woman and contemporary of Florence Nightingale who traveled to the Crimea to practice medicine during the Crimean...


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pp. 216-222
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