- Revising Torture:Moses Roper and the Visual Rhetoric of the Slave’s Body in the Transatlantic Abolition Movement
Torture endeavors to dehumanize and render powerless its subjects; it also intends to shred human dignity and condense a person to a body in pain, or even to an animal that cannot articulate its torment. As Elaine Scarry has famously observed, physical pain habitually entails a "shattering of language" as the tortured individual is degraded into a state "anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned."1 More recently, Idelber Avelar has pointed to the ways in which "torture may lead to a trauma that eventually buries the subject into silence altogether."2 The torture of enslaved individuals, when represented in British and U.S. abolitionist rhetoric from the nineteenth century, therefore presents a distinct paradox in that this body must suffer, but it cannot in fact be mute—it must become spoken so as to encourage political change. Within this context, as numerous critics have discussed, formerly enslaved narrators struggled to script messages onto the tortured body not only of pain, but also of modes of agency and voice, to move from being contained within the corporeal and silent realm (as an object that was seen) into the verbal and spoken one.3
Abolitionist visual culture generally attempted to verbalize the anguished body of the slave, to inscribe messages into [End Page 371] its pain, yet it did not invest these corporealties with modes of agency; instead, as Marcus Wood has shown through a detailed examination of such images, it often disempowered African American individuals by rendering them as abject and silent victims of torture.4 Moreover, African Americans were not major producers of visual culture in the early to mid-nineteenth century—with a few notable exceptions such as the engraver Patrick H. Reason, the sculptor Edmonia Lewis, and the daguerreotypist Augustus Washington. Stephen Best observes that "when it comes to the representation of the inner life of the enslaved, few of our sources are visual in nature. For slaves are not the subject of the visual imagination, they are its object."5 Yet if we widen our notion of "producer" to incorporate texts that contain both narrative and visual modes that work together synchronically, we may find some examples that characterize the enslaved as more than a silent and abject object within the visual culture of slavery.
This essay examines an extraordinary but little analyzed visual-verbal figuration of the enslaved body that textually invests this corporeality with an alternative mode of subjectivity. Moses Roper (c. 1815-1891) was a fugitive U.S.-born slave whose memoir—A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery—was published in London first in 1837 and then in the United States in 1838.6 Roper’s narrative was extremely popular in the United Kingdom and the United States and was, according to Jeffrey Hotz, a "trans-Atlantic success."7 The 1838 edition of Roper’s text contained four illustrations and a portrait, so it was probably the first illustrated narrative ever published by a U.S.-born enslaved person. The artist of these illustrations is unknown, but they appear to work synergistically with the narrative to extend its meaning in productive and provocative ways. For the most part critics have viewed Roper’s account as distanced and remote from the experiences he narrates and paid little attention to the role of the illustrations.8 Yet when assessed within the evolving visual culture of transatlantic abolitionist discourse, Roper’s [End Page 372] text effectively indicts slavery by rescripting slavery’s violence through religious metaphors that manifest themselves on both a verbal and visual level.
Roper’s narrative as a whole therefore depicts forms of agency and subjectivity that move beyond the master’s system of representation. Of course, the notion of slave agency may be problematic, as Saidiya Hartman has pointed out: "How is it possible to think ‘agency’ when the slave’s very condition of being or social existence is defined as a state of determinate negation? In other words, what are the constitutes of...