Studying to be Singular is a double biography. First of John Gabriel Stedman, 1744 - 1797, the idiosyncratic artist and soldier. Secondly of the book he wrote about his five years' campaigning in Suriname - at once a travelogue, a history, a military record, a naturalist's diary, an anthropological classic, and one of the great love stories of the late 18C, reflected in a series of plays, poems, novels, and pamphlets that constitute the book's afterlife.
Landeg White is a scholar, translator, novelist and poet, whose first collection For Captain Stedman (Peterloo Poets, 1983) began a thirty year association with this fascinating figure.
He has taught at universities in Trinidad, Malawi, Sierra Leone, the University of the West Indies, Trinidad, the University of Malawi and was the Director of the Centre for Southern African Studies at York University.
Landeg White's handsome and vivid account of Stedman, Studying to be Singular: John Gabriel Stedman, 1744-1797, itself delightfully illustrated, is a felt and eloquent tribute by one of our most versatile men of letters, poet, novelist, translator, connoisseur of empire, and warrior for justice.
Within the book are dozens of illustrations, including the engravings by William Blake - based on Stedman's sketchings of scenes from the Suriname planter-slave society, which were used by the abolitionist movement in their campaign against slavery. Also included are several original watercolours by John Gabriel Stedman, published for the first time.
Landeg White's long interest in Stedman began with the brief account, first read in Trinidad, of 'the idyll between Stedman and his brown Joanna' in Charles Kingsley's At Last, an exuberant naturalist's description of a Christmas spent there in 1870.
Subsequently, he came across a second-hand edition of Stanbury Thompson's Journal of John Gabriel Stedman, where he learned for the first time of Stedman's friendship with William Blake.
When he published his first collection of poems in 1983, the title poem was addressed to Stedman.
'I now must make an apology for my style, which is turn'd by G-d!
so very insipid, that I myself am tired with it. D-mn spelling. d-mn
writing, and d-mn everything overdone.'
By G-d! Johnny, near pistoll'd
in your cradle, that pigeon's
crop you stuck up nanny's bum,
Jacobite schoolblows, raped
by your uncle's maid, and Mrs Mallet
tendering her carcass to an ensign,
lampoons and duels and haylofts,
punch and plackets, it makes
devilish fine reading!
and Joanna: not surprising
a mulatto slave girl be thrust
in somewhere, eh Johnny?
That's a ripe sketch you shape
of her, a ripe joke this nigger-
wench costlier than your fortune!
But wife? Two thousand florins?
A son? By G-d! Captain, that's
Therefore at L'Esperance,
the colony at war,
you built your house
of grass and wattle,
a room for your girl,
a room for painting,
a kitchen, henhouse,
palisades, a bridge,
Captain and artist,
wounded in the campaign,
you carved a pool
the bamboo lances,
drenched her body
Soldier and lover,
the revolt subdued,
you limped nightly
to the Dutchman's plantation
and her side.
A grass and wattle
studio at L'Esperance;
if only there were
diamonds, you prayed
if only fighting
rebel blacks sufficed
to buy her freedom.
Stedman, your Smollett-dabbed journal brags
loud of yourself, viz., I told the bugger
he ought to know a dog's turd from another
after getting so many, viz., I pass my time
making baskets for the girl I love, viz., d-mn
Order, d-mn Matter-of-fact, d-mn Everything!
and Captain you do, with five challenges
one month, no slight, no oversight, no lost
button or bruised bum too trivial to curse
and bring to cutlasses, yet such chivalrous
brawls, only with Captains! Johnny, you bore
a code in your fevers, far beyond Paramaribo
up brimming blackwater rivers where forests
choke in their creeper-hammocks, and Negroes
racked and handlopped, splintered on wheels,
hamstrung, scalded in sugar-vats, skewered
blistering by furnaces, and girls' breasts
mistress-whipped to blood for their masters'
fondling - Captain, your pen nib splutters Oh
Fie! for every gouge, brand, manacle, every
throat self-slit and earth eating, the horror
of nightly nightmares and Joanna's auction!
So what in the name of sketching are these
arabesques, these slender Egypto triangles
strutting the skylines of your history, viz.,
your Narrative of a Five Year's Expedition
Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam?
Or these all-but nudes? such poised despair,
such healthy breasts and thighs! are they
slaves, these buxom Maori-haired Italians?
Or Joanna, your dear dead girl, whose wife-
maddening monument to five years' loving
on the Wild Coast your book is, how can
poison lie in ambush for this lilting virgin,
a straw hat in her hand, this barefoot
gipsy with the tight curls, her dark breast
proffered to a curving, friendly world
of formal palms and odorous orange groves?
Stedman, your gentle melancholy Art
Distills the loyal chaos of your heart,
Weeps o'er the victims of a barb'rous Age,
But distances to Elegance, Outrage;
You could not murder Style to match their Life;
You saw not Slaves but Men and a dear Wife.
He returned to the theme in his second collection, The View from the Stockade (1991) with a pair of linked sonnets, based on the revelation that, contrary to Stedman's own account, it was only after his Dutch marriage in February 1782, that Joanna died of poison.
The hardest part, writing the account
A dozen years after in a another country,
The hardest memory was her utter
Separateness. She had lain in his arms
So soft, so pliable, he was the bridge
Straining above her, drowning
In her depths as she ebbed to the sea.
He was the leaky dam at L'Esperance.
Writing the account, her death made
Believable his lost age of gold.
But he knew it was never so. For
All the rich tapestry of poems
He wove round her, a fuck
Was a fuck. It left her untouched.
I was slave, not so? The hardest
Part was he touched me with hope.
Not in bed as he pounded me
With his soft pestle, but after
When sweet talk could get him no more
And he sang his poems. He built me
A pool at L'Esperance by the gold
Waterfall. I loved him, nearly.
But he's just a man. No money, like
My father. Soon he'd want younger
Girls to pound out his pride, and where
Would I hide in England? So I laughed.
When he married I smashed my mortar
And drank my poison. And felt sure.
When he joined Portugal's Universidade Aberta (Open University) in 1997, it was a requirement of his appointment that he complete a doctoral degree, something not previously necessary in a long academic career replete in publications.
It was, he confessed, the longest bureaucratic form he had ever filled out, but he took the different versions of Stedman's Narrative as his topic and, after graduating in 2002, decided to turn the thesis into the present biography Studying to be Singular: John Gabriel Stedman, 1744-1797.
In the summer of 1796, John Gabriel Stedman, recently promoted Lieutenant-Colonel on the half-pay list of the British army, published his Narrative of a five year's expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America, from the year 1772 to 1777: elucidating the History of that Country, and describing its Productions, Viz., Quadrupedes, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, Trees, Shrubs, Fruits, & Roots; with an account of the Indians of Guiana, & Negroes of Guinea.1
The book was in two quarto volumes, each of just over four hundred pages, and was illustrated with eighty engravings from Stedman's original watercolours and drawings. The publisher was Joseph Johnson, famous for a list that included works by Tom Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Joseph Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, John Howard, Humphrey Davy and Thomas Malthus among many other radical figures. Over this latest book he had gone to some trouble and expense - hiring a well-known copy-editor to prepare the manuscript for publication, advancing Stedman the considerable sum of £300, and destroying a first print run of 2000 copies when Stedman demanded last-minute alterations. The engravers included Royal Academician Francesco Bartolozzi and the respected journeyman (but unknown poet) William Blake. A limited number of the two volumes were published in large paper issue (Royal quarto) with all plates coloured by hand.
The Narrative, as the full title indicates, was one of those old-fashioned travel memoirs impossible to imagine anyone contemplating today (or any publisher willing to sponsor) in which the author gives a full account of the country he has visited and of his experiences there. Stedman offers the reader a history of the colony of Suriname, including what he has been able to find out about the history of its Amerindian population and of the African slaves imported from 'Guinea'. He provides, rather more reliably, an account of its flora and fauna, including some of the earliest descriptions of the ecology of Latin American rain forests. He narrates his regiment's long-running war against the 'rebel' maroon communities of escaped slaves, anticipating a vast literature about guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgency tactics, and offering conclusions based on his personal experience of jungle combat which were still being studied in American military academies in the 1960s. His book is one of the richest, most detailed, and most caustic accounts ever devised of the beliefs, practices, divisions and atrocities of a planter-slave society. Finally, it is one of the greatest love stories of the period. At the very heart of the Narrative is Stedman's elaborately wrought account of his marriage to Joanna, a mixed-race slave who bore his son John but who died some five years after his regiment was withdrawn from Suriname.
With such ingredients, it is scarcely surprising the book was an immediate success. Translations appeared in rapid succession. Two German versions, both abridged, appeared in 1797, a French version (with additional material by the translator P.F. Henry) in 1798, two Dutch versions in 1799, and an abridged Swedish translation in 1800. The translations began to feed off each other, as though the tale with cuts and additions was being passed on as in an oral culture. One of the two Dutch versions of 1799 was translated from the German while a further Dutch translation in 1799-1800 was based on P.F. Henry's French version - as was Borghi's Italian translation of 1818.
Meanwhile, Joanna - so tenderly described, so beautifully portrayed - was becoming an iconic figure. First, in a masque-spectacle Joanna of Surinam by John Cross presented at the Royal Circus, Blackfriars on July 2, 1804 (for which no text survives). Next in Taschenbuch der Reisen, a German travel anthology compiled by E.A.W. Zimmermann, and simultaneously as the heroine of Die Sklavin in Surinam by the Austrian Franz Kratter, based on the earliest German translation of Stedman's Narrative. Next, metamorphosed as Zelinda, a beautiful octoroon slave, in Thomas Morton's The Slave: a Musical Drama in Three Acts with music by Henry Bishop, staged at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden on November 12, 1816. Next in the anonymous novel Joanna, or the Female Slave. A West Indian Tale, published in 1824. Next once again as Zelinda in Gambia, or The Slave, a revival in November 1832 of Thomas Morton's musical drama of 1816. Next in the short story 'Joanna' in Mrs Lydia Child's The Oasis, published in Boston, Massachusetts in 1834. Finally, for the nineteenth century, as the heroine of a French novelette Aventures de Hercule Hardi (1772) by Eugene Sue, first published in 1840 and repeatedly thereafter, including an English translation of 1844.
This intense interest in Stedman's account and in the romance with Joanna reflected the increasingly bitter debate about African slavery. By 1838, it had been abolished in the British West Indies, and by 1848 in all French colonies. With almost uncanny correspondence, Stedman's Narrative and its derivatives disappear from the bibliographical record. Over a century elapses between the publication of Sue's novelette and the re-emergence of an interest in Stedman's Narrative in the context of European de-colonisation. Two abridgements of the earliest texts were published, first of P.F. Henry's translation in a Club Francais du Livre edition in 1960, and then of the 1796 edition with modernised spelling by the Folio Society in 1963. At this stage, however, the story began to take a further twist, with a set of curious and fascinating revelations about the making of the 1796 edition of the Narrative.
In 1962, the English antiquarian Stanbury Thompson published The Journal of John Gabriel Stedman 1744-1797, Soldier and Author, Including an authentic account of his expedition to Surinam in 1773. This was based a small green almanac together with a bundle of other papers Thompson had purchased for five shillings from a junk dealer in Pimlico some time about 1940. The title Journal is a little misleading. The first third of the book is a memoir of Stedman's early life from his birth to his enlistment in the Suriname expedition, written after he had settled in Tiverton on Devon. The remainder is a series of diaries kept more or less daily between October 1772 and July 1796, eight months before his death, but with important gaps. In 1966 Thompson followed this with a biography, John Gabriel Stedman: a study of his life and times.
Thompson's researches over the two decades he spent preparing the Journal for publication were mainly genealogical, and he completely overlooked the significance of two interesting revelations. The first, taken up by Geoffrey Keynes in the Times Literary Supplement 2, concerned the close friendship that sprang up between Stedman and William Blake. The American scholar David Erdman had proposed earlier that certain poems of Blake's, and in particular 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion' (1793), had been influenced by his work as engraver in preparing the some of the plates for the Narrative.3 What the Journal established was that this was no distant professional relationship but a friendship maintained through an active correspondence, with Blake handling Stedman's business affairs, acting as his host during his visits to London, and finally overseeing the book through the press.
The second revelation in the Journal is that Stedman was deeply dissatisfied with the production of his 1796 Narrative. 'My book marr'd entirely', he complained on 24 June. 'Am put to the most extreme trouble and expense ... Bawdy oaths, lies, & preachings, in my unhappy book',4 and he apparently succeeded in getting Johnson to burn a first edition of 2000 copies while last minute alterations were made. Unknown to Stedman, the manuscript he submitted to Johnson had been completely re-written by William Thomson, a professional copy editor hired for the purpose. It was only in 1988 that Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam: Transcribed for the First Time from the Original 1790 Manuscript (henceforth 1790 'Narrative') was published in an edition lovingly and brilliantly edited by Richard and Sally Price.
Thus the history of Stedman's 1796 Narrative may be pursued in two directions. First, backwards in time in search of the book's origins in the Journal and the 1790 'Narrative', and secondly forwards by examining its legacy in other texts. The transformations of the story illuminate attitudes to slavery over four decades. They provide a cautionary example of the ways in which the lives of colonised peoples came to be presented not simply in European idioms, but more profoundly as metaphors for entirely European concerns.
Stedman was not a great writer - his prose was adequate for a book with a fascinating content - but he was deeply interested in questions of style and genre. Between the diary entries made in Suriname during the mid-1770s and the completion of his 'Narrative' on 1 September 1790, he devised idioms for the presentation of himself, Joanna, and the rebel Maroons of Suriname, based largely on his reading in eighteenth century literature. The Maroons were conceived of as examples of the 'heroic'; Joanna as an essentially 'pastoral' heroine; and himself as a 'man of sentiment'. Even before the Narrative was published, Blake made these idioms look anachronistic by casting Joanna as Oothoon, the shimmering heroine of his 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion' (1793). Then the hack writer William Thomson, copy-editing Stedman's manuscript, stripped away much of this presentation. Richard and Sally Price, understandably given the nature of their project, regard Thomson's alterations as vandalism. Yet in a sense what Thomson did was to cut away Stedman's decorations, allowing the bare story to speak for itself. The result was a book of undeniable power and influence, sparking the many imitations and re-interpretations already listed. My preference, too, is for the 1790 'Narrative', now revealed in all its richness. But it was the 1796 Narrative that made history.