"And Hold the Bondman Still": Biogeography and Utopia in Slave and Serf Narratives

Article excerpt

"Instinct of the race to survive and expand."

Nella Larsen, Passing

The next morning Uncle Robin and Aunt Judy were having their first breakfast in their new home. The whippoorwills were chirping outside. In the distance a Negro harmonica could be hear dreamily.

"Isn't it amazing, "Aunt Judy said, lifting a mouthful pancake with her silver fork, "last night we were in the Frederick Doug s Houses and now we're in the Master's Castle."

Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada


"Slaves aren't supposed to move, except when Master wants them to."

I have placed this rather unsurprising observation at the front of this essay because it points to a dynamic central to what we might call the "topographical imaginary" of slavery. The bondsman's "bonds" are tight circumscriptions, restrictions on movement that tend, in the extreme instance, to actual incarceration or worse: punitive binding of the body, confinement in the hold of a slave ship. (Slave narrators spend a lot of time in jail, too.) On the other hand, slaves, especially the kind of rural or "plantation" slaves I will be talking about here for the most part, are far-from-immobile beings, insofar as they are exploited for their labor. Indeed, one can almost define "exploitation" as getting people to move, and keeping them moving, in certain ways to the exclusion of others." This suggests an obvious paradox, for slaves must be kept still and moving at the same time. (Of course, something of this paradox applies to all of us "interpellated subjects," but we can probably agree that it applies to bond smen in a particularly acute way.) It follows, then, that exploitation demands some space of mobility, and that restriction on slave movement is a matter of degree, though always shadowed by the possibility of radical, absolute constraint.

I will be arguing in this essay that the question of slave mobility has crucial implications for our thinking about the life writing of bondsmen, and especially in relation to its historical/political substructure. In the forms of slavery that evolved and much later collapsed in the United States and in Russia--called here "US slavery" and "Russian serfdom" for short--the dialectic of expansion and constraint permeates this substructure completely. For all the differences between the versions of bondage that emerged in the two countries, neither can be conceptualized except in relation to the historical dynamics of an expansion crucially dependent upon bondage for its laboring material base. It has long been known, for example, that a close dialectical relationship existed between "the geographic and economic expansion of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" and "the emergence--in some cases the reemergence--of forced labor on both its eastern and western borders." (1) The consequence was a str iking historical parallelism: two forms of chattel slavery, US bondage and Russian serfdom, emerged at more or less the same time, and collapsed within four years of one another (in 1865 and 1861 respectively). The parallels extend to the level of social relations as well, for "by the middle of the eighteenth century the formal power of the [Russian landowner] over his serfs was as great as that of the American slaveowner over his chattel-almost total, short of deliberate murder" (Kolchin 41).

Historians have further noted (but not fully explored) the possibility of something like a common period of origin for the two systems. David Brion Davis has argued that "the turning point" leading to New World slavery came with the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453," after which time Mediterranean Europe was cut off from its major source of slaves," including large numbers of Russians. The already expanding slave trade then turned its attention from "the Crimea and the steppes of western Asia [to] sub-Saharan Africa" (56). …