Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America

Article excerpt

The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America. By Terri L. Snyder. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 240. $45.00, ISBN 978-0-226-28056-1.)

In 1815 an enslaved woman named Anna survived a leap from a Washington, D.C., window to avoid sale to Georgia. Her suicide attempt, which was propagandized in Jesse Torrey's A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery in the United States (1817), highlights the significance of slave suicides to the developing American republic. In her second monograph, The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America, Terri L. Snyder uses this image to begin her argument that enslaved people who ended their lives were a vital component of larger mid-eighteenth-century issues, such as medical discussions of mental illness, philosophical debates over the right to suicide, and a legal dialogue that led to its criminalization as felo-de-se, or felon of self.

The book's six brief chapters contain an exploration of the "forces that propelled enslaved people to that moment of self-harm as well as the legal, political, and cultural ramifications of those fatal acts" across the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland from the 1750s through the antebellum period (p. 18). These forces included disparate African conceptions of good and bad deaths, maternal instinct, avoidance of rape, failed insurrection, and even spontaneity. Vexing for Atlantic slavers concerned with preventing suicide during transport, the problem of suicide was amplified when enslaved Africans disembarked in the Americas. There enslaved people found more tools at their disposal to incorporate ritual practices to aid what they believed to be spiritual transmigration back to their homelands.

In the first full-length study of suicide among enslaved persons in early America, Snyder focuses on connections between those factors that encouraged self-destruction, their effects, and their centrality to abolitionist rhetoric. Her analysis elevates slave suicide above being merely a facet of resistance by explaining what it meant for black individuals and emerging critiques of slavery in the Atlantic world. The power of taking one's life was displayed in both the manner in which suicides were committed and how they "implicitly called into question the institution's pretensions to paternalism" (p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.