Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Voyeuristic Abolitionism: Sex, Gender, and the Transformation of Antislavery Rhetoric

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Voyeuristic Abolitionism: Sex, Gender, and the Transformation of Antislavery Rhetoric

Article excerpt

In 1834, in his Picture of Slavery in the United States of America, the American antislavery preacher George Bourne exhorted women to confront the predatory avarice of slavery and take up the cause of abolition:

Northern ladies . . . must cast off their mischievous prudery, their fastidious squeamishness, and their injurious reserve on this subject; and covering themselves with Christian mail, and forming an impenetrable phalanx, neither to be lampooned out of the truth, nor to be stared out of their dignified self possession, by infidel debauchees and profligate slavites; they must take up arms, which they can wield with more success than men, and urge Southern women to join them; until with their matronly purity and authority they have exterminated this devastating pestilence, which ... is filling the south-western country especially, with a flood of iniquity, that in its meanders, pollutes the furtherest boundaries of the United States.

This extended pamphlet of one hundred and twenty pages explored various aspects of the sinfulness of slavery, with special attention to transgressions that underscored its "licentiousness." Radical in his antislavery stance, Bourne was, for his day, quite graphic in his descriptions of the evils of the "peculiar institution": "A young woman in a state of servitude is not able to maintain her virtue against the solicitations of a master who promises her liberty, or a remission of toil, upon her yielding to his desires." He included the report of a southern mistress whomany years before Mary Chesnut-opined, "We are called wives, and as such we are recognized in law; but we are little more than superintendents of a colored seraglio."1

Bourne told his readers that young slaves, male and female, grew up together in nakedness, and waited at table, with all the evidence of their bodies on display not only to the "man-stealers" themselves, but also to their wives, daughters, and sons. He described how "Young colored women, stripped to a thin scanty body garment, after the most indecent examination, are publicly placed in scales, weighed and sold by the pound"; and he lamented that, in order to maximize possibilities for slave breeding, "on many plantations, bribes are offered expressly to encourage the utmost licentiousness that children may be born." Bourne recounted how the range of colors of slaves "of every distinguishable complexion from Congo black to . . . sallow" on a single plantation were attributed to their master's "process of multiplying and whitewashing his slaves," pausing to feign a demurral: "I dare not publish the particulars of the . . . bleaching manufactory; but I gathered . . . some general views which will unravel what Southern women know or connive at or encourage, that they may pass their days in comparative sloth and voluptuousness." He described at great length the plight of various female slaves whipped for "lack of compliance with [the master's] sensual desire," including one who resisted until, "partly by force," the master "accomplished his infamous design," and another punished for her disobedience by having her body and legs "literally cut in pieces."2

Bourne illustrated his message of sexual exploitation with a series of explicit, perhaps even titillating, engravings he titled "Flogging American Women," "Selling Females by the Pound," "A Woman Exchanged for a Ram and a Sheep," and "Ladies Whipping Girls."3

"Flogging American Women" (see Figure 1) portrays a woman tied to a fence, naked from the waist up, being flogged by a man in top hat and swallowtail coat, while another man watches. In "Selling Females by the Pound" (Figure 2), a leering white man in top hat sits on straw bales watching two other men put weights on a scale to balance the African American woman on the other side. "A Woman Exchanged for a Ram and a Sheep" (Figure 3) depicts an African American woman, again naked from the waist up, standing beside an elegantly dressed man on a Greek revival porch awaiting the arrival of two men driving animals toward them. …

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