Resistant Specimens: Caribbean Nature and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century British Literature

Malkah Bressler, Fordham University


This dissertation argues that eighteenth-century depictions of plants and animals found in the Caribbean point to modes of resistance practiced by enslaved and free Africans against the plantation system. Recent scholarship by Christopher P. Iannini argues that representations of plants and animals in eighteenth-century natural histories about the Caribbean acted as emblems conveying political, religious, and moral messages about slavery. This dissertation extends this project by examining plant and animal descriptions that exceed attempts at scientific objectification and thereby end up suggesting analogous failures in European attempts to objectify and control Afro-Caribbean subjects. Although “resistant specimens” might seem unlikely to show up in literature about the Caribbean, given the oppressive nature of the plantation system, they actually manifest themselves in a wide range of works. For instance, in chapter one, I consider Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave (1688) and its use of tigers that refuse to die and electric eels that shock to signify Oroonoko’s refusal to subject himself to the dehumanizing process of enslavement. Chapter two looks at John Singleton’s A General Description of the West-Indian Islands (1767) and its depiction of a sea anemone, which Singleton thinks could be a plant or animal. In vacillating over its nature, however, Singleton undermines his own attempts to place Africans and particularly African women in a separate, less-than-human class from Europeans. Chapter three looks at John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), which contains numerous animals that move Stedman to pity and sympathy and therefore blur the boundary between not only Stedman and maroon rebels but also between animals and human beings. As I thus conclude, resistant specimens complicated Atlantic discussions about the nature of humanity and the viability of slavery.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Bressler, Malkah, "Resistant Specimens: Caribbean Nature and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century British Literature" (2018). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10932238.