Conjurors, wanderers and rebels: Women and slave resistance in late eighteenth-century British writing

Tara Elizabeth Czechowski, Fordham University


This dissertation traces the problem of revolution and especially of slave revolt by focusing on white British writers' depiction of rebellious female slave figures in prose texts published between 1777 and 1814, a period of massive upheaval that included the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution. I locate writers' sensationalized portrayals of resistant women within the contexts of slave rebellion and colonial fetishism and demonstrate that as the punished body of the rebellious slave was marshaled to assuage fears about the stability of the slavery regime, white writers relied on representing women as conjurors, wanderers and rebels to manage their anxieties about Britain's stewardship over Africans and other non-dominant people. Investigating the changing nature of the figure of the rebellious woman reveals the profound impact of slaves' actions on the rhetoric of abolition and other social reform movements. George Colman's Inkle and Yarico: An Opera in Three Acts (1787), for instance, construes abolition and sympathy with the rebel woman as rehabilitating Britain's liberal national identity against American claims of British tyranny. But as the actual slave revolt in present-day Haiti rendered rebellious slave women less accessible as objects of pity, William Earle's Obi; or, The History of Three-Fingered Jack (1800) illustrates the more complicated compensatory strategies writers adopted to assert the integrity of Britain's colonial dominion against a reality that spoke otherwise. My third grouping of texts, Henry Mackenzie's Julia de Roubigné (1777), Maria Edgeworth's “The Grateful Negro” (1804) and Amelia Opie's Adeline Mowbray, or the Mother and Daughter (1805), provides instances of how the rebellious woman was reconfigured in narratives of the grateful slave to articulate the need for reforms with respect to women and the under classes. Such social reform rhetoric reached its culmination in 1807 when Britain abolished the slave trade. However, the last text I consider, Frances Burney's The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814), demonstrates the limited capacity of abolition to improve the lives of ex-slaves living in Britain in the face of an emerging racism that criminalized blacks for their resistance and cast them as wanderers on the English landscape.

Subject Area

Black studies|Womens studies|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Czechowski, Tara Elizabeth, "Conjurors, wanderers and rebels: Women and slave resistance in late eighteenth-century British writing" (2009). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3377042.