A text is a text is a text. Sometimes, it’s more than one.

title page detail, Narrative of a five years’ expedition… (1796). Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

In 1772, the English officer John Gabriel Stedman was sent to the Dutch-controlled colony of Suriname in South America to help end an armed revolt by plantation slaves. Stedman’s diary of his experiences in Suriname became the two-volume Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana... The Narrative was initially published by Joseph Johnson to great popular success in 1796.

John Gabriel Stedman’s map of Suriname

The Narrative is complex: part account of the plantation society and slavery system in Suriname, part amateur naturalists’ catalog of regional flora and fauna, part romance novel. The textual history of the book is no less complicated. Over twenty-five editions of the book have been published, in multiple languages. Various editors have worked with the text over the past two centuries, framing Stedman’s words according to their own biases and sometimes even altering illustrations (by William Blake, Francesco Bartolozzi, and others) in order to clothe nakedness depicted in the originals.

“Order of March thro’ the Woods of Surinam”
“The Plantain Tree, and the Banana”

One of the wonderful things about first editions of books found in special collections is that they preserve the earliest publicly available versions of authors’ work. There are multiple levels on which we can experience and learn from these materials and we encourage students to look at rare books and manuscripts with a critical eye. Using early editions found in Archives and Special Collections in conjunction with later editions found in the circulating collections at Frost Library and elsewhere enables a kind of cultural detective work. In the case of John Stedman’s Narrative, the editing process impacted the emotional and political meaning of the text right from the beginning. Stedman himself was very unhappy with the changes from his original manuscript to the first edited edition and is said to have burned two thousand copies in protest. Since then, multiple editors have continued to make slight and not-so-slight alterations to the work, reflecting both personal and cultural biases.

illustration of Joanna in The Oasis, altered to cover nudity

In 1834, abolitionist Lydia Maria Child excerpted material from the Narrative dealing with Stedman’s marriage to the former slave Joanna for The Oasis. In 1838, Isaac Knapp, one of the founders of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, published Narrative of Joanna, an emancipated slave of Surinam, a book that incorporated Stedman’s text and some of Child’s edited passages. These two books helped to cement the public perception of Stedman’s Narrative as abolitionist (Stedman’s original manuscript was somewhat critical of slavery, but his negative views of the slave trade, social justice and organized religion had been largely toned down or censored for Johnson’s published edition).

New editions of the Narrative and works based on the story of Stedman and Joanna continued to be published throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1988, Richard and Sally Price completed a scholarly edition of the Narrative largely transcribed from Stedman’s original manuscript and diaries (now held by the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota). The Price edition made Stedman’s original lines widely available for the first time and aimed to follow his political intentions as closely as possible.

“Europe supported by Africa and America” illustration by William Blake in Stedman’s  Narrative, vol. 2
The exercise of reading the 1988 Price edition of the Narrative alongside the 1796 first edition gives us an extreme example of just how very different two versions of the same text can be. It also reminds us that we cannot separate the writing, editing or reading of “first person narratives” from the cultural context of the writers, editors or readers of these texts.

Various editions of the Narrative and related books can be found at Amherst College and other Five College libraries. The 1796 edition is here at the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.

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