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Project statement and subprojects

Reading Slavery - Comparative Studies of the Literature of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The research project Reading Slavery aims to study the literary implications of the transatlantic slave trade, which had a crucial, but often disregarded importance for the cultural development in the nations and regions involved. Through the comparative study of a broad range of literary artefacts related to colonial slavery, the project highlights the reciprocal cultural exchanges between colonies and the colonized world.

The research group is based at the Department of Comparative Literature, University of Aarhus, and supported by the Department of Aesthetics and Communication, and by a generous funding from the Velux Foundation. The project has established national and international contacts and partnerships with leading scholars in the field. If you are interested in taking part of the project and the network, don’t hesitate to send a message to one of the members of the group. 


The project aims to provide accurate descriptions of the cultural and literary history of slavery in the period of the transatlantic slave trade, and of the profound impact of the legacy of slavery in the three continents in later periods and today. Furthermore the project also aims to prepare the study of the many contemporary forms of slavery, which remains a concrete reality all over the world.

Colonial slavery has been virtually absent from descriptions of literary history until the last decades, and in many countries, among them Denmark, it still is. This fact is of course a result of colonial politics, but it is also related to our understanding of the field of literature. Firstly because the slave trade transcends the national borders within which literary history has traditionally been written and the cultural consequences of slavery is therefore often only visible in a transnational perspective that has rarely been applied, transcending the Atlantic and the North/South divide. And secondly because the accounts of slavery that we have are almost always to be found in types of text that are seen to be on the border or outside the realm of literature: oral tales, travel accounts, missionary statements, and legal and mercantile documents. Through the application of a broad and open notion of literature, it becomes possible to read exactly those connections, displacements and discontinuities that have been neglected in the writing of colonial history. An important part of the research is therefore to develop a new understanding of the idea of ‘comparison’ in comparative literature which lies in continuation of recent discussions within the field provoked by the challenges to the very idea of comparing national literatures brought on by twentieth century processes of decolonization and globalization.

Individual projects

Frits Andersen studies how concepts of freedom and slavery are challenged when colonial powers fight the transnational slave trade with transnational free trade in Central Africa in the 1890s. The material consists of novels (Jürgen Jürgensen), letters, pamphlets and travel narratives (H. Stanley, E. Morel, R. Casement), campaign material related to the Congo Reform Campaign, found in Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika, Tervuren, The E.D. Morel Collection at London School of Economics and The Anti-Slavery Society collection at Rhodes House, London. Eyewitness narratives and biographies describing the trade by the notorious Islamic slave trader Tippu Tib will form the center of research.  

Jakob Ladegaard’s project is a book-length study of the representations of slavery and the New World in Early Modern England (1550-1650). This early stage of the English involvement in the Atlantic slave trade is less studied than England’s leading role in the 18th century slave trade. In this project, I wish first of all to describe the prevalent patterns in the era’s discourses on slavery, their changes from the mid-16th century to the mid-17th and their relation to the discourses underpinning the large scale English slave trade in the 18th century. It is a thesis of the project that attitudes toward slavery of the earlier era were more varied and ambivalent, partly because slave trade was often seen as a foreign (especially Spanish) practice, and partly because although there were Englishmen slave traders, they were outnumbered by the Englishmen enslaved by North African corsairs. In order to study these interactions, the project will focus on a broad spectrum of textual sources dealing with the Atlantic slave trade, English captivity in North Africa and the slavery practices of other nations. The sources range from Elizabethan comedy, popular captivity tales and philosophical debates about slavery and natural law. Since slavery is both in practice and discursively an international phenomenon involving an extended network of actors, the textual material will be read in a context of international economic and political power relations and boundary-crossing literary exchanges.

Jonas Ross Kjærgård´s project addresses the complex dialectics between the Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) slave rebellion (1791-1804) and the French revolution (1789-1799). He suggests, firstly, that the slave rebellion has played a very considerable role in the development of the modern political vocabulary because the colonial events became a recurring frame of reference in principled French debates about the concrete meaning of values such as liberty and equality. Secondly, he asks when and to what degree Haitian revolutionaries such as Biassou, Jean-François, and Toussaint L’Ouverture appropriated the French revolutionary rights discourse and used it as fuel in their own revolutionary struggles.
In the analysis of this two-way traffic of political ideas and discourses, he includes a wide range of textual genres. Examples are literary texts such as Olympe de Gouges’ L'esclavage des noirs (1792) and Piquenards Adonis ou le bon nègre (1798); philosophical and historical works such as Condorcet’s Réflexions sur l'esclavage des nègres (1781) and Abbé Raynal’s Histoire politique et philosophique des deux indes (1770, 1774, 1780); and letters written or dictated by Saint-Domingue revolutionaries.
The project supplements the growing literature on the subject (Dorigny, Dubois, Dobie, Gachem, Steiner et al.) both by working within the expanded literary field characteristic of Reading Slavery and by explicitly focusing on the reciprocal transatlantic development of ideas about freedom, equality, and  human rights.

Karen-Margrethe Simonsen investigates the development of ‘human rights’ in early modernity, comparing natural rights discourses developed in Spain as a consequence of the meeting with the Native Americans to their later use by the abolitionist movement and the nationalist independence movement in Cuba. She compares differences in the approach to the Native American and the African slave in literature and in law, for instance in Spanish texts by Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria and Cuban texts by Juan Francisco Manzano, Miguel Barnet (Esteban Montejo), Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, José Martí and Nicolás Guillén. The main thesis is that slavery is a constitutive part of modernity and that the study of its legal and literary diversity can help reinterpret the understanding of development and the transcultural relationship between nation and globalization.

Lotte Pelckmans’s project introduces an anthropological take on the processing of oral slave narratives into written legal testimony in contemporary ‘post-slavery’ societies. She focuses on West African ‘slave testimonies’ as used in and produced for anti-slavery court trials in contemporary West-Africa (Sahel region). Central to such court cases are testimonies of people who -although they are descending from slaves in a post-abolition era-, continue to be categorized and discriminated against as slaves. Their oral testimonies are written down for use in court trials by local or international anti-slavery organisations (e.g. Timidria based in Niger). Central to the project are the (conflicting) entanglements of different normative frameworks, when the oral narratives turn into slave testimonies. Normative ideals of emancipation central to anti- slavery, post-slavery and universal human rights discourses encounter local norms, politics and legacies of slavery. In the course of their formulation for use in court trials, the testimonies are censored, polished, adapted and completed through interaction with colonial officers, lawyers, activists, journalists and other experts (e.g. Lawrence & Ruffer 2015). This ’co-authoring’ of slave testimonies, imbues the narratives with alternative normative frameworks that cater to the rule of constitutional law in societies where legal pluralism is the norm and ‘discursive regimes of slavery are not unified’ (Rossi 2015: 304). As a result, the authorship of the legal testimonies is both fragmented and ‘polyphone’: the testimonies unite and reconfigure discourses used in global human rights, regional politics, while at the same time revealing alternative forms of individual re-membering in post-slavery West Africa. 

Mads Anders Baggesgaard’s project studies literary and other artistic productions related to the main port of the Danish West Indies, Charlotte Amalie, in the period 1764-1917. Upon the Danish king pronouncing it a free port in 1764, Charlotte Amalie became the busiest trading port in the Caribbean, a small cosmopolis of traders, slaves, freed slaves, Moravian missionaries, exiles, writers and artists from all over the Caribbean.
The project reads travel narratives, literary texts and material from the Danish State Archives, the National Archives in Washington, DC, Unitätsarchiv der Evangelischen Brüder-Unität, Hernhut, and the Enid M. Baa Library in St. Thomas. Focus will be on the negotiation between slavery and free trade in the texts, investigating how this commercial engagement places St. Thomas in early Antillean literature.

Sine Jensen Smed´s PhD project studies the role of Danish literary representations of colonialism and slavery for the development of nationalism and democracy in Denmark 1803-1917, with a focus on A) civil rights and the concept of race, and B) the conception and representation of “Danishness” and the development of nation and nationalism in a colonial context. On the basis of colonial and political documents from the Danish State Archives and literary representations of slavery, the project investigates how signifiers of race and slavery was used in the establishment of new social identities closely connected to the formulation of democratic ideals in the period. The project thus addresses an important and neglected question in Danish literary history, while at the same contributing to highlight the importance of representations of slavery and slave emancipation for the development of the political culture of the state, in the forms of democracy and nationalism in the late nineteenth century.