‘Spectacular Suffering’: A Reading Recommendation


Professor Ramesh Mallipeddi’s course, ‘slavery and eighteenth-century literature,’ which I took a year ago, was an opportunity to consider questions central to slavery studies: What is the role of the critic in relation to the archive of slavery, where there are very few accounts of slave experience written by slaves themselves? Did the affective politics of sympathy actually ameliorate the suffering of slaves or did sentimental rhetoric simply validate the metropolitan observer? What was obscured and what was accomplished in abolitionist efforts to intervene in the slave trade and to reform plantation discipline? What role did slaves themselves play in articulating their losses and mobilizing against the institutions of racial slavery? Professor Mallipeddi tackles these questions among others in his book Spectacular Suffering: Witnessing Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic, which has just come out.

Spectacular Suffering contributes a transatlantic perspective to a growing number of studies concerned with the social and political implications of the long eighteenth-century’s obsession with sympathy (a few of which I summarized here). The book begins with Aphra Behn’s Oronooko and ends with Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative and thus treats the Enlightenment and Romantic periods as co-extensive. Indeed, the historical trajectory of the abolition movement in England hardly fits into our discipline’s artificial period demarcations. The heated legal debates about the status of escaped slaves in England began in the 1760s, a time in literary history when people in Europe were going crazy for epistolary novels like Clarissa and Julie, or the New Heloise. However, the abolition of the slave trade did not happen until 1807, long after the French Revolution and the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s experimental Lyrical Ballads. In this blog post, I’ll give a summary of Spectacular Suffering with an eye to how this book helps us to situate the Romantic period and its literature in relation to England’s capitalist entanglements with the slave trade and with plantation slavery in the British West Indies.


The first three chapters of Spectacular Suffering deal with metropolitan efforts to expose the brutality and inhumanity of two key features of slavery—commodification and punishment. Mallipeddi argues that such efforts tended to highlight spectacular instances of slave distress. (Oronooko’s dismemberment is one example) While these interventions employed the rhetoric of sympathy to counter the assumption that Afro-Carribean slaves were less than human, they often elided the experiences of the slaves themselves. One surprising example of this arises in the part of the book that addresses Laurence Sterne’s correspondence with Ignatius Sancho and Sterne’s subsequent advocacy on behalf of the enslaved. In the caged starling episode of A Sentimental Journey, Mr. Yorick laments ‘slavery’ but a close reading reveals that the reader of Sterne’s text is called upon to sympathize with the victims of absolutism in Europe. Meanwhile, the contemporary plight of slaves in the West Indies remains an underdeveloped suggestion.

The initial chapters of Spectacular Suffering suggest that sentimental accounts of slave suffering fail to adequately account for slave agency. In the later chapters, Mallipeddi undertakes to theorize slave agency as “acts of regeneration and recuperation undertaken by enslaved people.” As far as I can tell, this emphasis is what differentiates this book from other studies of slavery. Sadiya Hartman’s influential work on the archive of slavery focuses, for instance, on the tragic absence of evidence attesting to resistant slave subjectivity. Professor Mallipeddi takes a different tact as he draws on a range of (literary and non-literary) archival materials “to demonstrate how slaves created a measure of autonomy even under the conditions of extreme domination.”

Matthew LewiMatthew Lewis’ Journal of a West India Proprietor becomes key in a chapter about three sentimental fictions partly or wholly set on plantations in the British Caribbean. The texts include Sarah Scott’s The History of George Ellison (1766), Henry Mackenzie’s Julia de Roubigné (1777) and Maria Edgeworth’s “The Grateful Negro” (1804). These fictions espouse the virtues of a “quasi-contractual” planter-slave relationship where masters abolish corporeal punishment and slaves agree to co-operate in return for their masters’ acts of benevolence. The narratives emphasize the success of schemes for the reform of plantation discipline and de-emphasize what motivated the reforms in the first place—“slaves’ rudimentary and daily opposition” to the daily work schedules of their masters. Here is where Matthew Lewis’ text becomes key to Mallipeddi’s argument. In the Journal, we see Lewis’ authority constantly undermined by a likable set of mostly illiterate slaves. Lewis attempts to reform the plantation, but what he discovers is that his slaves have their own unique understandings of history, time and value that empower them to resist his injunctions at every turn. The Journal offers an extensive record of what Caribbean slaves called “plays”—nighttime recreational activities, leisure pursuits, and ritual practices,” that were historically, Mallipeddi argues, the “matrix of a black counter-culture…the basis for an oppositional politics.” Within the culture of play, the Caribbean slave emerges “not only an instrument of labor but also a maker of culture.” Lewis thus offers a different picture of everyday life on the Caribbean plantation than the one given by the sentimental novelists, who tend to represent slaves as “hyper-embodied, excessively sentient beings, incapable of rational reflection or theoretical awareness.”


Thanks to the early scholars of African American studies, Equiano’s Interesting Narrative is now considered a canonical work in British Romanticism. Spectacular Suffering’s final chapter begins with a consideration of the similarities between the Interesting Narrative and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Both books offer first-person accounts (one fictional, the other autobiographical) of the self-made modern man. Equiano and Crusoe travel widely in and across the Atlantic, overcoming subjection and accumulating property along the way. But whereas Crusoe breaks most of his attachments[1] and achieves his freedom in isolation, Mallipeddi argues that Equiano makes his “emotional attachments to the family and the nation, filiative and affiliative connections, the sine qua non of his self-realization.”Mallipeddi develops the book’s overall argument about slave agency by attending to the ways in which Equiano constitutes himself through intersubjective bonds. This reading of the Interesting Narrative complicates interpretations that see Equiano primarily as a bourgeoise individualist, or as “a literate and propertied individual” like Crusoe. Equiano does represent himself as an exceptional slave, an enterprising hero who makes use of his various talents to overcome slavery. But Equiano also defines himself as a representative member [of the black diaspora] whose destiny is inextricable from that of the other people of his race.” It is through the idiom of filiation—to the African nation where he was born, to the various masters who help him to attain his manumission and to blacks scattered across the Atlantic world—that Equiano raises himself in the world and undertakes to ameliorate the condition of his fellow Africans.

There’s a whole chapter on “fixed melancholy”—a medicalized cognitive disorder related to nostalgia—which I’ve overlooked. For me, one of the most compelling parts of this chapter is Mallipeddi’s theorization of slave sorrow songs and funeral chants as “sources of a sentimental, melancholic counterknowledge” that opposes the logic of commodification and forced mobility. The attention to slave song fits in with a central ambition of Spectacular Suffering, which is to give a history of slavery that attends to the embodied particularities of slave experience. Contemporary historians of Atlantic slavery are inevitably confronted with an overwhelmingly limited archive, one where the vexed image of the distressed slave is prominent. Professor Malipeddi’s fascinating study insists that, as critics and historians seek to recuperate or to mourn this violent history, they should not forget that their historical subjects were also trying to recover from the trauma of enslavement in myriad ways.


[1] there’s a heartbreaking moment in Defoe’s novel where Crusoe sells Xury, a Moorish boy who has been his ally, into slavery