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Briton Hammon
A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man,--Servant to General Winslow, of Marshfield, in New-England; Who Returned to Boston, After Having Been Absent Almost Thirteen Years. Containing an Account of the Many Hardships He Underwent from the Time He Left His Master's House, in the Year 1747, to the Time of His Return to Boston.--How He Was Cast Away in the Capes of Florida;---The Horrid Cruelty and Inhuman Barbarity of the Indians in Murdering the Whole Ship's Crew;---The Manner of His Being Carry'd by Them Into Captivity. Also, an Account of His Being Confined Four Years and Seven Months in a Close Dungeon,---and the Remarkable Manner in Which He Met with His Good Old Master in London; Who Returned to New-England, a Passenger in the Same Ship
Boston: Printed and Sold by Green & Russell, 1760.

Summary

Little is known of Briton Hammon's life other than the information encapsulated in the Narrative (1760) about his captivity among Florida Indians and Spanish colonists in Cuba. After being rescued from his Spanish captors, Hammon served a year in the British navy before returning to Boston and writing his Narrative. Because the Narrative was written while Hammon was still alive, information on his post-Narrative life is scarce. Scholar Robert Desrochers, Jr., used census records and other archival sources to suggest that Hammon likely married, changed his surname to Nichols and fought in Washington's Revolutionary army.

Hammon's Narrative is viewed by scholars the earliest slave narrative, but editorial interference, Hammon's legal status, and earlier memoirs of slave life written by white authors complicate this claim. While almost all slave narratives exhibit some signs of editorial intervention, the format and content of Hammon's Narrative correspond so closely to Thomas Brown's 1760 captivity narrative that scholar John Sekora suggests readers must examine both texts to distinguish between the "distinctive flavor of Briton Hammon's story" and those features attributable to a "common house [editorial] style" (pp. 149, 151). This strong editorial influence notwithstanding, the Narrative purports to have been written by Hammon, a fact that would make it the first slave narrative authored by an African American. Even if it can be assumed that Hammon wrote all of the Narrative, however, its status as a slave narrative remains problematic, if only because Hammon never defines his relationship to "My good Master" Winslow explicitly (p. 14).

Though Hammon consistently refers to Winslow as his master, the only title he applies to himself is that of servant. Indeed, if the Narrative's title did not identify Hammon as "a Negro Man," readers likely never would have identified him as an African American, much less a slave. Throughout the Narrative, Hammon adheres to the conventions of Indian captivity narratives , which include identifying Native American captors as satanic "Devils" and acknowledging God's providence in the captive's deliverance. In addition, Hammon attributes restrictions on his liberty to his Indian and Spanish captors, not to the white, American General Winslow. While nineteenth-century readers sought out narratives written by African Americans in order to gain an insider's perspective on slave life, eighteenth-century readers were much more interested in cultural exchanges with Native Americans, and by writing a captivity narrative, Hammon implicitly identifies himself with the white men and women who typically wrote such accounts.

If Hammon is a slave, Winslow is relatively generous in allowing him to leave for Jamaica in 1747. Scholars have argued that Hammon's journey establishes his independence, but it was not uncommon for New England masters to allow their slaves to work at sea during the winter months in the economically challenged culture of mid-eighteenth-century Massachusetts. Returning from Jamaica, Hammon's sloop strikes a reef off the coast of Florida, leaving the crew at the mercy of Indians, who approach the ship with "an English Colour hoisted in one of [their twenty] Canoes" (p. 5). The Indians kill everyone on board except for Hammon, who escapes by diving into the water. The raiders eventually find him and drag him aboard a canoe, where he watches them "set the Vessel on Fire, making a prodigious shouting and hallowing like so many Devils" (p. 6).

After five weeks, Hammon is rescued by a Spanish schooner and taken to Havana, where Governor Francisco Antonio Cagigal de la Vega pays ten dollars to redeem him from the Indians who follow him to Cuba to reclaim him. During his stay with the governor, Hammon is free to "do Work for my self" but not free to leave the island (p. 10). He spends seven months carrying the litter of Catholic Bishop Pedro Augustín Morell de Santa Cruz and is imprisoned for more than four years without de la Vega's knowledge when he declines the invitation of Spanish naval recruiters to serve on board a man-of-war.

Hammon eventually escapes from prison and the governor's restrictions, leaving Cuba in 1758 aboard a British man-of-war. When de la Vega learns that a lieutenant has snuck Hammon and "a Number of others who had made their Escape" onto the ship, he demands their return, but Captain Edward Gascoigne, "who was a true Englishman, refus'd . . . to deliver up any Englishman under English Colours" (p. 11). After sailing to London, Hammon serves on board a series of English war ships and is wounded in a skirmish with a French man-of-war before being honorably discharged.

In London, a hospital stay leaves Hammon penniless, and he takes to the sea again, this time as a cook aboard a vessel bound for New England. While preparing for the journey, Hammon learns that his "good Master" General Winslow is also on board the ship, and "in a few Days Time the Truth was joyfully verify'd by a happy Sight of his Person, which so overcome me, that I could not speak to him for some Time" (p. 13).

Though religious language is absent throughout Hammon's text, it closes with the injunction that "what is wrote may suffice to convince the Reader, that I have been most grievously afflicted, and yet thro' the Divine Goodness, as miraculously preserved" (p. 14). For Hammon, as for contemporary authors of captivity narratives, the purpose of his text is to turn readers to God, and his Narrative is justified only insofar as it incites men to "Praise the Lord for His Goodness, and for his Wonderful Works to the Children of Men!" (p. 14). As a captivity narrative, Hammon's text is conventional; as a slave narrative, Hammon's text is exceptional, and his descriptions of the eighteenth-century transatlantic world are at once familiar and foreign.

Works Consulted: Carretta, Vincent, Notes, Unchained Voices, ed. Vincent Carretta, Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996, 24-25; Desrochers, Robert Jr., "'Surprizing Deliverance'?: Slavery and Freedom, Language and Identity in the Narrative of Briton Hammon, 'A Negro Man,'" in Genius in Bondage, ed. Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould, 153-74 (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001); Sekora, John, "Briton Hammon, the Indian Captivity Narrative, and the African American Slave Narrative," in Where Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote, ed. Jonathan Brennan, 141-57 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003); Weyler, Karen A., "Race, Redemption, and Captivity in A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black and Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Suprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man," in Genius in Bondage, ed. Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould, 39-53 (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001).

Zachary Hutchins

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