Oct 072006

When I first started reading about the Munby-Cullwick relationship, I had assumed it was based on classical slavery, which I thought a well-educated English gentleman would have read about. Then, when I saw how Munby drew working class women to strongly resemble caricatures of black men, I decided it had more to do with a once-removed image of American slavery, transmitted across the Atlantic in books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and blackface minstrelry.

After finishing Wood’s Slavery, Empathy and Pornography, I suspect the origins of Munby and Cullwick’s slavery had a lot to do with England’s semi-repressed history of colonial slavery. Remember, chattel slavery had only been banned in England in 1807.

The most obvious potential source is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), which is cited in Psychopathia Sexualis as sexual fantasy material and was an immensely popular work. (It is the only book Rousseau’s Emile is allowed to read before the age of 12, to teach him self-reliance.)

Friday submitting to Crusoe

I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever. I took him up and made much of him, and encouraged him all I could.

…he came running to me, laying himself down again upon the ground, with all the possible signs of an humble, thankful disposition, making a great many antic gestures to show it. At last he lays his head flat upon the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this made all the signs to me of subjection, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me so long as he lived. I understood him in many things, and let him know I was very well pleased with him.

This gets Crusoe off the hook for enslaving Friday, as Friday apparently wants it. It must have been comforting for a culture that was conflicted about Atlantic slavery.

I wish I knew more about Munby’s reading habits. It’s certainly possible and even probable he read Crusoe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but I can’t cite any evidence.

Another potential source comes from an 1843 book by Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present. Carlyle makes an early articulation of racist discourse of supplanting blacks with whites as victims worthy of uplift, and also sees a feudal system of chattel slavery as in the Carribean as superior to the laissez-faire market in England, because it provides long-term stability and security, instead of making people dependent on the vagaries of the marketplace. (Never mind that changing prices can make it profitable to work slaves to death.) Carlyle’s model is the serf system of medieval Saxon England, or at least his ideal of it.

Gurth born thrall of Cedric the Saxon has been greatly pitied by Dryasdust and others. Gurth with the brass collar round his neck, tending Cedric’s pigs in the glades of the wood, is not what I call an exemplar of human felicity: but Gurth, with the sky above him, with the free air and tinted boscage and umbrage round him, and in him at least the certainty of supper and social lodging when he came home; Gurth to me seems happy, in comparison with many a Lancashire and Buckinghamshire man, of these days, not born thrall of anybody! Gurth’s brass collar did not gall him: Cedric _deserved_ to be his Master. The pigs were Cedric’s, but Gurth too would get his parings of them. Gurth had the inexpressible satisfaction of feeling himself related indissolubly, though in a rude brass-collar way, to his fellow-
mortals in this Earth. He had superiors, inferiors, equals.– Gurth is now ’emancipated’ long since; has what we call ‘Liberty.’ Liberty, I am told, is a Divine thing. Liberty when it becomes the ‘Liberty to die by starvation’ is not so divine!

Carlyle refers to Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (1819). Two of the characters, Gurth and Wamba, are “born thralls”, that is, serfs.

Scottish serf's collar, 18th century

Scottish serf’s collar, 18th century. Inscribed on this collar is ‘Aler.Steuart Found Guilty of Death for Theft at Perth the 5th of December 1701, and gifted by the Justiciars as a Perpetual Servant to Sir Jo. Areskin of Alva.’

One part of his dress only remains, but it is too remarkable to be suppressed; it was a brass ring, resembling a dog’s collar, but without any opening, and soldered fast round his neck, so loose as to form no impediment to his breathing, yet so tight as to be incapable of being removed, excepting by the use of the file. On this singular gorget was engraved, in Saxon characters, an inscription of the following purport: —“Gurth, the son of Beowulph, is the born thrall of Cedric of Rotherwood.”

Beside the swine-herd, for such was Gurth’s occupation, was seated, upon one of the fallen Druidical monuments, a person about ten years younger in appearance, …. He had thin silver bracelets upon his arms, and on his neck a collar of the same metal bearing the inscription, “Wamba, the son of Witless, is the thrall of Cedric of Rotherwood.”

I have no idea how historically accurate this novel is, but it does seem a likely source for slavery as it envisioned in BDSM, as a reciprocal relationship based on mutual loyalty, rather than outright ownership based on perceived religious/racial inferiority.

“Pardon him!” exclaimed Cedric; “I will both pardon and reward him.—Kneel down, Gurth.”—The swineherd was in an instant at his master’s feet—“THEOW and ESNE [Thrall and bondsman] art thou no longer,” said Cedric touching him with a wand; “FOLKFREE and SACLESS [A lawful freeman] art thou in town and from town, in the forest as in the field. A hide of land I give to thee in my steads of Walbrugham, from me and mine to thee and thine aye and for ever; and God’s malison on his head who this gainsays!”

No longer a serf, but a freeman and a landholder, Gurth sprung upon his feet, and twice bounded aloft to almost his own height from the ground. “A smith and a file,” he cried, “to do away the collar from the neck of a freeman! —Noble master! doubled is my strength by your gift, and doubly will I fight for you!—There is a free spirit in my breast—I am a man changed to myself and all around.—Ha, Fangs!” he continued,—for that faithful cur, seeing his master thus transported, began to jump upon him, to express his sympathy, —“knowest thou thy master still?”

“Ay,” said Wamba, “Fangs and I still know thee, Gurth, though we must needs abide by the collar; it is only thou art likely to forget both us and thyself.”

“I shall forget myself indeed ere I forget thee, true comrade,” said Gurth; “and were freedom fit for thee, Wamba, the master would not let thee want it.”

“Nay,” said Wamba, “never think I envy thee, brother Gurth; the serf sits by the hall-fire when the freeman must forth to the field of battle—And what saith Oldhelm of Malmsbury—Better a fool at a feast than a wise man at a fray.”

Wamba, the wise fool, is stuck a serf, but he doesn’t mind.

There appears to be two main ways of viewing the slave as a figure of fantasy: the pros-slavery image of the loyal sidekick who knows his place in society (as exemplified by Friday, Gurth, Wamba and the images of slave boys as fashion accessories and pets), and the abolitionist image of the abject, anguished wretch who is the surrogate body for observers’ sadomasochistic, sympathetic fantasies (who often go unnamed, but include Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and William Blake‘s Oothoon from Visions of the Daughters of Albion.) It isn’t a big stretch to see the same figures playing both parts. The African temptress is another figure.

The slave-as-living-abjection draws on Christian martyrology, which I think is ultimately the root of all this in the European tradition. Other cultures practice chattel slavery, but they may not have developed this complex set of attitudes and fantasies without that peculiar paradox at the heart of Christianity, which in turn laid the groundwork for the cult of sensibility.

Both Robinson Crusoe and Ivanhoe were mainstream, highly popular works of English prose. While I don’t have proof that Munby read either of them, I think it pretty likely he did, or would at the very least be familiar with the references. This will require some revisions of the Victorian chapter, to include the likely influence of those two texts on Munby and Cullwick. However, I still think that the contemporary American slave tradition, as represented by novels and “Tom shows” on the streets of London, had at least an equal influence.

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