David S. Reynolds’ “Mightier than the Sword”

 Featured Articles, Slavery  Comments Off on David S. Reynolds’ “Mightier than the Sword”
Aug 302011

It started with a vision of torture.

According to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the genesis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, arguably one of the most influential books in history, came in Feburary 1851 when she attended communion service. After taking the bread and wine and thinking of the Last Supper and the Passion, a vision hit her, “blown into her mind as by the rushing of a mighty wind.”

Continue reading »

Mar 092011

In the early years of the 16th century, to combat the rising tide of religious unorthodoxy, the Pope gave Cardinal Ximinez of Spain leave to move without let or hindrance throughout the land, in a reign of violence, terror and torture that makes a smashing film. This was the Spanish Inquisition…

Monty Python

I’ve only seen clips of the notorious Goodbye Uncle Tom (IMDB, Wikipedia, Google Video), an Italian pseudo-documentary that purportedly shows a recreation of the antebellum South with a focus on slavery. I decided to review the whole thing, and rented the director’s cut on DVD, which is not dubbed into English.

There are startling, horrifying spectacles recreated in this film, beginning with the horrors of the Middle Passage and running through the process of sale and labour, a perverse initiation narrative. There are periodic rapes and other abuses and mutilations. The overwhelming impression is an homogenous mass of brown humanity, undifferentiated by sex or age. How exactly they managed to get so many extras willing to be naked is beyond me.

Continue reading »

May 272009

Lively, Adam. Masks: Blackness, Race and the Imagination Oxford University Press, 2000. Link

The history of BDSM is not about straight lines. There is no one perfect point of “pure BDSM” from which everything else flows, no perfect authentic moment. Instead, there’s an endless series of mirrors, masks and myths. The persistent myth of the “ancient European slave training houses” is the sign of a yearning for certainty in a subculture that has always been about an aggregation of individual fantasies.

Continue reading »

Apr 212009

Here’s the full quote from the previous post, from Adam Lively’s Masks.

[T]he poor African is … fair game for every minstrel that has tuned his lyre to the sweet chords of pity and condolence; whether he builds immortal verse upon his loss of liberty, or weaves his melancholy fate into the pathos of a novel, in either case he finds a mine of sentiment, digs up enthusiasm from its richest vein, and gratifies at once his spleen and his ambition.

Richard Cumberland, Introduction to Henry (1795)

Cumberland’s derisive tone show that this was written when sentimentalism was no longer a valid idea.

Apr 072009

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Centry America Oxford University Press, 1997 Google Books Amazon

I’m still looking into the relationship of real-world slavery and BDSM slavery.

Hartman starts her (?) book by quoting a letter from noted abolitionist John Rankin to his slaveholding brother, struggling to convey the horrors of slavery. He employs shock tactics to get through the reader’s comfortable remove, “to rouse the sensibility of those indifferent to slavery”.
Continue reading »

Jan 102009

I think that if we could ever somehow travel back in time and directly observe the past, ancient Rome wouldn’t look like Russel Crowe in Gladiator. It would look more like Caligula or Fellini Satyricon. Not because those two films are particularly historically accurate, but because watching them conveys the constant sense of “WTF?!?” you get when you visit a very different culture.

Continue reading »

Sep 092008

Gossett, Thomas F. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture Southern Methodist University Press, 1985

Roberts, Diane. The Myth of Aunt Jemima: Representations of Race and Region Routledge, 1994

Schick, Irvin C. The Erotic Margin: Sexuality and Spatiality in Alteritist Discourse Verso, 1999

First, I want to reiterate my position that consensual Master-slave roleplaying relationships as practiced by Munby and Cullwick and afterwards have only a tenuous connection to the actual institution of Atlantic slavery. It’s more about the fictionalized version of slavery as seen by people who had no direct experience with it.

Second, getting off on a scenario does not necessarily mean the fantasizer agrees with the politics or ideas behind it. In fact, a masochist might get a stronger charge off a scenario if the suffering is not just.

Continue reading »

Jul 272008

Colligan, Colette. “Anti-Abolition Writes Obscenity: The English Vice, Transatlantic Slavery, and England’s Obscene Print Culture” International Exposure: perspectives on modern European pornography, 1800-2000, edited by Lisa Z. Sigel. Rutgers, 2005. Link

While I’ve known for a while that Atlantic slavery was the inspiration for the Master-slave motif of BDSM, exactly how this happened is a bit of a mystery, and I’ve been forced to do a bit of hand-waving when I give presentations. We know that books like Robinson Crusoe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were inspirations for sexual fantasies, as documented by Krafft-Ebing and Freud. But what happened after that?

Colette Colligan has the answer. The Rosetta stone of BDSM history is two texts: First, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861 in the USA, available in the UK in 1862) written by Harriet Jacobs under the pen name “Linda Brent”, and its sexualized parody The Secret Life of Linda Brent, a Curious History of Slave Life (1882) written by George Lazenby and published in The Cremorne.

Continue reading »

Dec 262007


I’m zeroing in on the nexus of slavery, sensibility and the nascent sadomasochistic subculture, sometime around 1800. I think this is when the master-slave terminology and imagery entered the culture. There was flagellation and the like prior to that, but I don’t think the master-slave jargon was a part of it.

I think you need a certain historical and/or geographical distance to enable the fantasy of something like slavery. Munby and Cullwick, I theorize, absorbed slavery images and literature in their childhood and youth, through books, stage plays, minstrel street performances and other media. However, in early 19th century England and other European nations, real slavery was “back then” (i.e. something in the barbaric past, practiced by “primitive” nations) and “over there” (i.e. the tropics, Africa and North America) not in the here and now. Even contemporary texts, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1850), were comfortably “over there” for Europeans.

Continue reading »