(I hope) Some Benevolent Perspective
Clearly, from our vantage point we can look at any version of a slave narrative and be quick to condemn the events within it. Grand moral proclamations are simple in hindsight because we, as Americans and ‘evolved’ humans, can look at the horrible treatment recorded in so many stories of the time and know that was a reprehensible time in our history. I wonder, though, when looking back on our time from 200 years in the future, what our descendants will say of us? There are certainly many questionable things occurring in our world that have their own complications and have fervent voices on both or many sides. From child labor in south Asia to gay rights in Russia to horrid conditions in Africa and the Middle East, how will history judge us? They’ll likely look at the literature that stands the test of time and offers them a window into our struggles. Many of these works will likely be in favor of human rights in general, as they tend to be, but almost certainly, other points of view are likely to be read as well. This is especially true given the prominence of the Internet and the various places one can place one’s opinions, such as this very blog. In the 18th and 19th centuries at the height of the slavery debate, however, those options weren’t available.
Therefore, in order for such viewpoints to last, there needed to be media of the day that encapsulated the different contradictory viewpoints. We certainly have a plethora of anti-slavery rhetoric to research. To be sure, there is also no shortage of pro-slavery works as well. According to its Wikipedia page, this so-called ‘anti-Tom literature’ tended to focus on showing “that black people lacked the ability to function well without oversight,” as well as the financial impacts of abolition. When looking at the wealth of pro-abolition movement, many of its texts, indeed many that we have read, focus on emotional and religious appeals and attempt to label the slave owner as someone devoid of humanity or typical Christian values. Often, they attempt, rightfully or wrongfully, to demonize slave owners and we get very graphic descriptions of the treatment of slaves that is supposed convince us that at least a majority of slaves experience the social construct in this way.
It is with all of this in mind that I suggest Thomas Bellamy’s The Benevolent Planters deserves, perhaps, a different read than most will give it. Make no mistake. In no way would I ever support slavery of any kind. However, rather than look at it as pro-slavery rhetoric, which it certainly is, perhaps it can also be seen more as a defense for the minority of slave owners who legitimately bore no ill will toward their workers. However scarce in documentation, we must allow for the idea that both ends of the spectrum existed. If the ilk described in Mary Prince’s accounting, who savagely beat each and every one of their slaves within an inch of and even to death (Damrosch 241), existed, then surely the possibility of a benevolent slave owner who treated slaves with dignity and respect is not out of the realm of possibility. Even Equiano acknowledged some of his more well-to-do masters as such, and in one case, even admitted he “loved him with the affection of a son” (Damrosch 234).
Slavery is and was absolutely reprehensible. I would never argue anything to the contrary. I’ll also grant that Bellamy, himself, produced this playlet in an effort to further the anti-emancipation movement (Damrosch 244). However, the mere idea of slave owners who legitimately cared for, valued, and enriched their slaves lives should not send us immediately into a frenzy, but should bring an acknowledgement that though a majority of slaves were not in anything remotely close to an ideal situation, there were the lucky few that weren’t abused as we generally think of it. With its view of the owners, Planters is certainly over the top, as drama is wont to be. If we allow, though, it could be an important reminder of an often forgotten, if not minimal, segment of the population. Perhaps, in 200 years, some of our less extreme opinions and situations will also survive.
“Anti-Tom Literature.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2013
Damrosch, David, and Kevin JH Dettmar, eds. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Fifth ed. Vol. 2A. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.