Hearing Slaves Speak | National Humanities Center

Work of the Fellows: Edited Volumes

Hearing Slaves Speak

Edited by Trevor Burnard (NHC Fellow, 2008–09)

African Diaspora; African History; Enslaved Persons; Primary Sources; Slave Trade

Georgetown, Guyana: Caribbean Press, 2010

From the publisher’s description:

The book, “Hearing Slaves Speak” was launched on Sunday at the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) Hall in New Amsterdam. The historical work, put together by former Guyanese University of Warwick Professor, Trevor Burnard, is a compilation of testimonies from enslaved people about their conditions and feelings under slavery.

The book chronicles the various testimonies by slaves in the Berbice area in the 19TH Century. Slaves could not bring evidence in court against their masters. For this reason, there were magistrates that were assigned to listen to their pleas for justice, which they [the slaves] so eloquently put across.
In some instances, they received justice and their masters were reprimanded, but in other cases, the magistrates, referred to as Fiscals, sent them away still longing for what they had originally come looking for.

In his remarks to an audience comprising of various African Cultural Groups in Berbice, Director of Culture, Dr James Rose, said that it was no easy task documenting the words of African slaves back then. He said that no one kept records of what the slaves said and that the fact that they were living in ‘alien’ lands and could not write, hence the problem of recording what slaves said arose.

Dr Rose said that the book is told in the third person since the Fiscals were writing down what they said while they were before them in court.
The book was published by Caribbean Press, a company set up by the government here to assist with the publication of locally- inspired texts.
The book, Dr Rose said, tells about all of the ‘excesses’ the planters and slave masters perpetuated on their slaves, such as depriving them of adequate food, physical maltreatment, and so on.
“I think it’s an excellent record. It’s a good read”, Dr Rose stated.

Dr Rose questioned the audience as to what is the state of today’s African family. “Do we tell ourselves that it is as strong as it can be? Do we tell ourselves that we have a strong family system? That’s how we begin to empower ourselves; we empower our young, the children of the family”, Dr Rose said.

He urged the gathering at the book launch to strengthen the African family. “We don’t a government grants to do that. We just have to sit down and accept that somewhere along the line we lost our family”. He said that many Africans have lost their self concept.

The launch was coordinated by the Regional Sub- Committee of the International Year for the People of African Descent, chaired by UG Lecturer, Mr Michael Patterson and veteran educator in Berbice, Ms Rosaline Garrett. During the launch, there were several cultural dances and other items including readings from another book, ‘When I Was a Slave and also ‘Hearing Slaves Speak’. Copies of the book were on sale for $2,000.

History / African Diaspora / African History / Enslaved Persons / Primary Sources / Slave Trade /

Burnard, Trevor (NHC Fellow, 2008–09), ed. Hearing Slaves Speak. The Guyana Classics Library. Georgetown, Guyana: Caribbean Press, 2010.