By Nadine Blank
Enslaved Africans were considered bottom of the barrel subjects in American society, and even freed blacks held the stigma of slavery because of the color of their skin. However, they were not always known this way; many affluent citizens of Africa and the Caribbean were captured and enslaved, which gives them an intense comparative perspective. Their narratives are especially impactful because of the audience they appeal to and the perspective they can give to white readers. Zamba, in his narrative, shows that enslaved persons were more than just dirty and poor; in fact, when left untouched by slavery, they prospered just as white Americans and Europeans did. In Life of Zamba, arranged by Peter Neilson, Zamba reminisces about his home, south of the Congo, where he resided when his father was king:
“The royal palace towered over all the other buildings, and was in reality a very considerable edifice. Its form was circular, with an imitation of a dome at the top, in which hung an old ship’s bell that was rung on all great occasions, either of a mournful or joyous nature. The interior of the palace was divided into eighteen or twenty apartments, two of them especially being furnished in a manner that would rather astonish an European” (2).
This is not the typical lifestyle of Africa that many white people would have heard before, which may have been a hard pill to swallow at the time, and many white Americans may not have believed it. This imagery of a palace that “would rather astonish an European” gave a sense of grandiosity that is only associated with white royalty. Had any white Americans even thought of black royalty as a concept before? While it may be a stretch, beginning Zamba’s story with his past as a king could have been strategy to strike a chord of sympathy in some white Americans.
Delving further into his story, as Zamba was brought to America as a slave, the Captain bringing him over gave him lessons in reading the Bible, and Zamba thought it to be a special privilege because he was a king. He recalled that the Captain had been more cordial to him than others in Africa, but it seemed the Captain had alterior motives:
“Then addressing me, he said,–“Really, King Zamba, I must charge you for all the lessons I have given you for these some years past, and I cannot charge you less than a doubloon per hour. I could positively have picked up many a good boat-load of niggers during the time I spent in hammering lessons into your head; and besides this, it is not every day that the poor master of a slave-ship falls in with a king for a pupil. We shall talk of this again, however, and settle our accounts at the end of the voyage.” He laughed heartily as he said this, which I at first thought he meant only for a joke; but as he cast his eyes in a peculiar way from me to the mate, and again from the mate towards me, I could not help feeling somewhat uneasy. I felt, in fact, that I was not exactly safe” (90).
This exchange revealed to Zamba that his status did not give him special treatment–it made him a higher valued property and target. According to Walter Johnson in Turning People into Products, in order to sell a slave, a trader had to “slip beneath them a suggestion of personal distinction that would make one slave stand out to a buyer” (124). Zamba’s status, to the captain, was merely a key to selling him. Status to white Americans was merely another “feature.” Not only was Zamba a tool to the captain, but a way to fuel his ego and flaunt his power. The captain, laughing, even enjoyed the power play he was making, even though it was solely to prove his perceived superiority over Zamba.
Zamba was later enslaved to a master in Charleston, South Carolina. He tells many stories of terrible scenes regarding punishment and power, especially white women demonstrating their power over their slaves. He describes one gruesome example:
“The poor wretch, it seems, in ironing a gown of the lady’s, had applied an iron in rather too hot a state; and now the meek-tempered mistress revenged herself at the expense of everything sacred and dear to the sex, by treating her worse than a dog…I made some inquiries regarding the parties, and found that the lady was a Miss–(I am strongly tempted to disclose her name), a young woman of twenty; very beautiful, according to white notions, accomplished and wealthy, and much admired by the other sex: in short, one of the toasts of the city” (162)
The power exchange in this example as well as others is crucial and gives white women accountability. It also shows a violence that is not revealed in the passive language of “domestic” slavery. Zamba is disgusted by the woman’s stature in society even though she is terrible and cruel at home. In Charleston, at least, it seemed not to matter. The “white woman” in society was presented as a delicate object to protect, someone that could not take care of herself. The idea that a white woman could be so brutal and cruel was probably shocking to many white readers, who didn’t see this private, unpublished side of domestic life.
Methods of punishing black slaves. Female domestic slaves were not immune to punishment and were often beaten brutally by the white women of the house.
Zamba’s story is full of new perspectives and educated opinions on American slavery and its injustices, as well as facts and anecdotes to embellish his impactful experience and narrative.