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“The Market Value of an Eye”: Highlights from Afro-Americana Imprints

Posted on 03/25/2015

the first slave narrative published in Great Britain, and The March release of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia includes a late 17th-century report on Morocco by the French ambassador, an Englishman’s assessment of the Royal African Company, the first slave narrative by a black woman to be published in the United Kingdom, and a journalist’s widely translated perspective on the 1857 Pierce Butler slave sale.

The Present State of the Empire of Morocco (1695)
By Monsieur de St. Olon

In 1690, Francois Pidou de Saint Olon served as ambassador of Louis XIV to Morocco. His mission was twofold: he was charged with making a prisoner exchange with Morocco’s Sultan Moulay Ismael and affecting a peace treaty between the two countries. The Ambassador failed in both efforts and was even briefly imprisoned by the Sultan. Monsieur de St. Olon’s description of the manners, religion and government of the people of Morocco is thorough, colorful, and not above condescension:

That Sleeping, Eating, Drinking, Women, Horses, and Prayers share and almost wholly engross their time, the remainder of which is generally linger’d out in a tedious and unuseful Sloth; and accordingly they are often seen sitting on their Heels along the Walls, with long Strings of Beads, which tumble through their Fingers with a nimbleness equal to the shortness of the Prayers they say at the dropping of each Bead; for, that Prayer barely consists in mentioning one of the different Attributes of God; as in saying on one Bead, God is Great; on another, God is Good; on a third, God is Infinite; on a fourth, God is Merciful, etc.

Considerations on the Trade to Africa (1749)
By Mr. M. O'Connor

The Royal African Company, a mercantile company established by London merchants in 1660, was granted a monopoly over English trade along the west coast of Africa. Soon the company was involved in the slave trade and by the 1670s and 1680s it had transported nearly 100,000 slaves, many of whom were shipped across the Atlantic. In 1731 the company abandoned the slave trade and by 1752 the company was dissolved.

O’Connor’s Considerations on the Trade to Africa not only describes interesting aspects of the Royal African Company’s operation, but also illustrates the near global reach of the British Empire in the 18th century:

It is, I find, an established Fact, agreed upon by every experienced Judge of Commerce, that the Trade to Africa, properly supported, would be, of all others, the most beneficial to this Nation; because the Exports consist wholly of British Manufactures, which maintain the People, and of India Goods, the Use whereof are prohibited here; and the Returns are made entirely either in Negroe Labourers, without which the Colonies and Plantations in America, and all the Benefits with respect to the Revenue, Navigation, Manufactures, &c. arising from the Trade to the West Indies, must soon be lost; or in Gold, Ivory, Dying-Woods, Bees-Wax, and such like valuable Commodities, which we cannot do without.

The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831)
By Mary Prince

Mary Prince’s autobiography, the first slave narrative by a black woman published in the United Kingdom, strengthened the growing anti-slavery movement. Acting privately and not in his official capacity as Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, Thomas Pringle published Prince’s account and attested to its authenticity in the preface, writing:

The narrative was taken down from Mary’s own lips by a lady who happened to be at the time residing in my family as a visitor. It was written out fully, with all the narrator’s repetitions and prolixities, and afterwards pruned into its present shape; retaining, as far as was practicable, Mary’s exact expressions and peculiar phraseology. No fact of importance has been omitted, and not a single circumstance or sentiment has been added. It is essentially her own, without any material alteration farther than was requisite to exclude redundances [sic] and gross grammatical errors, so as to render it clearly intelligible.…
The names of all the persons mentioned by the narrator have been printed in full, except those of Capt. I—and his wife, and that of Mr. D—, to whom conduct of peculiar atrocity is ascribed. These three individuals are now gone to answer at a far more awful tribunal than that of public opinion…

What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation? (1863)
By Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.
Mortimer Q. Thomson was a journalist and humorist who wrote under the pseudonym Queer Kritter Philander Doesticks, Perfect Brick. Thomson was born in Riga, New York, grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and was expelled from Michigan University. In 1856 he wrote Plu-Ri-Bus-Tah, parodying Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha and in 1859, at the age of twenty-six and working as a correspondent for the New York Tribune, wrote a report on the Pierce Butler slave sale in Savannah, Georgia.

The largest sale of human chattels that has been made in Star-Spangled America for several years, took place on Wednesday and Thursday of last week….The lot consisted of four hundred and thirty-six men, women, children, and infants, being that half of the negro stock remaining on the old Major Butler plantations…  

Under the heading, THE MARKET VALUE OF AN EYE, Thomson reported:

Guy, chattel No. 419, “a prime young man,” sold for $1,280, being without blemish; his age was twenty years, and he was altogether a fine article. His next-door neighbor, Andrew, chattel No. 420, was his very counterpart in all marketable points, in size, age, skill, and everything save that he had lost his right eye. Andrew sold for only $1,040, from which we argue that the market value of the right eye in the Southern country is $240.

And, in THE CASE OF JOSHUA’S MOLLY, Thomson explained the perverse benefit of an injury to a slave:

Whether she really was lame or not no one knows but herself, but it must be remembered that to a slave lameness, or anything that decreases his market value, is a thing to be rejoiced over. A man in the prime of his life, worth $1,600 or thereabouts, can have little hope of ever being able, by any little savings of his own, to purchase his liberty. But let him have a rupture, or lose a limb, or sustain any other injury that renders him of much less service to his owner, and reduces his value to $300 or $400, and he may hope to accumulate that sum, and eventually to purchase his liberty. Freedom without health is infinitely sweeter than health without freedom.

For more information about Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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