MOVING HOME: GENDER, PLACE, AND TRAVEL WRITING IN THE EARLY BLACK ATLANTIC by Sandra Gunning, Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Bohls
 


MOVING HOME: GENDER, PLACE, AND TRAVEL WRITING IN THE EARLY BLACK ATLANTIC
By Sandra Gunning
(Duke, October 2021) 280 pp.
Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Bohls on 2022-03-12.

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The study of travel writing has long since expanded beyond the privileged white male travelers who used to dominate the genre. Dating roughly from Mary Louise Pratt's seminal study, Imperial Eyes (1992), interest has focused on cultural contact zones of various kinds, and women travelers, travelers of color, and other forms of non-elite mobility have received increasing attention. In Moving Home, Sandra Gunning brings together a group of nineteenth-century Black travel writers whose journeys, and the meanings they draw from them, lend a melancholy resonance to the concept of "home." For these Black wanderers, home remained stubbornly out of reach. The shadow of slavery unavoidably looms over many of their journeys. In a century when the Atlantic slave trade continued (though banned by Britain, the US, and other nations) and US slavery flourished, the US did not feel like home to many Black Americans. Of the six writers Gunning discusses, several worked to promote emigration to places offering greater security and opportunity to persons of African descent. Two writers, Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Sarah Forbes Bonetta, were themselves enslaved in Africa as children, then liberated by the British to lead lives shaped by the Empire's civilizing mission. Gunning's sensitive analyses trace the tensions and contradictions of these colonial identities through their travel writing.

Gunning's innovative project unpacks the concept of diaspora to shed light on multiple diasporas, within Africa as well as outside of it. After Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, the Royal Navy patrolled the West African coast to disrupt other nations' slave-trading. People liberated from slave ships were dropped off in Sierra Leone, a colony first settled in the 1780s by formerly enslaved people from Britain and the North American colonies. Intra-African migration and creolization under the imperial aegis formed diasporic identities like Crowther's. Enslaved as a child in present-day Nigeria, freed by the British and educated by Christian missionaries in Sierra Leone, Crowther eventually migrated back to Nigeria, where he was reunited with his mother after a 25-year separation. The son she greeted was a mature Christian missionary who would rise to become the Bishop of Anglican West Africa.

Of Crowther's prolific writings, Gunning analyzes his early journal of the tragic 1841 Niger expedition, submitted as a report to the Church Missionary Society in Britain. Crowther's "self-construction as an obedient and loyal propagator of Christian mission," Gunning writes, is his "first public articulation of an 'Atlantic African' identity" (20). His repatriation--not a homecoming in any simple sense--affords Gunning a window into the "multiple worlds of experience created by multiple African diasporas" (98). She also analyzes the models of masculinity on which Crowther draws to create a Christian, colonized African self still tethered to his pre-slavery roots.

Moving Home takes a nuanced, intersectional approach to travel writers' construction of gendered identities. It uncovers significant differences between individuals such as Mary Seacole and Nancy Prince, both of whom traveled and published as women of color.

Seacole, a Jamaica-born entrepreneur and healer, built businesses in gold-rush-era Panama and later in wartime Crimea. Capitalizing on the colonial West Indian stereotype of the mixed-race female hotelkeeper, she provided the comforts of home to displaced white men. Partly to help recover from a bankruptcy brought on by the abrupt end of the Crimean War, she wrote Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857). Here Seacole skillfully wields the title of "Mother," bestowed by the soldiers she feeds and heals in Jamaica and Crimea, to ward off the sexualized overtones embedded in the hotelkeeper trope. Though she was an accomplished nurse as well as a dispenser of hospitality, Seacole's application to join Florence Nightingale's nursing corps was rejected, presumably on racial grounds. On her own she founded the British Hotel, a resource for hungry and wounded soldiers amid the empire's tragic mismanagement of battlefront logistics.

Nancy Gardner Prince, who grew up Black and indigent in Newburyport, Massachusetts, travelled to Jamaica in the 1840s, around the time Seacole left the island. Prince had previously traveled east to Russia as the wife of the Black sailor and servant Nero Prince. In Gunning's analysis, Prince was more valued in Russia than she could have been as a Black woman in the antebellum US. Marriage and travel allowed her to escape hardship, but also to inhabit feminine roles that are strategically showcased in her autobiography, A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince (1850). Playing many parts in St. Petersburg, she took in student boarders as a surrogate mother (with no children of her own), started a business making infant clothing, helped found an orphanage, and emerged as the "public icon of domestic respectability" that she could not be in the US (68).

Returning to the US after nine years in St. Petersburg, Prince grappled with both religion and the politics of Black emigration. Though her book says little about this period, Gunning's research recovers much of it. In the 1830s, we are told, Prince participated in "failed American communities" (70), including a women's antislavery society and an orphanage for African American children. Unlike the ever-adaptable Mrs. Seacole, she was a politically active woman who chafed under Black patriarchy. Reaching Jamaica as a missionary in 1841, she was one of a number of African Americans who traveled to the island to see first-hand the "blessings" of emancipation just granted by the British and who considered Jamaica a land of promise. But amid the tensions and exigencies of the post-emancipation colony, Prince was disappointed by Black Jamaicans as well as by white missionaries, and her search for community failed. According to Gunning, her travel writing reveals "an engagement with antebellum Black anxieties about home, social status, migration, and freedom" (72).

Besides treating Seacole and Prince, Gunning examines two black male writers of antebellum America who also travelled abroad, taking the same journey but publishing separate accounts of it. Well known as an early Black nationalist, Martin Delany organized an expedition to Africa partly because the white-dominated American Colonization Society had mismanaged the emerging nation of Liberia. Out of Delany's trip came his Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party (1861). He was accompanied by Robert Campbell, a mixed-race Jamaican immigrant based in Philadelphia. After travelling with Delany to Abeokuta, north of Lagos, Campbell wrote A Pilgrimage to My Motherland (1861). Each of these two accounts differently appropriates the exploration narrative genre, "a form of knowledge production," as Gunning points out, "traditionally employed by whites" that assumed the inferiority of non-white populations (126). Contesting white Victorian norms of masculinity, the two Black explorers thus laid public claim to what Gunning calls the "integrity, piety, propriety, chivalry, bravery, and intellectual achievement" denied to Black people by white supremacists (126). In depicting an idealized Black homeland, both accounts projected Black male authority. Though their national backgrounds differed, Gunning suggests, the African American Delany and the Black West Indian Campbell may have "shared and shaped each other's visions of Africa as home" (124).

What happens when diasporan Black men position themselves as explorers in Africa? To answer, Gunning delves into the histories of the exploration narrative genre and the tumultuous settling of Liberia. Delany and Campbell believed that only Black people had a right to settle, proselytize, and build nations in West Africa. Unlike white colonizers, they secured the consent of the African inhabitants of their target area, Abeokuta. They also negotiated a treaty with the "native authorities," a document reproduced in both their books. Though grounded in the "so-called civilizing mission," Gunning writes, the treaty makes all action contingent on the "full agreement and cooperation of the Egba." In this sense, Gunning argues, it qualifies as "an anticolonial document" (129). Reading the narratives of Delany and Campbell beside the exploration classics of David Livingstone and Richard Burton, Gunning shows how the two Black writers subvert the gaze of white exploration even while replicating its literature. Burton, who retraced many of the routes taken by Delany and Campbell, attacked the latter's book in contemptuously racist terms. Meanwhile, the two Black travellers diverged. While Delany returned to the US and fought in the Civil War, Campbell went back to settle in Nigeria--not in Abeokuta, but in colonial Lagos, annexed by Britain in 1861.

The last Black traveler Gunning presents did not publish a book. Like many early women travelers, Sarah Forbes Bonetta recorded her travels in letters and journals complicated by the pressures of self-presentation she faced as a member of the Black elite in colonial Lagos. Her path to this position was extraordinary. Enslaved as a young child by slave traders who killed her family and destroyed their village, she spent two years as a prisoner of the King of Dahomey before being serendipitously taken up by the Lieutenant Commander of the Royal Navy's anti-slave-trading squadron. In Britain, he presented her to Queen Victoria, who took her on as a royal ward. Ironically exemplifying the practice of whimsically naming enslaved people, the girl's name combines those of Lieutenant Commander Forbes and his ship, HMS Bonetta.

Bonetta's post-slavery life was peripatetic. Sent to Africa by the Queen and her household to be educated in the Female Institution in Freetown, Sierra Leone, she was then brought back to England to live with a missionary family. When she was nineteen, the Queen granted James Davies of Lagos, a wealthy older merchant, permission to marry her. Bonetta declined the match at first but later gave in. Settling in Lagos as a wife and mother, she made at least four trips back to Britain, where she had close emotional ties with her foster family. Her letters and diaries are a different kind of travel writing, but they also redefine the meaning of "home." For Bonetta, Gunning writes, "home" emerges from "the culture of travel that shaped the lives and gendered identities of the Christian West African elite community," creating "an environment where 'home' could be 'here' and 'there' simultaneously" (176). Under constant scrutiny by her husband, the Queen's representatives, and white missionaries, Bonetta strove to be an ideal wife and mother even as her husband went bankrupt and she contracted tuberculosis. Amid all this, there are moments of quiet "colonial self-determination to make her own world" (179).

Besides highlighting under-studied Black travel writers, Gunning's book complements the ongoing conversation about how to read Black writers whose access to print depended on white sponsorship and/or readership. Reporting from Africa to the Church Missionary Society headquarters in London, for instance, Samuel Crowther knew he was providing the Society with raw data to use in fundraising efforts. Given Crowther's knowledge of this purpose, Gunning feels bound to "listen for . . . moments of dissonance" in a text "created under the weight of multiple expectations and audiences" (119). Throughout her book, Gunning eschews generalization and accentuates instead the specific politics surrounding each text she discusses. Her impressive research into such areas as the "Saro" migration from colonial Sierra Leone to present-day Nigeria sheds light on the intra-African creolization which, like that in the Caribbean, was created by the slave trade. As her Introduction points out, her perspective is "informed by both African and African American studies, from all points of the Anglophone Atlantic diaspora" (22). Scholars from all of these areas will find her book richly rewarding.

Elizabeth Bohls is Professor of English at the University of Oregon.


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