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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Briton Hammon
(fl. 1760)

Briton Hammon’s captivity narrative is widely recognized as the first African American prose text published in North America. Unfortunately, the historical record of Hammon’s life is limited to the information contained within his narrative, from which Hammon explains he has “omitted a great many things.” Thus we do not know for certain whether he was a servant or a slave, whether he wrote the narrative in its entirety, or what his life was like after his return to Massachusetts. Yet Hammon’s narrative still raises intriguing questions about how a man of African descent who was in servitude gained access to the public sphere and how he made use of the conventions of one of the era’s most popular genres, the captivity narrative.

With his master’s permission, Hammon departed from Massachusetts in 1747 on a ship bound for Jamaica. After picking up its cargo, the ship foundered off the Florida coast and was attacked by sixty Native Americans. Hammon, the only survivor, was quickly taken into captivity. Although he soon escaped aboard a Spanish schooner, he was later imprisoned for more than four years in a dungeon in Spanish Cuba because he refused to serve on a Spanish ship. After escaping from his Spanish captors, Hammon worked in Cuba before signing on board a ship bound for London. In London, Hammon was happily reunited with his master, General Winslow, after almost thirteen years. Soon after returning to Boston with his master, he published the narrative of his “uncommon sufferings.”

Although Hammon is believed to be the author of his narrative, some critics have suggested that the narrative’s opening and closing (and perhaps even the narrative itself) might have been authored by a white editor or writer. Ironically, the very characteristic that has caused some to question his authorship—the narrative’s rather formulaic opening and closing—was a characteristic shared by numerous other eighteenth-century texts presumably written by white men and women, whose authorship remains unquestioned. The questioning of Hammon’s authorship is revealing, given that eighteenth-century notions about authorship and about the importance of originality differed from our own era’s privileging of authorial status. Many early American literary genres relied on a strict adherence to convention rather than on originality to achieve their didactic aims. That the authorship of Hammon’s narrative is unconfirmed is thus unremarkable.

Contemporary readers might find it surprising that Briton Hammon made little reference to his race in his work; indeed, only one phrase in his lengthy title identified him as “A Negro Man,—Servant to General Winslow.” In fact, Hammon’s class position was undoubtedly much more important than his race from the perspective of his readers, and it is his subordinate position that is emphasized within the text. As a young servant or slave returning to Boston in 1760 during the middle of the Seven Years’ War, Hammon would have been welcomed into a city whose male population was significantly depleted. Like young Thomas Brown, whose narrative was also published in Boston in 1760, Hammon represented a whole class of servants whose otherwise marginal status was transformed within the wartime economy. Furthermore, it was during conflicts like the Seven Years’ War that the popularity and political importance of captivity narratives increased.

Yet for figures like Hammon, the experience of captivity did not fit neatly into the conventions of his chosen genre. Hammon’s initial escape from captivity among Native Americans did not restore him to his community but instead to a second captivity among the Spanish. And although Hammon, like Mary Rowlandson and John Williams before him, describes his captors as barbarians and savages, his description of his eventual return to Boston—his final redemption—is contradictory, for Hammon seems to have been redeemed into servitude rather than freedom. The nature of Hammon’s redemption is further complicated by the fact that he may well have been more free—at least in terms of receiving wages for his labor—during the intervals surrounding his captivities among Native Americans and the Spanish than he was after returning to Boston with his “good Master.” Hammon’s narrative, one of only two eighteenth-century African American captivity narratives, thus adds a significant dimension to the study of an important early American literary genre.

Amy E. Winans
Susquehanna University

In the Heath Anthology
Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon (1760)

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American Treasures of the Library of Congress
  Information about Hammon's Narrative and a beautiful scan of the version printed in 1760.

Black History Pages
  An excellent collection of slave narratives in electronic format.

Secondary Sources