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John Joseph
The Life and Sufferings of John Joseph, a Native of Ashantee, in Western Africa: Who Was Stolen from His Parents at the Age of 3 Years, and Sold to Mr. Johnstone, a Cotton Planter, in New Orleans, South America
Wellington: Printed for John Joseph by J. Greedy, 1848.


Few details of John Joseph's life are available outside of his published narrative. He was born in Ashantee, a former British territory in West Africa belonging to the Gold Coast Colony, today called Ghana. He was the son of a "distinguished Chief of one of the Tribes" (p. 4). At around age three, Joseph and his sister were captured in an inter-tribal war and sold into slavery, along with hundreds of other prisoners of war. They were sent to New Orleans, Louisiana, where a cotton planter named Mr. Johnstone bought both Joseph and his sister. Joseph was subjected to physical abuse, which prompted him to run away. He was caught, reclaimed by Johnstone, punished severely, and sold at auction to Mr. Smith, a planter from Charleston, South Carolina. Smith proved to be a kind master who provided generous food and clothing allowances for his slaves and fired overseers who whipped them. Unfortunately, Smith was also a gambler, and in a shooting match he lost Joseph, along with many other slaves, to Dr. Browne, a Virginia tobacco planter "who was as cruel to his slaves as Mr. Smith was kind" (p. 6). Browne's inhumane treatment prompted Joseph to run away repeatedly, behavior that escalated the cycle of violence against him until he finally succeeded in escaping. Although the exact course Joseph took during his escape is not specified, he eventually found a boat, floated downriver, and was rescued by an English vessel "at sea, forty miles from the Mississippi River" (p. 8). The English sailors encouraged Joseph to "be of good cheer . . . for as soon as you are in England you will be a free man" (p. 8). The concluding postscript to "The Life and Sufferings of John Joseph" indicates that the sailors took up a collection to assist Joseph upon his arrival in England, where he was eventually baptized (p. 8). The date and circumstances of his death are unknown.

The Life begins with an introduction likely written by J. Greedy, who is listed on the frontispiece of the narrative. It indicates that it was "printed for John Joseph by J. Greedy," which may suggest Greedy's role as an amanuensis in the production of the narrative. Greedy passionately argues against the institution of slavery, appealing first to readers' sympathy for enslaved people who deserve to be treated humanely: "these poor creatures . . . are . . . the children of God . . . for hath not God made of one blood all the nations of the earth" (p. 2). Greedy then reasons against societal biases that declare "blacks . . . unfit to be trusted," which he argues are an effect of the moral destruction wrought by brutal treatment in slavery (p. 2). "Let us therefore," Greedy writes, "by all the means in our power, whether pecuniary or otherwise, endeavour to promote their welfare" (p. 3). In this instance, he observes, the best way to help John Joseph "would be to purchase one of these little books" (p. 3).

After Greedy's extensive introduction, Joseph's life story is told in the first person perspective, presumably as dictated to an amanuensis. One must account, however, for corrections and insertions made by the writer. Not only does the text read in Standard English, but the preface requests that readers forgive errors in style and composition "inasmuch as it is written by an operative tradesman--the dictation of the African author himself" (p. 2). Joseph goes on to "tell" his life story, often detailing cruel, physical punishments inflicted by his masters. For example, Mr. Johnstone "would fasten my wrists with a cord, and throw it over a beam; I was then drawn up by my arms as high as possible without raising my feet from the ground . . . in this distorted posture, this inhuman monster, this demon in the shape of man, beat me with a short whip" (p. 4).

Another important feature of The Life is Joseph's religious conversion and Christian beliefs. The timeline of his conversion is somewhat unclear, as Joseph declares Christian views prior to the period he credits as his opportunity to receive religious instruction. On the New Orleans auction block, Joseph is deeply offended by being referred to as a "Jack Sambo" and described as chattel: "although the tide of fortune has made me at present a slave; you may be wicked enough to sell my body, but thank God, it is not in the power of a master or auctioneer, to buy and sell my precious and immortal soul" (p. 5). However, it is in this auction that Smith purchases him, and it is under Smith's ownership that Joseph claims his conversion: "I remained with Mr. Smith five years, during which time . . . I was brought to see and feel myself a sinner in the sight of God, and look to the Lord Jesus Christ as my only Saviour and mediator; instead of bending, as I had been accustomed to do, to the Sun, Moon, and Stars" (p. 6). Despite the lack of chronological accuracy in the text, Joseph's Christian faith remains a key feature of the narrative's portrayal of his life. When he makes his final escape attempt, Joseph allows his stolen boat to drift out to sea, "trusting in him who is able to preserve them that put their trust in him, as well on the mighty deep as on the land" (p. 7). Furthermore, the "Certificate"—a postscript to the narrative—observes that Joseph is happy to be free from slavery and "seems anxious to return to his native country, to communicate to his poor African brethren the true word of God" (p. 8).

Joseph's narrative thus participates in the slave narrative tradition of spiritual autobiographies which create parallels between the spiritual journey of Christian conversion and the literal, embodied journey from slavery to freedom. Furthermore, Joseph's spirituality supports Greedy's argument for the humanity of the slave and illustrates his "hope yet to see this light reflected on Afric's burning shore, where, so soon as it prevails, slavery in all its forms will be extinguished" (p. 3).

Jenn Williamson

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