“’Scrapeing the world for money’: Nicholas Owen’s Manuscript Journal, 1746-1757″

OI Colloquium with Kerry Sinanan

Nicholas Owen’s Journal of a Slave-Dealer was edited by Eveline Martin in 1930. In this talk Sinanan will discuss the manuscript journal itself which has remained unexamined since its publication. Forged in the West African space of slave trading by an impoverished, white, Anglo-Irishman with pretensions to gentility, Owen’s description of his life in Sherbro and Sierra Leone in the 1750s is a startling example of quotidian white fragility/supremacy. Owen sees himself as a victim of economic forces and casts his experience as a form of involuntary exile among an inferior people, while profiting off their enslavement. The erasure of the people he buys and sells, and his use of a journal to write his selfhood as trades in flesh, makes Owen’s text one in which we can read what Hortense Spillers describes as part of the matrix of captivity: the “captive body reduces to a thing becoming being for the captor”. This absenting of enslaved people and the stereotypical descriptions of local customs, enables Owen’s forging of textual “mastery” even as he complains of his lot. This chapter is part of my book, Myths of Mastery, which examines closely the writings of a range of enslavers, including John Newton and John Stedman. Sinanan show how the liberal, humanistic, Enlightenment discourses of the enslaver enable the violent subjugation and commodification of others, giving lie to his myths of mastery.

Kerry Sinanan specializes in the literature of the Black Atlantic and on archives of slavery in the British Caribbean. Her most recent article ‘The “Slave” as Cultural Artifact: The Case of Mary Prince’ appears in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, and a recent chapter ‘Lost mothers in the Caribbean plantation and black maternal and infant mortality, now’ appears in Caribbean Literature in Transition, Volume 1. She has recently completed her monograph Myths of Mastery: Traders, Planters and Colonial Agents, 1750-1833, now under consideration by the University of North Carolina Press. Articles relating to this research came out in 2020 in Age of Revolutions, and in Romantic Circles. She has received research fellowships from the Beinecke Library, the James Ford Bell Library and the Yale Center for British Art. Most recently she was awarded a Rakow Research grant by the Corning Museum to continue her work on the visual cultures of glass in the Black Atlantic world. She is Vice President of the Early Caribbean Society.


The OI’s Colloquium Series is an ongoing seminar for scholars to present their work in progress for graduate students and colleagues.  Advanced registration is required. All participants read the pre-circulated  paper and prepare to engage in generous and generative feedback.

When we meet in person we are limited by the size of the OI’s conference room; online we limit registration to 40 (a typical size for the colloquium). No recordings are made of the discussions and no tweeting or posting on other social media platforms during the event is permitted in order to encourage this intellectual community of trusted exchange.


Contact Beverly Smith for your copy.

Telling Unconventional Life Stories in Vast Early America

Biography remains one of the most durable, popular forms of history.  But telling life stories, especially when the individuals in question were not among the elite—when the records of their lives were scattered, ill-preserved, or non-existent—presents archival, evidentiary, linguistic, and narrative challenges for early Americanists.

Please join Carolyn Eastman and Sophie White for a discussion of the challenges and opportunities that arise when “Telling Unconventional Life Stories in Vast Early America.” Sophie White’s prize-winning Voices of the Enslaved: Love, Labor, and Longing in French Louisiana (2019) brings to light a remarkable cast of enslaved individuals who fought to tell their stories in the courts of eighteenth-century French Louisiana.  Carolyn Eastman’s forthcoming book, The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States’ First Forgotten Celebrity, uses the life of the remarkably eccentric Scottish orator James Ogilvie as a lens for exploring politics and culture in the founding decades of the U.S. Republic.

Carolyn Eastman is associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of the prizewinning A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution. Her forthcoming book, The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States’ First Forgotten Celebrity, will be published by the Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press in March 2021.


Sophie White is professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. In addition to Voices of the Enslaved, which has won the AHA’s James A. Rawley Prize and four other book prizes, and is a finalist for the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, she is the author of Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (2012), and co-editor of Hearing Enslaved Voices: African and Indian Slave Testimony in British and French America, 1700–1848 (2020).