In the 17th and 18th centuries, British subjects’ understanding of captivity was rooted in what they experienced in their daily lives, from “domestic captivity” within marriage to captivity rooted in far more sinister practices – l Slavery and Britain’s Involvement in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Yet when Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, began exploring scholars’ work on British literature of the time, she noticed that many references to captivity were considered as metaphorical when in fact the presence of captivity in British life was very real.
“The condition of captivity, like the British involvement in the slave trade, was so naturalized and normalized and so widespread that it was commonplace in literary texts. Yet when we look closely we see the codes and language captivity everywhere,” said Ingrassia, who will become acting dean of VCU’s College of Humanities on July 1. “Once we read the codes and the language of captivity, we see a very different picture of the England right now.
This new perspective on British life – and its meaning today – is at the center of “Domestic Captivity and the British Subject, 1660-1750” (University of Virginia Press), a book by Ingrassia, professor and head of the Department of VCU English, coming out this month.
“Even though my book focuses on events that occurred before 1750, inequalities and power asymmetries by race and gender are still very much present, here and in other parts of the world,” Ingrassia said. “It sounds like a tale from the distant past, but we are indeed heirs to the 18th century.”
Ingrassia spoke with VCU News – and with VCU’s Humanities Research Center – about the book, the examples of captivity that exist in British literature, and how a new understanding of this period in Britain can change people’s lives. perspectives on history today.
What sparked your interest in exploring the domestic captivity of women in 17th and 18th century Britain?
Having worked extensively on women writers of the time, I was acutely aware of the legal restrictions imposed on women in the 18th century and how women writers reacted to them. British law at the time stated that once married, women were legally “covered” by their husbands. A wife essentially had no legal existence, could not own property separately – everything belonged to her husband – and, of course, could not file for divorce. It literally took an Act of Parliament to divorce. Furthermore, marital rape was unrecognized and did not exist legally in England until 1980.
These restrictions within marriage existed simultaneously in a culture in which women had few options for financial support except marriage. As professional female writers emerged, women could appear on the scene, and women were often full partners in family businesses, but there were few or no paths to financial independence for most women. Moreover, social limits governing women’s behavior—expectations of obedience, resistance to female education, prohibitions against premarital sexual activity—were also deeply constraining and limited options for women.
In this context, then, it is not surprising that writers – both men and women – commonly used images of captivity to describe marriage and other aspects of their lives. Similarly, women working as laborers in domestic service or agricultural work, for example, also referred to their situation as captivity.
I was interested in the paradox between a country that proclaims itself to be a place of “freedom” while disenfranchising and actively oppressing women, many of whom were acutely aware of the contradiction and hypocrisy.
Your book speaks of the concept of domestic captivity as “inextricably linked to England’s systematic enslavement of kidnapped Africans and the accumulation of wealth achieved from these actions, even as early fictional accounts suppressed or ignored the ‘slave experience’. How was domestic captivity among British women related to slavery?
The book explores a world in which humans – men, women, black, white – could be seen as a form of property. When England actively engaged in the slave trade – and it is important to remember that the British Crown had monopoly rights to the slave trade through the Royal African Company until the early 18th century century – this practice, together with the legislation surrounding it, created what one scholar describes as the moment when “human beings become ‘real property'”. This period also saw the rise of indentured servitude, both voluntary and involuntary, as a form of unfree labor. Those convicted of theft or other petty offenses could be sent to the West Indies or Colonial America to work there for seven years.
These practices created what I call a “culture of captivity”, a situation that people were very sensitive to. As a result, many women writers of the time drew on the language of slavery, confinement, and restriction they saw all around them to characterize their own circumstances.
As I discussed in my Meet the Author book lecture with the VCU Center for Human Sciences Research, the enslavement of kidnapped Africans and domestic captivity were obviously very different conditions. Those I refer to as “domestic captives” did not occupy the permanent, hereditary status of people who endured a system of racially based enslavement. To use the term “captivity” in relation to the confinement of British subjects is in no way to equate their condition as captives with the enslavement of enslaved Africans in a colonial site. The captivity of the British was a contingent and not a perpetual state, a temporary non-hereditary condition. This difference is vast and crucial to staying at the forefront of any discussion. Nevertheless, these cultural practices empowered and reinforced each other.
Meet the VCU authors: Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D, author of “Domestic Captivity and the British Subject”
What are the implications of this connection – and of domestic captivity as a whole – in changing our understanding of the world as it was in Britain in the 1600s-1700s? How will this have the potential to change the way this history is taught today?
Reading through a captivity lens can change the way we think about the period in several ways. We can recognize the presence of slaves in England and the British colonies and the enormous economic effect of the slave trade on British culture. We see how the threat of imprisonment or indentured servitude shaped the lives of people living in England who understood the situation. And we necessarily complicate how we understand how the position of women – or frankly, anyone other than a white male landowner – could, often suddenly and arbitrarily, find themselves confined, restrained or held captive in some way or other. of another.
What examples have you encountered of authors exploring domestic captivity in the literary works you have studied?
So, one thing that quickly became apparent is that the canonical texts of the period that people know – “Robinson Crusoe” or “Gulliver’s Travels”, for example – are based on the main characters’ participation in the human trade. enslaved. Few people think about this or consider the implications of this participation. Likewise, other canonical novels regularly taught from the time have occasional references to enslaved humans that have not been discussed. The most popular novel of the 18th century, “Pamela” by Samuel Richardson, describes “a little [African] boy, about 10 years old, [given] as a present,” a gesture that naturalizes the commodification of enslaved people – and the giving of humans as if it were property devoid of humanity. Even Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” has an oblique but searing reference to the brutality wrought upon the bodies of enslaved humans.
Another thing I discovered while working with the approximately 350 handwritten letters of a poet, Judith Madan, and her husband, who was both a military officer and a plantation owner, was how discussions of the treatment of slaves on his plantation were fully integrated. with their expressions of personal affection and mundane details of their domestic life. It was really scary.
Moreover, once I realized that the author of one of the most popular plays of the 18th century, Richard Steele, had inherited a sugar cane plantation and the enslaved Africans on that plantation his first wife, it cast a completely different light on how his plays and trials dealt with captivity and slavery – again, in a way that was largely ignored.
What lessons do you hope readers will take from your book?
I hope readers will reconsider the gap between the “freedom” so central to Britain’s construction of national identity and its limited significance in the real lives of British subjects – the unprotected child, the impressed sailor, the laborer needy, indentured servant or groom. women.
I hope they can recognize, if they read at the time, that British involvement in the slave trade, much like the nation’s involvement in colonial efforts in the West Indies, had a profound effect in all areas of culture. Just because slaves lived at a geographical distance – although they were also present in England – does not mean that Britain’s commitment to a financial system based on slave labor did not not shaped other areas of life.
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