Amongst the many printed works associated with William Williams Pantycelyn held by the National Library is a 1779 Welsh translation of A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, as related by Himself originally published in English under the auspices of Selina Hastings, Lady Huntingdon in 1772. Gronniosaw’s Narrative is an important work, especially in terms of the development of early black biography. It was the first autobiography by a black author published in Britain and one of the earliest known examples of a slave narrative.
At first glance, that it was Williams Pantycelyn that was responsible for the translation and publication of Berr Hanes o’r Pethau Mwyfa Hynod ym Mywyd James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw makes sense. Williams Pantycelyn after all was responsible for the first printed condemnation of the slave trade in Welsh in the first volume of his Pantheologia, published in 1762. However, as a number of academics, most notably the African American literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., have noted there is no condemnation of slavery in Gronniosaw’s text, unlike later 19th century slave narratives. Indeed, according to Gates Jr.’s reading of the text one of the key threads throughout is Gronniosaw’s abandonment of his African heritage and his blackness as he seeks to become more European in order to gain acceptance in 18th century Anglo-American society.
Other readings argue that the text presents slavery in a generally positive, paternalistic light playing down its brutal reality. Gronniosaw’s initial enslavement is portrayed as saving him from being murdered; the horrors of the Middle Passage are absent, with only a reference to a mild bout of sea-sickness; it is through slavery that Gronniosaw is brought to a Christian country from a ‘pagan’ Africa; it is through slavery, and specifically through his final ‘dear kind master’ that Gronniosaw is converted to Calvinism. There is no explicit condemnation of the slavery as an institution, no meditation on the condition of being in bondage or on the morality of slaveholding. Indeed, the text can also be seen as making an implicit case for slavery as a path to conversion, an argument made by its editor Walter Shirley, Lady Huntingdon’s cousin, in the Narrative’s preface.
How then do we reconcile Williams Pantycelyn’s avowedly anti-slavery principles with the publication of a text which at best was ambivalent in its attitude to slavery? The same can, of course, be asked with regards to Gronniosaw, as a former slave responsible for the authorship the text. Recent academic work by the academic Ryan Hanley, focused on the religious, social and cultural milieu behind the original publication of the Narrative, may shed some light on these contradictions. As Hanley has argued the depiction of slavery in the Narrative was profoundly influenced by Gronniosaw’s relationship to evangelical Calvinism and its social networks. Hanley identifies a number of key factors that help explain the way slavery is depicted in the Narrative.
First, while the text is commonly read as a slave narrative today, on publication the Narrative’s function was primarily as a piece of devotional literature, forming part of a sharp, and by now obscure, theological debate on predestination and slavery conducted by pamphlet between the Calvinists and the John Wesley’s Arminian Methodists. The central focus of the Narrative is on Gronniosaw’s path to Calvinism, his conversion, his engagement with Calvinist circles and the comfort provided by his religious faith during his extremely challenging circumstances post-slavery. The Calvinist belief that a person’s fate in the afterlife was pre-ordained meant that their freedom in the physical world was of little importance in terms of their eventual salvation, which had significant implications for their views on slavery at this time. For proslavery Calvinists such as George Whitfield and Lady Huntingdon, as long as the gospel was being preached to their slaves they saw no obstacle to owning slaves, their spiritual wellbeing being of more importance than their physical freedom.
Second, there are issues related to Gronniosaw’s authorial agency, especially in relation to the texts’ muted depiction of slavery. A number of actors stood between Gronniosaw, the narrator, and the published text: an amanuensis, an editor and perhaps most significantly a patron, the slave owning Lady Huntingdon. An alternative reading by Jennifer Harris, however, makes the case for a higher degree of authorial agency, with Gronniosaw omitting key facts, such as his probable Islamic background in contrast to the depiction of a ‘pagan’ Africa, as a means of playing on European sympathies and prejudices.
Third, many of the people in this Calvinist social network, on whom Gronniosaw was, crucially, financially dependent upon at different times, were involved in the slave trade, including key figures such as George Whitfield and Lady Huntingdon. Indeed, Lady Huntingdon, the patron of Trefeca College, is key here with all the actors involved in the Narrative’s production, as Hanley points out, doing their upmost to please her. Williams Pantycelyn was also well acquainted with Lady Huntingdon, writing many of his English hymns at her behest and in relation to her influential role as the benefactor of Trefeca College
The religious, social and cultural environment in which Gronniosaw’s Narrative was produced provides important context in relation to its depiction of slavery. The primacy given to theological concerns and the role of Lady Huntingdon also provides similar context for Williams Pantycelyn’s role in the translation and publication of the Berr Hanes. However, questions remain in reconciling its muted depiction of slavery and Williams’ opposition to the slave trade and how these relate to the proslavery views of many in that periods Calvinist social network.
Dr. Douglas Jones
Printed Collections Projects Manager
Evans, Chris – Slave Wales: the Welsh and American Slavery, 2010.
Gates Jr., Henry Louis – The Signifying Monkey, 2011.
Gronniosaw, James Albert Ukawsaw – Berr hanes o’r pethau mwyaf hynod ym mywyd James Albert Ukawsaw Groniosaw, tywysog o Affrica: fel yr adroddwyd ganddo ef ei hun, 1779.
Hanley, Ryan – ‘Calvinism, Proslavery and James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’, Slavery and Abolition 35 (2), 2015.
Hanley, Ryan – Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British writing, c.1770-1830, 2018.
Harris, Jennifer – ‘Seeing the Light: Re-reading James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, English Language Notes 42 (4), 2005.
James, E. Wyn – ‘Blessed Jubil!: Slavery Mission and the Millennial Dawn in the work of William Williams Pantycelyn’ in Cultures of Radicalism in Britain and Ireland, 2013.
James, E. Wyn – ‘Welsh Ballads and American Slavery’, Welsh Journal of Religious History 2, 2007.
James, E. Wyn – ‘Caethwasanaeth a’r Beirdd’, Taliesin 119, 2003.
Potkay, Adam and Sandra Burr – Black Atlantic Writers of the 18th Century: Living the New Exodus in England and the Americas, 1995.
Schlenther, Boyd Stanley – Queen of the Methodists: The Countess of Huntingdon and the Eighteenth-century Crisis of Faith and Society, 1997.
Tyson, John R. – ‘Lady Huntingdon, Religion and Race’, Methodist History 50 (1), 2011.
Welch, Edwin – Spiritual Pilgrim: A Reassessment of the Life of the Countess of Huntingdon, 1995.