Panels | Related Links | Conference | JATW

"Trading in the blush": Domesticating the Colony
in Anna Maria Falconbridge's Travel Narrative

Sharon Harrow, University of Arizona


Anna Maria Falconbridge's Narrative of Two Voyages to the River Sierra Leone During the Years 1791-1793, published during the tensions leading to the French and Haitian revolutions, records the founding of Freetown as a colony for freed slaves. Her letters and journal, one of the scant travel narratives to be published by a woman, reflect concerns common to other colonial travel writers--prominently, Enlightenment questions of freedom. But it is the depiction of bodies, politics, and the body politic, written through a feminized lens, that distinguishes Mrs. Falconbridge's narrative from other African travel-logs recorded almost exclusively by men.

Voyaging to Sierra Leone with her husband, an employee of the Sierra Leone Company, she remains in Freetown after his death, continuing to participate in the socio-political activities of the developing colony. Foreshadowing Conrad's quest for Kurtz, Mrs. Falconbridge tells us that her husband's original mission was to corral black and white settlers connected with the Company who, after a number of "dispute[s] with the natives" (10), scattered across the countryside. She writes most vividly about the women who return, giving voice to one woman whom she observed:

the women were mostly of that description of persons who walk the streets of London, and support themselves by the earnings of prostitution; that men were employed to collect and conduct them to Wapping, where they were intoxicated with liquor, then inveigled on board of ship, and married to 'Black men', whom they had never seen before; . . . 'Thus,' in her own words, 'to the disgrace of my mother country, upwards of one hundred unfortunate women, were seduced from England to practice their iniquities more brutishly in this horrid country' (65-6).

This pathos-driven exchange is important for several reasons. First, the traffic in cross-continental sex workers lays bare the ways in which male generative forces of colonialism organized women's bodies as sexualized sites productive of more than just colonial subjects. As Felicity Nussbaum points out in Torrid Zones, bourgeois female sexuality depended upon the construction of the lower-class prostitute body to be constituted as (ironically) barren (only virtuous women can produce useful subjects), and as a threat to trade and national identity (100,99,97). The prostitute body in England served as a site onto which excesses could be displaced, but which remained a threat to the focus of the generative forces of bourgeois capital. The prostitute body in the colony not only condensed the myth of exotic sexuality, but it also united, organizationally and discursively, trade in white women's bodies and African slave bodies.

Second, her shock at being "forced to be a spectator" to the plight of these women recalls another moment of "feminine" spectatorship. In the first letter sent from Africa, Mrs. Falconbridge writes about seeing the slave yard at the Bance Island "Factory." Half of her transcription consists of an apology for looking: "Offended modesty rebuked me with a blush for not hurrying my eyes from such disgusting scenes; but whether fascinated by female curiosity, or whatever else, I could not withdraw myself for several minutes" (33). This spectacular scene reminds her readers (originally a woman friend, and then the reading public) that female "delicacy" should debar her from masculine ocular activities. However, the few moments of feminine pause are vitiated not only by the boldness inherent in the act of writing, but by the mobility she conceals from her husband. One afternoon, after Falconbridge has gone to a palaver, she ventures to Bance Island, passing the day with a French factory owner. That night, she writes of her husband: "as he did not ask how I had spent the day, I did not inform him" (59). One could argue that she manipulates notions of female delicacy to afford her greater freedom, for she "feigned sickness" that day, the day after she claimed to have had "hysterics" at the first palaver they attended together.

Mrs. Falconbridge's language becomes conspicuously less nuanced by gender after the death of her husband, and her political commentary takes on a more assertive tone. Moreover, she undergoes a revolution in her own thinking, and by 1793, she refuses to indict the slave trade wholesale, though she maintains an Enlightenment posture with respect to universal notions of freedom and reason. Tracking Mrs. Falconbridge's narrative shifts, I will explore the diachronic discourse of colonialism manifest in this extraordinary historical document.

Falconbridge, Anna Maria. Narrative of Two Voyages to the River Sierra Leone During the Years 1791-1793. 1794. London: Frank Cass and Company, 1967 .

Nussbaum, Felicity A. Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in 18th-Century English Narratives. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Read more about Falconbridge and Sierra Leone.