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"Our floating prison": Anna Maria Falconbridge
and travel to the River Sierra Leone

Katrina O'Loughlin, University of Melbourne


This paper is part of a larger project which explores the travel writings produced by women across the eighteenth century as marking changing cultural understandings of travel, authorship, and the body. By reading the various written materials surrounding the 'travels' - published travelogues, letters, diaries, poetry and fiction - I am interested to examine the modes of authority that women construct for themselves within the travel writing genre, through notions of 'authorship', 'experience', and 'mobility'.

I therefore understand the travels as constituting less an ethnography of 'foreign' landscapes, bodies or customs, than an instantiation of self description and self-representation for an emerging class of eighteenth-century women writers. My argument in this paper therefore, is that the cartographic impulses of travel writing, which both develop an older aristocratic tradition of epistolary writing for women, and anticipate the appropriations of later imperialist 'ethnographies', constitute a simultaneous mapping of an emergent 'white' 'female' English subject. In particular, it is the representations of 'other' or black bodies produced by these travels that emerge as primary sites for the negotiation of domestic cultural preoccupations. These include concerns such as the social and political status of English women, the forms of property residing in and negotiated through various bodies, debates over slavery and styles of government, and the shifting, corporealised markers of class, gender, and cultural difference.

In the paper I propose for the panel 'African Travel Writing', I will analyse the work of Anna Maria Falconbridge, a late eighteenth-century traveller to the Sierra Leone. Falconbridge journeys to the struggling freed slaves' colony on the south-west coast of Africa in accompaniment of her husband, who had been charged with the resettlement of the community dispersed by local landholders. Falconbridge's text is remarkable for its explicitly multiple and shifting perspectives. Her Narrative of Two Voyages to the River Sierra Leone (1791-3) in a 'floating cage' - the slaving ship the Duke of Buccleugh - is simultaneously the narrative of her growing sense of entrapment within a 'hastily' contracted marriage to the quick-tempered and 'zealous' abolitionist Mr. Falconbridge. Her letters home, which she confesses she had always intended to publish for the edification of her 'dear Country Women', textualise her growing confusion over her place in the expedition, her relationship with Falconbridge, and by the end of her narrative her commitment to abolition of the African slave trade.

Falconbridge's anxiety is produced in part by the shocking discovery of a number of white prostitutes among the expatriated slaves. Her prose moves from horror to frustration as she attempts to describe and then influence these women into her floundering social order. In an otherwise relatively sensitive account of the indigenous and settler communities at Sierra Leone, Falconbridge's narrative hesitates at the multiple instances of miscegenated relationships she is forced to confront. There are moments within the Journey when both individuals and Falconbridge's representations resist their own inscription in her text. At key moments in the narrative for example, the author struggles literally and figuratively over the representation of black bodies. In Africa she tries to clothe the black 'wife' of the King's European Secretary 'in the European way', only to witness in disgust the woman 'tear the clothes off her back immediately after I put them on'. On her return journey through the Americas, Falconbridge is equally struck by the strong healthy bodies of African slaves bound for the plantations, and contrasts these bodies with those of the English 'labouring poor'. Throughout her narrative the presence and authority of her own body as spectator and narrator is organised through her representations of the other bodies she repeatedly encounters.

Through attention to these liminal experiences and concomitant moments of extreme textual anxiety in narratives such as Falconbridge's, this paper will explore the shifting positions of English classed and racialised identities in the eighteenth century, and as they are formulated by travel to Africa. In particular, the paper will seek to describe the places within those cultural identities that individual women travellers articulated for themselves.

Read more about Falconbridge and Sierra Leone.