Maureen Warner-Lewis. Archibald Monteath: Igbo, Jamaican, Moravian. Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2007. 367 pp. $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-976-640-197-9.
Reviewed by Paul Peucker (Moravian Archives, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania)
Published on H-German (May, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
An African Slave's Life from the Pens of German Moravians
This book is a detailed study of the life of a former African slave, based upon the verbal biography he gave to German-American missionaries. As the title indicates, this intriguing life narrative is composed of many layers. The main character was born in Africa but, at a young age, was transported to Jamaica, where he remained until his death. As a member of the Moravian mission he had a third identity: he was part of a global brother- and sisterhood of fellow Moravians of different ethnic backgrounds. Because of the interest his fellow Moravians took in his life, his biography was recorded, translated, and published in various Moravian periodicals, and finally preserved in their archives.
Aniaso was born around 1792 as a member of the Igbo tribe in West Africa. His family belonged to the elite; Aniaso believed his maternal grandfather was a "prince." Aniaso estimated that he was around ten years old when a young man, a regular visitor to his village, talked him into following him to a large marketplace. There, the unsuspecting Aniaso was sold to a slave trader and put on a ship to Jamaica. As a personal servant to the ship's captain, Aniaso did not have to dwell in the overcrowded slave quarters below deck, but was allowed to stay in the captain's cabin together with a few other boys. It seems the captain initially intended to keep Aniaso as his own servant and not sell him. Aniaso relates how, at his own insistence, the captain consented and let him go ashore. There he was "immediately" sold to John Monteath, the owner of a plantation called Kep in southwest Jamaica. His new owner gave him the name Toby.
At first Toby served in the household of John and Nancy Monteath, but after a few years he was moved from lighter domestic duties to full outdoor labor. In 1815 his master died; Toby then became the property of his owner's widow and served as an overseer. During those years, Toby was baptized by a minister of the Church of England and was christened Archibald John Monteath--the name he kept for the rest of his life. In his autobiography, Archibald later admitted that he did not fully understand at that time what it meant to be baptized. Later, as a Moravian, he learned about a more personalized form of religion.
An important part of Archibald's autobiography is devoted to his relationship with the Moravians. He was introduced to the Moravians by a pious plantation owner on Jamaica. From then on, Archibald became very involved with the Moravians. In 1825 he married Rebecca Hart, and soon he became a helper or assistant to the missionaries. As a helper, he traveled around on Sundays and preached in different places on the island. The Moravians lovingly referred to him as "Brother Archie."
A moving passage in the autobiography is Archibald's account of how he purchased his own freedom from his owner on June 1, 1837: "This day always remained to me a holy day!" (p. 231). He put on his Sunday best and rode to the Moravian mission station, where the missionary and the other people were surprised to see him on a weekday. "I took off my hat and waved it about my head, and cried out with a loud voice: Thank God! I am free!" (p. 231). The Moravian missionaries offered him a paid position as helper for all the mission stations. Archibald recounted his life story to Joseph Kummer and Hermine Geissler, two Moravian missionaries, in 1853. Brother Archie died eleven years later, in 1864.
This is not the first time Archibald's life has attracted attention. First, the Moravian missionaries encouraged him to share his biography with them. Although he was able to write, Archibald dictated his biography and Sister Geissler wrote down the text. Writing a biography was a long-standing tradition in the Moravian Church. With their pietist interest in a personally experienced faith, Moravians valued hearing how faith played a role in the lives of their fellow brothers and sisters. Each Moravian was encouraged to write a Lebenslauf (memoir), which was to be read at the funeral service as a last testimony to a life lived in faith and community. Moravian archives around the world are filled with thousands of these ego-documents. In the past two decades, Lebensläufe have attracted the interest of scholars from different backgrounds.
Moravians considered the story of Archibald's life and conversion so fascinating that they decided to publish it, even prior to his death. The editors of the Missions-Blatt, the German journal dedicated to Moravian missions, did not print his name and apparently did not want Archibald to know his biography was being published in order to "spare him the temptation" (p. 9) of thinking too highly of himself. Coincidentally, Archibald died on July 3, 1864, just as the Missions-Blatt came out in Europe. The following year an English translation of his memoir appeared in the Periodical Accounts, the English equivalent of the Missions-Blatt.
Moravians did not forget Monteath's life; Archibald's account was reworked as a religious tract and published in the German series Missionsstunden aus der Brüdergemeine (1898). In 1920 Walser H. Allen wrote his thesis at Moravian Theological Seminary about Archibald Monteath. In 1966 Vernon Nelson, archivist at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, published Archibald´s biography, as found in the papers of Joseph Kummer, in the Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society.
The scope of the current study by Maureen Warner-Lewis, professor emerita of English literature at the University of the West Indies at Jamaica, differs quite extensively from the Moravian publications. Her goal is to "reconstruct" the life of a former slave and to "explore the sociology of slavery from 1750 to the 1860s" (cover text). Warner-Lewis places Archibald's life in the context of his African birthplace, the transatlantic slave trade, Jamaican society, and the global fellowship of Moravians. The result is a well illustrated, pleasantly designed book covering each aspect of Archibald's life that the author could envision. Warner-Lewis considers Monteath's life story "a quest for honour lost in childhood" (p. 250). He found new honor as a helper in the Moravian Church. According to the author, Archibald presented himself, unlike other (former) slaves who left narratives, with self confidence, "agency," and "strength of character" (p. 250).
Warner-Lewis tries to understand Monteath psychologically. Being captured and removed from one's natural roots demands finding replacements for these. African slaves formed new ties with the shipmates who had made the long and tedious journey with them, with co-workers on the plantations, and in their church communities. As the grandson of a prince, Archibald was supposed to have freedom, respect, and material wealth; instead he was kidnapped as a child and sold off as a slave. According to Warner-Lewis, he found replacements for his original social ties in the Christian community that he later joined and in which he rose to the position of general helper.
Although sources on Archibald Monteath are relatively abundant for a person of his status, Warner-Lewis realizes their limitations. No reports from angles other than his own (and modified by the missionaries) exist; women are largely absent from Monteath's narrative. She compares Monteath's displaced biography with the biography of his owner, John Monteath, who, like the slaves, had come to Jamaica from overseas but who was at the opposite end of the social hierarchy. Her lengthy commentary on the Scottish Monteath family is the least successful part of the book. Especially in this portion of the book, Warner-Lewis seems to lose herself in the details. Her love of detail, combined with unnecessary jumps back and forth in time, make some parts of the book difficult to read. The name index is helpful, especially when individuals suddenly reappear in the text after being introduced in previous chapters; however, beware, for the index is incomplete.
Overall, Warner-Lewis paints a lively picture of nineteenth-century society in Jamaica, with its different groups and intersecting layers: whites, blacks, women, men, plantation owners, slaves, clergy, and laymen.
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Paul Peucker. Review of Warner-Lewis, Maureen, Archibald Monteath: Igbo, Jamaican, Moravian..
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