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Spectacular Suffering

Witnessing Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic
Ramesh Mallipeddi

BUY Cloth · 280 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813938424 · $49.50 · Apr 2016
BUY Ebook · 280 pp. · ISBN 9780813938431 · $49.50 · Apr 2016

Spectacular Suffering focuses on commodification and discipline, two key dimensions of Atlantic slavery through which black bodies were turned into things in the marketplace and persons into property on plantations. Mallipeddi approaches the problem of slavery as a problem of embodiment in this nuanced account of how melancholy sentiment mediated colonial relations between English citizens and Caribbean slaves.

The book’s first chapters consider how slave distress emerged as a topic of emotional concern and political intervention in the writings of Aphra Behn, Richard Steele, and Laurence Sterne. As Mallipeddi shows, sentimentalism allowed metropolitan authors to fashion themselves as melancholy witnesses to racial slavery by counterposing the singular body to the abstract commodity and by taking affective property in slaves against the legal proprietorship of slaveholders.

Spectacular Suffering then turns to the practices of the enslaved, tracing how they contended with the effects of chattel slavery. The author attends not only to the work of African British writers and archival textual materials but also to economic and social activities, including slaves’ petty production, recreational forms, and commemorative rituals. In examining the slaves’ embodied agency, the book moves away from spectacular images of suffering to concentrate on slow, incremental acts of regeneration by the enslaved. One of the foremost contributions of this study is its exploration of the ways in which the ostensible objects of sentimental compassion—African slaves—negotiated the forces of capitalist abstraction and produced a melancholic counterdiscourse on slavery.

Throughout, Mallipeddi’s keen reading of primary texts alongside historical and critical work produce fresh and persuasive insights. Spectacular Suffering is an important book that will alter conceptions of slave agency and of sentimentalism across the long eighteenth century.


Spectacular Suffering is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the complex interconnections between slavery, sentimentality, and liberalism in the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. Mallipeddi’s prose is precise and evocative as he engages with anti- and proslavery texts and important historical documents; his is political and ethical criticism at its most convincing.

Suvir Kaul, University of Pennsylvania, author of Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Postcolonial Studies

Spectacular Suffering is a brilliant book. Mallipeddi writes compellingly and convincingly.

Srinivas Aravamudan, Duke University, author of Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688–1804

I expect Spectacular Suffering to become a landmark study of slavery in Anglophone Atlantic literature and to have important resonances for studies of British and American literature engaging with slavery, race, or sentimentalism. Mallipeddi's book, by keeping the question of slave agency always at its center, upends our received notions while offering a wealth of finely nuanced insights along the way.

George Boulukos, Southern Illinois University, author of The Grateful Slave: The Emergence of Race in Eighteenth-Century British and American Culture

[A]n important and timely intervention in current debates about the subjectivity available to enslaved Africans in the British Caribbean.... Mallipeddi’s book is a tour de force in its encyclopaedic yet nuanced consideration of literary and historical artefacts representing slavery in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic as well its analysis of the critical commentary debating it.

Review of English Studies

This book will change our assumptions about slavery and affect, and also change our sense of what works can be connected to this vast enterprise. It makes for what is sometimes surprising reading, but it also makes so much sense that the century will never again look quite the same as it did before this book.

SEL: Studies in English Literature

This book is important reading for those attentive to the history of slavery and abolition, emotion studies, and interrogations of the erasures performed by archives. It is also a moving account of a long struggle for justice waged simultaneously through bodies, emotions, and texts.

Laura Stevens · Modern Philology

Mallipeddi says that his "aim is neither to rescue nor rehabilitate sentimentalism" (23). We should be grateful, however, for his having done both so well in his thought-provoking Spectacular Suffering.

Vincent Carretta, University of Maryland · Eighteenth-Century Life

Meticulously researched, clearly written, and original, Spectacular Suffering delivers on this promise: Maillipeddi both exposes the troubling ways contemporary critics reproduce their metropolitan subjects' tendency to foreground spectacle and suffering and demonstrates how recentring slaves' "bodily experience as a source of knowledge" can open new avenues of inquiry... Mallipeddi's chief aim is to encourage scholars of the Atlantic world to historicize our own preoccupation with the spectacle of slaves' suffering... one of the book's most exciting revelations is its re-envisioning of the project of recovery, or the new relationship it imagines between the scholar and the subject of archival inquiry.

Morgan Vanek · Ariel: A Review of International English Literature

About the Author(s): 

Ramesh Mallipeddi is Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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