A Black, a Bible, a Tomahawk, a Tune: Hemispheric Identity in the Narrative and Journals of John Marrant
John Marrant is a significant figure in the field of early American literature because of his contributions as a writer and a voice for liberation and human rights during the years of imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. Although Marrant was born free in New York on July 15, 1755, his fate led him on adventurous journeys throughout North America and his influence would cross the Atlantic. He is the author of A Journal of the Rev. John Marrant, A Black, A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black, several sermons, letters, and at least one poem. It must be pointed out that Marrant’s writings map seven American border locales, primarily covering North America and the Carribbean—New York, St. Augustine, Savannah, Charleston, the West Indies, and Nova Scotia. His London connections would eventually give his publications trans- Atlantic influences. Marrant’s transcribed narrative and journal provide representations of African-American life, culture, and struggles from the 17th century and supports arguments that pages of American literature must be re-cast to study its hemispheric and trans-Atlantic influence.
As a beginning reader of American literature, you have probably never heard of Marrant. He has never been sampled in any hip-hop or performances or the subject of any rap chart-toppers. In today’s post Black Panther discussions, he might be seen as an American hero and certainly should be portrayed as a wordsmith. His father died when he was only 4-years old. The next year, about 1760, the family moved away from New York and relocated to St. Augustine, FL where they remained for 18 months. The move South was life-altering, according to the details of his journal. When Marrant was 6-years-old, he and his mother moved to Georgia where they remained for 5 years. However, the move to Charleston was perhaps the most meaningful in terms of his social, cultural, and religious development.
Cultural and Religious Conversion
At about age 11, Marrant and his mother moved to Charles-Town, South Carolina to live with an older sister so that he could begin an apprenticeship; however, he discovered an affinity for music and pleaded to take lessons instead of working. After some initial protests and a visit from Mrs. Marrant, who was living several miles away, they both agreed to the lessons and negotiated a fee for young Marrant to begin violin lessons. Within 12 months, about 1768, he mastered the violin and the French horn!
He stayed connected to music by playing at night when his apprenticeship hours ended. During one of these late nights of playing after work, he came upon a worship service by Rev. George Whitefield, during which he is affected by a fainting spell, ultimately interpreted as a spiritual conversion. Upon hearing of the effects of his sermon on Marrant, Whitefield visited him and declared, “Jesus Christ has got thee at last.” After a bout of illness at his sister’s home and disagreements, he left to walk 84 miles through the South Carolina low country to his mother’s house for a 14-day visit. During this visit, the teen-aged Marrant, perceived as crazy by family and neighbors, and puzzled by his own physical and mental condition, contemplated suicide, but decided to leave the mother’s home instead.
Marrant’s Experience with Nature and Native American Culture
Young John Marrant packed a bible and a hymn Book and ran away from his stressful family environment. According to his journal entries, a typical day among the wildlife in the woods consisted of fasting, praying, and climbing trees to hide from wolves. He survived on sweet deer grass and dew for about nine days. As fate would have it, or as an answer to his prayers, he met an unnamed Indian hunter and learned survival skills such as how to kill deer and dry skins. The tribe of the Native American hunter, who also taught him some of the language, is not identified, but together they trespassed into a Cherokee nation and were subsequently detained and scheduled for execution.
In a move that could be considered ‘code-switching’ (changing language based on a situation) the quick-thinking Marrant stopped praying to God in English and switched to praying for his life in Cherokee. It worked! Marrant was then freed to visit a Creek nation about 60 miles away.
In his A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black he recalls what it was like to gain acceptance among the Cherokee who dressed him like a chief and adorned him with gold jewelry (29). Marrant returned to his mother’s settlement outside Charleston dressed in Native American attire and carrying a tomahawk and his Bible, symbolizing a synthesis of his cultural crossovers of language, religion, and customs. While there he would evangelize and visit with the plantation workers of “Will’s Town, Borough Town, and Dorchester Town” (34), presently known as the Parker’s Ferry and Adams Run areas of the South Carolina Gullah-Geechee low country and the ACE basin, about 30 miles south of Charleston, SC. Marrant remained with his mother, sister, and brother until what he described as the start of “the American troubles” (34), the Revolutionary War.
Another Identity Change- Marrant, the Black Loyalist
Affected by the British-American conflict, Marrant sees fit to side with the British who promised freedom to enslaved Africans and relocation to Canada for those blacks who would fight for the King. This was a significant move and social irony for a man who was born free in New York and not on a slave plantation in the South. He risks all to serving the British as a musician aboard the Scorpion Ship of War for a long period of 6 years, 11 months. Lines from his Narrative illustrate bravery again during the Siege of Charleston which he witnessed first-hand (37). Readers of this section of the Narrative will appreciate Marrant’s gifts of description as he writes of surviving a vicious storm at sea and being wounded. In August 1781, while on board the gun boat Princess Amelia, he was wounded, hospitalized for over 3 months, and then eventually received a medical release. Now, with well-deserved rights to live as a Black Loyalist he moved to London in 1784 and remained there for three years where he became an ordained minister at Bath. Still displaying that restless and adventurous spirit, Marrant moved to Nova Scotia at the invitation of his brother. He signed the historical The Book of Negroes on July 18, 1785.
Literary, Historical, and Cultural Significance
To place all of this into some perspective, Marrant’s Journals, Narrative, and sermon delivered for the African-based Prince Hall Masons should be studied and read as contributions to the body of hemispheric literature of the early Americas. This hemispheric literary lens considers ‘America’ as inclusive of all its locations, including the Caribbean, the West Indies, South America and Central America. His biography encompasses several geographic locales– New York, St. Augustine, Georgia, low country South Carolina, London, the West Indies, and Nova Scotia.
Marrant’s writings provide a glimpse into several historical events in colonial history such as The Great Awakening and life of the Rev. George Whitfield. We are left with an African-American presence in the religious movement, the same Whitefield elegized by poet Phillis Wheatley. The literature extends our view of black participation in the Revolutionary War via the anti-slavery motivations of The Black Loyalists. It provides new details about the relationship between free blacks, enslaved blacks, and Native Americans, often considered an exaggeration.
Marrant’s achievements defied the odds. Decades before his birth in 1755, edicts of the Negro Act controlled rebellious black slaves in South Carolina after the Stono Rebellion of 1739. Despite criminalizing education, and culture for blacks, 30 years later he obtained a formal education, learned to play instruments, and dance to break down racial barriers and cross into high society as a performer. It is believed that when he died at the age of 35 on April 15, 1791, it was from complications from wounds suffered on the war ship off the coast of Charleston.
Literary Contributions and Themes
John Marrant should be regarded as a masked voice of resistance and consciousness in early American Literature. In the excerpts which follow this introduction, readers will discover that John Marrant cannot be cast into one particular mold. The first excerpt is Marrant’s story as he dictated it to the Rev. W. Aldridge, his white sponsor. Sections from pages 18-19 illustrate the idea of complex consciousness even as a teen-aged boy. In the second glimpse from journal pages 6-8 transcribed by Canada’s Digital Collections, he writes of himself as a sailor, handling a pistol and prayers after a storm in the fall of 1785. He shifted identities just as the Americas were shifting borders and people. By examining his moves and the relationship with the Native Americans, we see complex consciousness which exists in the journal and the narrative. Just as we value the slave narrative in American literature, let us also embrace the freedman’s journals and the freedman’s narratives. What is amazing about Marrant’s movements is the ease with which he was able to cross cultural and political zones with rare confrontations because of his physical persona- a free black man carrying a tomahawk, sometimes a French horn, and always a Bible.
The writings of John Marrant are filled with enough literary, social, and cultural relevance to elevate them in the field of early American Literature.
John Marrant’s Narrative Excerpt
Here I learned to speak their tongue in the highest style. I began now to feel an inclination growing upon me to go further on, but none to return home. The king being acquainted with this, expressed his fears of my being used ill by the next Indian nation, and, to prevent it, sent fifty men, and a recommendation to the-king, with me. The next nation was called the Creek Indians, at sixty miles distance. Here I was received with kind-ness, owing to the king’s influence, from whom I had parted; here I stayed five weeks. I next visited the Ca-ta war Indians, at about fifty-five miles distance from the others: Lastly, I went among the Housaw Indians, eigh-ty miles distant from the last mentioned; here l stayed seven weeks. These nations were then at peace with each other, and 1 passed among them without danger,
being recommended from one to the other. When they recollect, that the white people drove them from ‘ the American shores, the three first nations have often united, and murdered all the white people in the back settle-ments which they could lay hold of, man, woman, and child. I had not much reason to believe any of these three nations were savingly wrought upon, and there-fore I returned to the Cherokee nation, which took me up eight weeks. I continued with my old friends seven weeks and two days. I now and then found, that my affections to my fami-ly and country were not dead; they were sometimes ve-ry sensibly felt, and at last strengthened into an invinci-hie desire of returning home. The kiyg was much against it: but feeling the same strong bias towards my
country, after we had asked uivine direction, the king consented, and accompanied me 60 miles with 140 men. I went to prayer three times before we could part, and then he sent 40 men with me a hundred miles farther; I went to prayer, and then took my leave of them, and then passed on my way. I had seventy miles now to go to the back settlements of the white people. I was sur-rounded very soon with wolves again, which made my old lodgings both necessary and welcome.
John Marrant’s Journal Excerpt
About four o’clock they got in secure; after this we went to prayers in the cabin, and all attended that could be spared from off the deck. Here I experienced the kind goodness of gracious, God in answering prayer, so that we had a fair wind for three days: during this time, the captain and I contrived to make a law against swearing, and playing at cards; so it was agreed to, by all the passengers, and even all the sailors; that every person was to pay one penny for every oath, and that immediately. After this we had no swearing on board but, instead of swearing, reading, praying, singing of hymns, and preaching, every opportunity when their watch was below, was heard to be singing of hymns, and coming to me to teach them.
Here I had work enough to do to watch all night, and part of the day, and everybody was upon the catch; so that there was a great alteration in the ship for the better. It was noticed, by all in the ship, that we never had a storm after this, but always high winds, but fair; although our passage being long, but a very good one. Here we see God fulfilling his own glorious promise, in saying, that were two or three agree to call upon his name, there he will be in the midst of them, and that to bless them; and not only so, but to take care of them in all storms and troubles of this world; God will deliver us, and bring us to his heavenly kingdom. Here I saw the land where we were bound to, and all well, not a soul lost; and this day I hoped to be in harbour, and into harbour we came at four o’clock in the afternoon, being the eleventh
week, and one day; all the people were in cheerful spirits.
After the ship anchored, we all went to prayers, to return thanks to God. Some of the people went on shore, being informed this harbour is called Bevan Harbour, and four and twenty leagues to the eastward of Halifax, where the ship was bound.
The next morning, being Saturday, after prayers were over, our captain asked me and some of the passengers, whether we would go on shore to walk; and the wind being a head, we thought it best to take the ladies on shore, to give them a walk. After we got on shore, we went into the woods, and on our knees, returned God thanks for landing us once more on shore. The captain and I , and two other passengers went into the woods after rabbits, and by following them who were shooting, we missed our way, and were out all night in the woods, till Sunday afternoon, four o’clock, without victuals, except two partridges they killed, that we dressed on Saturday night, keeping a fire all night; and on the Lord’s day morning, the sun being risen, we walked on until we came to a high mountain; and after prayers, the captain climbed up into a tree, in order to see whether he could discern the sea having a sight of the ocean, he cried out “We are near the shore;” so we were all encouraged, and soon came to the sea; but we were about twelve miles westward from the ship. Prayer was made for direction from God which way we should go. The captain and the other went to the westward, and I and another to the eastward; we were to make signal by a gun, if any of us should spy the ship.
An hour after we parted, my companion and I got up on a high mountain, and fired a gun, and were answered from the ship, still eastward from us. We fired a signal gun to our companions, and they followed us to the ship. It was twelve o’clock
before we came to the boat, which had been rowing about all night with provisions for us; so we waited two hours till the captain and the other came to us.
It was past four o’clock on the Lord’s day afternoon, before we got on board. After we had got some refreshment we performed divine service. I continued on board till Tuesday the 24th of November and then four of us hired a fishing, to take us to Halifax, and save them twenty dollars, thinking to be before the ship; the wind being in the west. The same evening, we came to a place called Littleziddo, when I performed divine service among a congregation of Irish Romans; after divine service I had conversation with they, seemed to express a great desire for me to stay with them, so I preached again in the morning, and left them in the hands of God.
Marrant, John. A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black, (Now Going to Preach the Gospel in Nova-Scotia) Born in New-York, in North-America: Taken Down from His Own Relation, Arranged, Corrected, and Published by the Rev. Mr. Aldridge. The fourth edition, enlarged by Mr. Marrant, and printed (with permission) for his sole benefit, with notes explanatory. ed., London, Printed for the Author, by R. Hawes, No. 40, Dorset Street Spitalfields, 1785.
–. A journal of the Rev. John Marrant, from August the 18th, 1785, to the 16th of March, 1790 :to which are added : two sermons, one preached on Ragged Island on Sabbath Day, the 27th day of October, 1787, the other at Boston, inNew England, on Thursday, the 24th of June, 1789. Published approximately 1790 in London.