Cloth $45.00 ISBN: 9780226280561 Published August 2015
E-book $10.00 to $45.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226280738 Published August 2015 Also Available From

The Power to Die

Slavery and Suicide in British North America

Terri L. Snyder

The Power to Die

Terri L. Snyder

256 pages | 19 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2015
Cloth $45.00 ISBN: 9780226280561 Published August 2015
E-book $10.00 to $45.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226280738 Published August 2015
The history of slavery in early America is a history of suicide. On ships crossing the Atlantic, enslaved men and women refused to eat or leaped into the ocean. They strangled or hanged themselves. They tore open their own throats. In America, they jumped into rivers or out of windows, or even ran into burning buildings. Faced with the reality of enslavement, countless Africans chose death instead.

In The Power to Die, Terri L. Snyder excavates the history of slave suicide, returning it to its central place in early American history. How did people—traders, plantation owners, and, most importantly, enslaved men and women themselves—view and understand these deaths, and how did they affect understandings of the institution of slavery then and now? Snyder draws on ships’ logs, surgeons' journals, judicial and legislative records, newspaper accounts, abolitionist propaganda and slave narratives, and many other sources to build a grim picture of slavery’s toll and detail the ways in which suicide exposed the contradictions of slavery, serving as a powerful indictment that resonated throughout the Anglo-Atlantic world and continues to speak to historians today.
Review Quotes
Vincent Brown, author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery
“Snyder attends to her subject with great intelligence, care, and sensitivity. Drawing together an impressive variety of sources, she probes the connection between the public interest in slavery and the forbidden private will of the enslaved. This excellent study of mortuary politics confirms that the power to die can be as historically consequential as the power to hold, punish, and kill.”
Jennifer L. Morgan, author of Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in New World Slavery
“In this moving and provocative work, Snyder compels us to rethink slavery and suicide and, in the process, greatly expands our comprehension of both phenomena. Snyder’s beautifully written and thoughtful study makes important and unique contributions to the histories of slavery, early America, and medicine. Snyder argues that our current understanding of suicide is profoundly shaped by twentieth century notions of illness, stress, depression, and hopelessness and offers us instead a deeply historicized exploration of suicide and slavery.”
Hilary J. Moss | author of Schooling Citizens: The African American Struggle for Education in Antebellum America
The Power to Die is an important, innovative, and exceedingly well-researched book. Snyder has done some breathtaking archival work and the sheer variety of sources is astounding— drawing on newspapers, antislavery propaganda, ship log books, plantation diaries, account books, and slave narratives, to name a few. This book will be of great interest to many different scholars, including those who work on slavery and early America, but also those eager to know more about law, gender, technology, and early American print culture.”
David Silkenat | author of Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina
The Power to Die is the first book-length study of the subject of slave suicide. Drawing upon a robust and diverse body of sources, Snyder powerfully argues that it exposed significant rifts and tensions in early modern American society. Ambitious in scope and original in framing, her analysis is careful, trenchant, and insightful. Snyder’s ingenious analysis exposes the ways in which slave suicide reflected the duality of slaves as both people and property.”
Choice
“Snyder’s well-written exploration of the cultural and legal meanings of slave suicide in British North America offers a unique examination of an individual act with political, religious, legal, and cultural ramifications.  From addressing the estimated 5 to 10 percent of slaves who committed suicide during the infamous Middle Passage to interpreting slave suicide as an act of desperation and part of the growing abolitionist message in the nineteenth century, Snyder uses a wide variety of sources to understand her subject. . . . A far-reaching, compelling, and relevant monograph. Highly recommended.”
William and Mary Quarterly
“Often revelatory. . . . As the first monograph devoted to this important subject, The Power to Die serves a valuable, foundational role. It builds upon many shorter, less comprehensive studies; it constructs bridges between several discrete academic subfields; and it imposes its own analytic architecture on a diverse body of difficult sources to conclusively demonstrate that ‘suicide was central to the history and culture of slavery and antislavery efforts in early British America and the United States.’”

Western Association of Women Historians (WAWH): Richardson Keller-Sierra Prize
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