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The Power to Die

Slavery and Suicide in British North America

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.

256 pages | 19 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Black Studies

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Legal Thought

Sociology: Race, Ethnic, and Minority Relations


“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.”

Vincent Brown, author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic 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.”

Jennifer L. Morgan, author of Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in New World Slavery

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.”

Hilary J. Moss | author of Schooling Citizens: The African American Struggle for Education in Antebellum America

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.”

David Silkenat | author of Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina

“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.”


“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.’”

William and Mary Quarterly

Table of Contents

List of Figures


Prologue / Anna’s Leap

Introduction / The Problem of Suicide in North American Slavery

One / Suicide and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Two / Suicide and Seasoning in British American Plantations

Three / Slave Suicide in the Context of Colonial North America

Four / The Power to Die or the Power of the State? The Legalities of Suicide in Slavery

Five / The Paradoxes of Suicide and Slavery in Print

Six / The Meaning of Suicide in Antislavery Politics 

Epilogue / Suicide, Slavery, and Memory in American Culture

Studying Slave Suicide: An Essay on Sources

Select Bibliography of Primary Sources


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

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