There is a scene that repeats so often in the archive of transatlantic writing on slavery after the middle of the seventeenth century that it amounts to a generic feature, a trope of literary racism. Travel writers, plantation owners, and apologists for slavery repeatedly recount a scene in which a plantation owner accuses a slave of stealing something; the slave responds by offering to “kiss the book” (the Bible) to swear to the truth of his/her denial. In the colonial text, the scene doubles down on the accusation of African perjury by adding religious impropriety to the charge that slaves have no proper respect for property.
As a trope of anti-abolitionist writing, book-kissing becomes a slave parody of the kinds of legal oath-taking that the law denied them and the racist specter of the scene of the “talking book” in slave narratives that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identified as the founding trope of black Atlantic writing. In the context of abolitionism, the trope of book-kissing is a figurative test of the fitness of slaves to enter into contractual social relations and a property economy—the fitness of slaves to take possession of themselves and to take economic, moral, legal, and literary responsibility for that self-possession.
The trope is repeated multiple times in Caryl Phillips’s novel Cambridge (1991), which narrates the fatal intersection in the Caribbean “contact zone,” during the period between the British abolition of the slave trade (1807) and the passage of the Abolition of Slavery Act (1833), of the lives and biographies of two of the British Empire’s subalterns: an African slave and a British woman. The novel explores the social and rhetorical contradictions precipitated by a black slave and a white woman who both dare—in writing their “own” stories—to test the Lockean proposition that “every man has a property in his own person.” (The subtextual irony in Phillips’s novel is that the characters’ personal narratives are themselves plagiarized from historical slave narratives, West Indian travel journals, and both pro- and anti-abolitionist tracts.)
These literary pursuits of self-possession intersect in eighteenth-century questions about the general nature of property that were at stake not only in the debates on slavery (right to property in one’s self), but also in the emerging British law of copyright (right to property in one’s writings). Indeed, the legal logics of both chattel slavery and intellectual property are bound up in the trope of book-kissing, through the peculiar character of the King James Bible, from which Lord Chief Justice Mansfield derived an author’s perpetual copyright in 1769. In fact, Mansfield, who presided over some of the most important literary property trials of the late eighteenth-century also famously presided over the landmark trial Somerset v. Stewart (1772), which determined that slavery was anathema to England and, therefore, that slaves brought to the island were immediately emancipated. By way of Phillips’s novel Cambridge, this paper reads the copyright and slave trials through (and against) each other in order to examine the logic of self-possession (or right to one’s person) that underpins both the abolition of slavery and early modern intellectual property protections.