The Narrative of Robert Adams
First published in 1816, The Narrative of Robert Adams is the story of the adventures of Robert Adams, an American sailor who survived shipwreck off the coast of Africa and slavery under brutal conditions. He was finally ransomed to the British Consul, where he eventually made his way to London. It was there that he was discovered by the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, where he narrated the full details of his adventure. This volume is representative of other Barbary slave narratives, which were written by shipwrecked sailors (and their passengers, including women) who had been taken captive and enslaved in Northern Africa. About 700 Americans were held captive as North African slaves between 1785 and 1815, just before the publication of Robert Adam's Narrative, and these Barbary captives produced more than 100 editions of 40 full length narratives. The notable difference about this narrative is that Adams describes visiting the legendary city of Timbuktu.
Europeans had sought the supposed golden riches of Timbuktu for many years, sending expedition after expedition to conquer the remote city. Despite this, no reliable Western witness had returned from Timbuktu to share his experience, and the last update Europeans had received was from Leo Africanus in the sixteenth century. Leo Africanus was a Christianized Moor from southern Spain, and not a "true" Westerner himself. By the early nineteenth century when Robert Adams dictated his Narrative, Timbuktu had become an elusive dream for Europeans, an unattainable goal. It was the African El Dorado. Yet foreigners who dared set foot within the city or the surrounding region were forced to choose between adopting the local faith or suffering decapitation.
Adams' actual experience in the city, however, widely differed from how Europeans imagined Timbuktu. Because of this, they questioned his Narrative, though he was the first person from the West to actually visit the city and return to tell the tale. Despite the controversy regarding the veracity of Adams' story, the publication of the Narrative represented, in a way, a triumph for British science and exploration. Adams may have been an American, but he told his tale in England, and it was there that the Narrative was published, thus announcing victory over other European interests in the city, most notably France.
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Adams' story begins when he set sail from New York on the ship Charles. The first landing was at Gibraltar, from which the ship later sailed down to Africa. It was clear to the sailors that the captain soon became lost, and they eventually shipwrecked off the coast of Africa, possibly near Cape Blanco. They were quickly surrounded by a large group of local people, and enslaved. The group began traveling toward Timbuktu, splitting up the slaves along the way. His group was eventually overtaken by another group of Africans, who beheaded the majority of those who were holding Adams prisoner. It was shortly after this, sometime in early July 1812, that Adams arrived at the city of Timbuktu.
When Adams reached Timbuktu, he was treated as a guest rather than a slave, as the local people found both him and a fellow Portuguese slave to be curiosities; people traveled from all over to see them. Adams shared that people would come in crowds to stare at the two. Eventually, they were traded to a group of tobacco merchants, who took them back through the desert and traded them from person to person, until Adams was finally sold to a representative of Joseph Dupuis, the British Consul, who regularly ransomed Christian slaves to procure their freedom.
Adams' Narrative was widely dismissed by European society as a lie, despite the fact that it was fully reviewed by Dupuis, who corroborated most of the story. This skepticism primarily stemmed from Adams' description of Timbuktu in a completely different, and disappointing, manner from what the Europeans had expected to hear and which they had believed for years. The Europeans expected stories of grandeur and gold; many had spent huge amounts of money themselves in futile attempts to reach the supposed golden city. For an illiterate sailor to tell them otherwise was difficult for them to accept. However, just 12 years later in 1828, a Frenchman named Réné Caillié succeeded in reaching Timbuktu with a trading caravan, disguised as an Egyptian. His description of the remote African city was just as Adams had described it: "a distinctly unimpressive place".
- Adams, Robert (1816). The Narrative of Robert Adams, a sailor, who was wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the year 1810, was detained three years in slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, and resided several months in the city of Tombuctoo. With a map, notes, and an appendix. London: John Murray.
- Adams, Robert (1817). The Narrative of Robert Adams, a sailor, who was wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the year 1810, was detained three years in slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, and resided several months in the city of Tombuctoo. With a map, notes, and an appendix. Boston: Wells and Lilly.
- Adams, Robert (1946). "The Narrative of Robert Adams, An American Sailor, who was wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the year 1810, and was detained three years in slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert. He was the first White Man who ever visited the great city of Tombuctoo, where he resided several months". In Charles Ellms. Robinson Crusoe's Own Book; or, the voice of adventure, from the civilized man cut off from his fellows, by force, accident, or inclination, and from the wanderer in strange seas and lands (Boston: Joshua V. Pierce).
- Shah, Tahir (2012). Timbuctoo: Being a singular and most animated account of an illiterate American sailor, taken as a slave in the great Zahara and, after trials and tribulations aplenty, reaching London where he narrated his tale.. A novel.
- Adams, Charles Hansford (2005). The Narrative of Robert Adams: A Barbary Captive. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. ix. ISBN 978-0-521-60373-7.
- The narrative of Robert Adams : an American sailor who was wrecked on the western coast of Africa, in the year 1810, was detained three years in slavery by the Arabs of the Great Desert, and resided several months in the City of Tombuctoo. 1817.
- Kryza, Frank T. (2006). The Race for Timbuktu: In Search of Africa's City of Gold. New York: HarperCollins. pp. xiii. ISBN 978-0-06-056064-5.
- Gardner, Brian (1968). The Quest for Timbuctoo. London: Readers Union Cassell. p. 21. ASIN B000O8RCAO.
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