Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 9.

Grant Parker (tr. & ed.), The Agony of Asar: A Thesis on Slavery by the Former Slave Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein 1717-1747. Princeton: Marcus Wiener Publishers, 2001. Pp. x + 182. ISBN 1-55876- 126-8. US$16.95.

John Hilton
Classics, University of Natal, Durban

The leading title of this book is programmatic; its meaning is elucidated in a substantial introduction (pp. 3-78), replete with more than a hundred notes (pp. 158-70). 'Asar' was the name of a former slave from Ghana, later known as Capitein, who had been sold at the age of seven or eight by a Dutch sea- captain, Arnold Steenhart, to a trader belonging to the Africa Society of the Netherlands, Jacob van Goch.[[1]] Asar's agony consists in the contorted efforts he made during his short life (1717-1747), after mastering the intricacies of European scholarship, to bring about the conversion of Africans in his homeland to Christianity. In this process he evidently believed that slavery could have an important acculturating influence; this at any rate is the argument of the thesis under consideration entitled 'A Political-Theological Dissertation Examining the Question: Is Slavery Compatible with Christian Freedom or not?' This work is of considerable interest to Classicists for the light it sheds on the institution of slavery, for the use to which Classical scholarship was put in the ideological and theological polemics of the eighteenth century, and for the relationship between African intellectuals and the Classics.

What though are we to make of the paradox of an ex- slave arguing in terms of European scholarship in favour of slavery? An initial study of Capitein qualifies the view that he was simply an 'Uncle Tom' who sold out his fellow countrymen in order to promote his own career.[[2]] Parker too prefers a more complex analysis of Capitein's work, asking instead what Capitein contributed to the debate on slavery in his day, and to what extent Capitein was 'a product of his times' (p. 4). Contemporary thinking in the Netherlands, under the influence of the Enlightenment and particularly during the Synod of Dordt (1618-19), increasingly brought slavery into question. From 1648 slaves who travelled to the Netherlands were automatically given their freedom. Furthermore, the Dutch had recently liberated themselves from Spain, and the influx of wealth as a result of trade with her new colonies resulted in a strong philanthropic sentiment at least within the Netherlands. In addition, Parker shows that there was an active missionary movement targeting both administrators and the indigenous inhabitants in the overseas territories (pp. 33-38), though how effective this was is debatable. On the other hand, the practice of slavery was firmly entrenched in the Dutch colonies, particularly in South Africa from 1652 to 1838. Christianity was notoriously ambivalent towards slavery, enjoining kind treatment to slaves who were often themselves members of the new Christian community (1Cor. 7.20-23), but simultaneously viewing servitude as a result of original sin or the curse of Noah on the descendants of Ham (Gen. 9.20-27). In such an intellectual climate it is not impossible to see that Capitein might have viewed slavery, in conjunction with active proselytization of the enslaved, as the road to manumission. In my view, though, Parker's argument overestimates the degree to which Capitein was captain of his own ship, as it were. The failure of his mission, his marriage (apparently arranged by the company), his indebtedness, the controversy over his translations of key Christian texts, and his early death, suggest that his disempowerment continued after his manumission and return to Africa.

The body of the book (pp. 81-132) contains a new translation of Capitein's erudite Latin thesis defended before the Faculty of Theology at Leiden on 10 March 1742. The text quotes inter alia from the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the Greek of the New Testament and the Latin of the Church fathers. This can be seen from the attached illustration of page twenty of the dissertation on which Genesis 9.25 and 2 Peter 2.19 are quoted in the original, together with the Latin text of Book 4.404-15 of Alcimus Avitus, bishop of Vienne (490-518). It is regretable that Parker supplies neither a facsimile nor an illustration of the text of the thesis in his edition, since his translation flattens Capitein's text into one linguistic dimension and robs it of its complexity.[[3]]

Capitein's command of Latin extended also to versification as is shown by the elegy he composed in pentameters on the death of one of his patrons, Johann Philipp Manger. An excerpt, followed by Parker's English version, is given below:

Invida mors totum vibrat sua tela per orbem:
Et gestit quemvis succubuisse sibi.
Illa, metus expers, penetrat conclavia Regum:
Imperiique manu ponere sceptra iubet.
Non sinit illa diu partos spectare triumphos:
Linquere sed cogit clara tropaea Duces

'Hostile death brandishes its spear throughout the world
and forces everyone to succumb.
Fearless it penetrates the halls of kings
and even gives orders to those who hold power.
It does not allow rulers to contemplate the triumphs they have won
but forces them to abandon their opulent trophies.'


The metre of the Latin is regular and the language Classical (though gestit in this sense is unusual). The translation is free (especially line four, and clara in line six) but easily understood, as Parker intended it to be (p. vii).[[4]] Capitein favoured a Ciceronian style of Latin (ibid.) as the following extract from his prose illustrates (the original is given in the attachment accompanying this review):


Quae cum ita se habeant, elucescit pariter, qua occasione Servitus sese penetraverit in terrarum orbem: ita ut humano genere magis magisque in dies deteriorem in partem vergente, apud plurimas Gentes (si non omnes) non modo invaluerit, sed etiam accepta atque confirmata fuerit.

'That being the case, it is equally clear that this was the moment when slavery entered the earth. And so as mankind was verging on degeneracy more and more every day, it not only grew in strength but was accepted and spread among most peoples, if not all' (tr. Parker).


The passage refers to the story of Ham discovering his drunken father naked and deriding him, as a result of which Noah laid his son's descendants under the curse of enslavement (Gen. 9.20-27) -- a key text in Capitein's thesis and one of particular relevance to Africans, since the inhabitants of Kush were the descendants of Ham (Gen. 10.6). The text is not an easy one, since it appears to be blatanty unjust, but Capitein's treatment of it is also highly ambiguous; he clearly represents slavery originating from human degeneracy. His parenthetical remark that slavery was not a universal practice but one restricted to certain cultures also introduces an unnecessary inconsistency in his overall argument. It is not impossible therefore to detect a note of eighteenth-century irony in the work as Parker himself suggests (p. 76). Parker does not pursue this possibility beyond pointing out that Capitein rejects Aristotle's view of natural slavery and that he gives his opponents strong arguments, but the possibility of a dissenting voice in the text deserves fuller consideration. The Genesis text is certainly central to Capitein's life-work as the story links his mission to bring Christianity with their enslavement.

Parker provides three appendices (pp. 133-56) in addition to the introduction and notes: the first provides the prefaces to Capitein's translation of religious texts (the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Twelve Articles of Faith), the second a survey of African intellectuals in eighteenth century Europe (Latino, Hannibal, Williams, Arno, Svane, Protten, and Quaque), and the third a select bibliography on Capitein and his world. Capitein's work has thus been very thoroughly contextualised and explained.

This edition is well done: the introductory is thorough and wide-ranging; the notes on the text are substantial, pertinent, and well-researched; the translation readable and accurate. While the subject matter of the book lies outside the mainstream interests of Classicists in general, it is a fascinating example of socio-cultural importance of the Latin language and Classics generally in eighteenth century Europe,[[5]] while for those interested in slavery, ancient and modern, or in the reception of the Classics in Africa, it is essential.


[[1]] Parker (pp. 10, 159 n. 9) suggests that 'Asar' is a corruption of the Latin Afer ('African').

[[2]] Kwesi Kwaa Prah, Jacobus Eliza Johannes Capitein, 1717-1747: a Critical Study of an eighteenth century African (Trenton 1992), discussed by Parker (pp. 4, 158 n. 1).

[[3]] The original text is hard to come by. My own copy is taken from a photocopy provided at ridiculous expense by the British Library.

[[4]] I have not seen David Kpobi's translation into English from a Dutch version of the thesis in Mission in Chains (Zoetermeer 1993).

[[5]] On this see F. Waquet (tr. J. Howe), Latin or the Empire of the Sign (London 2001).