Critical Study of Rowson’s
Slaves in Algiers; or, A Struggle for Freedom
Slaves in Algiers; or, A Struggle for Freedom (1794) is a play written by Susanna Haswell Rowson. The setting takes place in “Barbary” – the Mediterranean coast of North Africa – and more precisely in Algiers. The play centers on the lives of several American ‘slaves’ who plot their escape in anunflappable look for freedom. The relevance of studying a piece of literature - and more precisely, a play - stems from the idea that people in the time, used to watch plays, more than they would read books because plays were regarded as being more ‘entertaining’. In addition to that, although plays are a fictitious form of literature, they were always related to real events; hence the majority of people consider them as being true or as at least as referringto some real events. Another point would be that literature in that time was -often- judged on the basis of the moral values it contained. In that regard, Slaves in Algiers; or, A Struggle for Freedomis a rich document to be scrutinized with as much seriousness as when dealing with other sources that are considered as more ‘factual’. Therefore the need to study such a piece emanates from its very crucial role in shaping social reality, via its representation of ‘Barbary’ and its reflections over the nature of freedom, slavery and race.
Rowson’s play does not only tell us about how Americans perceived themselves and the other. It also tells us about Americans’ keen interest in knowing more about‘Barbary’. Rowson was known to endure financial difficulties in the exact period when the play was produced which can only support the argument that , due to the fact that she was writing with a popular audience in mind, the topic could’ve only been in vogue for her to decide to write about it. From the very beginning Barbary is portrayed as a very exotic place, full of riches, yet lacking one of the most basic tenets of civilized life, that is; ‘freedom’. During a conversation between Selimaand Fetnah , we notice that the latter answers in an intellectual waywhich we learn to be from an American teachingwhen she says “It was she, who nourished in my mind the love of liberty” (emphasis added, Rowson 13), she continues, “She came from that land, where virtue in either sex is the only mark of superiority – She was an American”(emphasis added, Rowson 14). From the very beginning of the play, we notice a contrast between ‘Barbary ’ as being a land of not only physical, but also mental enslavement; as when she refers to Islam as a ‘Moorish Religion’ that has been imposed on her, and America, which is depicted as the land ‘where virtue… is the only mark of superiority’ (Rowson 14). In the exception of characters whom have been ‘influenced’ by American values. The typically ‘Barbarian’characters are depicted in all the grotesque ways possible. Ben Hassan is a Jew who, through his monologue, the viewer comes to judge as being “treacherous, greedy and poorly spoken” (Rowson 16). Even his way of speaking differs from that of the Americans. He is a vicious character who describes ‘the Moors’ as being “uncharitable dogs” (Rowson 23) when talking to Frederic . Ben Hassan also talks about his turning into a ‘Mahometan ’ as being “the safest way” (Rowson 23) to make money out of slave business.From a contemporary reading Ben Hassan being a Jew could’ve easily labeled this play as being anti-Semitic. Ben Hassan’s portrayal as being only fit for slave traffic due to his lack of intuition and sincerity represents Jews as being in contrast to the American and Christian values. ‘Barbary’ in the play is clearly put in opposition to America, particularly in reference to it as being a place where ‘freedom’ is an unknown concept.
One of the Play’s central themes is that of ‘liberty’. Fetnahidentifies herself with the metaphor of the bird, and believes that even in a golden cage she cannot be consoled for the loss of her freedom. Being literally sold to the Dey, Fetnahmakes a very clear statement when she says “you bought my person of my parents, who loved gold better than they did their child; but my affections you could not buy” (Rowson 15). Freedom in this passage is given another definition;Fetnah believes that even if her physical freedom is lost, she still has her ‘emotional’ and spiritual freedom, which cannot be bought at any price. Yet we come to know later that this definition of freedom is not Fetnah’sown, rather it is what an American female captive‘nourished’in her mind. Later in the play, Ben Hassangives a very ironical definition to freedom when he says “our law gives liberty in love; you are an American and you must love liberty” (emphasis added, Rowson 21). In this quote Ben Hassanassociates freedom with the ability to marry many wives, but knowing his character we know that he doesn’t care about freedom, as much as he cares about his personal interest. In that regard and in another passage,Henrysays “To a man; the hope of liberty, like an electric spark, ran instantly through every heart, kindling a flame of patriotic ardour” (Rowson 29). In this quote, freedom is made synonymous with ‘patriotism’ which connotes Americans love for their country as well as their love for being free. Freedom in the play is not only present amongst all the American characters, but is also contagious and spreads to all the ‘Moriscan’who fall in any kind of contact with the Americans.
 Graduate Student from Mohammed the 5th University, Rabat. Morocco. email@example.com
 Post-structuralist theory recognizes the power of discourse to shape reality.
 (Rowson 16)
 A Christian who was seeking his help to buy a boat
 With the exception of Ben Hassan the Jew who is depicted as being in opposition to the American values, that of Freedom being not an exception.