First and only Russian translation and adaptation of Jean-François Butini's Lettres africaines, a signal antislavery novel originally published at Paris (with a false London imprint) in 1771. Butini, a Geneva jurist and later a Négatif in the Geneva Revolution of 1782, was, along with Gabriel Mailhol, Jean-François Saint-Lambert, and others, a part of the French literary movement known later as literature négrophile, which concerned itself with Africa and the plight of Blacks in Europe and the American colonies. The movement can be considered the literary arm of the Société des amis des Noirs, an abolitionist organization active during the French Revolution. Lettres africaines, ou histoire de Phédima et d'Abensur tells the story of natives in a war-torn region of West Africa who are captured by English traders, transported across the Atlantic, and sold into enslavement in Jamaica. The novel's epistolary structure provides for several first-person narratives, something of a novelty at the time for long-form fiction with Black protagonists. The plot is principally told from the points of view of Phédima, a young woman enslaved on a sugar plantation, her friend Zélime, and others. Phédima's letters focus on Abensur, her great love, whom she believes to be dead and whose miniature portrait she has tragically misplaced. Though the letters reveal a great deal about the conditions of the enslaved, and in particular the horrors of transportation, the feelings of the heartbroken Phédima are more prominent than the harrowing realities of enslavement. In spite of this, the novel did not go unnoticed by abolitionist Dupont de Nemours in the pages of his Éphémérides au citoyen, in which he asserted an unassailable economic argument against the institution of enslavement. The Moscow poet Aleksandr Taushev's translation of Lettres africaines presents a somewhat sanitized version of enslavement to readers in Russia at the moment of a transition of power: Emperor Paul I had just been assassinated, and Alexander I—for whom Taushev quickly published encomiastic verse—had been crowned the new regent. (Alexander I's older brother was married to Anna Feodorovna, Grand Duchess of Russia, to whom Taushev dedicated Afrikanskiya pis'ma.) Though no contemporary reviews of Afrikanskiya pis'ma survive, the novel was likely to have been seen, even by the most astute Russian readers, not as a condemnation of the brutish feudal institution, but rather as a sentimental novel about lovers separated by war, much in the spirit of Nikolai Karamzin's novella Poor Liza, published a decade earlier. Though slavery—in the sense of the international traffic in African natives and the lifelong enslavement of their descendants—had been outlawed in Russia, serfs could still be bought and sold along with the demesnes to which they were attached, and were also sold into enslavement—as so-called "servants"—within Russia and to buyers in the Ottoman Empire and Persia. We must consider Taushev's work an adaptation, rather than a strict translation, as he (surely at the insistence of an imperial court censor) lightens the text by subtracting two chapters, which, in Butini's original, discuss the economic advantages of abolition. Taushev also appends the text with a few expository footnotes, revealing context of certain passages to a Russian readership. It is unknown if Butini knew of the Taushev's adaptation. Our copy, printed on pale blue paper, and bound in contemporary calf, seems to be uncommon: we have confirmed two institutional holdings, at the National Library of Russia and the Russian State Library; a copy at third Russian library has not been confirmed. Withal a fine, complete exemplar of a seminal work of abolitionist fiction, translated and adapted for a Russian readership.
Moscow: Universitetskaya tipografiya, 1801.
12mo in alternating eights and fours, 152 x 97 x 29 mm (binding), 150 x 95 x 27 mm (text block). 250,  pp.; А-Б8-4 […] Т-У8-4, Ф6; complete with half-title and errata. Printed on blue paper watermarked "1801." Contemporary sprinkled Russian calf, boards with double-rule gilt borders. Competently rebacked in period style, titled on maroon morocco lettering-piece in gilt: second compartment, АФРИКА- | -НСКИЕ | ПИСБМА. Interior: Title and last leaf slightly discolored at margins from acid migration of leather turn-ins; a few penciled marks and ink underlinings; minor soiling passim; a few leaves dog-eared; a very good copy.
Penciled custodial signature to title, repeated on dedication; early dated (1805) note in ink to lower pastedown; this copy sold as lot 267, Collin du Bocage, 9 December 2016; acquired by W. S. Cotter from PY Rare Books (co-owned with Bernard Shapero) in January 2022.
Svodnyi Katalog Russkoi Knigi 1801-1825, No. 915; Smirdin 8538 (3.50 rubles); Sopikov 8139; Dobie, Madeleine, Trading Places: Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-century French Culture, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010 pp. 262-65; Jackson, Maurice, Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism, UPP: 2009, pp. 168-9. Unnoticed by Sabin and other bibliographers of Americana. We are grateful to Pierre-Yves Guillemet of PY Rare Books for his elucidation of the text with respect to readers in Russia.
Status: On Hold