The Agony of Asar: A Thesis on Slavery by the Former Slave—Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, 1717–1747

“Scholars and readers the world over thank Grant Parker for giving us both the first English translation of Capitein’s manuscript and a brilliant analysis of its significance.” — Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The Agony of Asar is the first dissertation written by an African slave. The author, Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, was brought to Holland by his owner, freed, and educated at the University of Leiden with grants from wealthy burghers. Thereafter he returned to Guinea as a missionary.

His analysis presents a sweeping intellectual genealogy of Western thought on the issue of slavery. It begins by discussing the authors of antiquity, using Seneca, Horace, and Justinian to show that slavery violated the principles of natural freedom and equality, and it ultimately rebuts Aristotle’s doctrine of natural slavery.

Capitein concluded from Genesis that slavery entered the world as an injustice to all peoples, but argued that the freedom promised in the Gospels was spiritual, not corporeal, and therefore had no civic consequences. The book represents the first scholarly work by an African on slavery, connecting Western thought and African experience.

Note: Only the hardcover edition contains a facsimile of the original Latin text.


Grant Parker, translator, has written various articles on Latin literature, Roman culture, and the classical tradition. He is an Associate Professor of Classics at Stanford University.