Slave Dancer – Literature – Characters

Jessie Bollier
Jessie is the main character of The Slave Dancer and also the title character, as it is him who
has to play his flute while the slaves dance, keeping them fit so a higher price can be gained
for them later. Jessie never does so willingly and is forced into this fate. At first, he is
extremely scared, even more so, when he finds out he is on a slave ship with a less than
humane crew. However, Jessie is also quite intelligent and can see behind the kind front that
Stout has put up and rejects his ways. It must not be forgotten that Jessie is thirteen during
the events of The Slave Dancer. He has never been away from home and as he grows up
with his widowed mother and his sister he has never had a father figure in his life. For Jessie
to defy the man that had taken care of him at the beginning and who is reaching out for him,
shows how strong he actually is inside. He does not let go of his own beliefs, even when the
pressure rises to an unbearable level. He stays true to himself and his protective nature.
He also befriends Purvis, who kidnaps Jessie at the beginning, so for Jessie to trust him
again after this highlights his kind nature. It could be called naiveté but Jessie does actually
see him for who he is, a man with many faults but a good heart deep down inside. When the
ship crashes Jessie manages to save one of the slaves, a boy named Ras who he had
started to befriend even while still on the slaver which shows a great deal about his attitude.
On the shore where the two boys strand they meet an escaped slave named Daniel who is
wary of the white boy at first, wondering if he is Ras’ master, which Jessie strongly denies.
Jessie never has the desire to be a master. He understands the reasons why the old man
Daniel is careful only too well as he himself has developed a severe distrust for anyone.
Jessie never even thinks about looking down on Daniel, on the contrary, he does everything
the old man tells him to. When Ras has the opportunity to go to the North of America and
escape the threat of slavery Jessie is happy for him but also feels sad to lose him. He does
not care about society’s conventions, Ras was his friend. While Jessie embodies more of a
silent protest at the beginning, he later becomes an actual fighter in the Civil War.
Captain Cawthorne
The captain of The Moonlight is a ruthless man, willing to do anything it takes to gain the
highest profit. He seems to despise everyone, his crew, the slaves he buys and abuses and
also the African chiefs who sell their own people to him. Captain Cawthorne forces the slaves
to live in inhuman, absurdly narrow and tight holds. He is not concerned the least about their
condition. For him, the slaves are goods that need to be delivered and sold at the highest
price. He actually likes his work and always has energy left to verbally and bodily abuse, hit
and slap and punch the slaves and the crew alike. He is small but vicious and does appear to
be mentally unstable. Everyone is only a means to higher profit for him. Noone is a real
person to him. Additionally, Captain Cawthorne sometimes has it in his mind that it is time for
a flogging to remind the men of who is in charge, to show them what he can do to them if
they do not follow his orders, no matter what they are, no matter if these orders mean their
deaths.
Benjamin Stout
At first Benjamin Stout seems to be a kind and caring person. He looks after Jessie right from
the start, when the boy is frightened and lost. He tells him that he too was once abducted
and that he had to stay on his ship for much longer than Jessie will have to but that he got
used to it. Benjamin Stout was once an innocent boy when he was abducted, but he
changed. Stout is very intelligent and can talk to the Africans, though only in a very limited
way. Still, it is much more than the rest of the crew or the captain can. This gives him even
more power and he makes use of it. Ben Stout is the only one smart enough to take words to
hurt and even torture, driving a woman insane, apparently just through that. He physically
abuses the slaves often, manhandling a small child or forcing a slave to drink alcohol and all
the while he always has a smile playing on his lips. He likes what he is doing, he enjoys the
fear of others. He does not shy away from abusing Jessie or beating him with a whip either,
when Jessie rejects him as a friend.
Clay Purvis
Right from the start Purvis helps and protects Jessie, although his rough manners scare the
boy off in the beginning. He soon learns, though, that Purvis has a good heart, despite all his
faults. Purvis is a heavily built man and not overly intelligent it appears but there is more to
him than that. For example, he accepts the punishment he is dealt for a crime he did not
commit because he knows the truth does not matter. Jessie cares about him although he
sometimes cannot comprehend his ways. Purvis is not like the other crew members, as he
can feel pity for the slaves and starts to think of them as human because of Jessie, whom he
befriends. So the sea men turn away from him, as cruel people like Stout want to be among
themselves. Stout also tells Jessie that he should be favoured above Purvis but Jessie does
not follow this advice.
Ras
Ras is the only person of all the Africans that are sold by their own chiefs and forced onto
The Moonlight whose name the readers get to know. Ras is a defiant young boy who never
gives up on himself. Ras realises that Jessie might be different from the rest of the crew and
it becomes clear with time that Ras actively watches Jessie’s behaviour. When an American
ship catches sight of The Moonlight and advances, the sea men throw the slaves overboard
to hide what they were doing. Ras fights bravely but ultimately has to hide below deck with
Jessie. A couple of days later The Moonlight crashes and Ras saves the other boy, helping
Jessie leave the wreckage. Together they reach the shore and survive and later on become
real friends. It obvious that Ras does not blame the other boy and that he is a brave, strong
and kind person.

Daniel – The Old Man
Daniel is a former slave who escaped his masters. He now lives in a small, hidden hut away
from everyone else. However, Daniel decides to help both of the boys stranded at the nearby
shore, after seeing that the two boys are actually friends, giving Jessie the benefit of the
doubt. He takes a huge chance with allowing the white boy to stay. He helps Jessie and
feeds him and even tells him his name. However, he is never as kind to him, as he is to Ras,
whom he always looks at protectively and watches out for. Daniel finds a possibility and
contacts two men who are able to help Ras go to the North of America where slavery is
forbidden.