Three Years in Europe/Memoir of William Wells Brown
A narrative of the life of the author of the present work has been most extensively circulated in England and America. The present memoir will, therefore, simply comprise a brief sketch of the most interesting portion of Mr. Brown's history while in America, together with a short account of his subsequent cisatlantic career. The publication of his adventures as a slave, and as a fugitive from slavery in his native land, has been most valuable in sustaining a sound anti-slavery spirit in Great Britain. His honourable reception in Europe may be equally serviceable in America, as another added to the many practical protests previously entered from this side of the Atlantic, against the absolute bondage of three millions and a quarter of the human race, and the semi-slavery involved in the social and political proscription of 600,000 free coloured people in that country.
William Wells Brown was born at Lexington, in the state of Kentucky, as nearly as he can tell in the autumn of 1814. In the Southern States of America, the pedigree and age of a horse or a dog are carefully preserved, but no record is kept of the birth of a slave. All that Mr. Brown knows upon the subject is traditionally, that he was born "about corn-cutting time" of that year. His mother was a slave named Elizabeth, the property of Dr. Young, a physician. His father was George Higgins, a relative of his master.
The name given to our author at his birth, was "William"—no second or surname being permitted to a slave. While William was an infant, Dr. Young removed to Missouri, where, in addition to his profession as a physician, he carried on the—to European notions—incongruous avocations of miller, merchant, and farmer. Here William was employed as a house servant, while his mother was engaged as a field hand. One of his first bitter experiences of the cruelties of slavery, was his witnessing the infliction of ten lashes upon the bare back of his mother, for being a few minutes behind her time at the field—a punishment inflicted with one of those peculiar whips in the construction of which, so as to produce the greatest amount of torture, those whom Lord Carlisle has designated "the chivalry of the South" find scope for their ingenuity.
Dr. Young subsequently removed to a farm near St. Louis, in the same State. Having been elected a Member of the Legislature, he devolved the management of his farm upon an overseer, having, what to his unhappy victims must have been the ironical name of "Friend Haskall." The mother and child were now separated. The boy was levied to a Virginian named Freeland, who bore the military title of Major, and carried on the plebeian business of a publican. This man was of an extremely brutal disposition, and treated his slaves with most refined cruelty. His favourite punishment, which he facetiously called "Virginian play," was to flog his slaves severely, and then expose their lacerated flesh to the smoke of tobacco stems, causing the most exquisite agony. William complained to his owner of the treatment of Freeland, but, as in almost all similar instances, the appeal was in vain. At length he was induced to attempt an escape, not from that love of liberty which subsequently became with him an unconquerable passion, but simply to avoid the cruelty to which he was habitually subjected. He took refuge in the woods, but was hunted and "traced" by the blood-hounds of a Major O'Fallon, another of "the chivalry of the South," whose gallant occupation was that of keeping an establishment for the hire of ferocious dogs with which to hunt fugitive slaves. The young slave received a severe application of "Virginia play" for his attempt to escape. Happily the military publican soon afterwards failed in business, and William found a better master and a more congenial employment with Captain Cilvers, on board a steam-boat plying between St. Louis and Galena. At the close of the sailing season he was levied to an hotel-keeper, a native of a free state, but withal of a class which exist north as well as south—a most inveterate negro hater. At this period of William's history, a circumstance occurred, which, although a common incident in the lives of slaves, is one of the keenest trials they have to endure—the breaking up of his family circle. Her master wanted money, and he therefore sold Elizabeth and six of her children to seven different purchasers. The family relationship is almost the only solace of slavery. While the mother, brothers, and sisters are permitted to meet together in the negro hut after the hour of labour, the slaves are comparatively content with their oppressed condition; but deprive them of this, the only privilege which they as human beings are possessed of, and nothing is left but the animal part of their nature—the living soul is extinguished within them. With them there is nothing to love—everything to hate. They feel themselves degraded to the condition not only of mere animals, but of the most ill-used animals in the creation.
Not needing the services of his young relative, Dr. Young hired him to the proprietor of the St. Louis Times, the best master William ever had in slavery. Here he gained the scanty amount of education he acquired at the South. This kind treatment by his editorial master appears to have engendered in the heart of William a consciousness of his own manhood, and led him into the commission of an offence similar to that perpetrated by Frederick Douglass, under similar circumstances—the assertion of the right of self-defence. He gallantly defended himself against the attacks of several boys older and bigger than himself, but in so doing was guilty of the unpardonable sin of lifting his hand against white lads; and the father of one of them, therefore, deemed it consistent with his manhood to lay in wait for the young slave, and beat him over the head with a heavy cane till the blood gushed from his nose and ears. From the effects of that treatment the poor lad was confined to his bed for five weeks, at the end of which time he found that, to his personal sufferings, were superadded the calamity of the loss of the best master he ever had in slavery.
His next employment was that of waiter on board a steam-boat plying on the Mississippi. Here his occupation again was pleasant, and his treatment good; but the freedom of action enjoyed by the passengers in travelling whithersoever they pleased, contrasted strongly in his mind with his own deprivation of will as a slave. The natural result of this comparison was an intense desire for freedom—a feeling which was never afterwards eradicated from his breast. This love of liberty was, however, so strongly counteracted by affection for his mother and sisters, that although urgently entreated by one of the latter to take advantage of his present favourable opportunity for escape, he would not bring himself to do so at the expense of a separation for life from his beloved relatives.
His period of living on board the steamer having expired, he was again remitted to field labour, under a burning sun. From that labour, from which he suffered severely, he was soon removed to the lighter and more agreeable occupation of house-waiter to his master. About this time Dr. Young, in the conventional phraseology of the locality, "got religion." The fruit of his alleged spiritual gain, was the loss of many material comforts to the slaves. Destitute of the resources of education, they were in the habit of employing their otherwise unoccupied minds on the Sunday in fishing and other harmless pursuits; these were now all put an end to. The Sabbath became a season of dread to William: he was required to drive the family to and from the church, a distance of four miles either way; and while they attended to the salvation of their souls within the building, he was compelled to attend to the horses without it, standing by them during divine service under a burning sun, or drizzling rain. Although William did not get the religion of his master, he acquired a family passion which appears to have been strongly intermixed with the devotional exercises of the household of Dr. Young—a love of sweet julep. In the evening, the slaves were required to attend family worship. Before commencing the service, it was the custom to hand a pitcher of the favourite beverage to every member of the family, not excepting the nephew, a child of between four and five years old. William was in the habit of watching his opportunity during the prayer and helping himself from the pitcher, but one day letting it fall, his propensity for this intoxicating drink was discovered, and he was severely punished for its indulgence.
In 1830, being then about sixteen years of age, William was hired to a slave-dealer named Walker. This change of employment led the youth away south and frustrated, for a time, his plans for escape. His experience while in this capacity furnishes some interesting, though painful, details of the legalized traffic in human beings carried on in the United States. The desperation to which the slaves are driven at their forced separation from husband, wife, children, and kindred, he found to be a frequent cause of suicide. Slave-dealers he discovered were as great adepts at deception in the sale of their commodity as the most knowing down-easter, or tricky horse dealer. William's occupation on board the steamer, as they steamed south, was to prepare the stock for the market, by shaving off whiskers and blacking the grey hairs with a colouring composition.
At the expiration of the period of his hiring with Walker, William returned to his master rejoiced to have escaped an employment so repugnant to his feelings. But this joy was not of long duration. One of his sisters who, although sold to another master had been living in the same city with himself and mother, was again sold to be sent away south, never in all probability to meet her sorrowing relatives. Dr. Young also, wanting money, intimated to his young kinsman that he was about to sell him. This intimation determined William, in conjunction with his mother, to attempt their escape. For ten nights they travelled northwards, hiding themselves in the woods by day. The mother and son at length deemed themselves safe from re-capture, and, although weary and foot-sore, were laying down sanguine plans for the acquisition of a farm in Canada, the purchase of the freedom of the six other members of the family still in slavery, and rejoicing in the anticipated happiness of their free home in Canada. At that moment three men made up to and seized them, bound the son and led him, with his desponding mother, back to slavery. Elizabeth was sold and sent away south, while her son became the property of a merchant tailor named Willi. Mr. Brown's description of the final interview between himself and his mother, is one of the most touching portions of his narrative. The mother, after expressing her conviction of the speedy escape from slavery by the hand of death, enjoined her child to persevere in his endeavours to gain his freedom by flight. Her blessing was interrupted by the kick and curse bestowed by her dehumanized master upon her beloved son.
After having been hired for a short time to the captain of the steam-boat Otto, William was finally sold to Captain Enoch Price for 650 dollars. That the quickness and intelligence of William rendered him very valuable as a slave, is favoured by the evidence of Enoch Price himself, who states that he was offered 2000 dollars for Sanford (as he was called), in New Orleans. William was strongly urged by his new mistress to marry. To facilitate this object, she even went so far as to purchase a girl for whom she fancied he had an affection. He himself, however, had secretly resolved never to enter into such a connexion while in slavery, knowing that marriage, in the true and honourable sense of the term, could not exist among slaves. Notwithstanding the multitude of petty offences for which a slave is severely punished, it is singular that one crime—bigamy—is visited upon a white with severity, while no slave has ever yet been tried for it. In fact, the man is allowed to form connections with as many women, and the women with as many men, as they please.
At St. Louis, William was employed as coachman to Mr. Price; but when that gentleman subsequently took his family up the river to Cincinnati, Sanford acted as appointed steward. While lying off this city, the long-looked-for opportunity of escape presented itself; and on the 1st of January, 1834—he being then almost twenty years of age—succeeded in getting from the steamer to the wharf, and thence to the woods, where he lay concealed until the shades of night had set in, when he again commenced his journey northwards. While with Dr. Young, a nephew of that gentleman, whose christian name was William, came into the family: the slave was, therefore, denuded of the name of William, and thenceforth called Sanford. This deprivation of his original name he had ever regarded as an indignity, and having now gained his freedom he resumed his original name; and as there was no one by whom he could be addressed by it, he exultingly enjoyed the first-fruits of his freedom by calling himself aloud by his old name "William!" After passing through a variety of painful vicissitudes, on the eighth day he found himself destitute of pecuniary means, and unable, from severe illness, to pursue his journey. In that condition he was discovered by a venerable member of the Society of Friends, who placed him in a covered waggon and took him to his own house. There he remained about fifteen days, and by the kind treatment of his host and hostess, who were what in America are called "Thompsonians," he was restored to health, and supplied with the means of pursuing his journey. The name of this, his first kind benefactor, was "Wells Brown." As William had risen from the degradation of a slave to the dignity of a man, it was expedient that he should follow the customs of other men, and adopt a second name. His venerable friend, therefore, bestowed upon him his own name, which, prefixed by his former designation, made him "William Wells Brown," a name that will live in history, while those of the men who claimed him as property would, were it not for his deeds, have been unknown beyond the town in which they lived. In nine days from the time he left Wells Brown's house, he arrived at Cleveland, in the State of Ohio, where he found he could remain comparatively safe from the pursuit of the man-stealer. Having obtained employment as a waiter, he remained in that city until the following spring, when he procured an engagement on board a steam-boat plying on Lake Erie. In that situation he was enabled, during seven months, to assist no less than sixty-nine slaves to escape to Canada. While a slave he had regarded the whites as the natural enemies of his race. It was, therefore, with no small pleasure that he discovered the existence of the salt of America, in the despised Abolitionists of the Northern States. He read with assiduity the writings of Benjamin Lundy, William Lloyd Garrison, and others; and after his own twenty years' experience of slavery, it is not surprising that he should have enthusiastically embraced the principles of "total and immediate emancipation," and "no union with slaveholders."
In proportion as his mind expanded under the more favourable circumstances in which he was placed, he became anxious, not merely for the redemption of his race from personal slavery, but for the moral elevation of those among them who were free. Finding that habits of intoxication were too prevalent amongst his coloured brethren, he, in conjunction with others, commenced a temperance reformation in their body. Such was the success of their efforts that in three years, in the city of Buffalo alone, a society of upwards of 500 members was raised out of a coloured population of 700. Of that society Mr. Brown was thrice elected President.
The intellectual powers of our author, coupled with his intimate acquaintance with the workings of the slave system, recommended him to the Abolitionists as a man eminently qualified to arouse the attention of the people of the Northern States to the great national sin of America. In 1843 he was engaged as a lecturer by the Western New-York Anti-Slavery Society. From 1844 to 1847 he laboured in the anti-slavery cause in connection with the American Anti-Slavery Society, and from that period up to the time of his departure for Europe, in 1849, he was an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. The records of those societies furnish abundant evidence of the success of his labours. From the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society he early received the following testimony:—
"Since Mr. Brown became an agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, he has lectured in very many of the towns of this Commonwealth, and won for himself general respect and approbation. He combines true self-respect with true humility, and rare judiciousness with great moral courage. Himself a fugitive slave, he can experimentally describe the situation of those in bonds as bound with them; and he powerfully illustrates the diabolism of that system which keeps in chains and darkness a host of minds, which, if free and enlightened, would shine among men like stars in a firmament."
Another member of that Society speaks thus of him:—"I need not attempt any description of the ability and efficiency which characterized his speaking throughout the meetings. To you who know him so well, it is enough to say that his lectures were worthy of himself. He has left an impression on the minds of the people, that few could have done. Cold, indeed, must be the heart that could resist the appeals of so noble a specimen of humanity, in behalf of a crushed and despised race."
Notwithstanding the celebrity Mr. Brown had acquired in the north, as a man of genius and talent, and the general respect his high character had gained him, the slave spirit of America denied him the rights of a citizen. By the constitution of the United States, he was every moment liable to be seized and sent back to slavery. He was in daily peril of a gradual legalized murder, under a system one of whose established economical principles is, that it is more profitable to work up a slave on a plantation in a short time, by excessive labour and cheap food, than to obtain a lengthened remuneration by moderate work and humane treatment. His only protection from such a fate was the anomaly of the ascendancy of the public opinion over the law of the country. So uncertain, however, was that tenure of liberty, that even before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, it was deemed expedient to secure the services of Frederick Douglass to the anti-slavery cause by the purchase of his freedom. The same course might have been taken to secure the labours of Mr. Brown, had he not entertained an unconquerable repugnance to its adoption. On the 10th of January, 1848, Enoch Price wrote to Mr. Edmund Quincy offering to sell Mr. Brown to himself or friends for 325 dollars. To this communication the fugitive returned the following pithy and noble reply:—
"I cannot accept of Mr. Price's offer to become a purchaser of my body and soul. God made me as free as he did Enoch Price, and Mr. Price shall never receive a dollar from me or my friends with my consent."
There were, however, other reasons besides his personal safety which led to Mr. Brown's visit to Europe. It was thought desirable always to have in England some talented man of colour who should be a living lie to the doctrine of the inferiority of the African race: and it was moreover felt that none could so powerfully advocate the cause of "those in bonds" as one who had actually been "bound with them." This had been proved in the extraordinary effect produced in Great Britain by Frederick Douglass in 1845 and 1846. The American Committee in connection with the Peace Congress were also desirous of sending to Europe coloured representatives of their Society, and Mr. Brown was selected for that purpose, and duly accredited by them to the Paris Congress.
On the 18th of July, 1849, a large meeting of the coloured citizens of Boston was held in Washington Hall to bid him farewell. At that meeting the following resolutions were unanimously adopted:—
"Resolved,—That we bid our brother, William Wells Brown, God speed in his mission to Europe, and commend him to the hospitality and encouragement of all true friends of humanity.
"Resolved,—That we forward by him our renewed protest against the American Colonization Society; and invoke for him a candid hearing before the British public, in reply to the efforts put forth there by the Rev. Mr. Miller, or any other agent of said Society."
Two days afterwards he sailed for Europe, encountering on his voyage his last experience of American prejudice against colour.
On the 28th of August he landed at Liverpool, a time and place memorable in his life as the first upon which he could truly call himself a free man upon God's earth. In the history of nations, as of individuals, there is often singular retributive mercy as well as retributive justice. In the seventeenth century the victims of monarchical tyranny in Great Britain found social and political freedom when they set foot upon Plymouth Rock in New England: in the nineteenth century the victims of the oppressions of the American Republic find freedom and social equality upon the shores of monarchical England. Liverpool, which seventy years back was so steeped in the guilt of negro slavery that Paine expressed his surprise that God did not sweep it from the face of the earth, is now to the hunted negro the Plymouth Rock of Old England. From Liverpool he proceeded to Dublin where he was warmly received by Mr. Haughton, Mr. Webb, and other friends of the slave, and publicly welcomed at a large meeting presided over by the first named gentleman.
The reception of Mr. Brown at the Peace Congress in Paris was most flattering. In a company, comprising a large portion of the elite of Europe, he admirably maintained his reputation as a public speaker. His brief address, upon that "war spirit of America which holds in bondage three million of his brethren," produced a profound sensation. At its conclusion the speaker was warmly greeted by Victor Hugo, the Abbe Duguerry, Emile de Girardin, the Pastor Coquerel, Richard Cobden, and every man of note in the Assembly. At the soiree given by M. De Tocqueville, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the other fetes given to the Members of the Congress, Mr. Brown was received with marked attention.
Having finished his Peace mission in France, he commenced an Anti-slavery tour in England and Scotland. With that independence of feeling which those who are acquainted with him know to be his chief characteristic, he rejected the idea of anything like eleemosynary support. He determined to maintain himself and family by his own exertions—by his literary labours, and the honourable profession of a public lecturer. His first metropolitan reception in England was at a large, influential, and enthusiastic meeting in the Music Hall, Stone Street. The members of the Whittington Club—an institution numbering nearly 2000 members, among whom are Lords Brougham, Dudley Coutts Stuart, and Beaumont; Charles Dickens, Douglass Jerrold, Martin Thackeray, Charles Lushington, M.P., Monckton Milnes, M.P., and several other of the most distinguished legislators and literary men and women in this country—elected Mr. Brown an honorary member of the Club, as a mark of respect to his character; and, as the following extract from the Secretary, Mr. Stundwicke, will show, as a protest against the distinctions made between man and man on account of colour in America:—"I have much pleasure in conveying to you the best thanks of the managing committee of this institution for the excellent lecture you gave here last evening on the subject of 'Slavery in America,' and also in presenting you in their names with an honorary membership of the Club. It is hoped that you will often avail yourself of its privileges by coming amongst us. You will then see, by the cordial welcome of the members, that they protest against the odious distinctions made between man and man, and the abominable traffic of which you have been the victim."
For the last three years Mr. Brown has been engaged in visiting and holding meetings in nearly all the large towns in the kingdom upon the question of American Slavery, Temperance, and other subjects. Perhaps no coloured individual, not excepting that extraordinary man, Frederick Douglass, has done more good in disseminating anti-slavery principles in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
In the spring of 1851, two most interesting fugitives, William and Ellen Craft, arrived in England. They had made their escape from the South, the wife disguised in male attire, and the husband in the capacity of her slave. William Craft was doing a thriving business in Boston, but in 1851 was driven with his wife from that city by the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law. For several months they travelled in company with Mr. Brown in this country, deepening the disgust created by Mr. Brown's eloquent denunciation of slavery by their simple but touching narrative. At length they were enabled to gratify their thirst for education by gaining admission to Lady Byron's school at Oakham, Surrey. In the month of May, Mr. Brown and Mr. and Mrs. Craft were taken by a party of anti-slavery friends to the Great Exhibition. The honourable manner in which they were received by distinguished persons to whom their history was known, and the freedom with which they perambulated the American department, was a salutary rebuke to the numerous Americans present, in regard to the great sin of their country—slavery; and its great folly—prejudice of colour. A curious circumstance occurred during the Exhibition. Among the hosts of American visitors to this country was Mr. Brown's late master, Enoch Price, who made diligent inquiry after his lost piece of property—not, of course, with any view to its reclamation—but, to the mutual regret of both parties, without success. It is gratifying to state that the master spoke highly of, and expressed a wish for the future prosperity of, his fugitive slave; a fact which tends to prove that prejudice of colour is to a very great extent a thing of locality and association. Had Mr. Price, however, left behind him letters of manumission for Mr. Brown, enabling him, if he chose, to return to his native land, he would have given a more practical proof of respect, and of the sincerity of his desire for the welfare of Mr. Brown.
It would extend these pages far beyond their proposed length were anything like a detailed account of Mr. Brown's anti-slavery labours in this country to be attempted. Suffice it to say that they have everywhere been attended with benefit and approbation. At Bolton an admirable address from the ladies was presented to him, and at other places he has received most honourable testimonials.
Since Mr. Brown left America, the condition of the fugitive slaves in his own country has, through the operation of the Fugitive Slave Law, been rendered so perilous as to preclude the possibility of return without the almost certain loss of liberty. His expatriation has, however, been a gain to the cause of humanity in this country, where an intelligent representative of the oppressed coloured Americans is constantly needed, not only to describe, in language of fervid eloquence, the wrongs inflicted upon his race in the United States, but to prevent their bonds being strengthened in this country by holding fellowship with slave-holding and slave-abetting ministers from America. In his lectures he has clearly demonstrated the fact, that the sole support of the slavery of the United States is its churches. This knowledge of the standing of American ministers in reference to slavery has, in the case of Dr. Dyer, and in many other instances, been most serviceable, preventing their reception into communion with British churches. Last year Mr. Brown succeeded in getting over to this country his daughters, two interesting girls twelve and sixteen years of age respectively, who are now receiving an education which will qualify them hereafter to become teachers in their turn—a description of education which would have been denied them in their native land. In 1834 Mr. Brown married a free coloured woman, who died in January of the present year.
The condition of escaped slaves has engaged much of his attention while in this country. He found that in England no anti-slavery organization existed whose object was to aid fugitive slaves in obtaining an honourable subsistence in the land of their exile. In most cases they are thrown upon the support of a few warm-hearted anti-slavery advocates in this country, pre-eminent among whom stands Mr. Brown's earliest friend, Mr. George Thompson, M.P., whose house is rarely free from one or more of those who have acquired the designation of his "American constituents." This want has recently been attempted to be supplied, partly through Mr. Brown's exertions, and partly by the establishment of the Anglo-American Anti-Slavery Association.
On the 1st of August, 1851, a meeting of the most novel character was held at the Hall of Commerce, London, being a soiree given by fugitive slaves in this country to Mr. George Thompson, on his return from his American mission on behalf of their race. That meeting was most ably presided over by Mr. Brown, and the speeches made upon the occasion by fugitive slaves were of the most interesting and creditable description. Although a residence in Canada is infinitely preferable to slavery in America, yet the climate of that country is uncongenial to the constitutions of the fugitive slaves, and their lack of education is an almost insuperable barrier to their social progress. The latter evil Mr. Brown attempted to remedy by the establishment of a Manual Labour School in Canada.
A public meeting, attended by between 3000 and 4000 persons, was convened by Mr. Brown, on the 6th of January, 1851, in the City Hall, Glasgow, presided over by Mr. Hastie, one of the representatives of that city, at which meeting a resolution was unanimously passed approving of Mr. Brown's scheme, which scheme, however, never received that amount of support which would have enabled him to bring it into practice; and the plan at present only remains as an evidence of its author's ingenuity and desire for the elevation of his depressed race. Mr. Brown subsequently made, through the columns of the Times newspaper, a proposition for the emigration of American fugitive slaves, under fair and honourable terms, to the West Indies, where there is a great lack of that tillage labour which they are so capable of undertaking. This proposition has hitherto met with no better fate than its predecessor.
Mr. Brown's literary abilities may be partly judged of from the following pages. The amount of knowledge and education he has acquired under circumstances of no ordinary difficulty, is a striking proof of what can be done by combined genius and industry. His proficiency as a linguist, without the aid of a master, is considerable. His present work is a valuable addition to the stock of English literature. The honour which has hitherto been paid, and which, so long as he resides upon British soil, will no doubt continue to be paid to his character and talents, must have its influence in abating the senseless prejudice of colour in America, and hastening the time when the object of his mission, the abolition of the slavery of his native country, shall be accomplished, and that young Republic renouncing with penitence its national sin, shall take its proper place amongst the most free, civilized, and Christian nations of the earth.