Our series on ‘Slavery and Abolition’ has tended to focus on publications both against and (a surprisingly large number) for slavery as a concept or an institution, with rather fewer books on the experience of being a slave. This echoes the situation in Britain, the West Indies and the United States at the time – the passionate arguments were based on moral principles (no human should in any circumstances be the property of another), on a blind and misguided paternalism (‘slavery is the best way of life for these subhumans/savages/Edenic innocents’), on a refusal to countenance any change in the status quo, or on straightforward greed. Inevitably, very few of the men and women who we now view as the heroes of the anti-slavery struggle had direct experience of owning slaves, let alone of being one, and the voices of the millions who endured and died in slavery were simply not recorded.
There are, of course, some exceptions: Olaudah Equiano (also known by his slave name of Gustavus Vassa); Phillis Wheatley, the published poet; Frederick Douglass, who had to flee the United States when he published his autobiography under his own name, since as an escaped slave he could legitimately be caught and returned to his owner, even from a ‘free’ state; and Harriet Jacobs.
Her book, published in Britain in 1862 with the title The Deeper Wrong, had been published the year before in the United States as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written By Herself, using the pseudonym ‘Linda Brent’. Because of the pseudonym, and because the text was edited by a Northern, educated, white woman, it was widely claimed that the book was fiction – and biased, abolitionist, anti-South fiction at that: no slave could possibly write with the clarity, style and assurance of this so-called runaway, and no woman could possibly write so frankly about her own sexual experiences. The author herself, the editor and two ‘respectable’ people who had known Harriet for several years all declared that her story was true, but it is easy to see why supporters of the ‘patriarchal institution’ wanted to dismiss it as fiction.
The biting irony with which slave owners, politicians, and even the notionally abolitionist and unprejudiced Northern whites are described, derives from cold fury that any human being, let alone one who called himself a Christian, could comfortably accept and live by the belief that one human can treat another as his property. Harriet’s character sketches are unforgettable:
‘Mrs Flint, like many southern women, was totally deficient in energy. She had not strength to superintend her household affairs; but her nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash.’
Harriet, born a slave in 1813, passed her childhood in a happy home. The significance of her status did not become clear to her until she was left by the will of her owner to a small grandchild, whose parents were therefore her owners until the girl came of age. Harriet was forced to work hard, for long hours, with poor food and the constant threat of violence; but as a house slave (and as one who could return to her own grandmother’s house at night), she had a relatively easy life. Her dread was of being sent ‘out to the plantation’, where the slaves were a source of purely mechanical power, and could be replaced (when they died of overwork, starvation or harsh treatment, or simply became too old or feeble to be of use) at no great expense, so that there was no economic incentive to treat them well. Descriptions of punishments to ‘insolent’ or ‘rebellious’ slaves – or to poor souls who simply made a mistake while carrying out an order – make harrowing reading.
Harriet was sexually harassed and violently abused as a teenager by the father of her ‘owner’, who absolutely refused to sell her to a free black man who wished to marry her. To avoid succumbing to Dr Flint, she deliberately chose to become pregnant by another white man, a local politician of allegedly liberal sympathies, whose two children she bore – but slavery was ‘inherited’ through the mother, so her boy and girl, who ‘passed for’ white in appearance, were also slaves.
The story of Harriet’s and her children’s eventual escape to the North, and the gaining of her freedom (after spending seven years concealed in a tiny hidden room in her grandmother’s house while her master believed she was in New York or Boston, and made several expensive journeys to hunt her down) is both gripping and appalling. Her freedom itself was bitter to her because it was achieved through the slave system – an employer and friend (the wife of author Nathaniel Parker Willis) paid her ‘master’ for her, and then gave her her freedom – rather than through a change in the beliefs and laws of her country. She was acutely aware of the morally corrupting effect of the institution on masters and slaves alike, and her book – written on the verge of the Civil War – is a personal testimony to the ‘deeper wrong’ which provoked that appalling disaster for the United States.