I have written before about the experience of slavery, but a book we have just reissued presents such a compelling narrative that I want to revisit the topic, if only to urge you to Read This Book! Like the story of Harriet Jacobs, it is an account of escape from slavery in the United States, but William and Ellen Craft took only eight days – rather than more than seven years – to reach the north, and what they believed to be safety. However, like Frederick Douglass, they found themselves in further peril, and eventually made their way to England.
William and Ellen were born in Georgia, and Ellen who was the daughter of her master, could ‘pass for white’. Both had previous experience in their own families of the cruelty of the ‘peculiar institution’ – not just the physical violence, including rape, which could be applied with impunity, but the casual tearing apart of families when all their members were disposable chattels. The pair were continually scheming to escape – though, knowing the appalling punishments for recaptured runaways, it took them some years to think of a plan which had a realistic chance of getting them both across 1,000 miles of slave territory together. In 1847, having sought the consent of their owners, they married, apparently resigned to their condition, but in fact determined to be free.
It was Ellen’s white skin that made escape possible. William reasoned that if she could carry off the disguise of a white man, he could accompany this ‘master’ as his slave – slaves could not cross state boundaries unaccompanied. Ellen had great reservations, but they resolved to try, and the role was made easier for her by making the ‘gentleman’ an invalid whose right arm was in a sling, so that ‘he’ could not sign hotel registers (both the Crafts were at this point illiterate), wore green-tinted spectacles, and often had to bandage poultices around his jaw.
It was December 1848, and both obtained passes of leave from their owners. William purchased the necessary clothes for Ellen from shops which were known to sell to slaves, though this was in theory forbidden. (The engraving of her in disguise which is the frontispiece of the book was later sold as a print to raise money for the family.)
The story of their escape is genuinely exciting: there were several points during their journey by sea and train when they might have been discovered, and several encounters with officials who had no compunction about bullying a white invalid gentleman as well as his slave. Almost as bad was the well-meaning kindness of strangers who wanted to draw the invalid into conversation and suggest remedies for his illness: Ellen was petrified when she was handed a ‘recipe for rheumatism’, in case she looked at it the wrong way up: in fact she put in straight into her waistcoat pocket.
At last, they reached Philadelphia, on Christmas Day, and William felt like Christian when the burden fell from his back: Ellen was almost prostrate with reaction and relief. They met with the leading abolitionists of the city, who advised them to travel to Boston to settle, rather than Canada, as they had intended, as the climate would be less of trial to them. (With hindsight, this was bad advice.) In the mean time, a Quaker family took them in – ‘This was the first act of great and disinterested kindness we had ever received from a white person’ – and the daughters of the family took the first steps in teaching them both to read and write.
William and Ellen spent two years in Boston (where – though this does not appear in their narrative – they were ‘properly’ married, slave marriages not being recognised outside the individual states), but in 1850, ‘Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Bill, an enactment too infamous to have been thought of or tolerated by any people in the world, except the unprincipled and tyrannical Yankees.’ To put a stop to the increasing numbers of organisations in the north which helped escaped slaves, it made it illegal to offer food and shelter to runaways, and compulsory to assist (if called upon by the authorities) in tracking them down and returning them to their owners.
It is remarkable how vindictive the owners of runaways seem to have been. In the case of the Crafts, as well as those of Jacobs and Douglass, efforts to retrieve their ‘property’ continued for years, and one can’t help thinking that, in purely monetary terms, they cost more than the chattels were worth. Once the bill became law (with the approval of startling numbers of churchmen, by the way), agents were sent to Boston by the Crafts’ ‘owners’, but they could not find a U.S. Marshal willing to execute their warrants, probably because of the general abolitionist mood of the city.
But it was decided that William and Ellen should leave the United States secretly, and sail to England, ‘a country where we and our dear little ones can be truly free’. After a period of great anxiety in finding a steamer in one of the Canadian ports that would take them, and after a horrible crossing, they arrived in Liverpool, after which British supporters such as Harriet Martineau and Lady Byron helped them to settle, and supported their education at an agricultural school. The narrative ends at this point, with some prophetic words to white America: ‘Oh, tyrant, thou who sleepest/On a volcano, from whose pent-up wrath,/Already some red flashes bursting up,/Beware!’
The book was published in 1860. By then William and Ellen had travelled widely in Britain, lecturing about the evils of slavery and urging a boycott of slave-produced goods. In 1862, William went to Dahomey (now Benin), with the intention of persuading the king to abolish human sacrifice and slavery: in all he spent over three years there, founding a school and encouraging the farming of cotton.
In 1869, in an extraordinary demonstration of their dedication to the cause of bettering the black people of the United States, the Crafts and three of their five children returned to Georgia, intent on forming an agricultural co-operative which would enable ex-slaves to avoid contract labour. They also opened a free school for local children, but both enterprises were resented by neighbouring landowners and dogged by financial problems. Ellen died in 1891, and was buried on the plantation; William lived until 1900, when he was probably 75 years old: of course, neither of their dates of birth is known for certain, as chattels don’t have birthdays.