Saturday 8 October 2022

A remarkable escape from slavery

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom: Or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery I was surprised to discover within one branch of my family's history, a chemist-druggist who travelled to America in 1862, leaving his wife behind, to join the Unionists of the American Civil War. He remained in the USA after the war ended and became a naturalised citizen. What on earth drove him to do that? Here's an hypothesis: perhaps he'd come across Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, the remarkable story of how two slaves escaped their bondage and gained their freedom.

William and Ellen Craft set out from Georgia in December 1848, aged 22 and 24. Their narrative highlights the emotional rather than physical abuse to which slaves were subjected and plainly shows their status as "property". William saw family members sold to different owners. His parents were offloaded because they "were getting old, and would soon become valueless in the market". He and his sister were "mortgaged" to a bank to raise money which couldn't be paid when due, so "the bank had us placed upon the auction stand and sold to the highest bidder". As for Ellen Craft, she was the daughter of her owner and one of his slaves and was given away as a gift, thus separated "from her mother, and also from several other dear friends". When the couple were married these experiences determined them to be free before starting their own family.

They travelled in plain sight and after four days arrived in Pennsylvania. It's an exciting tale with plenty of heart-stopping moments. They weren't safe even when they reached Philadelphia, since the constitution "guaranteed the slaveholders the right to come into any of the so-called free States, and take their fugitives back". The Crafts moved to Boston to avoid the risk but in "1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Bill" which allowed bounty hunters to kidnap escaped slaves and return them to their owners. The couple fled to England and lived in Hammersmith for around 19 years.

They wrote their book in 1860 and its language, grammar and style reflect this. At the time the Crafts's story was used to raise support for abolitionists and it contains extracts from poetry, as well as supportive quotes from the bible, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Today it's also useful as background for readers interested in the history of America, and especially the civil war.

So, back to my family chemist-druggist. He was one of several thousand men who sailed from Britain to America to take part in the Civil War. I can never be sure, but how romantic to imagine he heard the Crafts speak when they were living in Hammersmith, and he in Lambeth.

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