Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

151: Harriet Jacobs in England, 1845

Harriet Ann Jacobs was raised in slavery in North Carolina. Her 1861 memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in America in 1861 under the name Linda Brent. Sexually exploited, she hid for seven years until 1842, escaped north, and had her freedom purchased for her in 1852. The near-pornographic story has been reprinted and her life in America has been researched. She died in 1897 in her mid-eighties and is buried in Massachusetts. The Incidents can to be found on www.docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs in the University of North Carolina’s republishing of slavery narratives as an important part of the history of America.

Slave narratives were also published in Britain, and although they often close when the fugitive slave reaches Britain, some – especially later editions – detail activities in Britain (and Ireland). Jacobs has pages 276-278 about her time in England in 1845, attending the child of employer Nathaniel Willis. Much of those months were spent in Steventon, Berkshire (since the 1970s it is in Oxfordshire) living with the family of a clergyman. She says it was ‘a small town, said to be the poorest in the county’ where the local people, largely farm workers, ‘lived in the most primitive manner; it could not be otherwise, where a woman’s wages for an entire day were not sufficient to buy a pound of meat. They paid very low rents, and their clothes were made of the cheapest fabrics’. She added ‘I visited them in their little thatched cottages’. She also said ‘I never saw the slightest symptom of prejudice against color’.

She also noted that the village had a school (education was forbidden to American slaves).

She was a fugitive slave for ten years, lived in hiding for seven years, and was not legally free until the early 1850s. She and her family were abused and ill-treated. And the institution of slavery seemed to be a fixed aspect of America. So why didn’t she run away when in England? Steventon’s railway opened in 1840, the village was on the road system and countless wagons and coaches moved along it daily. There were under one thousand people in the village, and some may have known of British abolitionists, publications (tracts, leaflets, narratives) and public lectures by escaped slaves. Queen Victoria’s husband had chaired a London meeting about slavery and Africa, members of parliament were critical of American society, and although it may not have percolated to the farm labourers, the British and American governments had come close to blows only in January 1842 over the brig Creole. Carrying 135 slaves and tobacco from Virginia to New Orleans, it was taken over by nineteen of the blacks and sailed in Nassau, in the British Bahamas. The colony’s governor and the British government refused to hand the nineteen or the other blacks to American authorities. The nineteen were held for questioning over the deaths of two men but the others were treated as passengers with the right to land. Some arranged to sail to Jamaica. The British saw the seizure as similar to an escape by prisoners of war, dismissing American claims it was piracy. It was all widely reported.

Steventon remains a small place today. Historic photographs do not show thatched buildings but then if thatched cottages were where the poor lived, Victorian photographers would have not rushed to snap them. Websites about the village make no mention of Harriet Jacobs. It is unlikely that staying in such a small place would have been invented by Jacobs.

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