Today’s tale is set in a theater in London England, for argument’s sake let’s set the date at some time in 1860. The crowd is enthralled by the magician and storyteller, one Henry Brown, as he shares his tale of survival. Many, however, wish he had never told his tale to all in sundry – more on that later. To Brown, ‘Box’ to his friends – to do so is as much an act of survival as his initial deed. For twenty five years his story, and accompanying magic act would keep a roof over his head. Before we discuss the brief tale of Henry Box Brown, it pays to add a little context.
When looking for a year zero for the slave trade in the colonies which became the USA, the year 1619 is generally quoted. Besides a few Africans held captive by Spain in St Augustine, Florida in the 1560s this seems accurate. In 1619, a Portuguese ship, the San Juan Batista, was headed for Brazil with several hundred Africans, shackled then stashed below decks. These men and women had come from what is now Luanda, Angola.
Portugal was at war with the Angolan Kingdom of Ndongo. It would be easy to get lost in the weeds on this, but Portugal had five decades of peace with Ndongo – even loaning them mercenaries at one point. The construction of a Portuguese fort in Luanda in 1575 soured relations between the two kingdoms. The Portuguese were kicked out, but sought help from the Kingdom of Kongo to help conquer the massive country. From 1579, till the signing of a truce in 1621, some 50,000 citizens of Ndongo were taken into slavery as prisoners of war – then shipped off to Brazil. There they would be worked to death in the plantations. Considerably more than this would be sent post-truce. This was one such shipload.
Back on the San Juan Batista. The ship was intercepted by an aristocratic English freebooter named Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick. His ships The White Lion and The Treasurer swiftly took control of the vessel. Not knowing what to do when they found all they had was slaves, they took several of these people, then departed. In August 1619 The White Lion docked in Virginia with 20 Ndongo, who were promptly sold to local farmers. Thus began a disgrace which would see 600,000 Africans imported as chattel – 388,000 directly to American markets with the remainder coming in via the Caribbean. Slaves would have children, adding to the slave pool (Under the ‘partus sequitur ventrem’ principle, literally ‘that which is brought forth follows the belly’). In 1860, as the Union and Confederate states prepared to go to war over slavery, the slaveholding states contained just shy of 4 million slaves – at an estimated resale value of $3.6 Billion, in 1860 money. Born in Louisa County, Virginia in 1815, to two slaves, Henry Brown was one such gentleman.
Of all the tales of slavery I could choose, Henry Brown’s is one of the less shocking, in some respects. By his own telling his ‘masters’ were not cruel people – he never suffered beatings, never went without food or drink. He felt a great injustice at being forced to work for a miniscule share in the profit (he was put to work in a tobacco factory, and was paid a pittance), and a great sorrow at not being able to follow his own muse in life. He did have some great joy in his life, however. As a young man he fell in love with another slave – known to history as Nancy. The couple married – an act not recognized officially by either’s owner – and had three children together. In 1848 Nancy was pregnant with their fourth child, when something awful happened. Henry and Nancy were never allowed to live together, as they were owned by two neighboring plantations. Nancy’s plantation suddenly decided to sell 350 of their slaves to a farm in North Carolina. Distraught and helpless, Henry could only look on in tears as his wife and children were led away in shackles. They would never meet again.
Sinking into a deep depression for months, the loss of his family would prove the turning point in his life. As depression gave way to anger, Henry Brown committed to escaping at all costs. Through James C.A. Smith – a free black friend, Brown was introduced to Samuel A. Smith (no relation); a white anti-slavery sympathizer. In turn contacting Philadelphia based abolitionist James Miller McKim, the men established a plan to escape to the North, on March 23rd 1849.
On the day of the escape, Henry Brown went to work at the tobacco factory. Brown burned his own hand with sulfuric acid, the wound going down to the bone. He was dismissed to get medical attention. Now free to make his escape, he met with the Smiths, who loaded Brown into a wooden box – three feet long, two feet eight inches deep, two feet wide. With a layer of cloth between him and the rough, wooden sides, and nothing more than a bladder of water and a few biscuits to sustain him in his journey – Brown was nailed in. A small breathing hole was cut, and the words ‘This side up’ were stenciled on the outside. The Smiths then loaded Brown on a train from Richmond to Philadelphia – a 27 hour journey.
The ride inside the crate, packed tighter than he would have been in a coffin, was far from comfortable. There was no single railway line at this time, so Brown had to be carted from wagon to train, from ferry to steamboat, and back again. At several points in the trip the box ended up upside down – Brown later writing of the feeling of his blood pooling in his head while topsy turvy.
“I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head”
Quietly, he suffered through the bumpy, dangerous ride. He could have died if left upside down for too long, but was likely saved by someone riding the boxcars, in need somewhere to sit. Seeing his box on it’s side, the presumed itinerant flipped the box back over and took a pew. Arriving in Philadelphia, Brown’s box was retrieved by James Miller McKim, along with fellow abolitionists William Sill, Professor C.D. Cleveland, and Lewis Thompson. As they cracked open the top, Brown emerged greeting the men “How do you do gentlemen? I waited patiently on the Lord, and He heard my prayer” before breaking into a psalm.
So… where does this tale get troublesome?
Well, let’s start with Henry… He was a little troublesome. On the question of whether to publicize Henry’s great escape, two divergent groups formed. One faction, led by the foremost former slave of his time, Frederick Douglass, felt they should not tell Henry’s story. To do so would rob others of an avenue to escape the South. Another faction felt another visible former slave in the public eye was too good a PR coup to pass on. Henry was of the latter opinion, not least of all because he revelled in all the attention. As soon as he could, he had a panorama built, so he could publicly re-enact his escape to audiences.
In May 1849, Brown gave a speech to a Boston antislavery convention. Whether this was before or after the Smiths were arrested on 8th May for trying to post another slave – his public speeches would lend weight to the prosecution of the Smiths. It also shut down that avenue for others. Samuel was sentenced to 6 ½ years in prison – while freedman James Smith narrowly avoided incarceration. He wrote an autobiography, the first of two in his lifetime. As his tale became well known, the Carolina slaveholder who owned Nancy and his children sent a letter to Brown, offering to sell his family back to him at a reasonable price. Brown turned down the offer – leading to an embarrassed abolitionist movement hurriedly scrambling to bury that chapter of Brown’s life from the public.
And Brown’s later life?
In 1850 congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law approved in an effort to broker peace between slave owning and non slave owning states in the wake of the Mexican – American war. In the immediate aftermath of the war there was much heat over whether new territories won off Mexico should allow slaveholders – the antislavery factions hoped allowing slave owners the right to pursue escaped slaves would be an acceptable compromise. Spoiler alert, it did not take the question of slavery in the new states off the table in the long run. Brown, now at risk of being arrested and shipped back to the plantation, packed his life into boxes, and moved to Britain. He married an English woman named Jane Floyd in 1859, and had a daughter together. Tiring of criticism from the abolitionist movement, he moved fully to show business, becoming a magician, mesmerist and occasional actor. He would move to Canada with his family in 1875, continuing to perform till 1889.
On January 1st 1863, three years into the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation – declaring slavery in the Confederate states illegal, thus freeing all the slaves. Of course some slaves did remain indentured to their ‘masters’ till the end of the war. The 13th Amendment of December 18th 1865 was the final nail in the coffin for the slave trade.
Much could be written about the evils of the Atlantic slave trade, and the horrors of such an existence. Perhaps I am acting irresponsibly in simply telling the tale of such a character as Brown when there are nightmare tales of people crammed into barracoons and left to bake in the sun while slave ships meanders towards Luanda. Perhaps of beatings, killings, dehumanization, slave watches armed with bloodhounds and photos of men’s backs covered in deep keloid scarring. Maybe I should have slotted slavery into the wider context of civil rights – or wrote on the Atlantic slave trade as the truly international horror it was (an estimated 15 million slaves were sent to the Americas, 10.5 million surviving the journey)… or pointed out how even little old me, now living in New Zealand, but born in Birkenhead England – profited a little from the slave trade in the late 70s and early 1980s.
My mother used to clean the home of a wealthy octogenarian, who occasionally showed me blueprints of grand buildings designed by her grandfather, built across the River Mersey in Liverpool; buildings built from Triangular trade model money which saw British, and especially Liverpudlian shipping companies make a killing in transporting slaves. Her family fortune came from her grandfather’s work for slave ship owners. Her wages to my mother helped keep a roof over our heads – and eventually helped us pack our lives into wooden crates, bound for New Zealand.
I will drop one final piece of trivia however, just to remind us how current slavery really was – Peter Mills, the last former slave in the USA, died in 1972 at the age of 110.