The year 1848 saw a wave of revolutions across Europe and the birth of radical organisation in the US. This thirst for change and freedom prompted two black slaves, Ellen and William Craft, to stage an audacious escape from a plantation in Macon, Georgia.
William, born in 1824, had seen his family torn apart by slavery. His elderly father and mother had been sold off to different slave owners. His devout Christian owner deemed them to be losing value and bragged of “selling off the old stock”. William witnessed his parents’ terrible distress, and then endured the loss of his brother and sister when they too were sold off to strangers.
Ellen was two years younger than William. Her father was a white slaveowner and rapist. Her mother’s father was also white—her grandmother had been raped. Visitors to the plantation mistook the light-skinned Ellen for one of the family’s children which infuriated her mistress, so Ellen was sold away from her mother when she was just a child. The intense misery this separation caused her would later prompt Ellen to vow that she would never have children while she was a slave.
The Crafts faced a choice—submit to a life of slavery, brutality, rape and separation, or risk everything to find freedom. The law stipulated that slaves who were away from home without permission could be lawfully killed. Slave hunters and their packs of bloodhounds were a common sight. William described how, “the greatest excitement prevails at a slave hunt. The slaveholders and their hired ruffians appear to take more pleasure in this inhuman pursuit than English sportsmen do in chasing a fox or stag”. In the North, the Dred Scott judgement, which the Crafts described as “a crowning act of infamous legislation”, stipulated that no black person could be treated as a US citizen, so robbery, rape and murder were not crimes when committed by a white person against a black person.
The Crafts’ plan was particularly audacious. The light skin which had attracted cruelty from her former mistress offered a means of escape. Ellen disguised herself as a disabled white man and William pretended to be her slave. They carefully bought what they needed from shops in different parts of town so as not to arouse suspicion. They both obtained passes for a day or two off over Christmas. It was illegal to teach slaves to read or write so Ellen wrapped her hand in a bandage so she would not be expected to sign her name in any hotel register. She also cut her hair, wrapped bandages around her head and wore fake spectacles to complete her disguise.
They took a train to Savannah in Georgia, then a steamer to Charleston, South Carolina. Imagine Ellen’s fear and anger when she found herself surrounded by white, male slaveowners, with William forced to travel the spaces reserved for black people. Every southern man they met shared tips on how to brutalise slaves out of rebellious ideas, “to keep them humble as dogs” and described their fear of abolitionists and the ever-present possibility of a slave revolt.
From Charleston, the Crafts took the Overground Mail Route to Philadelphia. They were stopped and interrogated in the port town of Baltimore. The ordeal was brought to an end and they were allowed to board a train. They arrived in Philadelphia on Christmas day, after four days and nights of hardship and constant terror.
The Crafts settled in Boston, which was known as an abolitionist city. William worked as a cabinet maker and Ellen made clothes, but after two years of peace, their freedom was threatened by the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in September 1850. The act stipulated that judges got more money for ruling that black people brought before them were slaves than deciding they were free people. Those judged to be slaves could then be forcibly returned to their “owners”. Their old masters sent slave catchers after them, but the Crafts were hidden by supporters and the slave catchers were driven out of the city. The Crafts’ old owners then wrote to Millard Fillmore, the 13th president of US, who promised they would be returned to slavery and sent a military force to Boston to help the slave catchers.
Ellen hid while William armed himself. American and British abolitionists arranged for the Crafts to escape first to Canada and then to Britain. They faced racist abuse and discrimination at every stage of this journey but finally arrived in Liverpool.
In Britain, the Crafts became prominent in abolitionist and radical circles. In their memoir, the Crafts name those abolitionists who helped them, including Arabella Byron, Harriet Martineau and George Thompson, the radical MP for Tower Hamlets. Elizabeth Jesser Reid helped Ellen to get some education at Bedford College, Bloomsbury—the first women’s college in Britain—which Reid had established in 1849. Another prominent black American abolitionist, Sarah Parker Remond, taught at the college during these years. Parker Redmond toured the textiles districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire galvanising support for the abolitionists and the North during the US Civil War.
The story of the Crafts’ sensational escape was familiar in abolitionist circles before they arrived in Britain. They started giving public lectures, describing their escape in dramatic terms and winning acclaim from abolitionist audiences. William told their story then Ellen made a dramatic entrance. Their performance caused a sensation because Ellen’s light skin exposed the racist ideas underpinning slavery. How could slavery be justified by claims that black Africans were less than human if slaves looked white and were powerful orators and polemists? Ellen’s appearances on the public stage were without precedent. Very few women and no black women spoke in public at the time, but the Crafts toured the country giving their lecture to thousands of people.
In London, the Crafts became part of a radical and working class movement which included many black activists, including Jamaican-born democrat Catherine Despard, radical publisher and tailor Robert Wedderburn and militant Chartist leader William Cuffay. The Crafts joined a growing community of black Americans who were organising against slavery.
They tried to have slaveowners’ whips and manacles included as exhibits in the Great Exhibition of 1851 but were refused permission. They then protested by walking around the Exhibition arm in arm with white friends and supporters to provoke visitors from the US, turning racial solidarity into a performance of protest.
Harriet Martineau sponsored the Crafts to attend Oakham agricultural school where they prospered, but after three years they chose to return to London to run a boarding house and reassume their prominent position in radical movements.
The pro-slavery press in the US published claims that Ellen and William regretted their escape. But by 1852 Ellen had learnt to write and was able to respond, issuing this widely-circulated statement:
“I write these few lines merely to say that the statement is entirely unfounded, for I have never had the slightest inclination whatever of returning to bondage; and God forbid that I should ever be so false to liberty as to prefer slavery in its stead. In fact, since my escape from slavery, I have gotten much better in every respect than I could have possibly anticipated… I would rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent’”.
The Crafts published an account of their escape, Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom in 1861, one of several influential first-hand accounts of the horrors of slavery.
Historian Priyamvada Gopal uses the phrase ”reverse tutelage” in her study Insurgent Empire to describe how dissidents in Europe did not only teach but also learnt from activists in colonised countries. The slave narratives were part of this reverse tutelage. They undermined paternalistic attitudes towards slaves because they taught white people something of their own capacity for barbarism and cruelty.
The Crafts’ home in Hammersmith became a hub for abolitionist activism and other campaigns, such as female suffrage. Ellen Craft attended one dinner party at which she was seated next to Edward Eyre, the former Governor of Jamaica. Eyre was notorious for his violent repression of the Morant Bay slave rebellion which erupted in October 1865 when a peaceful protest march against poverty and injustice was attacked by a local militia. Governor Eyre declared martial law and ordered troops to hunt down rebels. Some 400 black men, women and children were killed immediately and hundreds more were rounded up and executed. Women were publicly flogged and houses burnt down.
When Ellen realised who her neighbour at the table was, she immediately turned to him and challenged him for ordering the kidnap and execution of George William Gordon. Gordon was a vocal critic of Eyre’s governorship. He edited a radical newspaper and was a member of the Island’s assembly. Men like Eyre did not believe that black people were capable of leading rebellions, but Gordon’s father was a white slave owner. His white heritage made him a potential leader in the eyes of the racist British officials.
The Jamaica Committee was established in 1866 and organised several attempts to prosecute for Eyre for mass murder. The attempts failed but the committee did ensure Eyre’s crimes were not forgotten. All Eyre’s legal expenses were reimbursed by the Liberal government.
“Not all Englishmen are Shakespeares”
Historian David Olusoga has pointed out that attitudes to race were more fluid in the mid-nineteenth century than they were to become in the later era of scientific racism. During the 1850s and 1860s ideas of a racial hierarchy began to crystallise with white Europeans ranked as the most civilised.
Anthropologist Dr James Hunt energetically promoted a pseudo-scientific and deeply racist view of human development. He argued that people of African descent remained ‘frozen’ in a lower stage of evolution, and that there “was not a single instance of any pure negro being” of intelligence.
In 1863, Hunt read a paper entitled “On the Negro’s Place in Nature” to a meeting of the British Association in Newcastle. During his address, Hunt claimed that black men and women were unintelligent because they had thick skulls.
William Craft was in the audience and leapt to his feet to challenge Hunt’s racist theories. Craft ridiculed Hunt by claiming that God had arranged for supposed thick skulls otherwise “[our] brains would probably have become very much like those of many scientific gentlemen of the present day,” gesturing towards Hunt.
The audience rocked with laughter. Craft continued by pointing out that African Americans always showed intelligence and progression whenever they were given equal opportunities with whites, and with biting wit declared “all Englishmen were not Shakespeares.”
A furious Hunt was outwitted by someone who was a living contradiction of his theories. Craft’s public humiliation of Hunt was a challenge to the racial science. A humiliated Hunt did not rise to defend himself at the Newcastle meeting, and subsequently became wary of publishing his racist theories.
William Craft continued to protest and made a series of brilliant and widely reported speeches which fiercely exposed the idea of a hierarchy of the races. He demonstrated to British audiences that black people had “made very rapid progress when placed in advantageous circumstances.” He used the example of Haiti, where a black-led rebellion had kicked out the slave owners, to convey black people’s independence and mental capacity, and pointed to the white man’s oppression of black people as the root cause of inequality.
The US Civil War and emancipation of the slaves paved the way for the Crafts to return to America with their three children in 1868. They bought land in Georgia and set up a Cooperative Farm School for freed slaves. Persistent racist violence and discrimination led to the failure of the school and the Crafts moved to Charleston to live with their daughter in 1890. Ellen died the following year and William died in 1900. Their courage and their activism made a huge contribution to thriving tradition of British working class abolitionism and opposition to racism.
- Judy Cox is a teacher in East London and author of Rebellious Daughters of History (Redwords, 2020)