by William Wells Brown, first published in 1853:
Preface and story of the author’s life in slavery and escape
Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown (author of Clotel):
Here we read how Brown was born in slavery, suffering many things, especially after his owner found himself with too many hands and began letting Brown out to an innkeeper.
Brown writes that owners take better care of their slaves, because they own them, while those who hire them, are only interested in what they can get out of the slave.
Since he was let out to a vicious person, he tries to escape, is captured, then tied up in the smokehouse, whipped and smoked with tobacco stems. A few months later he is let out to a man who would later become the editor of an abolitionist newspaper. He’s let out to a steamer as an understeward, then hired by a slavetrader who makes him superintendent of the gangs of slaves who would be taken to the New Orleans market.
So when he writes about the ways slaves were made to look younger for the auction, he writes from experience.
He tells about one slave being taken on foot to St. Louis with a gang of slaves; she was nursing a baby who kept crying all day long. Finally, the slavetrader got sick of it and left the baby with a lady at the inn they stayed at the night before, separating the two forever.
Brown’s family is to be sold–him, his mother and sister–so he tries to escape. He can’t take his sister, but he convinces his mother to come with him. He’s upset about his sister, who has been sold to be a part of a group of slave concubines for her master; he believes that he would rather see a sister dead than sold for such a thing.
He and his mother are soon recaptured. Their captor leads prayers before everyone goes to sleep, “as if that benignant and omnipotent One consecrated the infernal act he had just committed.” And isn’t this true down through the ages, to our present time, when people will commit all sorts of terrible acts and then do their devotions as if they were good Christians.
Time passes, his mother is sold, (William) Brown is put to work on a steamer, and he escapes again when the steamer stops in Ohio.
It’s the beginning of January, he’s used to the New Orleans climate, he has no coat, and he realizes that whites in the North are no more to be trusted than those in the South. But he survives, traveling at night, finding or taking ears of corn, lighting fires whenever the cold gets to be too much.
When he gets too sick to go on, a Quaker couple takes him in. The husband is named Wells Brown. William takes his new name, William Wells Brown, from him, in honor of his friendship.
He goes on to Cleveland on his way to Canada, gets a job, has the children teach him to read by bribing them with sugar candy, and finds various clever ways to get neighborhood children to teach him to write. He also sets up shop as a barber, and begins a successful life in business and various causes.
He writes the story of his life, which goes through several editions, then audaciously sends a copy to his old master, 14 years after his escape.
His master then writes a letter to one of Brown’s friends that he was a valuable slave; though he doesn’t want him back as a slave, he does want a few hundred dollars in compensation, and he will give him free papers. Brown refuses, because of the principle of the thing, not wanting to put money in the pockets of the manstealer.
Brown goes to England and becomes a popular speaker on the cause of emancipation, works to abolish slavery, is eventually freed to return to America when some friends pay off his owner, and becomes a doctor. Quite an impressive life for someone who left slavery at 20 years old with no learning at all.
Plot of novel itself
This novel was based on the rumor that Thomas Jefferson fathered many slave children, and that one of them, a beautiful young girl, was sold on the auction block.
It has since been shown through DNA testing, in 1998, that there is a good chance he did father at least one child through a slave who was his rumored mistress, Sally Hemings, who was 3/4 white.
However, the children who made it to adulthood seem to have included only one girl, Harriet, whom Jefferson allowed to “walk off” the plantation, and then she passed into white society. Sally had several children, who ended up either free or allowed to “escape,” and then “passed for white” because they were only one-eighths black.
So while this novel’s basis may be partly correct, I don’t know where the rumor came from that Jefferson’s daughter was sold. On the contrary, he allowed his near-white slaves to escape without any attempt to bring them back.
In the first chapter, Brown notes the high prevalence of masters fathering children with their slave women, and how this shows the “degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave” in the US at the time he wrote.
He also recites the slave laws, including that the master can correct and chastise, though not maim, mutilate or kill.
He also quotes how the churches of those states, since slave marriages were not a legal matter, ruled on marriages separated when one spouse was sold. Since they were separated without their free will and might never see each other again, the churches ruled that they could be re-married.
Which might be considered humane, except for one thing: that these slave marriages were being broken up by the owners in the first place! Not only were the slave owners deciding to break up marriages for profit, but the slaves themselves would prefer to follow God’s binding commands to stay together, not marry somebody else.
Slave marriages were deemed expendable, rather than (in a paragraph which sounds very much like Orthodox theology on marriage) a means to aspire to human virtues and become better people, and then teach those virtues to the next generation. But even the Southern churches were subject to public opinion on slavery.
Brown writes of a common practice in all the big cities: mixed-race women of great beauty, who would become mistresses of rich white men, who gave them dresses and money to pay their owners to compensate for their time away. The women paid high fees to their owners, the more beautiful the higher the price.
This was done because the slave population was not taught chastity, so that “most of the slave women have no higher aspiration than that of becoming the finely-dressed mistress of some white man.”
Brown’s story is not based on Sally Hemings or her children. The story actually comes from a slaveholder named Carter who sold his mixed-race mistress and daughter because he was about to get married.
Brown turned these real-life people into a beautiful mixed-race fictional woman named Currer who had hired her time for more than 20 years as a housekeeper for Thomas Jefferson. During that time she had two daughters by him, Clotel and Althesa. And now we find all three on the auction block.
A mix of poetic license and rumor were combined, since writing about some white dude selling his daughter was nowhere near as shocking to the reader as Thomas Jefferson doing it.
Apparently the compensation paid to the owner was not necessarily from rich lovers, but could also come from actual work. The point was that if you wanted to do things away from the house or plantation, you had to compensate your owner for your time.
When Jefferson was in Washington, Currer became a laundress to make the money to pay her owner. She paid the fees for her two daughters as well, and brought them up “as ladies” with little or no work and “comparative luxury.” She wanted them to attract admirers at so-called Negro balls, which were attended by white men and mixed-race girls, and allowed the various white classes to interact equally, in decorum and gentility.
At one such ball, the beautiful 16-year-old Clotel attracts the attention of a young white man, Horatio Green, just back from college, who promises to buy her, set her free and make her mistress of her own household. Currer’s master Mr. Graves is now dead, and all three of them are about to go on the auction block.
Clotel is tall and gorgeous and as white as any of the people in attendance on auction day, with fine Anglo-Saxon features. The traces of her black heritage show only in her long, black, wavy hair. Brown makes sure to point this out, as if to drive home to white readers of that time period, the ludicrousness of declaring slaves not fully human.
It’s easy to dismiss someone as not being like you if they look very different, and excuse not treating them like you, but what if they do look just like you? If it’s ludicrous to sell this mostly-white girl as a slave or consider her not fully human just because of a small bit of African blood, then isn’t it ludicrous to treat a black girl the same way?
The auctioneer hawks her like a steer, describing her good health, sweet temper, chastity, intelligence, trustworthiness, “albino” features. He says she’s “fit for a fancy girl for any one.” Green is not the only one who wants to buy her; he finally gets her for $1500.
“Thus closed a Negro sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder!”
The slave trader Dick Walker, who bought Currer and Althesa, now takes 40 slaves onto a steamboat, the Patriot, headed for New Orleans. His slave Pompey goes around telling the slaves what ages to give at the next auction block, and how to make themselves look younger, so they can fetch better prices.
Meanwhile, the boat begins racing another boat; the firemen on the Patriot use not just wood, but also oil, lard, butter and bacon, to raise the steam to its “highest pitch.” The other boat does the same, as you can tell from the blaze and black smoke.
Then the engineer of the Patriot fastens down the safety-valve so no steam can escape. A few boat hands who saw this, leave that end of the boat. Then the Patriot stops to take on passengers, without releasing the safety valve. Cold water is forced into the boilers by the machinery, and of course, one explodes.
Nineteen are killed or scalded, then put on shore after the other boat, the Columbia, comes to help. Now the Columbia tows the Patriot, since it has been so idiotically disabled, and life on the Patriot goes on as if nothing happened.
Midnight has come, yet most of the passengers are not asleep but gambling in the saloons. We’re told that many men and even ladies are ruined by this all the time on Mississippi steamboats.
A 15-year-old mulatto boy is lost by his master at cards, and wipes the tears from his eyes as he obeys his new master. His old master wants to redeem him, but his new master insists on $1000 first. Another old slave is asked the next morning who he belongs to, but he responds that his master has been gambling all night, so he doesn’t know yet who he belongs to now.
A clergyman asks Walker for a housekeeper, and is offered Currer. Currer wants Althesa to go with her, but the clergyman refuses. So they are parted, probably forever, by a clergyman with no compassion.
Gambling and drinking keep the passengers occupied, and one person is nearly killed over cards. Finally the boat arrives in New Orleans, and the passengers go to hotels, the slaves to the market.
Here we read about people who advertised their runaway-hunting services in the local papers of Natchez, where Currer had been sold to the parson, a city notorious for its incomparably inhumane and barbaric inhabitants. These hunters of men used dogs which would attack and cling to their prey on command.
Two slaves, who’d been subjected to severe punishment, run into the swamps; we read about the hunt for them, through the water and past alligators. The slaves make a valiant attempt to outrun the dogs, but after many hours, at last succumb to weariness and are captured.
One does as men should do: he resists, apparently striking one of the hunters. So a kangaroo court (here called a Lynch court) decides his fate, and burns him at the stake as an example to other slaves.
During the burning, he begs to be shot. He surges against the chains, they come loose, and he leaps from the burning pile. Several rifles fire, and he falls dead, then is thrown back into the fire to be burned to nothing.
Scarlett O’Hara claimed that bloodhounds were not used on slaves, that no one would treat a slave like the abolitionists claimed. But this story came not from Brown’s imagination, but from a Natchez newspaper on June 16, 1842.
Nearly 4000 slaves from nearby plantations were forced to watch the burning, and warned–by magistrates and even Christian preachers–that this is what will happen to them if they rebel against their owners. What is fictional is that Brown puts Currer among the 4000 slaves.
Horatio Green rents a beautiful cottage hidden by trees and flowers by a plain. Here Clotel and Horatio set up house like happy newlyweds.
Clotel’s upbringing requires that she be married to Horatio, but she knows the law will not recognize the marriage of a white man to a slave, so she has no legal hold on him. There is mention of a ceremony, but not what the ceremony entailed.
Basically, we have here a spiritual marriage, like today many gay couples or polygamous families have because their marriages are not legally recognized. Some straight couples who, for whatever reason, do not wish to be legally married, do this as well. But Clotel recognizes the problem inherent in such marriages:
[W]hen he playfully asked how she could keep him if he wished to run away, she replied, “If the mutual love we have for each other, and the dictates of your own conscience do not cause you to remain my husband, and your affections fall from me, I would not, if I could, hold you by a single fetter.”
It was indeed a marriage sanctioned by heaven, although unrecognised on earth.
Of course, nowadays even legal marriage doesn’t mean you can hold a person in a marriage if he wishes to leave it. But in those days, divorce was not as common as it is now, and divorce could be devastating socially and financially for the wife.
And for a girl as sensitive to moral strictures as Clotel, the lack of a legal marriage was even more vexing. How could she prove to white society that she was acting morally if he left her and she had no way to prove they were married? The old biddies would probably look down on her for having children born out of wedlock, while after being a wife it would be even harder to be a slave again.
But for now, she is trusting in Horatio’s love to keep her from such a fate. (I talk more about such marriages here.)
Horatio promises to buy her mother and sister when he gets his share of property. They have a child named Mary who is even whiter than Clotel, and the same complexion as any other white child.
But not only will the law not recognize their marriage, society’s edicts mean Clotel is not able to go with Horatio when he spends day and night with his friends in the city.
Clotel asks that they move to France or England, where she and Mary would be free and “colour was not a crime.” Horatio likes the idea and still loves Clotel, but he is soon overcome by political ambition. He leaves Clotel alone even more as he pursues his desire to become a statesman.
In order to become a statesman, he needs to curry favor with the right people; one of the most crucial is a very popular and rich man–with an only daughter, Gertrude.
At first his visits to the house are purely political, but he likes Gertrude, she seems to like him, and he begins thinking of the worldly advantages of marrying her. In the beginning he doesn’t pursue this, for Clotel’s sake. But Gertrude–while not as pretty as Clotel–is a pretty blonde with blue eyes and rosy cheeks.
He had already become accustomed to the dangerous experiment of resisting his own inward convictions; and this new impulse to ambition, combined with the strong temptation of variety in love, met the ardent young man weakened in moral principle, and unfettered by laws of the land. The change wrought upon him was soon noticed by Clotel.
Here we read about women yanked from their families to be sold to new masters. One has five children. One is asked by a buyer why she’s been crying; she says she’s been separated from her husband. He tells her he’ll give her a better man, that he has “lots of young bucks” on his farm.
(Note how the slavers in these books keep calling them “bucks” as if they were animals instead of people.)
She says she doesn’t want any other man. I don’t blame her: If anybody forcibly separated me from my husband and just cavalierly said they’d give me another, I wouldn’t want that, either.
In Brown’s description of the human agony, suffering and breaking hearts of the slaves at market and in the fields, you find none of that “happy Negro dancing a jig” stuff you find in, say, Birth of a Nation.
Now we go to Currer and her new master, once a Yankee fresh out of college invited to Natchez, Mississippi by his uncle, now a popular and well-off preacher with a plantation and a town villa. He wants to take the Gospel to his slaves.
Rev. Peck tells a friend, Miles Carlton, an argument against the idea of man having the right to liberty. This is based on the same argument heard by the author from a real-life preacher named Peck.
The novel Peck has a 19-year-old daughter, Georgiana, who has just spent 5 years finishing her education in Connecticut. Unlike her father, she preaches the rights of all human beings; since his wife has died and Georgiana is his only child, he scolds her abolitionist ideas, but not much. Carlton is impressed by Georgiana’s kind words.
Carlton goes to check out Peck’s farm on Sunday morning, and listens to the sermon given by Hontz Snyder, a former sailor from New York who is now missionary to Peck’s slaves. He tells them the Golden Rule, saying to put themselves in the place of their slave owners. He says to work diligently, be trustworthy and:
Take care that you do not fret or murmur, grumble or repine at your condition; for this will not only make your life uneasy, but will greatly offend Almighty God.
Consider that it is not yourselves, it is not the people that you belong to, it is not the men who have brought you to it, but it is the will of God who hath by his providence made you servants, because, no doubt, he knew that condition would be best for you in this world, and help you the better towards heaven, if you would but do your duty in it.
So that any discontent at your not being free, or rich, or great, as you see some others, is quarrelling with your heavenly Master, and finding fault with God himself, who hath made you what you are, and hath promised you as large a share in the kingdom of heaven as the greatest man alive, if you will but behave yourself aright, and do the business he hath set you about in this world honestly and cheerfully.
He then goes on to say that the slaves have an easier life than their white masters because they don’t have to figure out how to feed and clothe all these slaves, bring up their children, and carry out their daily business, and that their upkeep is assured even when they’re too old to work.
He says that punishment is either deserved or not deserved; if it’s not deserved, or if it’s too severe for the fault, then it’s probably covering various other faults which somehow escaped the notice of the owner. But even if it’s not at all deserved, bearing it patiently will lead to glory in Heaven.
He then says that they should serve their masters faithfully because of their goodness to the slaves: Apparently ignorant of the various cultures, societies and civilizations in Africa, he says the slaves’ forbears were
poor ignorant and barbarous creatures in Africa, and the whites fitted out ships at great trouble and expense and brought you from that benighted land to Christan America, where you can sit under your own vine and fig tree and no one molest or make you afraid.
Then he tries once again to tell them how blessed they are to be slaves and not have the white man’s burden.
This sermon was taken from two sermons preached to slaves by Rev. Thomas Bacon in 1743 in Maryland. You have to wonder if the actual congregations who heard them reacted as this one did, despite all the fist-pounding, gesticulations and “sonorous voice” of Snyder: by being or falling asleep, or cracking and eating hazelnuts.
Then follows a catechism to teach them how to be good slaves. Many of the questions/answers about how to deal with hard masters remind me of how some people think abused spouses or children ought to behave:
- do your best to please your hard-to-please master
- take your punishment patiently
- don’t run away
- runaway servants should not be helped or harbored, but caught and brought back
- runaway servants should be whipped
- they should not complain when they are whipped because the Lord has commanded that they be whipped
- the master is not to blame for whipping his slave because he’s only doing his Christian duty
Other questions/answers say that God meant the Negroes, not whites, to be slaves, because their hands and skin are made for work and they can stand the sun better.
But when Carlton leaves with Snyder and the overseer, we hear what the slaves think of the sermon:
- it’s a new sermon
- he meant to show off to Carlton
- white folks are the very Devil and all their whole study is to try to fool the black people
- the sermon was not to be believed
Uncle Simon, a preacher himself, used to hear the Bible read in Maryland, so he knows there is a lot more in it–but all they ever hear on the plantation about the Bible is how to be good slaves.
Snyder tells Carlton about the poor whites in the South, how ignorant they are because of the lack of free education, their substandard living conditions.
He finds a family with nine children living in a low log hut–the best house in the area–with one room, one bed, and geese, ducks, chickens, pigs and children all running around inside the house.
He notes that the state does not provide for education for the poor in any way, and since they can’t do it themselves, “they grow up in a state of ignorance and degradation. The men hunt and the women have to go in the fields and labour.”
I remember how the poor whites were treated in “Gone With the Wind”–“poor white trash” whom even the slaves look down on–and think that the more “respectable” whites could hardly call themselves Christians if they judged rather than helping the poor whites.
Snyder says that slavery, and nothing else, is the cause of this, that in Boston, for instance, the people do more business and pay more taxes than the entire population of Mississippi.
Snyder also recounts the violent end of a slave who dared to get upset with his master for flogging his wife, and then resisted being punished.
He and the overseer agree that slavery should stop, that it’s ruining the social and economic climate of the South because white men can’t be respectable and work for a living and because of the lack of education. Slavery is hostile to individual rights and social well-being. “Slavery is the incubus that hangs over the Southern States.” …Which is entirely at odds with the sermon he just preached.
The week before Horatio’s legal marriage to a white woman, Clotel hears about it, but not from him. She greets him with much sadness.
As if to have his cake and eat it too, he says that he still loves her, he’ll still come visit often and Clotel will always be his real wife.
But despite being his slave and under his authority, she refuses to share him with another woman. She gives in to the legal marriage, refusing to appear to the law and society like the mistress rather than his real wife, and says she will not see him again–which devastates him.
Now, finally, he regrets his treachery to his wife and wants to get out of his engagement to Gertrude, but it was a different world back then: “[H]e had gone so far, that blame, disgrace, and duels with angry relatives would now attend any effort to obtain his freedom.” The image of Clotel weeping beside a magnolia would haunt him for years.
Gertrude eventually learns everything through gossips, and turns cold to Horatio. He still sends money for the upkeep of Clotel and their child Mary, and sometimes sends with it messages pleading with her to meet him, but she denies her heart’s desire and does not respond. She takes solace in the Bible, with her forbidden knowledge of reading.
But it’s only for Mary’s sake that he hasn’t killed herself. This sort of thing is one of the reasons why many modern societies began requiring legally contracted marriages, but also shows that those who cannot legally marry are barred from the protections it would provide to abandoned spouses and children.
15-year-old Althesa is brought by her new owner to a house with a young boarder from Vermont, a doctor. He expected the new slave to be black, and is surprised to see a beautiful young white girl.
She does her housekeeping duties well and is well thought of in the household; the doctor, Morton, falls in love with her. Six months later, he buys her and makes her his wife.
He takes her to a new house and hires a private teacher to teach her what she needs to know to have a position in white society. Dr. Morton does well in his profession, but refuses to use his wealth to own slaves. Althesa hopes to find and buy her mother, but Mr. Peck refuses to sell her.
Peck’s daughter Georgiana sets out to convert Carlton, and soon succeeds, especially since she doesn’t misuse the Bible to defend slavery. She asks her father to not speak of the Bible’s supposed support of slavery around Carlton, to which he responds that he’s been in the world longer than she has, and understands the Bible better.
She then makes arguments from the Bible against slavery. She says that since non-believers expect that the people making the arguments for slavery know their Bibles, using the Bible to condone it, does more to spread anti-Christian sentiment than all the writings of atheists.
Her argument can also be applied to other things that the Bible is often used to defend, such as strict legalistic rules of dress or behavior, staying with an abusive husband, abuse of children, etc.
Carlton finds an ad in the newspaper looking for 50 sick Negroes, with incurable diseases, whom the owners wish to “dispose of.” The reason? The doctor placing the ad is connected to a small college which uses the bodies for dissection.
This is quoted from a real-life ad in 1838 connected to a real-life college, the South Carolina Medical College in Charleston. Of course medical students and doctors needed to dissect cadavers to learn about how to treat the human body, and of course this practice still continues today.
But the way this was carried out–as the doctor’s other ad, inviting students to the college, makes plain–is horrifying. He specifically asks for sick Negroes so that they can carry on “proper dissections” “without offending any individuals in the community!”
Not only this, but Peck goes on to explain–to Carlton’s questions–that the Negroes they buy are “kept on hand, and when they need one they bleed him to death.” He then says the doctors are licensed to commit murder (they are???), and what’s the difference if one dies from loss of blood or another from too many pills?
Peck then shows Carlton a poem he wrote called “My Little Nig”–a racist piece of trash that’s meant to be funny, but makes a particular slave child sound more like a pet pig (until the day he grows up and has to go to the plantation).
The college is now the Medical University of South Carolina. While on Wikipedia you can read about the “infirmary for teaching purposes” established in 1834, it doesn’t give any details. But you can find details about such practices here.
The above article notes that the idea that the blacks were actually killed for dissection is hard to verify, but that the fear was widespread. The article also identifies the doctor who placed the ad quoted in “Clotel,” as Dr. T. Stillman of Charleston:
A number of doctors had similar inclinations. Dr. T. Stillman of Charleston, for example, operated a private infirmary in the 1830s that specialized in the treatment of skin diseases, although he also cared for patients with a variety of other disorders.
During the month of October 1838 Stillman concluded his usual lengthy advertisement in the Charleston Mercury with an offer to purchase from slaveowners any chronically diseased slaves they might wish to “dispose of.”
He would pay “The highest cash price” for fifty blacks “affected with scrofula or king’s evil, confirmed hypochondriasm, apoplexy, diseases of the liver, kidneys, spleen, stomach and intestines, bladder and its appendages, diarrhea, dysentery, &C.”
It was obvious from the wording of the advertisement that Dr. Stillman planned to test newly formulated remedies on these fifty chronically ill blacks for the benefit of medical science, as well, no doubt, as for personal gain.
We read about Peck’s servant Sam, the one in charge of the other servants, who also knows how to read. His skin is very dark, which even among the black slaves brings prejudice: The closer a slave was to white, the more superior he felt over the darker ones.
Sam makes up for his dark color through his commanding presence, and by dressing well. He uses butter in his hair (which he takes at least an hour to comb every day) and to make his face shine.
But then he tells about his adventures as a teenager, a doctor’s assistant back in Kentucky–or rather misadventures, as he treated black patients by pulling the wrong tooth, and prescribing that a stomachache must be bled and treated with calomel or the patient was a goner.
Carlton goes to visit one of Peck’s neighbors, and examine the life of the slaves there. We read, “In no part of the South are slaves in a more ignorant and degraded state than in the cotton, sugar, and rice districts.” Except among some religious slaveholders, religious instruction is unknown among the far South slaves.
But the slaves of neighbor Jones are so ignorant of such things that he has his driver drill them in the basics before Carlton goes to speak to them. Jones doesn’t want Peck to know his slaves are, as people would say back then, godless heathens. But with this being their only instruction, they forget many things, and Carlton soon finds them out.
In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett would get annoyed whenever Yankees asked where they kept bloodhounds to hunt escaped slaves. She said such things were stories told to demonize slaveholders. But here we find a description of bloodhounds kept in a kennel on Jones’ land, fed on cornbread, only getting meat after chasing slaves, so they’ll be more eager to do the job.
Peck prides himself on being a Christian master, yet he has his driver work them in the fields from early dawn to late at night.
–is based on the real-life story of Salome Müller. The fictional Salome, who has been hired by Althesa and her husband, is a German who immigrated with her parents 10 years before. They were poor, so Salome took a job as a nurse to a lady; the lady and her husband left their hometown, and one day Salome discovered she’d been sold as a slave to two men.
She was put to work on a farm and forced to marry one of the other slaves, a black man, and had three children by him. She was given to her master’s daughter when she married, and ever since, Salome has been hired out, as she was to Althesa and her husband.
The author then explains that a free person who has wrongly been taken into slavery has many obstacles to regaining freedom. He must prove himself freeborn, which he often can’t do because he can’t get the evidence he needs. If a free person tries to take up his cause, they must put up $1000 as security; if the cause fails, the $1000 is forfeited to the state. So there’s little Althesa is able to do for Salome.
But then one day a woman from Salome’s ship recognizes her: Salome had often entertained the other passengers by singing, all those years ago. This woman and Althesa help get Salome to trial, where she is finally declared free.
Now we find that Horatio, after throwing over his wife for a white woman and for politics–politics, which will not keep you warm at night, the cold, hard, bitter world of politics–has failed in politics.
Horatio begins drinking, and has lost his principles and honor. His new wife does not love him because she knows about Clotel; in fact, she and her father demand that Clotel and her child be sold out of the state. So Clotel is sold, but Mrs. Green takes the child as her own slave, putting the 10-year-old to work so harsh that she could’ve been called Cinderella.
Clotel ends up in Vicksburgh, Mississippi under a harsh master and mistress. The author notes that every far Southern married woman sees her husband as unfaithful and every “quadroon” slave as a rival. So Clotel’s mistress makes her cut her long hair short.
At nearly 30 and even with short hair, Clotel is still beautiful. So her fellow slaves are also jealous, talking about her behind her back as if she were prideful and in need of being cut down to size. This shows the horrible things that jealousy will lead a woman to do, the unfair and disgraceful ways she’ll treat a fellow woman.
Clotel stops eating out of grief for being separated from her child, so her owners sell her, fearing she’ll die. Clotel is sold to a young man for a housekeeper.
Georgiana becomes Carlton’s religious teacher, his spiritual superior, and soon becomes his object of romantic love as well. Then suddenly, her father Peck is taken ill with cholera, and in five hours he’s dead. The slaves show no sign of grief; to console Georgiana, Carlton calls them ungrateful. But she says,
[He was] as kind as most men who own slaves; but the kindness meted out to blacks would be unkindness if given to whites….
If we would not consider the best treatment which a slave receives good enough for us, we should not think he ought to be grateful for it.
The slaves begin a song to celebrate the death of Peck. The subject of the song is clear, as they name names. Georgiana, rather than being upset, understands why they’re happy. She has decided to free them all.
Horatio Green’s wife brings Clotel’s daughter Mary into the house as a slave, to punish the one she considers her deceiver. The other slaves give the poor child no sympathy, thinking her stuck-up just because she’s white.
Mrs. Green wants her to look like the other slaves, so she leaves her to work in the garden with no hat or handkerchief to cover her head. She finally collapses in the heat, and is left to “season.”
Horatio begs to have Mary sent away, not able to take the constant reminder of happy times with Clotel. But his wife gets her way; she is determined to torment that poor girl over an imagined slight that Mary had nothing whatsoever to do with.
Georgiana wants to free her father’s slaves, but law and public opinion are against her, along with the wishes of other family members which must be respected. She knows Carlton is in love with her, but he won’t pop the question, partly because her father is barely cold in his grave, and partly because he’s poor and doesn’t want to look like a golddigger.
An interesting little note: Women’s rights were being discussed even back then, pre-Civil War, not just slaves’ rights, and she realizes that she can pop the question herself. This isn’t just some modern late-20th-century concept. Which she does, to the delight of not just Carlton, but the slaves as well.
They make many changes for the slaves on their plantation, and want to free them. They discuss sending them to Liberia, but realize that their slaves are American-born, not African-born, so why send them to a foreign country just because their ancestors came from Africa?
Instead, they decide on a gradual system of emancipation, getting them ready for freedom, and giving them wages so they can earn it for themselves. The blacks–now no longer properly called “slaves”–become so moral, religious and industrious, with no need for a whip, that the neighbors take notice.
Georgiana probably would have restored Currer to her daughter, but unfortunately, Currer dies of yellow fever.
Clotel’s new master keeps trying to buy her affection, but even though her husband has abandoned her, she’s faithful to him and refuses to accept.
Her escape is based on the real-life escape of William and Ellen Craft, whom Brown had written about in a newspaper.
With her shorn hair she looks like a man, so another house servant, William, helps her get on a steamer while their master is at a party. She poses as his master.
They make it to Cincinnati, while back home their escape and means are soon found out. Brown adapts a report that was made in real life in a newspaper by a reader who witnessed the Crafts on the steamer.
Brown then shows William carrying out a scene that Brown says actually happened in real life: a black man on a Northern train, forced to ride in the luggage-van, refusing to pay the same price the whites pay for seats in the passenger cars.
Finally, the conductor, sick of arguing with him, lets him pay according to luggage rates instead, going by his weight, so William pays 37 cents instead of $2.
Brown then describes cases of dark-complexioned Congressmen, white men, being treated badly because others thought they were black. This is one thing Margaret Mitchell got right: the hypocrisy of racism in the Free States, where you’re not a slave but you get treated badly just the same, even in church!
Althesa’s husband becomes a stalwart opponent of slavery, even giving a speech on the immorality of slavery while at a party.
Georgiana begins dying of consumption, so she immediately frees her slaves.
Not much happens here. Basically, Clotel rides in a carriage, where a couple of young ladies mistake her for an eligible bachelor, a Southern man jokes about the hypocrisy of dry states, and a minister with no sense of humor (who seems to have known a huge swath of people in his time) tries to cut him down to size with stories of all the different kinds of men and women he’s known who have fallen victim in various ways to alcohol.
Althesa and her husband die of yellow fever. The laws of the land say that she and her daughters were slaves, not a married woman or the daughters of a white man.
Morton’s brother goes to put his affairs in order, and expects to become guardian to his nieces, none of them having any idea that the girls are legally slaves. He makes an inventory of Morton’s property, gives it to the creditors, then prepares to leave with his nieces–only to be surprised by being arrested for trying to conceal property from the creditors.
He wants to do what he can to buy his nieces, but the creditors refuse, insisting they be put on the auction block. They want them sold for as much money as possible, you see. So these two teenage girls who had no idea they were slaves, are now on the auction block.
One is sold to an old man who wants her to be his mistress; she kills herself that night. The other daughter, Jane, 15, is sold to a young rake with the same ideas.
Like the servant girl in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, Jane is locked up in a bedroom until she gives in to her master’s wishes.
She has written to a boy she loves about her predicament; he comes to rescue her, but her master sees him and shoots him. She soon dies of a broken heart, reminding one of the kind of romantic tales that were popular in those days.
Clotel returns to Richmond, VA, where police finally catch up with her and put her in jail.
Clotel escapes from jail, but is pursued across the bridge over the Potomac River. Finally cornered, she leaps into the water and is drowned, rather than be captured. This was based on a poem based on an actual incident.
At first, the new Mrs. Green took in Clotel’s daughter Mary to humiliate Horatio Green. She was very mean to the child until she discovered that her husband no longer cared for Mary. Then she became Mary’s friend.
One of Horatio’s other slaves, George, is also white-skinned. We read how things are worse for white-skinned slaves because their fellow slaves don’t treat them fairly, while their owners feel they must be often flogged and ill-treated to keep from getting too “uppity.”
George has taken part in a slave revolt and ended up in prison. He and Mary are in love and hope to end up married. Mary exchanges places with him so he won’t be executed, believing they won’t execute her.
He escapes, crosses the Ohio River, and a Quaker helps him escape two men who try to capture him. He makes it to Canada.
Mary has been sold out-of-state because of her part in George’s escape, making it impossible to find her again. So he goes to Liverpool.
While there, he doesn’t let on about his slave status, but instead gets a job and becomes educated. Soon, he’s a partner in a firm.
One day, he goes strolling into a graveyard in France. A veiled lady begins screaming and fainting at his appearance, which is very baffling; an old man tells him to leave, so he does. But soon he receives an invitation from them to dinner.
Apparently years have now passed since he first went to England; the lady is Mary, is a widow with a little boy, and the old man is her father-in-law.
Her husband bought her and freed her, though her love for him was based on gratitude rather than what she felt for George. (How sad for her husband….)
George and Mary finally marry, and somebody in this book, at least, lives happily ever after.
The author here claims that all these stories are based in truth. He also asks that Christians hold no fellowship with those who claim to be Christians but own slaves or traffic in them.
[started 12/8/10 and finished 3/3/11]