Black Abolitionists in Yorkshire: Cunning Better Than Strong
Emily Zobel Marshall reflects on the Black abolitionists who travelled to Yorkshire to spread their anti-slavery message through performance – and how contemporary artists in Leeds keep their message alive through their work.
Cunning Better Than Strong is a famous Jamaican proverb. This message of survival and resistance urges us to use our brains rather than our brawn to overcome oppressors, and was encapsulated by the Jamaican trickster folk hero Anansi. Anansi is of West African origin and became central to the oral tradition of the enslaved in the Caribbean. Anansi always finds his way out of a terrible situation through intelligence, disguise, subterfuge and wit.
Here, I’ll focus on three unique figures in the abolitionist movement, Ellen and William Craft and Henry ‘Box’ Brown. Their use of disguise and performance was central to their escape from enslavement and their subsequent appeal to white audiences.
A new abolitionist narrative
In Britain, since the abolition of the slave trade on March 25th 1807, the historical narrative has long applauded and highlighted the work of famous white abolitionists, in particular William Wilberforce, the MP for Hull (1759-1833).
There has also been a strong focus on Britain’s role in abolition, rather than on the depth of our involvement in the slave trade and plantation slavery. This focus has obscured the tireless work of the Black abolitionists who were central to the movement. These former slaves shared their lived experiences of enslavement, changing the hearts and minds of everyday people across the US and the UK, by highlighting the true horrors of the trade.
Yorkshire was at the heart of the abolitionist movement. A number of prominent Black abolitionists visited the county, lecturing and staging anti-slavery performances. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Yorkshire audiences were addressed by, among others, Black abolitionists Frederick Douglass, James Watkins, Sarah Parker Remond, Olaudah Equiano, Alexander Crummell and Reverend J. Sella Martin.
Ellen and William Craft: A Cunning Plan
Ellen (b. 1826) and William (b. 1824) Craft were born into slavery in Georgia. They married and, fearing that they would be separated from one another and their future children would be sold into slavery, in 1848 they planned a daring escape. As a result of the rape of her mother by a white slave master, Ellen was light-skinned and able to ‘pass’ for white. Their plan involved Ellen posing as a man and William acting as Ellen’s faithful ‘manservant’. Ellen would cut her hair and wear gentleman’s clothes and, in this disguise, they would head North to the free states via steamboat and train. Ellen could not write, as slaves were not taught to do so, so she bandaged her hand to avoid being asked to sign her name. They knew if they were caught they would be tortured and separated. The plan worked, with Ellen sitting in the ‘whites only’ carriage of the train, undetected.
The Crafts settled in Boston until the passing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which gave slave owners the power to travel from the South and recapture slaves who had escaped North. American abolitionists helped the Crafts to raise enough money to flee the US to relative safety of the UK. There, they created a stage performance to shine a spotlight on the terrors of enslavement.
As researcher Hannah-Rose Murray explains in the excellent ‘Africans in Yorkshire’ project, Ellen Craft became a celebrity at anti-slavery meetings because of her pale skin and because both she and William carefully constructed their performances for the British stage: “Ellen would remain silent on stage, as Black women were not expected to speak in public, and William would describe their escape and the brutality of enslavement.”
British audiences were fascinated by Ellen’s pale skin and aghast that she could have once been a slave. When William spoke in Hull on Thursday 21 March 1861, a local newspaper reported that his “narrative excited considerable interest and was delivered in a very able and prepossessing manner,” (The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, March 22 1861). The Crafts learnt to read and write, spent over two decades educating the public about slavery and published the narrative of their lives. They returned to America in 1868 and opened a school for Black children in Georgia.
Leeds-based performer and historian Joe Williams of Heritage Corner brings the story of the Crafts to life for Yorkshire audiences in his play, ‘Meet the Crafts’. Ellen and William Craft, he explains, were recorded in the 1851 Leeds Census and registered as staying in the house of abolitionist Wilson Armistead, then Virginia House and now Lyddon Hall, a student hall of residence at Leeds University. In the section for ‘occupation’, they are registered as ‘fugitives from slavery in America’.
Inspired by their story, Joe interprets their narrative through movement and performance. He insists that its success lies in the fact that “people do want to know about this fascinating history.” Joe also incorporates elements of the Craft’s story into his Black History Walks which uncover the often hidden Black histories of Leeds.
Henry ‘Box’ Brown: Master of Subterfuge
Another incredible story of escape through disguise and subterfuge is that of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, who was born a slave in Richmond, Virginia, in 1816. He returned from work one day in 1849 to find that his wife and children had been sold. He decided to orchestrate an unbelievably risky escape, a year after the Crafts carried out their own escape plan. Henry paid for a box to be constructed, measuring 3 feet by 2 feet 8 inches and 2 feet wide. He squeezed himself in and posted himself from Virginia to Philadelphia. Holes were made in the box so he could breathe, he had some water and biscuits for the journey and he was transported via wagon, boat and train. The journey took 72 hours and abolitionists in Philadelphia describe how, when they opened the box, “Brown clambered out and sung a freedom hymn: he was finally free.”
Brown was a born showman. A central part of his act was emerging from the original box in which he had travelled to freedom. He was also known to walk the streets of English towns dressed in traditional African clothing, styling himself as an ‘African Prince.’
He published the first edition of his narrative in 1849, and after marrying an English woman, he returned to America in 1875 and continued performing until his death in 1897 (for more information on Henry, please visit: https://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com/henry-box-brown.html
Artist Simeon Wayne Barclay, as an undergraduate at Leeds University in 2009, decided to repeat Henry’s journey and post himself in a wooden box from Bradford to Leeds. “I wanted to get the story out to a wider audience,” he explains. “It was part of his project to let people know about slavery.”
The stories of the Crafts and Henry ‘Box’ Brown are examples of people using their intelligence and creativity, as the Caribbean slave trickster hero Anansi would, to survive the most appalling circumstances.
They are key to our understanding of the history of enslavement. Slaves were not passive victims – they were integral to the political processes of abolition and put their intellectual, creative and artistic weight behind the movement.
In Yorkshire, performers and artists like Joe and Simeon are carrying that legacy forward through their work. And in doing so they are making a much-needed intervention into our well-worn, Wilberforce-centric abolitionist narratives.
Sources Consulted and Suggestions for Further Information
Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, Written by Himself (Electronic Edition). Documenting the American South: <1816https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brownbox/brownbox.html>
Hannah Rose Murry on Henry ‘Box’ Brown and Ellen and William Craft in the ‘Africans in Yorkshire Project’ (Electronic Resource): https://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com/henry-box-brown.html
BBC News Story, ‘Bradford to Leeds in a Box (30 Oct 2019): http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/bradford/hi/people_and_places/newsid_8332000/8332293.stm
Diasporian Stories Research Group, ‘From Africa - Baht 'at: African Heritage in Yorkshire’(Electronic Resource): <https://antislavery.ac.uk/items/show/996>
Leeds Beckett University Black History Month 2021 page https://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/our-community/bhm-21/
Emily’s research is informed by postcolonial theory and includes examinations of constructions of identity, race and racial politics and Caribbean carnival cultures. She is particularly interested in forms of cultural resistance and cross-cultural fertilisation in the face of colonialism. Emily is an expert in the role of trickster figures in the literatures and cultures of Africa and its Diaspora and has published widely in this area.