Moses Roper

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Moses Roper
Moses Roper.jpg
Bornc. 1815
DiedApril 18, 1891
EducationHackney, University College in London
Occupationwriter, lecturer

Moses Roper ( c. 1815 – April 15, 1891) was a radical Black abolitionist, author, orator and survivor of U.S. slavery. He wrote one of the first graphic accounts of slavery in his Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery and gave thousands of lectures around Britain and Ireland to inform the transatlantic public about slavery's brutalities. [1]

Enslavement and Physical Freedom

Roper was born around 1815 in Caswell County, North Carolina. His father, Henry Roper, a farmer of English ancestry, was his enslaver. Nancy, his mother, was of African-American and indigenous descent whose enslaver was Henry Roper's new wife. Enraged to discover Henry had raped Nancy, Roper's wife nearly succeeded in murdering Nancy but was prevented from doing so by Nancy's mother. When Moses Roper was 7, he was brutally separated from his mother and both were not reunited for several years.

Roper was enslaved by several men in North Carolina and Florida, where he eventually escaped from in 1834. Roper later said he had tried to escape between 16-20 times and after each failed attempt, was tortured and abused at the hands of his enslaver. In his slave narrative, he described his genius at preventing recapture in Georgia: he met with several farmers who wrote a free pass for him:

I pretended to show her my passport, feeling for it everywhere about my coat and hat, and not finding it, I went back a little way, pretending to look for it, but came back, saying, I was very sorry, but I did not know where it was ... [the farmers offered to help and their] lad sat down and wrote what I told him, nearly filling a large sheet of paper for the passport, and another with recommendations.

He finally managed to reach New York and moved to Massachusetts and Vermont for short periods of time as he was fearful of slave-catchers who had been sent to drag him back into slavery. Due to his mother's rape by his enslaver, Roper could pass for a white man and for his safety was urged to join up in the local military in New York to escape unwanted attention. However, with the help of abolitionists, Roper made the perilous journey across the Atlantic and settled in London. He published his slave narrative, Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery in Philadelphia and in London; a radical protest document, it contains Roper's brutal account of slavery and everything he had witnessed, as well as images of his own torture. According to Martha J. Cutter, the 1838 edition, which contained five illustrations, is one of the first illustrated slave narratives published by a U.S.-born slave. [2] Cutter also contends that Roper's narrative "depicts forms of agency and subjectivity that move beyond the master's system of representation," layering "patterns of Christian symbolism that invoke martyrdom and even crucifixion onto and over a resistant and active enslaved body." The text therefore "performs a mode of Christian salvation that involves putting one's fate in the hands of God but one's feet in the position of running (away from, or out of, slavery)." The text's illustrations also "refigure formations of enslaved abasement common in abolitionist discourse through a type of liberation theology." [3]

In the book, Roper makes reference to the brutality of Mr. Gooch:

My master gave me a hearty dinner, the best he ever did give me; but it was to keep me from dying before he had given me all the flogging he intended. After dinner he took me to a log-house, stripped me quite naked, fastened a rail up very high, tied my hands to the rail, fastened my feet together, put a rail between my feet, and stood on one end of it to hold me down; the two sons then gave me fifty lashes each, the son-in-law another fifty, and Mr. Gooch himself fifty more...This may appear incredible, but the marks which they left at present remain on my body, a standing testimony to the truth of this statement of his severity. [4]

During his lectures, Roper retold these stories and exhibited weapons of torture including whips, chains and manacles to highlight the brutality of U.S. slavery. During a meeting in Sheffield in April 1838 for example, he exhibited whips and a device nicknamed a “negro flapper” used to beat enslaved people who worked in the fields. [5]

Activism in Britain and Ireland

Roper's patronage in England was carefully planned; he carried letters of introduction to Rev. Dr. Fletcher, Rev. Dr. Morison and Rev. Dr. Raffles, through whom he met other sympathetic patrons, notably Rev. Dr. T. Price and Rev. F. Cox, and leading abolitionists such as Thomas Fowell Buxton. Denied the chance to learn to read and write under U.S. slavery on pain of death, Roper managed to accomplish this in schools in Hackney, Wallingford in Oxfordshire, followed by University in London:

At Hackney I remained half a year, going through the rudiments of an English education. At this time I attended the ministry of Dr Cox, which I enjoyed very much ... never, I trust, will be efaced from my memory, the parental care of the Rev. Dr Morison, from whom I can say, I received the greatest kindness.

His patrons then assisted him in his object of touring the country's chapels to spread knowledge of American slavery; and subscribed to, and helped promote his autobiography.

Roper toured the length and breadth of Britain, as well as several places in Ireland and Scotland, making the case for the abolition of slavery in America. In London, two of his first speeches were in May 1836. The first at the Rev. Thomas Price's Baptist Chapel, Devonshire Square, and the second at the independent Finsbury Chapel of Rev. Dr Alexander Fletcher. Each attracted large crowds and were extensively reported, being of great influence. [6]

One newspaper correspondent described Roper’s speech after a meeting in Bradford in 1840:

“He exhibited and described some implements of corporal punishment, used by the planters of the United States and their merciless overseers, and gave a melancholy detail of the sufferings to which the slaves are exposed, and the degraded condition to which the system of slavery has reduced the white population of the Southern States of America…Mr. Roper, in the course of his description of the eventful fortunes of his attempts to escape, roused the liveliest sympathy in the breasts of his hearers, and recited several soul-stirring strains of Montgomery’s (of Sheffield) poetry. He lamented in a feeling manner the fate of his mother, whom he had wished to redeem from slavery, but who is now dead. He enlarged on the desolate condition of his brothers and sisters who have been sold to remote states, and from whom he has had no intelligence of late. He stated that he still loved America, that he suffered much from the English climate, yet to be reckoned a British citizen had been his ardent desire, but that legal naturalization was above his pecuniary means. [7]

Throughout his tour, Roper was unafraid of challenging white fragility, racism and white supremacy. During one speech in Leicester in 1838, he declared: "Many will say “This is the slaves’ side of the question. The slave-holders would tell a different story.” You have heard the slave-holders’ story 250 years ago. Now, I think it is time for the slaves to speak." [8] By 1848, his slave narrative had sold over 38,000 copies, with over 5,000 in the Welsh language. He lectured over 2,000 times across Britain and Ireland in Baptist, Independent, Methodist and Quaker churches and town halls in nearly every county in Britain and was one of the few activists to speak in the Scottish Highlands. The sheer extent of Roper’s lecturing tour is astounding, particularly when one considers his travels to rural communities in Cornwall and Wales. See the references for a map of his speaking locations. [9]

Roper suffered from intense sabotage from white newspaper correspondents and occasionally, from white abolitionists. In Roper’s 1838 edition of his narrative, the Rev. Thomas Price had written a testimonial which bore “unequivocal witness to [Roper's] sobriety, intelligence, and honesty.” His “great ambition is to be qualified for usefulness amongst his own people; and the progress he has already made justifies the belief that if the means of education can be secured for a short time longer, he will be eminently qualified to instruct the children of Africa in the truths of the gospel of Christ.” [10] However, two years later, Price openly criticized Roper for a “desultory and mendicant life.” His incessant “begging” was contrary to his “original and professed design of becoming a missionary” and Price demanded Roper remove his testimonial from the narrative. [11] Price charged Roper with reneging on previous promises to become a missionary on the African continent. Roper had presumably changed his mind about his travels there, and Price lambasted his conduct and attempted to smear his reputation, in the hope that it would destroy the possibilities of a lecturing career. Later editions of his narrative do not include Price’s testimonial. [12]

Similarly, when he began lecturing in Britain, Roper faced charges of falsehood from white newspaper correspondents who, along a white racist schema, could not believe his graphic and violent descriptions about U.S. slavery. In 1836, Roper wrote to a local newspaper that a Reverend R. J. Breckinridge questioned “the accuracy of a statement made by me in reference to the burning alive of a slave in the United States.” Roper assured both Breckinridge and the newspaper editor that the story was true and proceeded to relate the “particulars of that melancholy event.” An enslaved man named George was chained to a tree, “the chain having been passed round his neck, arms, and legs, to make him secure.” A large amount “of tar and turpentine was then poured over his head […] and the miserable man perished in the flames.” Long after the lynching and as a warning to the local enslaved population, “not only was the stump of the tree to which the slave George had been fastened to be seen, but some of his burnt bones.” Roper wrote that he was “ready to attest in the most solemn” manner if necessary, and he stated that “though I have been a slave, I trust my evidence will be received on matters of fact which have come within the range of my own observation.” This continued throughout his time in Britain and Ireland, and he often suffered from vitriolic hatred in the press. Nevertheless, Roper refused to compromise on his descriptions of violence and always resolved to "tell the truth" about his experiences. [13]

For this very reason, Roper preferred to lecture on his own: in a bold refutation of traditional antislavery dynamics, one newspaper correspondent recorded that Roper "commenced by stating why he did not like having a chairman to preside at meetings at which he spoke. He came from America, which was a land of independence, and he wished to be independent, and avoid the risk of offending any body, which he perhaps might do by some of his observations. Sometimes he had found the chairman not disposed to go the full length with him in his views, and that threw a damp upon the proceedings. He then introduced himself as Moses Roper." [14]

Family and Life in the U.S.

Roper married Ann Stephen Price in Bristol, England, on December 21, 1839. He had four daughters: one born on the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Canada in about 1844, two born in Quebec and the youngest born in Nova Scotia between 1850 and 1857. He thrice returned to the British Isles: first in 1846 to "settle private matters" (possibly to arrange a new edition of his Narrative); then in 1854 and sometime before 1861, to lecture. The final time, he brought his wife and daughters back, and the 1861 British Census finds them living with his father-in-law (William Price) in Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, Wales, while Moses is in Cambridge, England, staying in a boarding house. [15]

Some time after 1861, Moses Roper returned to the United States, where he lived the life of an itinerant lecturer, travelling from place to place discoursing on various subjects, including "Africa and the African People", "Causes of the Colors of the Races" and on the "Holy Land." [16] It appears that after his return to the States, his family never heard from him again; by 1871, his wife has remarried [17] and when his youngest daughter Alice Mary Maud Roper married in 1883, Roper's name was listed with the comment "(deceased)." [18]

Several years before his death, Roper wandered through New England working at whatever he could find; he was working as a field hand on the farm of James T. Skillings in Franklin County, Maine, near the town of Strong when "his strength gave out" in April 1891. Roper, in very poor physical condition with a little more than a hundred dollars in his pocket and accompanied only by a dog named Pete (described as "his faithful companion") was placed on a train to Boston, Massachusetts. [19]

Roper and his dog made it to Boston, but he was found unconscious in a railroad station and taken to the Boston City Hospital. When he was found, it was noted that he was "well protected from the cold, wearing four shirts, two overcoats and three pair of pantaloons" and he was suffering from "a complication of diseases of the heart and kidneys and also from eczema" which eventually caused his death on April 15, 1891. His dog had to be dragged away from his bedside. Roper is buried in a pauper's grave in Boston but should be remembered for his radical activism, authorship and uncompromising approach to exposing racism and white supremacy on both sides of the Atlantic. [20]

See also

  • Slave narrative
  • Andrews, William L., North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy & Thomas H. Jones (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
  • Cutter, Martha J. "Revising Torture: Moses Roper and the Visual Rhetoric of the Slave's Body in the Transatlantic Abolition Movement". ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 60.3 (2014) (No. 236 O.S.): 371–411.
  • Cutter, Martha J. The Illustrated Slave Empathy, Graphic Narrative, and the Visual Culture of the Transatlantic Abolition Movement, 1800-1852 (University of Georgia Press, 2017)
  • Murray, Hannah-Rose, Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)
  • Murray, Hannah-Rose, African American Abolitionist Website: Moses Roper's mapped speaking locations: www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com
  • Taylor, Yuval, I was Born A Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives: Vol 1 1770-1849(Edinburgh: Payback Press, 1999).

Notes

  1. ^ "Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery". ISBN  0-486-42718-8, available online; Hannah-Rose Murray, Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)
  2. ^ Cutter, Martha J. "Revising Torture: Moses Roper and the Visual Rhetoric of the Slave's Body in the Transatlantic Abolition Movement". ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 60.3 (2014) (No. 236 O.S.): 372.
  3. ^ Cutter, 373.
  4. ^ Roper, Narrative (1838)
  5. ^ Sheffield Independent, 21 April 1838, 3.
  6. ^ Roper, Narrative (1838); Murray, Advocates of Freedom (2020)
  7. ^ The Bradford Observer,March 5, 1840
  8. ^ The Leicestershire Mercury and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties, 19 May 1838, 2.
  9. ^ Murray,Advocates of Freedom, 50-60; Roper, Narrative of the Life of Moses Roper (1848) Appendix of speaking locations; Murray, Hannah-Rose, www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com.
  10. ^ Roper, Narrative(1838), 4-5.  
  11. ^ Staffordshire Advertiser, 28 November 1840, 2.
  12. ^ Roper, Narrative (1848)
  13. ^ The Bradford Observer,28July1836, 6; see also Murray, Advocates of Freedom, Chapter 1. (2020)
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ "A Chronology of Moses Roper's Life".
  16. ^ "Mother Was A Slave; Death of Moses Roper in the City Hospital--Was Suffering from Skin Disease and a Kidney Complaint", Boston Globe, April 16, 1891, p. 1.
  17. ^ 1871 British Census for Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, Wales as found on www.ancestry.com
  18. ^ Marriage license of Youhanah el-Karey and Alice Mary Maude Roper
  19. ^ "Maine Melange--Franklin", Bangor (Me.) Daily Whig and Courier, April 15, 1891, p. 1.
  20. ^ "Mother Was A Slave; Death of Moses Roper in the City Hospital--Was Suffering from Skin Disease and a Kidney Complaint", Boston Globe, April 16, 1891, p. 1; "Moses Roper Dead", Boston Daily Advertiser, April 16, 1891, p. 1; "An Ex-Slave, Who Escaped From His Master and Became A Lecturer", Boston Journal, April 16, 1891, p. 6; "A Colored Lecturer Dead", New York Times, April 17, 1891, p. 1, c. 6; Massachusetts Deaths for the Year 1891, vol. 420, p. 195, Massachusetts State Archives, Columbia Point, Boston, Massachusetts.

External links