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Moses Roper, b. 1815
Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery. With an Appendix, Containing a List of Places Visited by the Author in Great Britain and Ireland and the British Isles; and Other Matter
Berwick-upon-Tweed: Published for the author and printed at the Warder Office, 1848.

Summary

Born in 1815 in Caswell County, North Carolina, Moses Roper was the son of a white planter, Henry H. Roper, and Nancy, his house slave. When Roper was about six years old, he was sold away from his family, probably because of his light skin tone and embarrassing resemblance to his father. Roper was eventually bought by John Gooch, a cotton planter in Kershaw County ("Cashaw" in Roper's narrative), South Carolina. Harsh treatment at Gooch's hand led Roper, only a teenager at the time, to begin a long series of unsuccessful escape attempts. After Gooch sold him in 1832, Roper labored for a series of masters who took him through parts of Georgia and Florida. Finally bought by a Mr. Register—a Marianna, Florida, planter known for his cruel treatment of slaves—Roper ran away yet again, beginning what would ultimately be a successful escape. After walking over 350 miles from Marianna to Savannah, Georgia, Roper gained employment as a steward on the Fox, a schooner that sailed North in August 1834. Once there, Roper traveled through New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, working various jobs. During his time in Boston, he met local abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, and became a signatory to the constitution of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Roper still lived in fear of being returned to slavery in the South, however, so in November 1835, he sailed on The Napoleon for Liverpool, England.

Upon arriving in England, where slavery had been abolished a year earlier, Roper connected with prominent British abolitionists, who paid for him to be formally educated and employed him on the anti-slavery lecture circuit. Roper's Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery was first published in London in 1837; a U.S. edition appeared the next year. In 1839, Roper married Ann Stephen Price, an Englishwoman who helped him with his copious anti-slavery work. In 1844, after nine years of lecturing, Roper estimated that he had given two thousand speeches. He eventually purchased a farm in western Canada and moved there with his wife and their child. Most details concerning the rest of Roper's life, including the date and place of his death, remain unknown.

Extremely popular with abolitionist audiences in both England and America, Moses Roper's Narrative was published in ten different editions between 1837 and 1856, and was even translated into Celtic. In the Narrative's first edition, a letter from Rev. Thomas Price, one of Roper's British sponsors, introduces the text. In later editions, Roper excises Price's letter, and introduces his work himself. In doing so, Roper emphasizes his authorial independence by breaking with one of the formal conventions of fugitive slave narratives, in which prominent white abolitionists typically introduce an African American's autobiographical account. The 1848 edition of Roper's text—the version summarized here—is the longest version of the Narrative; it includes Roper's preface as well as an appendix. This appendix features a short note (dated March 1846) updating readers on Roper's life after slavery, poems written by Roper's admirers, correspondence from readers of his Narrative, and lists of the towns in England he visited and the denominations of the groups to which he lectured.

Roper's story, like many freedom narratives, begins with an explanation of his origins, specifically his mixed-race parentage. Since his father is white (he alternately describes his mother as both "half white" and "part Indian, part African"), Roper is light-skinned (p. 7, p. 43). One unique feature of Roper's Narrative is its frank discussion of how this light skin tone sometimes enables him to "pass"—to be identified as a white/Native American man rather than an enslaved black man—in order to avoid capture and re-enslavement. Throughout the Narrative, Roper's skin color functions alternately as both a curse and a blessing. White slave owners resent Roper's light complexion and thus single him out for abuse, but on his numerous escape attempts, he is frequently able to convince whites that he is not a fugitive slave. For example, when an overseer on a North Carolina plantation discovers Roper, the man recognizes Roper as a runaway slave and aims to return him to his owner. The overseer's wife however, successfully insists that Roper is not "of the African origin," for "she had seen white men still darker . . ." (p. 17). The overseer and his wife then feed Roper and let him continue north. While this particular escape attempt eventually ends in failure, it is Roper's ability to pass as non-black that allows him to be hired on the Fox and ultimately escape slavery. Scenes such as these have led scholar Kristina Bobo to identify Roper's narrative as "one of the earliest accounts of passing in African-American literature" (p. 91).

Roper's Narrative also features unflinching descriptions of the violence he endures in slavery, especially while living under Gooch (1829-1832). Roper and Gooch become locked in an apparently unending vicious cycle: the teenage Roper is determined to escape slavery at every available opportunity, while Gooch is equally determined—each time Roper is caught and returned to him—to break Roper's will to escape. After one of his failed escape attempts, Roper writes that Gooch "gave me five hundred lashes on my bare back . . . He then chained me down in a log-pen with a forty pounds chain, and made me lie on the damp earth all night. In the morning . . . without giving me any breakfast, [Gooch] tied me to a large heavy harrow, which is usually drawn by a horse, and made me drag it to the cotton field for the horse to use in the field" (p. 12). Later, after a another escape attempt, Roper has twenty-pound iron bars bent around his feet in order to limit his mobility and is then suspended from his wrists on a device called a cotton screw, "a machine used for packing and pressing cotton" (p. 28). (This punishment is illustrated on page 29 of Roper's text). Finally, Roper and Gooch's escape-punishment cycle culminates in Gooch ordering Roper's fingernails to be crushed in a vice and his toenails beaten off with a hammer. This too fails to quash Roper's defiance, and when Gooch's "whole stock of . . . cruelties seemed to be exhausted," he sells Roper (p. 30).

Roper is then exchanged between a series of different masters, including a Mr. Beveridge, whom Roper calls "the only kind slave-holder in America" (p. 35). Beveridge, who lives in Apalachicola, Florida, owns several steam ships and puts Roper to work on them as a steward. This period of relatively kind treatment ends in 1834, when Beveridge goes bankrupt and Roper is sold to the infamously cruel Register, the master from whom he successfully escapes. (Although some accounts of Roper's life, including that in The Black Abolitionist Papers Vol. 1, The British Isles, 1830-1865, attribute Roper's employment on the Fox and eventual escape directly to Beveridge's bankruptcy, more recent sources, including those listed below, confirm the account presented in Roper's Narrative.) On his long journey away from Register, Roper promises that if he makes his way to freedom, he will "spend [his] life in the service of God" (p. 42). The closing sections of the Narrative, which reassert his desire to free his family, make it clear that Roper saw the anti-slavery efforts to which he dedicated his life as a way of fulfilling that promise.

Roper says that his motivation to write his Narrative did "not arise from any desire to make [himself] conspicuous," but rather from a desire to expose "the cruel system of slavery" (p. iii). Roper's success as an author and a lecturer in his own lifetime proves that he succeeded. Today critics see Roper's Narrative as an important early example of the fugitive slave narrative, a genre which, as Kristina Bobo points out, Fredrick Douglass and William Wells Brown would eventually help make "one of the most widely read forms of autobiography in mid-nineteenth-century America" (p. 91).

Works Consulted: Bobo, Kristina, "Moses Roper," in The North Carolina Roots of African American Literature: An Anthology, edited by William L. Andrews, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006; Finseth, Ian Fredrick, introduction to A Narrative of the Adventures & Escape of Moses Roper, in North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy & Thomas H. Jones, edited by William L. Andrews, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003; Gross, Izhak, "The Abolition of Negro Slavery and British Parliamentary Politics," The Historical Journal, 23.1 (1980): 63-85; Huddle, Mark Andrew, "Roper, Moses," in African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, 727-729, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004; "Moses Roper, b. 1815," in The Black Abolitionist Papers, Vol. I: The British Isles, 1830-1865, edited by C. Peter Ripley, et al., Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Harry Thomas

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