The Crafts (Ellen’s Life in Bondage)

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Previous in this series: Some Context. White Children Sold into Slavery? Full text of the narrative.)

To remove the reminder of her husband’s infidelity, his wife gave Ellen away at age eleven. That separated her from her mother, but Ellen took it as a mixed blessing since it also took her away from the cruelty her family resemblance earned her from that same wife. Ellen had some positive things to say about her second owner, Eliza Cromwell Smith:

My wife’s new mistress was decidedly more human than the majority of her class. My wife has always given her credit for not exposing her to many of the worst features of slavery. For instance, it is a common practice in the slave States for ladies, when angry with their maids, to send them to the calybuce sugar-house, or to some other place established for the purpose of punishing slaves, and have them severely flogged; and I am sorry it is a fact, that the villains to whom those defenceless creatures are sent, not only flog them as they are ordered, but frequently compel them to submit to the greatest indignity. Oh! if there is any one thing under the wide canopy of heaven, horrible enough to stir a man’s soul, and to make his very blood boil, it is the thought of his dear wife, his unprotected sister, or his young and virtuous daughters struggling to save themselves from falling a prey to such demons!

A kind owner? Such creatures populate many slavery apologetics, then and now, but the Crafts count her an exception. It also does well to remember to imagine them complexly: a master or mistress might show a kind face to domestic slaves who live with them in the Big House and share their intimate moments, but quite another to a field slave that lives in a shack and only comes to his or her attention for something like running away or breaking tools. We must also remember that a kind owner still held slaves as property and might use them as collateral to make investments that fall through, requiring the sale of those slaves. Kind owners could also die and leave slaves to cruel owners or, if they manumitted slaves in their will, end up with heirs who have the will overturned in court.

Aware of the possibility that crediting Ellen’s owner might have their British audience too generous an impression of slavery, the Crafts immediately continue:

It always appears strange to me that any one who was not born a slaveholder, and steeped to the very core in the demoralizing atmosphere of the Southern States, can in any way palliate slavery. It is still more surprising to see virtuous ladies looking with patience upon, and remaining indifferent to, the existence of a system that exposes nearly two millions of their own sex in the manner I have mentioned, and that too in a professedly free and Christian country. There is, however, great consolation in knowing that God is just, and will not let the oppressor of the weak, and the spoiler of the virtuous, escape unpunished here and hereafter.

I believe a similar retribution to that which destroyed Sodom is hanging over the slaveholders. My sincere prayer is that they may not provoke God, by persisting in a reckless course of wickedness, to pour out his consuming wrath upon them.

The kind owner in slavery apologetic always ends up with slaves who refuse to take any offered freedom. Neither of their owners made any such offer for them to renounce. Their bold deeds, even in the face of less than maximally horrific slavery, tell us how they would have answered if asked. They wanted freedom enough not to wait on white kindness, but instead to take it for themselves at great risk of life and limb. Furthermore, they believe slaveholders worthy of divine obliteration.

I do not propose to speak for the Crafts’ god; I believe in none myself. But whatever provocations Georgia slaveholders directed Heavenward, those they issued to Washington ultimately brought William Tecumseh Sherman down on them.

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