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7 posts from January 2014

23 January 2014

Slavery in America: anti-slavery pamphlets, newspapers and magazines

American Anti Slavery Society
Constitution and Declaration of Sentiments, 1833

The pamphlets, newspapers and magazines issued by anti-slavery societies provide another means for exploring American slavery and the movement for its abolition. The British Library has a rich collection of these publications.

Organised activity against slavery, especially among the Quakers, dated back to the eighteenth century. Pressure from anti-slavery groups helped to achieve an end to slavery in the northern states, and in the 1820s, a manumission movement – which worked towards the release of slaves by their owners – began in the Upper South.

Benjamin Lundy, a New Jersey Quaker, was responsible for the organization of local societies in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. He also established several anti-slavery newspapers, including the National Enquirer (shelfmark: MFM.MMISC321), and The Genius of Universal Emancipation (shelfmark: Mic.A.270.(2)).

It was as a reporter for the latter that William Lloyd Garrison began his abolitionist career. In Boston in 1831 Garrison launched his own weekly paper, The Liberator (shelfmark: NEWS1390199 & Mic.A.3758-3766), which ran until 1865. The following year he organised the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and in 1833 he helped establish the American Anti-Slavery Society. Among the publications issued by the latter and held by the Library are its weekly newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard (shelfmark: Mic.A.16213), which included news items, essays, speeches and letters documenting the abolitionist cause; its Constitution and Declaration of Sentiments (shelfmark: 1389.a.45.(1)); and The Slave’s Friend (shelfmark: 8156.u.48), which was published in 1836 especially for children.

The Slave s Friend

The Slave’s Friend (1836)

Due to internal tensions, the abolitionist movement was only loosely organised at a national level after 1840; hereafter, the state and local societies became the driving force. Not only does the Library hold many of their publications, but it also possesses those of numerous British organisations dedicated to abolition  in the United States; these include The Anti-Slavery Watchman (shelfmark: P.P.1046.i), which was intended to supply ‘such facts and information, as will show what the British people can do towards the overthrow of American slavery.’

For information on newspapers currently available, see:



21 January 2014

Slavery in America: newspapers and travellers' reports

As mentioned in my previous blog, British and American newspapers and the reports of northern and foreign travellers also provide another fascinating insight into slavery in America.

Adverts for the sale of slaves, either privately or by auction, appear in both northern and southern newspapers. In the early eighteenth century, for example, the Boston News-Letter (available in Early American Newspapers: Series 1*) includes such ads alongside those for farm animals and equipment. In the antebellum South such notices are commonplace, alongside those concerning runaway slaves; indeed, Theodore Weld’s powerful antislavery tract, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839; shelfmark: 8155.d.5), is essentially compiled from the testimonies of slave owners as they appear in southern newspapers and court records. The section on ‘Brandings, Maimings and Gun-Shot Wounds’ , for example, lists notices by slave owners describing how their runaway slaves may be identified : one in the Raleigh Standard explains, ‘… a few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face, I tried to make the letter M.’

Across the Atlantic, The Illustrated London News (shelfmarks: P.P.7611,  NEWS1377825, and available online in our reading rooms) reported on slavery quite frequently and includes numerous sketches of slave auctions. In one particularly interesting interview, the paper sheds light on a lesser known aspect of slavery: the urban slave. Living in Baltimore, Maryland, the well-dressed interviewee was hired out by his owner and worked as a waiter on a steamship. He gives his owner half his wages, and confides, ‘…she never asks no questions… I gets plenty of money…it’s very easy getting along when you make it a rule never to give no sass to nobody.’

The Dandy Slave
The Illustrated London News (Vol.38, April 6, 1861, p.307) 'The Dandy Slave: A scene in Baltimore.'

The anecdotes and impressions provided by northern and foreign travellers to the antebellum South are also illuminating. Jesse Torrey, an American, interviewed a large number of southerners for A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery (1817; shelfmark 1389.g.14.(1)). Not only did he affirm the barbarity of slavery to a northern audience, but he also illuminated the fragile status of southern free blacks whose liberty was increasingly curtailed as the Civil War approached.

A portraiture of domestic slavery
Jesse Torrey, A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States....Philadelphia, 1817 Public Domain Mark 

Among British travellers to the antebellum South were Frederick Law Olsted, whose classic The Cotton Kingdom (1862; shelfmark: 1608/247) is based on three trips to the South; Harriet Martineau, whose Society in America (1837; shelfmark: 1494.d.7) includes a commentary on the South in 1834-35; and the actress Fanny Kemble, who in 1834 married a wealthy Philadelphian unaware of his family’s plantations. In 1838-39 she finally went South, ‘prejudiced against slavery, for I am an Englishwoman in whom the absence of such a prejudice would be a disgrace.’ What she found there appalled her, and she kept a detailed diary of her stay. Published during the Civil War, after her divorce, Kemble hoped her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (shelfmark: would diminish pro-South sentiments in Britain and deepen public understanding of the struggle being waged in the United States.

* Available online in our Reading Rooms, but also remotely for registered readers.

NB. For information on newspapers currently available, see:


16 January 2014

Slavery in America: slave narratives

We've enlisted our Eccles Centre colleague, Jean, as a new, regular contributor to the blog. Here, in the first of a series of posts on slavery in the U.S., she takes a look at some of the slave narratives to be found in our collections:


As Phil mentioned in his post last week, Twelve Years a Slave, the Narrative of Solomon Northup (1853; BL shelfmark 10881.b.38), is one of many American slave narratives held by the British Library. In the mid-nineteenth century, the narratives of runaway slaves provided the antislavery movement with a highly effective weapon and after the Civil War many more narratives were published, as were reminiscences by those who had spoken with slaves.  These narratives provide a rich insight into the lives of the slaves, their work and relationship with their owners, their families and life in the slave quarters.

Not surprisingly, descriptions of the cruelty endured by the slaves – whipping, ear-cropping, the wearing of iron collars and extended isolation – feature prominently in these works. Whilst some of those who escaped this brutal existence did so alone, others were helped by the ‘Underground Railroad’, an extraordinary network involving thousands of individuals, including many former slaves, who were willing to break the law and/or endanger their own lives by feeding, hiding and disguising slaves en route to freedom.

The Narrative of Henry Box Brown ([1849]; shelfmark: 10882.b.35.(3)) outlines the journey of one of those helped by the Railroad. So-called because he escaped from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia in a box measuring three feet one inch long, two feet wide and two feet six inches deep, Brown chose to escape from his master not because he was physically abused but because, after his wife and children were sold to another owner, ‘slavery now had no mitigating circumstances, to lessen the bitterness of its cup of woe.’ It has been estimated that more than a third of slave families were broken up by the sale of one or more family member as a result of their masters’ debts, bankruptcy, relocation or death. Many slave narratives echo Brown’s assertion that these separations ‘were more dreadful to all of us than a large number of lashes inflicted on us daily’.

Narrative of Henry Box Brown (Front)
The Narrative of Henry Box Brown [1849]; shelfmark: 10882.b.35.(3)

Public Domain Mark 

Until 1850, fugitive slaves who successfully made it to the northern states were relatively secure. Yet the Fugitive Slave Law changed all this. In his narrative, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years A Freeman (1859; shelfmark:, Austin Steward describes how he witnessed the dreadful consequences of this Law: as he travelled by steamship down the Hudson River, a runaway slave who had been recaptured by ‘a human blood hound’ and returned to his ‘avaricious and tyrannical master’ attempted suicide in front of Steward, rather than face returning home to his former life.

22 Years a Slave (Illustration)
 Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years A Freeman, 1859; shelfmark: Public Domain Mark 

While many fugitive slaves later helped facilitate the escape of others, a large number played a crucial role as abolitionist agents and orators. The most famous of these undoubtedly is Frederick Douglass whose first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (shelfmark: 1452.b.32), was published in 1845.  

The powerful contemporary insight into the ‘peculiar institution’ provided by these narratives is supplemented by that of journals and tracts published by abolitionist societies, as well as religious sermons, political speeches, newspaper articles and advertisements, travellers reports and works of fiction and these will be highlighted in my next two blogposts. All blogs are based on 'Slavery and Antislavery in the United States of America'The British Library Journal, Vol.23 (1), Spring, 1997. Sixty slave narratives published before 1866 can be found in American Slavery: Pre-1866 Imprints (print copy also at shelfmark: 2725.e.2858).


15 January 2014

A British Visit by an Acquaintance of Solomon Northup


Wesleyan Centenary Hall, image: public domain (from

A guest post by David Fiske, co-author Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave:

Though there was a hint that Solomon Northup was interested in visiting England (a newspaper item in the spring of 1854 suggested he might, most likely joining the trip made by his friend Henry B. Northup), there is no actual evidence that he ever did.

Solomon clearly didn’t accompany Henry, the attorney who organized the rescue mission that brought Solomon out of enslavement in Louisiana. At the time of Henry's trip, newspapers in Syracuse, New York, reported that Solomon was in that city, preparing and presenting a play based on his book Twelve Years a Slave.

Perhaps Solomon crossed the ocean later on: there's a period in the late 1850s when no historical trace of him can be found. However, no documentation of a visit to England has surfaced.

It was not unusual for former American slaves to make lecture tours in the UK. One who did, Theodore ('Tabbs') Gross was an acquaintance of Solomon's letters written years later say that Solomon Northup and Tabbs Gross worked together on the Underground Railroad, an informal American network that ferried escaped slaves to safety in Canada.

In the summer of 1860, Rev. Gross (for he was a preacher), arrived in England with another man, Lewis Smith, with the goal of raising funds to allow Smith to purchase the freedom of some of his still-enslaved children.

On 28 September 1860, Rev. Gross spoke at Wesleyan Centenary Hall in London. The presence in London of the men was also noted in a Quaker publication, the British Friend (2nd Month, 1861). Gross was still in England in March 1861, because a staff member of the American Embassy, Benjamin Moran, recorded in his journal that he’d visited the Embassy seeking a pass in order to visit France.

Rev. Gross probably returned to the USA late that spring, perhaps wanting to be in his home country after the eruption of the American Civil War. Also the man who recalled Gross and Northup's work on the Underground Railroad said that the two were engaged in that activity in 1861 and 1862.

[David Fiske]

[N.B., Holdings of the British Friend can be located via SUNCAT]

13 January 2014

US Civil War Maps

The latest set of maps on the BL Georeference project has been completed; these include a fascinating collection of maps from the US Civil War (many of which include some fine portraits of bewhiskered generals).

These have now been given their appropriate latitude and longitude and overlaid on Google Maps (below - scroll to the right and you will find a selection of First World War maps: perhaps we need a chronology project, too).  I particularly like the map of Fort Monroe.  Amazingly, even Prang's Bird's-eye view of the Seat of War has been rectified.  Many thanks to all involved, particularly the volunteers who have worked on the project.

All the maps are listed here; there is also an online exhibition that accompanies the Civil War project.

You can read more about the Georeference project on the Maps blog.

[Matthew Shaw]

09 January 2014

Twelve Years a Slave, the Narrative of Solomon Northup

Above: a portrait of Solomon Northup from, Twelve Years a Slave. Image from Wikimedia Commons, for reasons that will become apparent below.

With Steve McQueen's '12 Years a Slave' seeing general release in the UK on Friday we in Team Americas thought we should call up the Library's copy of Northup's 1853 published account (Shelfmark: 10881.b.38). Forming part of the Library's large collection of Canadian, UK and US published accounts of slavery throughout the Americas Northup's Twelve Years a Slave is a harrowing portrayal of Northup's trials after his kidnapping in Washington DC in 1841.

Calling up the book, however, was surprising. The Library holds a microfilm copy of the New York published version and a first edition print of the London version. Unfortunately the London copy, containing a blue stamp and therefore collected via legal deposit, was submitted to the Library prior to the addition of the plates (representing incidents that also play a key role in Steve McQueen's film). There was however, the rather wonderful note (reproduced below) which states the plates, 'are not yet ready, the book is published without them'.

12 Years a Slave note

12 Years a Slave book spine
Above: the note contained in the British Library's London published copy. The rest of the book, par the spine, is free of embellishments [Shelfmark: 10881.b.38]

The rest of the book is faithful to the US version's account, depicting Northup's horrendous story in grim detail. There has been an accusation in some parts of the printed press that McQueen has over asserted the horror and violence of American slavery during Northup's time but the text contained in the book contradicts this. Northup's account is every bit as violent and terrifying as its interpretation in McQueen's film seems to be (as you'll guess, I've seen nothing but trailers, clips and interviews thus far so I'll confirm next week).

If you go and see the film and would like to know more about the book or slavery in the Americas in general then reading Northup's work is a good place to start, you can find it for free over at The Guardian also ran a fantastic article and interview with Henry Louis Gates that is well worth a read for further background and information, as is a later article by the BBC. Should you still want more after that there are a number of publications by Henry Louis Gates in the Library's collections.


02 January 2014



As you know, there's not much privacy on the web.  One of the more benign consequences of such transparency is the popularity of end-of-year blog post rankings, which derive from the site stats that lurk behind most web pages (here, we're using Google Analytics).  Team Americas is not afraid to shun such league tables, so here, in ascending order, are our five most popular blog posts.  We note that the most popular posts tend to be guest posts, but we won't take this to heart.  Some posts from 2012 also sneak in as golden oldies. Thanks for reading, and best wishes from the team for 2014.

 5th The Earlist Surviving Printed Book from the Americas (October)

Our Head of Hispanic Studies, Geoff West, reminds bidders on the Bay Psalm Book that there are other American codices out there.

Mexico title page

Public Domain Mark  Title page, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, Dotrina breue… de las cosas que pertenecen a la fe catholica British Library shelfmark C.37.e.8

- See more at:

4th Three Weeks, Fuelled by Coffee: Jack Kerouac's On the Road Scroll (October 2012)

Carole wonders if On the Road really was written in three weeks.  A post from our Kerouc Scroll exhibition in 2012.

3rd The Cats of Canada (August)

Phil provides us with some feline lolz.

2nd Mrs Hemingway, Mr Hemingway and Miss Pfieffer (August 2012)

Our Eccles Writer-in-Residence for 2012, Naomi Wood, asks whether Pauline Pfieffer was something more than a 'snake in Dior'.

And, taking the top spot as well:

1st Only Connect: the secret lives of Hemingway's wives (July 2012)

Naomi starts to unpick the tangled web of Hemingway's lovers and wives.

When I first began my research I envisioned Mrs Hemingway to be a series of interlocking triangles, representing Ernest, wife and mistress, in any given decade. Now, in the midst of these letters and telegrams, it seems much more of a tangled web indeed. - See more at:
Pauline’s reputation as something more than a snake in Dior. - See more at:

There are other ways of measuring popularity, as Heathers or Glee teaches us. We have other metrics to use to distribute our end-of-year prizes:

Top search terms: "what you won't be reading on your kindle"

Average visitor duration: A Philadelphia Tempest: Hurricane Sandy (17 minutes) (followed by Mulberry Row).

Slowest Page to Load: Looking Forward to Congress to Campus.

And finally and inexplicably our least popular post for 2013: Picturing Canada (going live gradually).  Go give it some love.

Happy 2014 to y'all

[Team Americas]

Looking Forward: Congress to Campus, Party politics, and election prospects - See more at:
Looking Forward: Congress to Campus, Party politics, and election prospects - See more at:



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