Read an Excerpt
Truth Stranger Than Fiction: Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life stands as a remarkable narrative on its own merits, but even more significant is its relationship to one of the most celebrated anti-slavery tracts in American literature and one of its controversial characters. Josiah Henson’s life story is noted as a source for the character of Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[i] It is strange that an inspiration for Stowe’s character, who has been a touchstone for complicated cultural criticism and whose name is a contemporary curse, should be based on an escaped slave, one-time soldier, preacher, founder of an independent black settlement, and slave-narrative writer. More telling is how starkly Henson’s narrative illustrates the troubling literary license taken by Stowe and how sentimentalist abolitionist texts of the era achieved pathos by simplifying and to some extent emasculating actual black men like Josiah Henson in order to attain palatable characters for white audiences. In truth, Henson struggled mightily to rise to the top of the slave hierarchy, gain the trust of his masters on merit, and meet them as brothers in Christ, only to be bitterly disappointed and find that there was neither merit nor reward for his work and no honor, honesty, trust, compassion, or Christian charity in his Southern masters and overseers. Unlike Stowe’s derivative character, Henson seized his freedom, made a life for himself in Canada, and freed fellow slaves before publishing his life story and taking the cause of the slaves and fugitives to England and before Queen Victoria herself.
Born in 1789 in what is now North Bethesda, Maryland, Josiah Henson saw his father maimed and beaten for opposing the attempted rape of his mother, driven into depression, and later sold South to Alabama. Henson was himself separated from his mother and then, on the brink of death, sold for a pittance to the doctor who had purchased his mother and would later give him his name. During his youth, Henson labored to obtain privilege within the slave system, eventually caused the dismissal of an overseer, and assumed the position himselfendeavoring to skim additional sustenance for his slave brethren as his position grew. Henson was converted to Christianity at the age of eighteen, and by 1828, although still enslaved, he became a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1830, stunned by his various slaveholders’ deceptions and ingratitude (even after saving their lives on a number of occasions) and fearful for the welfare of his family, he embarked with his wife and children on a perilous escape to Canada. After remarkable adventures involving Quakers and Native American assistance, Henson reached Canada and a new life. Active in the Underground Railroad, Henson returned to the United States and brought more than a hundred fellow slaves to Canada. There he tutored fugitive slaves in agricultural production and marketing, moving in 1842 to his project community, the fugitive settlement of Dawn, with its manual-labor school for blacks. As a result of his lumbering project in Dawn, Henson traveled to England to seek debt relief and exhibit the productions of fugitive slaves at the 1851 Great Exhibition. His display caught the attention of Queen Victoria, who later sent a medal and photograph of the royal family to Henson, who counted them among his prize possessions. Henson returned to Canada in 1852, to attend to his dying wife. Soon after, he met Harriet Beecher Stowe in Massachusetts and spoke with her at length about his life story, which had already appeared in print by 1849. He claimed to know many of the sources for the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, including George Harris, who W. J. Hartgrove notes in his 1918 article in The Journal of Negro History, was actually named Lewis Clark and traveled and lectured with Henson on many occasions.[ii] Stowe herself referred to Clark as a friend and source in The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1854). Henson served as an officer in a company of “colored volunteers” during the 1837 Canadian Rebellion in defense of his adopted country. In his waning years, Henson was able to travel for a third time to England, where he was again greeted in audience by Queen Victoria. He returned to the United States to visit his old plantation haunts and to be received by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Henson continued his work in Canada during his later years, where he died in 1883 at the age of ninety-four.
Henson’ narrative might not have achieved the broad notoriety of other narratives, like Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and its absolute veracity has been challenged. However, as Mary Ellen Doyle noted decades ago, a remarkable portion of the narrative can be verified by its references to specific names, events, and occasions that have independent records of their own, as well as contemporary sources like The Liberator.[iii]
The narrative begins with a faithful celebration of his wondrous deliverance from the suffering of slavery. Like the biblical Daniel, he has survived a furnace of troubles and been tempered by God in the process. Just after the reader settles comfortably into the deceptive sense of religious rapture, Henson’s pious comparison to Old Testament heroes quickly gives way to the hellish realities of slavery. The reader is rapidly plunged into the world of blood and barbarism, learning in only few pages that one of the narrator’s first memories is of his incensed father, nursing a bloody head and raw, whipped backthe battle wounds of having defended his mother against an attempted rape by an overseer. Henson balances the crime of rape against the crime of “a nigger [striking] a white man” and shows that the scale of nineteenth-century justice is completely unbalanced. Moreover, the crime of striking a white man exceeds mere law to reach a kind of pure sacrilege, a corruption that the Christian Henson is careful to note. While rape was the prerogative of white slaveholders, injuring the “sacred temple of a white man’s body [was] a profanity as blasphemous in the slave-state tribunal as was” the entry of a Gentile into the Holy of Holies. In short order, Henson drives home his opening point with bloody precision. The price of defending the virtue of a black woman in the Old South is clearone hundred lashes, one’s ear nailed to a post, and the same ear sliced off.
It is this juxtaposition of the slaveholder law and slaveholder religion against the justice and faith of civilized men and women that underpins and structures the intellectual architecture of Henson’s autobiography. In this he is as deliberate in his writing as Frederick Douglass, leaving the reader little room to justify, accommodate, or excuse slavery. He paints a picture of a slave culture maintained in large part by a combination of alcohol, ignorance, and mob justice and immune to the appeals of manhood, womanhood, motherhood, or religion. Not content to dwell just on the American atrocity, he quickly connects the politics and horrors of American slavery to a broader global process of colonialism and imperialism. In a deft move that has even twenty-first-century resonance, he reminds his own contemporary readers not to be quick to disbelieve the fundamental viciousness of white culture in Maryland when in their own day they could “find tender English women and Christian English divines fiercely urging that India should be made one pool of Sepoy blood.”
For Henson, the degradation of slaveholding society extended even to those slaveholders who exhibited “kind impulses” and measures of religious conviction. The relatively benign slaveholder who gave Henson his own Christian name was found drowned in less than a foot of water, the ultimate result of a long dissipation by revels and alcoholism. In a scene remarkably common to slave narratives and slave poetry, the dissolution of his owner’s estate wrenched families apart, including his own, and unleashed misery above even that daily experienced in an enslaved existence. Henson’s principal adventures began after he watched his mother literally kicked away from him by slave-traders.
Henson’s narrative shares features with many others of the era, including a focus on the brutality of the daily operations of slavery and plantation life, a recollection of hideous treatment of slaves and especially of women, meditations on the essential barbarism of slaveholder culture, and comparisons of true Christian faith and the adulterated faith of slaveholding society. Henson also faces life-altering experiences that eventually lead him to seize his manhood and his freedom. His trip down the Mississippi is a surreal and dark journey, an inversion of the playful and liberating trips down the river later provided by Mark Twain and so embedded in the American psyche. Unlike Frederick Douglass, who bests Edward Covey to assert his manhood, Henson has a slightly more disparate and complex experience. He exposes the embezzlement of one overseer and takes the position himself. But, he is later ambushed and maimed for life by an overseer from another plantation in revenge for having defended his drunken master in a brawl against several white opponents. While slaves like Solomon Northup remained relatively humble in their narratives, Henson rivals Frederick Douglass in burnishing his own manhood and accomplishment. Successive editions of the narrative expand and embellish his service on behalf of the Dawn settlement and his travels to England and America to be received by notables. His prowess as a minister and leader of fugitive slaves also becomes more pronounced and luminous as the narrative expands across its various editions. A Prince Hall Mason during his lifetime, Henson’s exploits have been observed as part of a significant relationship between early ideas of African-American masculinity and the ritual formation of identity in the Masonic Order.[iv]
Today Henson is still remembered in Canada and the United States. The Dawn Settlement Cabin in Ontario and the Montgomery County, Maryland, slave cabin that housed Henson are both intact. The Ontario Heritage Society operates a well-developed historic site in Ontario that includes Henson’s House titled as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” outbuildings, an underground railroad home, and the Henson family cemetery. A museum and gallery also accompany the historic buildings. Montgomery County acquired the Maryland slave cabin in 2006 with plans to eventually open it to the public.
In its own time, Josiah Henson’s narrative occupied a place in a literary landscape increasingly populated by narratives and dominated by the life story of Frederick Douglass. For contemporary readers, Henson’s account possesses the notable quality of providing a representative account of one of the more than fifty thousand slaves who escaped across the border to Canada. Henson was careful to note that one of the reasons for his expanded narrative was the request from many readers that he include some account of the lives of fugitive slaves in Canada, and this Afro-Canadian perspective is a necessary and significant addition to the broader story of the Atlantic slave trade. Henson’s narrative is an excellent complement to the more widely celebrated texts in the slave-narrative genre. Today the various editions of Henson’s narrative receive light to moderate scholarly attention, a benign neglect that hopefully will be remedied by scholars looking beyond the more popular narratives.
Eric Ashley Hairston is an Assistant Professor of English and of Law and Humanities at Elon University. He holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Virginia, as well as a J.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He teaches and writes on American literature, African-American literature, Western literary history, Classical literature, Asian-American Literature, and Law and Humanities.
[i] Stowe, Harriet Beecher. The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Boston: Jewett (1854).
[ii] Hartgrove, W. B. “The Story of Josiah Henson.” The Journal of Negro History, 3:1 (1918): 1–21.
[iii] Doyle, Mary Ellen. “Josiah Henson’s Narrative: Before and After.” Negro American Literature Forum, 1 (1974): 176.
[iv] Wallace, Maurice O. “‘Are We Men?’: Prince Hall, Martin Delany, and the Masculine Ideal in Black Freemasonry, 1775–1865.” American Literary History, 9:3 (1997): 396.