Moses Roper: the story of an American fugitive from slavery in Britain
Having escaped the American South and fled across the Atlantic, Moses Roper became a pioneering voice for abolition in Victorian Britain. But his voice is often lost to history. Dr Bruce E Baker and Dr Fionnghuala Sweeney shed light on Roper’s ground-breaking life
In December 1835, Moses Roper walked around Manchester with only three shillings in his pocket – enough to pay for a bed, though not for food. But he was determined not to beg in this city of strangers. Only days before, he had arrived in Liverpool on the last leg of a long and dangerous journey from slavery in the United States to freedom in Britain. But he knew no one there and his family were still enslaved in North Carolina, thousands of miles across the sea.
Moses Roper was a pioneer: the first African-American fugitive from slavery to make a home in Britain. In the 1830s and 1840s, he then established the maritime route to freedom in Britain, launched a campaign that transformed the focus of British abolitionism, and formed a new family in freedom. Many others would follow the same route as him before the abolition of slavery in America in 1865.
A new kind of activist
Formerly enslaved people had campaigned for abolition across the British empire before, but Roper was the first of a new kind of activist. Born in North Carolina around 1816 or 1818, he was owned by a number of masters across North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and eventually Florida. In 1834, when he was about 17, he emancipated himself by running away to the free states of New England in the North. Yet as a fugitive, as long as he remained in the country, he was vulnerable to being captured and returned to slavery. To be sure of his safety, he needed to travel further afield.
The same year as Roper’s escape Britain abolished slavery across its empire by an act of parliament. Many fugitive slaves travelled north along the Underground Railroad network and carried on until they reached Canada. But Roper chose to cross the Atlantic, carrying letters in his pockets from American abolitionists that introduced him to their British anti-slavery friends. They suggested that what he knew from first-hand experience might be the key to a new campaign against slavery. “If a narrative of his life and adventures could be drawn up by some able pen,” one American minister wrote to his British counterpart, it “would be very popular” and provide “a true witness of what American slavery is.”
Roper travelled the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland, speaking in thousands of churches, village halls and school rooms – anywhere he could find an audience. He told the story of slavery in the US as he had experienced it: the inconsolable losses, unimaginable tortures he suffered, and his unstoppable will to be free. He paved the way for the many women and men who followed, such as Frederick Douglass, Henry Box Brown, William Wells Brown, Sarah Parker Remond, and William and Ellen Craft. African-American campaigners helped turn British public opinion resolutely against slavery.
Tens of thousands of people heard Roper’s story, and the stories of those like him. Unlike in the West Indies, the British parliament had no legal power in the US, but could exert both moral and economic pressure. Crucially, when the American Civil War broke out in 1861 over the question of whether the nation would be, as President Abraham Lincoln had put it, “all slave or all free”, there was little doubt where Britain would stand.
More like this
By turning British attention to American slavery, Roper’s work transformed the landscape of abolitionism, seven years before Frederick Douglass crossed the Atlantic on his anti-slavery speaking tour. Yet in the public debate on questions of race and justice, Roper’s name has been all but forgotten, with the result that a crucial chapter in the history of Black writing and transatlantic family remains hidden from view.
Moses Roper’s writing
In London in 1837, Roper published his autobiography, Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery. In it, he disclosed details of his birth family: his father was the slaveholder who owned his mother, and young Roper’s embarrassing resemblance to his father meant he was sold away while still a child. He would then be passed from master to master across the South. He saw his family only once afterwards, when he escaped from a cruel owner in South Carolina and walked hundreds of miles home, only to be captured and returned to his master for more tortures. In Britain, though, he found people who could be the father figure he never had. Dissenting ministers Dr John Morison and Dr Francis A Cox, of London, and Henry Christopherson, one of Morison’s congregants who took Roper into his London home had, as Roper wrote, “been towards me a parent”.
Yet this newly made anti-slavery family was also taken from him. In November 1840, after three years of successful lecturing and the sale of thousands of copies of his autobiography, Roper faced catastrophe. Reverend Dr Thomas Price, a prominent Baptist minister and publisher, had written the preface for Roper’s book in order to help him earn money to “obtain a sound English education.” Price believed that what Roper really should be doing was working as a missionary in Africa or the West Indies, not campaigning in Britain to persuade people to oppose slavery. Denouncing his lecturing as little more than “a system of genteel begging,” Price wrecked Roper’s livelihood, cutting him off from the institutions and many of the people who had supported him.
- Read more | Black History Month: what is it, historians on its relevance, plus 6 articles you should read
By that time, Roper had created a new life, one that illustrates the challenges of transatlantic migration and the complex histories of family descent in Britain. He had married a British woman, Ann Price, in Bristol the previous December. For a few months before Price’s denunciation, his life was going smoothly as a gentleman in Chelsea with his wife and their new baby, Maria. By spring 1841, however, he was losing money, with fewer book sales and more expenses. The family moved to Wales, where Roper’s autobiography was translated into Welsh, but their financial problems continued. In spring 1844, Roper sought assistance to emigrate to South Africa. When it was not forthcoming, the family emigrated to Canada West instead. He continued to lecture and campaign against slavery in Canada, and back in Britain and Ireland through the rest of the 1840s, despite the tragedy of his eldest daughter’s death in 1847, and into the early 1860s.
- On the podcast | Hannah-Rose Murray describes how African American abolitionists toured Britain in the 19th century
What happened to Moses Roper?
We do not know exactly when Roper stopped living with his family. He may have been with his wife and daughters when they left Canada in 1859, moving to Merthyr Tydfil to live with Ann’s father. Was Roper there in 1863 when another daughter, also named Maria and born two years after her namesake had succumbed to tuberculosis? Historians may never know. Following a few lectures near Cambridge, Roper slips quietly from the documentary record in spring 1861, just as the American Civil War began, after a quarter of a century of anti-slavery campaigning.
It would be two decades later that he briefly reappeared, now an old man and speaking in churches and village halls in New England. He died alone in Boston in 1891, years after his wife and daughters, still in Britain, had assumed he was dead.
Dr Bruce E Baker is Professor of American History and African American Studies and Dr Fionnghuala Sweeney is a Reader in American and Black Atlantic Literatures, both at Newcastle University
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99