Caswell County, North Carolina
|Died||April 18, 1891
|Education||Hackney, University College in London|
Moses Roper (c. 1815 – April 15, 1891) was a mulatto slave who wrote one of the major early books about life as a slave in the United States, Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery.
Life as a slave
Moses was born around 1815 in Caswell County, North Carolina. His father, Henry Roper,a farmer of English ancestry, was also his master. Nancy, his mother, was a slave of African-American and American Indian descent whose mistress was Henry Roper's new wife. Mrs. Roper sent a relative of Nancy’s to discover if her husband had been unfaithful to her and was informed of the result of Mr. Roper's interaction with her slave (Nancy) — a quite-white little boy who resembled Henry Roper. Upon hearing this information, the mistress was so enraged that she nearly killed Nancy with a knife, but was thwarted at the last minute by the intervention of Nancy's mother. Moses grew up with his mother and was trained as a domestic slave until he was about seven years old when his father exchanged Moses and his mother for other slaves. Mother and son were separated; not to meet again for many years to come.
In his book, Roper mentions that he was a particularly difficult slave for traders to sell because of his almost-white complexion and reminisced that his fair skin tone could have been the cause of the terribly severe torture he endured from his masters. Because he had only worked as a domestic servant, Roper struggled tremendously when he was put to work in the fields and forests of the South—receiving harsher treatment for his inefficiency from his overseers and masters. Roper was passed from one master to another and led throughout the Southern states by slave traders—changing hands 17 or more times. Throughout his time in slavery, he attempted escape on at least 16 occasions, most of them while under his cruelest master, Mr. Gooch. The merciless master made certain to punish Roper with increasing ferocity each time he was recaptured, as illustrated in the book:
My master gave me a hearty dinner, the best he ever did give me; but it was to keep me from dying before he had given me all the flogging he intended. After dinner he took me to a log-house, stripped me quite naked, fastened a rail up very high, tied my hands to the rail, fastened my feet together, put a rail between my feet, and stood on one end of it to hold me down; the two sons then gave me fifty lashes each, the son-in-law another fifty, and Mr. Gooch himself fifty more.
Roper goes on to say,
This may appear incredible, but the marks which they left at present remain on my body, a standing testimony to the truth of this statement of his severity.
Other punishments Roper recounts receiving from his various masters (though mostly Mr. Gooch) include lashings and beatings where he was forced to wear 40-plus pound shackles and chains afterwards—further impeding him from performing his set tasks in the fields, having his feet and fingers crushed and fingernails pulled out, being chained to slower-working slaves, and having tar poured onto his head and face and then set on fire.
In west Florida in 1834, Roper made his final escape from a particularly unkind master, Mr. Register, and carefully made his way to New York as a fugitive. To ensure that he was not captured along the way, he obtained a passport which claimed he was a freed slave. He accomplished this by telling a false tale of his past to a few sympathetic farmers in Georgia.
I pretended to show her my passport, feeling for it everywhere about my coat and hat, and not finding it, I went back a little way, pretending to look for it, but came back, saying, I was very sorry, but I did not know where it was… [the farmers offered to help and their] lad sat down and wrote what I told him, nearly filling a large sheet of paper for the passport, and another with recommendations.
After having little luck searching for employment in and around New York, Roper decided in 1835 to sail to England, where slavery had been abolished two years prior.
Moses became quite famous in England because of his grand escape from American slavery, and the book he later wrote about his life as a slave, in which he included explicit examples of the torture methods used by slave holders. Roper’s patronage in England was carefully planned; he carried letters of introduction to Rev. Dr. Fletcher, Rev. Dr. Morison and Rev. Dr. Raffles, through whom he met other sympathetic patrons, notably Rev. Dr. T. Price and Rev. F. Cox, and leading abolitionists such as Thomas Fowell Buxton. Roper acquired an education at schools in Hackney, Wallingford in Oxfordshire, followed by university in London, so he could write his own account as well as any English author.
At Hackney I remained half a year, going through the rudiments of an English education. At this time I attended the ministry of Dr Cox, which I enjoyed very much... never, I trust, will be efaced from my memory, the parental care of the Rev. Dr Morison, from whom I can say, I received the greatest kindness.
His patrons then assisted him in his object of touring the country's chapels to spread knowledge of American slavery; and subscribed to, and helped promote his autobiography.
Roper toured the length and breadth of Britain, as well as several places in Ireland and Scotland, making the case for the abolition of slavery in America. In London, his two most influential speeches were during May 1836. The first at the Rev. Thomas Price's Baptist Chapel, Devonshire Square, and the second at the independent Finsbury Chapel of Rev. Dr Alexander Fletcher. Each attracted large crowds and were extensively reported, being of great influence.
In England, Roper also published the first and second version of the narrative of his escape from slavery, A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery (Philadelphia: Merrihew & Gunn, 1838). According to Martha J. Cutter, the 1838 edition, which contained five illustrations, is one of the first illustrated slave narratives published by a U.S.-born slave. Cutter also contends that Roper's narrative "depicts forms of agency and subjectivity that move beyond the master’s system of representation," layering "patterns of Christian symbolism that invoke martyrdom and even crucifixion onto and over a resistant and active enslaved body." The text therefore "performs a mode of Christian salvation that involves putting one’s fate in the hands of God but one’s feet in the position of running (away from, or out of, slavery)." The text's illustrations also refigure formations of enslaved abasement common in abolitionist discourse through a type of liberation theology.
Roper married Ann Stephen Price in Bristol, England, on December 21, 1839. He had four daughters: one born on the Atlantic Ocean on the way to Canada in about 1844, two born in Quebec and the youngest born in Nova Scotia between 1850 and 1857. He thrice returned to the British Isles: first in 1846 to "settle private matters" (possibly to arrange a new edition of his Narrative); then in 1854 and sometime before 1861, to lecture. The final time, he brought his wife and daughters back, and the 1861 British Census finds them living with his father-in-law (William Price) in Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, Wales, while Moses is in Cambridge, England, staying in a boarding house.
Some time after 1861, Moses Roper returned to the United States, where he lived the life of an itinerant lecturer, travelling from place to place discoursing on various subjects, including "Africa and the African People", "Causes of the Colors of the Races" and on the "Holy Land." It appears that after his return to the States, his family never heard from him again; by 1871, his wife has remarried and when his youngest daughter Alice Mary Maud Roper married in 1883, Roper's name was listed with the comment "(deceased)."
It also appears that he met only middling success as a lecturer and that for several years before his death, Moses Roper wandered through New England working at whatever he could find; he was working as a field hand on the farm of James T. Skillings in Franklin County, Maine near the town of Strong when "his strength gave out" in April 1891. Roper, in very poor physical condition with a little more than a hundred dollars in his pocket and accompanied only by a dog named Pete (described as "his faithful companion") was placed on a train to Boston, Massachusetts.
Roper and his dog made it to Boston, but he was found unconscious in a railroad station and taken to the Boston City Hospital. When he was found, it was noted that he was "well protected from the cold, wearing four shirts, two overcoats and three pair of pantaloons." It was also found that he was suffering from "a complication of diseases of the heart and kidneys and also from eczema" which caused his death on April 15, 1891. His dog had to be dragged away from his bedside.
Cutter, Martha J. "Revising Torture: Moses Roper and the Visual Rhetoric of the Slave’s Body in the Transatlantic Abolition Movement". ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 60.3 (2014) (No. 236 O.S.): 371-411.
- ISBN 0-486-42718-8, available online
- Cutter, Martha J. "Revising Torture: Moses Roper and the Visual Rhetoric of the Slave’s Body in the Transatlantic Abolition Movement". ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 60.3 (2014) (No. 236 O.S.): 372.
- Cutter, 373.
- "A Chronology of Moses Roper's Life".
- "Mother Was A Slave; Death of Moses Roper in the City Hospital--Was Suffering from Skin Disease and a Kidney Complaint", Boston Globe, April 16, 1891, p. 1.
- 1871 British Census for Merthyr Tydfil, Glamorgan, Wales as found on www.ancestry.com
- Marriage license of Youhanah el-Karey and Alice Mary Maude Roper
- "Maine Melange--Franklin", Bangor (Me.) Daily Whig and Courier, April 15, 1891, p. 1.
- "Mother Was A Slave; Death of Moses Roper in the City Hospital--Was Suffering from Skin Disease and a Kidney Complaint", Boston Globe, April 16, 1891, p. 1; "Moses Roper Dead", Boston Daily Advertiser, April 16, 1891, p. 1; "An Ex-Slave, Who Escaped From His Master and Became A Lecturer", Boston Journal, April 16, 1891, p. 6; "A Colored Lecturer Dead", New York Times, April 17, 1891, p. 1, c. 6; Massachusetts Deaths for the Year 1891, vol. 420, p. 195, Massachusetts State Archives, Columbia Point, Boston, Massachusetts.
- A picture of Moses
- A short biography of Moses
- A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery. Philadelphia: Merrihew & Gunn, 1838.
- 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.
- A Chronology of Moses' Life
- Moses' speeches in England
- Moses' marriage license
- 1838 article from The Liberator on Roper