‘Now I've been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave’
Born into US slavery as Araminta Ross in Maryland, Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) escaped to become the most renowned liberator on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was the name given to the secret system of linked safe houses and routes by which enslaved people, with the support of enslaved and free Black freedom-fighters as well as white supporters and allies, secured their liberation from slavery. A legendary figure, Harriet Tubman was widely known as the ‘Moses of Her People’.
Writing of Tubman’s constant need for funds for her liberation returns to the US South, on one occasion when she informed Thomas Garrett, a white antislavery campaigner and another Underground Railroad conductor, that she needed ‘twenty-three dollars’ he recorded: ‘I then gave her twenty-four dollars and some odd cents, the net proceeds of five pounds sterling, received through Eliza Wigham of Scotland, for her.’ As Garrett further explains,
‘I had given some accounts of Harriet’s labors in the Anti-Slavery Society of Edinburgh, of which Eliza Wigham was Secretary. On the reading of my letter, a gentleman said he would send four pounds if he know of any ways to get it to her. Eliza Wigham offered to forward it to me for her, and that was the first money ever received by me for her.’
Scotland in general and Edinburgh in particular helped to raise funds not only for Tubman’s journeys into the South but also in supporting newly freed women, children and men facing destitution after the US Civil War.
Throughout his lifetime, Frederick Douglass remained in awe at Harriet Tubman’s heroism. In the years after the Civil War, he wrote a public letter in which he freely admitted to a sense of his own inferiority in comparison with her exalted abilities: ‘The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day -- you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt ‘God bless you’ has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism.’
Harriet Tubman’s personal testimony is included in Benjamin Drew’s ‘A North-Side View of Slavery’, 1856:
‘I grew up like a neglected weed, – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it. Then I was not happy or contented: every time I saw a white man I was afraid of being carried away. I had two sisters carried away in a chain-gang, – one of them left two children. We were always uneasy. Now I've been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave. I have no opportunity to see my friends in my native land. We would rather stay in our native land, if we could be as free there as we are here. I think slavery is the next thing to hell. If a person would send another into bondage, he would, it appears to me, be bad enough to send him into hell, if he could.’