‘Here I was on very short allowance of food, and having heavy work, was too weak to fulfil my tasks. For this, I got many severe floggings: and, after I had got my irons off, I made another attempt at running away’
Moses Roper (1815-1891) was born into the ‘prison house of bondage’ in Caswell County, North Carolina. He suffered unimaginable and unrepresentable physical tortures and psychological persecutions before he finally made his escape and went on to become a renowned freedom-fighter and social justice campaigner in the cause of ‘human liberty.’ He first published the story of his life, ‘The Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, From American Slavery’ in Berwick-Upon-Tweed in 1839, a few years before the first edition of Frederick Douglass’s ‘Narrative’ appeared in 1845.
As early as 1836, a decade before Frederick Douglass arrived in Scotland, Roper toured Britain. He gave speeches in which he denounced the villainy of white enslavers. On 30 May 1836 at Finsbury Chapel, in London, England, he satirised any and all preconceptions of a ‘good master’ by naming and shaming ‘Another good master… Colonel M'Gillon, a Scotchman, who held about 300 slaves, and who used to boast that he never flogged them.’ As Roper emphasised such a ‘boast’ was a vacant sham:
‘His mode of punishing them was to get a rice hogshead, into which several nails were driven about a quarter of an inch through, and the slave then being fastened in, he used to roll them down a very steep hill.’
In the vanguard of Black revolutionary campaigns for universal equality, Roper was an unequivocal advocate in the cause of Black liberation and a founding father of a radical philosophy of freedom by any and every means necessary.
‘When I failed in my task he commenced flogging me, and set me to work without any shirt, in the cotton field, in a very hot sun, in the month of July. In August, Mr. Condell, his overseer, gave me a task at pulling fodder; having finished my task before night, I left the field, the rain came on which soaked the fodder; on discovering this, he threatened to flog me for not getting in the fodder before the rain came. I attempted to run away, knowing that I should get a flogging. I was then between thirteen and fourteen years of age; I ran away to the woods half naked; I was caught by a slave-holder who put me in Lancaster Gaol. When they put slaves in gaol, they advertise for their masters to own them; but if the master does not claim his slave in six months from the time of imprisonment, the slave is sold for gaol fees. When the slave runs away, the master always adopts a more rigorous system of flogging; this was the case in the present instance. After thus having determined from my youth to gain my freedom, I made several attempts, was caught, and got a severe flogging of one hundred lashes, each time. Mr. Hammans was a very severe and cruel master, and his wife still worse; she used to tie me up and flog me while naked. After Mr. Hammans saw that I was determined to die in the woods, and not live with him, he tried to obtain a piece of land from his father-in-law, Mr. Gooch: not having the means of purchasing it, he exchanged me for the land. As soon as Mr. Gooch had possession of me again, knowing that I was averse to going back to him, he chained me by the neck to his chaise. In this manner he took me to his home at Mac Daniels Ferry, in the County of Chester, a distance of fifteen miles. After which, he put me into a swamp to cut trees, the heaviest work, which men of twenty-five or thirty years of age have to do, I being but sixteen. Here I was on very short allowance of food, and having heavy work, was too weak to fulfil my tasks. For this, I got many severe floggings: and, after I had got my irons off, I made another attempt at running away. He took my irons off, in the full anticipation that I could never get across the Catarba River, even when at liberty. On this, I procured a small Indian canoe, which was tied to a tree, and ultimately got across the river in it. I then wandered through the wilderness for several days without any food, and but a drop of water to allay my thirst, till I become so starved, that I was obliged to go to a house to beg for something to eat, when I was captured, and again imprisoned.’