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William Wells Brown, Madison Washington (Review)

March 22, 2014
William Wells Brown,

William Wells Brown, 1852 (Courtesy Project Gutenberg, via Wikipedia)

Having recently reviewed Harriet Ann Jacobs’ story “The lover” in the Library of America‘s (LOA) Story of the Week program – and also having seen the movie 12 Years a Slave – I couldn’t ignore William Wells Brown’s story, Madison Washington, when it appeared last month as an LOA offering.

Brown (1814-1884), like Jacobs, was born into slavery. He managed to escape to Canada when he was 19. LOA’s introductory notes tell us that within a decade he’d married, moved to Buffalo, and taught himself to read and write. He lectured against slavery in both Europe and the USA. In 1847, he published Narrative of a fugitive slave which apparently sold so many copies that four printings needed to be done in less than two years. Wikipedia tells me that his novel Clotel, published in England in 1853, is considered to be the first novel written by an African-American. He lived in England from 1849 to 1854, due to the increased risk of recapture posed by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

During and after the American Civil War, Brown continued to publish fiction and non-fiction, earning a reputation as one of the most prolific African-American writers of his time. He apparently actively recruited black Americans to fight in the Civil War, and supported African-American migration to Haiti.

The story published by LOA is just one from his book, The black man: His antecedents, his genius, and his achievements, which contains sketches of the lives of individuals who, Brown writes in his “Preface”,

by their own genius, capacity, and intellectual development, have surmounted the many obstacles which slavery and prejudice have thrown in their way, and raised themselves to positions of honor and influence.

He concludes his Preface with:

If this work shall aid in vindicating the Negro’s character, and show that he is endowed with those intellectual and amiable qualities which adorn and dignify human nature, it will meet the most sanguine hopes of the writer.

The sketch chosen by LOA concerns Madison Washington. But, before I write about that, I must say something about his name. I’ve often been intrigued by how many African-Americans were, and are, named “Washington”. Presumably this has something to do with George Washington, but what exactly? According to the Huffington Post, the 2000 US Census reported 163,036 people with the surname Washington, of whom 90% were African-American. This is apparently a far higher “black” percentage than for any other common name. The article describes a rather complex situation regarding the name. It tells us that during the early post-abolition period, when slaves were allowed to have surnames, many chose Washington. This is most likely linked to the president. However, George Washington had, the article explains, a complicated relationship with slavery, and so the reasoning behind the use of the name is not totally clear. Interestingly, in the case of Madison Washington, his first name is also the name of a slave-owning president? Coincidence?

Now to “Madison Washington” the story! It starts with a description of the man:

Among the great number of fugitive slaves who arrived in Canada towards the close of the year 1840, was one whose tall figure, firm step, and piercing eye attracted at once the attention of all who beheld him. Nature had treated him as a favorite. His expressive countenance painted and reflected every emotion of his soul. There was a fascination in the gaze of his finely-cut eyes that no one could withstand. Born of African parentage, with no mixture in his blood, he was one of the handsomest of his race. His dignified, calm, and unaffected features announced at a glance that he was one endowed with genius, and created to guide his fellow-man.

The story proper then begins six months into his time in Canada when his employer, pleased with his work, realises that Washington is discontented. Upon his enquiry, the story comes out. Washington had a wife with whom he’d planned to escape, but the escape plans had gone awry and he alone had got away. His aim was to work hard, and save the money to purchase her freedom, but he’d begun to realise that it would take him five years to save the required money. So, what does he do? He decides to return to the south, ignoring advice to the contrary and risking recapture, to effect her escape. As Brown reports, “Liberty is worth nothing to me while my wife is a slave”.

Well, the inevitable happens, but Washington manages to escape again, this time by orchestrating a mutiny on the “Creole” which was carrying him and other slaves to the New Orleans slave market.  Via this mutiny, he effected the freeing of 128 slaves, resulting in what is recognised as the most successful slave revolt of the period, more successful than the more famous Amistad mutiny which freed only 53 slaves.

Brown’s telling of the story shows Washington to both a principled and resourceful man – principled because of his treatment of the sailors once the ship was under slave control and resourceful because of the careful planning he’d done to prepare for an escape. It is also, though, rather melodramatic, which is typical of the times, and involves the amazing coincidence of his wife, the “majestic, “beautiful and accomplished” Susan, being on the boat. According to LOA this is “an almost certain apocryphal addition” that appeared in an article a year after the mutiny. It makes for a good story, however!

Interestingly, in 1853, Frederick Douglass wrote a novella, The heroic slave, presenting a fictional account of Madison Washington. Wikipedia, which told me that Brown’s 1853 published Clotel is considered to be the first African-American-written novel written, also states that Douglass’s novella “is now considered the first known piece of African-American fictional literature”. Let’s let Wikipedia fight it out because, in the end, I don’t think it really matters. What matters is that African-Americans were writing and being published, and that we can still access to their works today.

William Wells Brown
“Madison Washington”
First published: In his book, The black man, his antecedents, his genius, his achievements, 1862.
Available: Online at the Library of America or in Documenting the American South

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2014 1:51 am

    Small error: he probably lived in England until1854, not 1954… I love your reviews, you’ve turned me on to new (read: previously unknown) books a few times!

    • March 23, 2014 8:56 am

      Oh thanks Vyv … For commenting and picking up my typo! Much appreciate it. Love the fact that my reviews have introduced you to “new” books.

  2. March 25, 2014 4:56 am

    There was a bit about Clotel in the historical fiction mooc I took last year. Apparently it was common knowledge that Jefferson had fathered children with his slaves only for some reason it was a big deal when “official” (white) historians figured it out in 1998 using DNA testing. Sigh.

    • March 25, 2014 7:59 am

      Sigh, indeed. And Jefferson was a fairly common name for slaves and African Americans too, wasn’t it.

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