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Roper, Moses(c. 1815–?) - Slave, abolitionist, Chronology

narrative escape sold england

Biographers and historians agree that there is little information on the life of the fugitive slave and abolitionist Moses Roper. Most of the available information comes from his slave narrative. Moses Roper is recognized for recording details of the horror of American slavery in his biographical account A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery (1838). The narrative challenges the romantic mythology of slavery. Roper painstakingly details his escape attempts and his punishments. Unlike many of his contemporaries who avoided disclosing the real names of their slave masters, Roper names his masters, overseers, and all persons responsible for his exploitation and abuse. Although his narrative in many ways is like a quest or adventure tale, his story has the unapologetic political mission of most slave narratives written after 1830.

Although Moses Roper indicates in his narrative that he is unsure of the exact date of his birth, most historians guess he was born in 1815 or 1816. He was born in Caswell County, North Carolina. He describes his father, John Roper, as a white man. John Roper was married to the daughter of Moses Roper’s slave master. According to Roper his mother, Nancy, was part African, part Indian, and part white. Moses Roper’s white skin and his resemblance to his father were not in his favor. In his narrative, he explains that when his father’s wife, Mrs. Roper, discovered his birth and similar appearance to John Roper, she was determined to kill him. Fortunately, Roper’s mother prevented her from harming him. Moses Roper was resented because of his white appearance. When his master died, he was separated from his mother. He was six years old and sent to live with Mr. Fowler. Fowler, not pleased with Roper, decided to sell him. However, because of Roper’s color, he had difficulty selling him. He finally sold Roper to a trader whose name was Michael.

This trade was the beginning of an exhausting journey in which Roper was sold at least a dozen times and endured countless beatings and torture. During this time, he was sold and relocated to various parts of the South, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. He did not remain long with any master, except for a Mr. Gooch. Roper was sold to Gooch around the year 1829 and lived with him at Liberty Hill in Kershaw County, South Carolina. A good portion of his narrative is devoted to recounting his experiences as Gooch’s slave. He also tells of the horrifying experiences of other slaves owned by Gooch. Under Gooch, Roper attempted to escape a number of times. His perceived obstinacy resulted from Gooch’s cruelty. According to Roper, Gooch demanded Roper do work that at times was impossible. Gooch did not provide adequate food. He often forced Roper to take off his clothes and then he would beat Roper naked. When Roper worked for a Mr. Hammans, Gooch’s son-in-law, he was frightened when the overseer, a man named Condell, threatened him. Roper made the mistake of leaving the fodder out at night, and it rained. Condell promised to flog him severely for this “crime.” Roper explains that he was about thirteen years old and decided to escape rather than be beaten. This attempted escape was the beginning of half a dozen efforts Roper made to escape slavery.

On one of his attempts, he managed to reunite with his mother, Nancy, and one of his sisters Maria. However, he was soon apprehended. Roper was severely beaten as punishment for his attempted escapes and was forced to wear various restrictive and torture devices. He was often made to wear heavy leg irons and chained to a woman slave who had also attempted to escape. These irons, coupled with the pairing with another slave, made doing daily work difficult. Consequently, he and the woman to whom he was attached were beaten more often. As a punishment after one of his escapes, he was made to wear a device he called “iron horns with bells.” This heavy and cumbersome device was attached to the back of his neck. It was used both to deter escape and as a punishment. According to Roper, this instrument was used frequently by slave holders in South Carolina. After another escape attempt, Roper was suspended on a contraption called a cotton screw. He was strung up by the hands for long periods while being whipped. Pictures of both of these devices appear in his narrative. Gooch decided to sell Roper in 1832. Roper was bought and sold a few times before being purchased by a Mr. Louis, who is describe as more tolerable, but when he went aboard, Roper was left in the care of a lawyer, Mr. Kemp. Louis suddenly died, and Mr. Kemp “illegally” sold Roper to Mr. Beveridge, another tolerable master. Beveridge took Roper to Florida. But Beveridge died shortly after purchasing Roper, and Roper was purchased by the unmerciful, perverse, and depraved Mr. Register in 1834.

While the drunken Mr. Register slept, Roper made his escape. This time he was successful. He crossed the Chapoli River and the Chattahoochee River into Georgia. The whiteness of his skin assisted him in obtaining papers that stated he was free. He used the name John Roper. He tried to divert anyone pursuing him but asked directions to Augusta, Georgia. Instead of going to Augusta, he went to Savannah, Georgia. He sailed to New York on the schooner Fox , where he worked for his passage and was harassed by the sailors. When he arrived in New York, he feared he was being sought after so he traveled throughout the northeast. He stayed briefly in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Since his hair seemed to identify him as black, Roper decided to shave his hair and wear wigs. Eventually, he decided that he could only be free if he left the United Sates.

On November 11,1835, he sailed for England. He was assisted in his travels by abolitionists who gave him letters of reference. In England, Dr. Raffles, an abolitionist, helped him. Roper went to school at Hackney, and he became an active member of Dr. F. A. Cox’s church. In 1837, the story of Roper’s enslavement and escape, A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery , was published in England. The narrative was published in 1838 in the United States. In addition to writing his slave narrative, during this period in England, Roper gave a number of antislavery speeches. Although he did attend the University College in London, he did not complete his degree. He married an English woman, Anne Stephen Price of Bristol, in 1839. Roper and his wife had one child. Although Roper talked and wrote about the possibility of moving to Africa or the West Indies, in 1844 he and his wife and child moved to Ontario, Canada. He returned to England on two occasions, once in 1846 and again in 1854 to give a speech. There is little information on Moses Roper’s death. Sources suggest he may have died in Ontario.

Moses Roper’s determination, perseverance, and courage allowed him to make important contributions to the abolitionist cause and to African American literature. His narrative provides valuable information about his life and about the nature of American slavery.

Chronology

1815?

Born into slavery in Caswell County, North Carolina

1821

Separated from his mother and sold to trader Mr. Michael

1829

Sold to Mr. Gooch (one of his cruelest masters); makes first attempt to escape

1832

Sold to Mr. Britton

1834

Sold a number of times and finally sold to Mr. Beveridge; escapes to Savannah; sails to New York City; travels throughout the northeastern part of the United States

1835

Sails for England, arriving in Liverpool

1837

Publishes in England A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery

1838

Publishes Narrative in the United States

1839

Marries Ann Stephen Price of Bristol, England

1844

Moves with wife and child to Ontario, Canada

1846

Returns to England on business matter

1854

Travels to England to give speech ?? Dies (date unknown), possibly in Ontario

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