Roper’s Narrative was one of the first to visually depict the horrors of slavery. Throughout his lecturing tours in the British Isles, countless Britons accused him of exaggerating the violence enslaved individuals faced, to which Roper responded: I’ll tell you my story.
For the last 5 years, I’ve transcribed hundreds of newspaper reports, playbills, speeches, letters, even poetry dedicated to Roper’s visit. The little archive I’m amassing is designed to be the source material for a biography I am (in fits and starts) writing about Roper’s journey and his life in the British Isles.
Roper was born enslaved in North Carolina around 1815 to an enslaved mother who had been raped by her white enslaver. He was severely punished for his numerous escape attempts (by his count around 16). Whilst enslaved he witnessed brutal violence: a neighbouring plantation master forced enslaved men and women into barrels, nailed them shut so the nails protruded in the inside, and rolled them down the hill. On other occasion, he watched from a jail cell as 28 Black men jumped into the Charleston River and drowned themselves rather than be separated and sold from their families. Roper remarked in one speech that this event was as deeply traumatic to him as the parting with his own mother.
Remarkably, Roper escaped from Florida (where he had been sold to another enslaver) and travelled to New York. Eventually, he visited Britain and attracted large crowds in London and towns in the North. He was educated at University of London in 1836-37, and published his slave narrative. From 1837, he spent several years travelling around the British Isles: discover his speaking locations map using the link above, and you will see his extraordinary activism - reaching from Penzance to Inverness. He exhibited whips and chains, sometimes putting them on to illustrate how they worked, and was unrelenting in his descriptions of violence. Unfortunately, his unwillingness to compromise to Victorian sensibilities meant he faced severe criticism. Newspaper correspondents accused him of lying in his descriptions, as they could not believe such horrors could exist: even one abolitionist begged him to curtail his graphic language, but Roper replied “I shall tell the truth.”
The vitriolic criticism Roper received was a result of white Victorian racism. In 1836, when he first arrived in London, Roper defended his account of slavery and in particular a violent lynching to the press: “These facts I am ready to attest in the most solemn manner, if required; and, though I have been a slave, I trust my evidence will be received on matters of fact which have come within the range of my own observation.” Three years later, he was accused by the Hampshire press of lying and exaggerating his tales of violence: “We have heard of a cat having nine lives, but Sambo must have had at least 18, and his fingers and toes, doubtless, possess the re-producing powers of the crab…Slavery is the foul blot which obscures and defiles all that is great and good among men who achieve freedom for themselves, but denied it to their fellow men. But it is not the monstrous perversions and lying inventions of Moses Roper that will either enlist English sympathies or effect a change in the American character. We have the evidence of better authorities than Moses Roper for the real treatment of slaves.” (Hampshire Advertiser and Salisbury Guardian, 13 July 1839, 2.)
Roper was understandably incensed by such racist remarks, and threatened the press in response. When audience members interrupted his speeches to dispel his “lies” about the number of whippings and beatings he had suffered, Roper threatened to carry out a whipping on the men instead. Unfortunately for Roper, he didn’t have the antislavery networks of support like Frederick Douglass: he was often maligned in the press, and by abolitionists (his former supporter Rev. Thomas Price being one of them). He travelled extensively outside the capital (where Price was based) and visited far-flung places to educate the public and sell his narrative, which he was dependent on for his survival. In some newspaper reports, Roper discusses raising money from the sale of his narrative to purchase the freedom of his family members.
By 1844, Roper records he had spoken in Britain and Ireland 2,000 times and his narrative sold over 25,000 copies, including 5,000 in Welsh. The map above records just under 1,000. Most of the locations come from the 1848 edition of his slave narrative, but nearly 200 are from mining the Victorian press to record adverts and speeches.
Roper married an Englishwoman and had four children, briefly settling in Canada. He returned to the UK during the mid 1840s, and lectured in Scotland while Frederick Douglass was speaking out against the Free Church. Douglass’ detractors were quick to cast him in the same vein, although he avoided discussing the Free Church to avoid any negative publicity. It appears the two men did not meet, but perhaps Roper attended one of Douglass’ lectures. Roper returned to the British Isles again in the mid 1850s and lectured sporadically in the Midlands, including in Nottingham and Lincoln. At this point he returned to the US alone, and continued lecturing into the 1880s. In 1891, he died in a Boston hospital, with his loyal dog Pete by his side. There are heartbreaking reports in the Boston press that describe Roper’s refusal to go to the hospital without Pete, and after he died, Pete remained by his bedside and for months slept on Roper’s pillow.
He commenced by stating why he did not like having a chairman to preside at meetings at which he spoke. He came from America, which was a land of independence, and he wished to be independent, and avoid the risk of offending any body, which he perhaps might do by some of his observations. Sometimes he had found the chairman not disposed to go the full length with him in his views, and that threw a damp upon the proceedings. He then introduced himself as Moses Roper.