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“Cunning better than strong” is a Jamaican proverb; a message of survival and resistance that urges us to use our brain rather than our brawn to overcome oppressors. It’s a proverb that is encapsulated by the Jamaican trickster folk hero Anansi.
Anansi is of West African origin and became central to the oral tradition of the enslaved in the Caribbean. When caught in a terrible situation, Anansi would find his way out through intelligence, disguise, subterfuge and wit.
These tactics of survival and resistance were used by Black abolitionists Ellen and William Craft and Henry “Box” Brown. Disguise and performance were central to their escape from enslavement, political activism and appeal to white audiences. Black abolitionists shared their experiences of enslavement to change the hearts and minds of everyday people on both sides of the Atlantic. However, their work is often obscured in the national narrative of Britain’s role in slavery.
Since the abolition of the slave trade on March 25 1807, the historical narrative has focussed on Britain’s role in abolition – rather than on the depth of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and plantation slavery. The work of famous white abolitionists has long been applauded and highlighted, in particular that of social reformer William Wilberforce.
Yorkshire was at the heart of the abolitionist movement in the UK, but this focus on Wilberforce and his white peers has also meant that many prominent Black abolitionists that visited the county, lecturing and staging anti-slavery performances, have been long overlooked.
Ellen and William Craft’s cunning plan
Ellen and William Craft were born into slavery in Georgia in the south of the US. They married and, fearing that they would be separated from one another and their future children would be sold into slavery, planned a daring escape in 1848.
As a result of the rape of her mother by a white slave master, Ellen was light-skinned and able to “pass” for white. Their plan involved Ellen posing as a man and William acting as her faithful “manservant”. Ellen would cut her hair and wear men’s clothes and, in this disguise, they would head north to the free states via steamboat and train.
Ellen couldn’t write, as slaves weren’t taught to, so she bandaged her hand to avoid being asked to sign her name. They knew if they were caught, they would be tortured and separated. The plan worked, with Ellen sitting in the “whites only” carriage of a train, undetected.
The Crafts settled in Boston until the passing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which gave slave owners the power to travel from the south and recapture slaves who had escaped north. American abolitionists helped the Crafts to raise enough money to flee to the relative safety of the UK. There, they created a stage performance to shine a spotlight on the terrors of enslavement.
Activism through performance
As researcher Hannah-Rose Murray explains in the excellent Africans in Yorkshire project, Ellen Craft became a celebrity at anti-slavery meetings because of her pale skin and because both she and William carefully constructed their performances for the British stage:
Ellen would remain silent on stage, as Black women were not expected to speak in public, and William would describe their escape and the brutality of enslavement.
British audiences were fascinated by Ellen’s pale skin and aghast that she could have once been a slave.
The Crafts learned to read and write, spent over two decades educating the public about slavery and published their autobiography. They returned to America in 1868 and opened a school for Black children in Georgia.
Their story is being told today by Leeds-based performer and historian Joe Williams in his play, Meet the Crafts. Ellen and William Craft, he explains, were recorded in the 1851 Leeds Census and registered as staying in the house of abolitionist Wilson Armistead. In the section for “occupation”, they are registered as “fugitives from slavery in America”.
Master of subterfuge
Another incredible story of escape through disguise and subterfuge is that of Henry “Box” Brown, who was born a slave in Richmond, Virginia, in 1816.
He returned from work one day in 1849 to find that his wife and children had been sold. He decided to orchestrate an unbelievably risky escape, a year after the Crafts carried out their own.
Brown paid for a box to be made, measuring 1m by 1m and 0.6m wide. He squeezed himself in and posted himself from Virginia in the south to Philadelphia in the free north. Holes were made in the box so he could breathe, he had some water and biscuits for the journey and was transported via wagon, boat and train. The journey took 72 hours and abolitionists in Philadelphia describe how when they opened the box, “Brown clambered out and sung a freedom hymn: he was finally free.”
However, like the Crafts, the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act forced Brown to leave for the UK. In England, Brown toured the country, performing his escape, as well as drawing from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to create a panorama of enslavement on stage. Brown toured Yorkshire and performed in the Music Hall in Hull.
Changing the narrative
Brown was a born showman. A central part of his act was emerging from the original box in which he had travelled to freedom. He was also known to walk the streets of English towns dressed in traditional African clothing, styling himself as an African prince.
He published the first edition of his autobiography in 1849. After marrying an English woman, he returned to America in 1875 and continued performing until his death in 1897.
The stories of the Crafts and Henry “Box” Brown are examples of people using their intelligence and creativity, as the Caribbean slave trickster hero Anansi would, to survive the most appalling circumstances.
They are key to our understanding of the history of enslavement. Slaves were not passive victims – they were integral to the political processes of abolition in the UK and put their intellectual, creative and artistic weight behind the movement.
In Yorkshire, performers and artists like Joe Williams are carrying that legacy forward through their work. And in doing so they are making a much-needed intervention into our well-worn, Wilberforce-centric abolitionist narratives.
Emily Zobel Marshall does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.