The Life of the Late James Johnson: An American Slave Narrative from Oldham, England

By David S. Cecelski and Alex Christopher Meekins 

This essay first appeared in Carolina Comments, the N.C. Office of Archives and History’s quarterly newsletter in July 2008. 

An exhibit on local connections to slavery at the Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council Archives in Oldham, England, has brought to light an American slave narrative previously unknown in the United States. Titled The Life of the Late James Johnson (Colored Evangelist), an Escaped Slave from the Southern States of America, the pamphlet chronicles Johnson’s youth in Brunswick County, North Carolina, his escape to a Union vessel during the Civil War, his passage to Liverpool as a sailor and a sobering, if picaresque, journey through England and Wales.

Johnson settled in Oldham in 1866 and died there in 1914, which is how the only known copies of his autobiography came to be preserved in the Oldham M.B.C. Archive.

Roger Ivens, a Local Studies Officer at the Oldham Local Studies and Archive, under which the Oldham M.B.C. Archive falls, first brought news of the narrative’s existence to this side of the Atlantic earlier this year. On the 19th of March, Mr. Ivens contacted the State Archives of North Carolina in order to introduce the archivists there to Johnson’s narrative and to inquire if they might provide him with additional information on Johnson or the other individuals, places and events referenced in his narrative. Mr. Ivens supplied the archivists with a brief sketch summarizing the narrative at that time. He later sent a complete copy of the pamphlet to the State Archives, as well as one to Dr. David Cecelski.

Slavery– What’s it got to do with us?

Mr. Ivens had turned his attentions to The Life of the Late James Johnson as an especially vivid part of the Oldham M.B.C. Archives’ exhibit, “Slavery—What’s it got to do with us?”

Other parts of the exhibit featured Juba Thomas Royton, an 18th-century enslaved servant of Thomas Percival of Royston Hall, Oldham, as well as newspaper coverage of two landmark events in Oldham’s history: the debates over slavery in the Oldham parliamentary election of 1832 and the local outlook on the Civil War and slavery during the “Cotton Famine,” that period during the American Civil War when the Union blockade of Southern shipping severely reduced cotton imports and compelled Oldham’s textile mills to curtail their output drastically.

At that time, Oldham was the leading cotton-spinning town on either side of the Atlantic, boasting roughly a tenth of the world’s spindles. The reliance of the city’s textile industry on American cotton was its most trenchant connection with slavery and is a central part of the Oldham M.B.C. Archives’ exhibit.

At the State Archives of North Carolina, staff archivists immediately recognized the importance and rarity of Johnson’s dense, 15-page slave narrative from an American point of view. Johnson’s is the only known firsthand account of slavery in Brunswick County, N.C., and is one of approximately a dozen known narratives written by former slaves from any part of North Carolina.

One of those narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, is now considered a classic of American literature.

Most, however, derive their enduring significance from the insights that they give into American history at a more regional level. Originating outside the United States, James Johnson’s narrative may almost be considered part of a sub-genre of the classic slave narrative, having been written in circumstances far removed from the historical forces that shaped the literary perspectives of slave narrators within the United States.

 Salt and Water

According to The Life of the Late James Johnson, Johnson was born on March 20, 1847, in Smithville (later Southport), the county seat of Brunswick County, North Carolina.[i] He indicates that his owner when he was a small child was a boat builder named Uriah Moss.[ii] Because of financial difficulties, Moss sold him to a planter named Jesse Drew, “who lived at Orton,” a prominent plantation on the Cape Fear River between Wilmington and Smithville.[iii]

Prior to Moss selling him, he also was temporarily in the household of a local storekeeper, William Galloway, apparently as a payment for Moss’s debts to Galloway.[iv] While owned by Drew, he describes his work life in this way:

 

It was my Sunday task to go into the fields and scare the birds from the Indian corn and rice. During the winter I had to up-root and gather the sweet potatoes or yams, and rake straw. In the summer, to plough the ground for the reception of Indian corn, cotton, peas, and sugar-cane. During the autumn season, to strip fodder for the horses and cattle from the Indian corn stalks.[v]

 

Johnson remembered life with Drew as “comparatively pleasant.” He makes no mention of Drew ever whipping him, unlike his first owner, the boat builder Uriah Moss.

According to The Life of the Late James Johnson, Drew sold Johnson after approximately two years. Johnson indicates that his next owner was a George Washington.[vi] Johnson recalled that Washington employed him as a coachman and hostler and, when not doing either of those jobs, he was sent to labor on one of Washington’s two plantations, one at the Green Swamp and the other 5 miles away at “Five Points.”[vii] That was a period in which he suffered a great deal of abuse. He refers specifically to one incident, probably sometime in 1859 or 1860, when he was tied to a tree trunk.

He flogged me until the blood streamed down my back, and then ordered some of the other negroes to wash me in salt and water, in order to cure my lacerated back as soon as possible, not that he cared what I suffered, but I could not work so soon if this was not done; but the suffering enduring by such a proceeding can only be felt, it cannot be described.[viii]

Approximately a year later, the Civil War broke out, his owner’s son joined the Confederate army and he was made a house servant.[ix] Much of The Life of the Late James Johnson’s portrait of that period of his life focuses on the struggle of local slaves to find adequate food. Perhaps they were experiencing the consequences of the Union naval blockade of the Cape Fear River and of the other war-time disruptions to the local economy.

Be that as it may, Johnson’s efforts to satiate his hunger by pilfering his owner’s livestock and the bounty of his owner’s smokehouse are some of the pamphlet’s lengthiest passages.

 

Sick and Heart-sore I Was

Those incidents often involved other slaves, but Johnson mentions only one of them by name. She was a slave cook named Rebecca.  After being flogged, Rebecca escaped from the plantation but was run down by bloodhounds in Shallotte. Johnson remembered that she was “beat again, put in irons, kept in a barn for a week, and fed on bread and water.”

Though he had not always had a friendly relationship with Rebecca, Johnson attempted to nurse her back to health. He recalled that lengthy period of Rebecca’s debilitation as his darkest moment.

I became so down-hearted at what I had endured myself, and saw poor Rebecca suffer, that I tried to put an end to my miserable existence by eating the leaves of a poisonous plant, but the doctor was brought and the stomach-pump applied, but I was ill for a long time afterwards. I went nearly mad, and ate clay to destroy myself, upon which my master got spirits of turpentine and clay mixed together, and forced it down my throat, in order that I might be sickened of it, and sick and heart-sore I was.[x]

 

Almost immediately after the outbreak of hostilities between North and South, the Lincoln administration instigated a blockade of Southern shipping. After Union Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside captured New Bern and Beaufort early in 1862, those seaports became the bases for a Union blockading fleet that patrolled the waters off of Confederate ports and rivers to the south.

In the summer of 1862, Johnson and three companions succeeded in stealing a boat from their owner and rendezvousing with one of the Union naval vessels, the U.S.S. Stars and Stripes. She was a 407-ton screw steamer that saw blockading duty off the Cape Fear River throughout the summer of 1862.[xi] Johnson indicates that he served on that naval vessel for six weeks, until the Stars and Stripes sailed to Philadelphia for overhaul and repairs, which other sources tell us occurred on or about the 26th of August, 1862.[xii]

James Johnson left the Stars and Stripes in Philadelphia. He bummed his way to New York City and, having been duped by an unscrupulous shipping agent, signed on as a crew member of the Blenheim, an English ship bound for Liverpool.[xiii]

“’Darkie’ got kicked about a good deal all the way to Brunswick Dock, Liverpool,” he recalled.

 

Singing, Dancing and Rattlebones

He arrived in Liverpool penniless and friendless. “Now I know of the dear friend in heaven—the Lord Jesus—but I didn’t then, so I was sad and downcast,” he writes. He first lived on the city’s streets, begging for bread or scrounging in ash pits for food scraps and sleeping in “out-houses, water closets, timber-yards, etc.” He fell victim to thieves and scam artists repeatedly, until he was left in the English winter with scarcely any clothes on his back.

Eventually, Johnson left Liverpool and began to tramp through the English and Welsh countryside. According to The Life of the Late James Johnson, he visited Ormskirk, St. Helens, Warrington, Manchester, Wigan, Huddersfield, Leeds, York, Beverley, Hull, Sheffield, Swansea, Whitehaven and West Hartlepool, among other locales.

He was on the road for nearly four years. Twice, he indicates, he went to sea again, but returned and “spent my money in drinking, etc.”

At times, he begged.  Other times, he “took to singing, dancing, and rattlebones” in front of taverns in order to earn his bread. He probably reached his low point in Sheffield, in South Yorkshire. There he joined Chuckie Harris’s Boxing Tent, a traveling boxing show of a kind renowned for its sordid lifestyle, gambling and vicious, bare-knuckled fighting.

There, he says, he met the legendary Nottingham boxer, Bendigo, the stage name for William Abednego Thompson (1811-1880). Evidently, Johnson’s role in the boxing show was that of “sparring man” for the show’s professional boxers, a job not likely to elicit much envy.

Johnson arrived in Oldham, in the northwest of England, in September 1866. The town was recovering from the Cotton Famine and again offered opportunity in its spinning mills and foundries. Johnson found work first at a foundry and then at Platt Brothers and Company, a leading maker of textile machinery as well as operator of a foundry and colliery.

Light Began to Dawn More Fully into my Soul

In Oldham he experienced a spiritual awakening that began with an invitation from a co-worker to hear the Sheffield Hallelujah Band during a local tour. He eventually began to attend “the Oldham church” and “the Town Hall services,” as well as occasionally to attend meetings of the Hallelujah Band at the town’s Cooperative Hall. At the Town Hall services, Johnson wrote, “light began to dawn more fully into my soul.”

One night, in the aftermeeting, I heard them singing, “Oh, the Lamb, the bleeding Lamb,” when I realized that “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s son, cleansed ‘me’ from all sin.” Oh gladsome day, when I was able to say, Free from the slavery of the master in America—the master of my body. But what a still more glorious one when I realized I was free from the soul-master—the devil! Now I am free, body and soul….[xiv]

 

The Life of the Late James Johnson is as fundamentally a tale of a religious journey as it is a slave narrative. The climax of Johnson’s account is that moment when he is spiritually redeemed at the Town Hall services. The date of his religious awakening is vague, but seems to have been in 1867 or 1868.

After that point in his narrative, Johnson says very little about his life. He indicates that he married Sarah Preston in 1869, and he credits her with teaching him how to read and write.[xv] He also briefly outlines a time frame for his gaining the confidence to speak about his faith in public, a chronology that allows us to estimate the date of his authorship of The Life of the Late James Johnson as being 1877 or 1878. He says that he did not preach publicly for six years after his religious conversion and, at the time of the pamphlet’s writing, he attests, he had been preaching “the old, old story of Jesus and His love” in public for four years.

A Slave’s Journey & a Christian’s Journey

Though The Life of the Late James Johnson fits in some ways into the traditional form, voice and style of the classic American slave narratives, Johnson’s testimony also departs from their conventions in other ways. One notices immediately, for instance, that the pamphlet offers its readers only a title page and Johnson’s own words, not an introduction or preface by a respected political leader or minister, as in so many slave narratives. Unlike most American narratives, the pamphlet contains no front or back matter vouching for its authenticity or testifying to the author’s good character and sound citizenship.

In addition, the way that Johnson begins the narrative at the point when he was twelve years old and ends his story with his spiritual conversation at approximately the age of 20, rather than with his escape from slavery or his acceptance as a productive member of society, is also unusual. That choice and the rather lengthy sections on his trials in the British Isles confirms the author’s intention of telling a story that is both a slave’s journey and a Christian’s journey.

Only the title page offers much in the way of clues as to the pamphlet’s provenance and the circumstances of its publication. It does not indicate a year of publication, only a printer: W. Galley, 78 Lees Road, Oldham. The book’s title refers of course to the “Late James Johnson,” so we know that it was published after his death in 1914.

The title page also indicates that Miss Alice Johnson, James and Sarah Johnson’s daughter, held the pamphlet’s copyright. It gives her address as being 5 Greenacres Road, Oldham. She was offering the pamphlet for sale for a penny.

The Life of the Late James Johnson offers students of history much to examine in more depth. The pamphlet is bound to reward scholars with a greater understanding of race and slavery in both the United States and the British Isles. The staff at the State Archives of North Carolina has been a tremendous help in verifying the pamphlet’s authenticity and providing historical background on incidents discussed in the narrative.

In addition, we, on this side of the Atlantic owe a great debt to Mr. Roger Ivens and the Oldham M.B.C. Archives for bringing the slave narrative to our attention and to highlighting the often overlooked connections that slavery built between our two countries.

The appearance of James Johnson’s narrative at the Oldham M.B.C. Archives also points to what we believe will be a trend in coming years. Before, during and after the American Civil War, thousands of former slaves emigrated to Canada, Great Britain, continental Europe, Africa and the West Indies. We may presume that some small percentage of those slaves, like James Johnson, later recorded their experiences as slaves in the American South.

If that assumption is correct, many of those narratives would have been circulated only on a local level and remained undiscovered beyond the immediate vicinity. As more towns and cities around the world examine their own historical relationship with American slavery and as the internet grows and more local and provincial research centers build on-line data bases of their collections, we are likely to see more testimonies to our slave past come to light.

If that turns out to be the case, we will no doubt gain an important new appreciation for what those distant exiles have to teach us about their former home.

 

NOTES

[i] Johnson indicates that he was born in “Smithfield.” Other details in the narrative make clear that he was referring to Smithville.

[ii] This is a reference to Uriah Morse, age 56, a boat builder listed in the 1850 Brunswick County census and other local records. No Moss is listed in local census records. In 1850, Morse owned 3 slaves, including 1 male listed as being 6 years old, the closest in age to Johnson at that time. Seventh Census of the United States: Brunswick County, N.C. (1850), Population and Slave Schedules, National Archives (microfilm).

[iii] On 15 October 1852, Uriah Morse sold an 8-year-old slave boy named Alfred (James Johnson’s middle name and the name by which he went as a slave) to Jesse G. Drew. Drew was one of the county’s leading citizens. He was Brunswick County register of deeds in 1856 and served as Clerk of the County Court from 1857 to at least 1862. He did not own Orton plantation, but did own land, a residence and slaves adjacent to Orton and bordering the Cape Fear River. According to the federal census of 1860, one of his 12 slaves was a male listed as being 12 years old, roughly Johnson’s age at the time. Brunswick County, N.C. Deeds, Book P, pp. 555-556; Book Q, p. 616; Book R, pp. 99, 360; Book S, pp. 191, 382, 309-310, NCSA. See, also, Eighth Census of the United States: Brunswick County, N.C. (1860), Population and Slave Schedules, National Archives (microfilm), and English census records, 1901, Ancestry library edition database (http://www.ancestrylibrary.com), accessed 19 May 2008.

[iv] No William Galloway appears in local census records or deeds, but Galloway and Gallaway were common surnames in antebellum Brunswick County.

[v] James Johnson, The Life of the Late James Johnson (Colored Evangelist), an Escaped Slave from the Southern States of America (Oldham, England: W. Galley, n.d.), 3-4, Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council Archives, Oldham, England.

[vi] This is a reference to George Washington Swain, a wealthy Brunswick County planter. Eighth Census of the United States: Brunswick County, N.C. (1860), Population and Slave Schedules, National Archives (microfilm).

[vii]George W. Swain’s “Green Swamp” plantation was located on Davis Creek, which flows into Lockwood Folly River. “Five Points” apparently refers to his plantation and residence on Dutchman’s Creek, northwest of Smithville. A working hypothesis, put forward by Beverly Tetterton at the New Hanover County Public Library, is that the name “5 Points” refers to the short stretch of Dutchman’s Creek, on Swain’s plantation, where that creek, Jump and Run Creek and 3 smaller creeks converge. Brunswick County Deeds, Book S, p. 284 (21 Dec. 1859), NCSA; Swain Family File, Bill Reeves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library, Wilmington, N.C.; Seventh and Eighth Federal Censuses of the United States, Brunswick County, N.C. (1850 and 1860), Population Schedule, National Archives (microfilm); Wilmington Weekly Star, 5 Feb. 1875.

[viii] Johnson, Life of the Late James Johnson, 5.

[ix] Benjamin Franklin Swain joined the 30th NCST in July 1861. Mathew Brown, Weymouth T. Jordan and Louis H. Manarin, North Carolina Troops, A Roster1861-1865 (16 vols. to date), Vol. VIII, page 350 [Vol. VIII published 1981] Division of Archives and History, Raleigh N.C.

[x] Johnson, Life of the Late James Johnson, 8-9.

[xi] Report of Commander Glisson, ORN series 1, vol. 7, p. 602. Johnson indicates that he escaped with three friends, “William, Fernie and Pleasant.” Glisson reported that the Stars and Stripes picked up 4 “contrabands,” Alfred Gauss, William J. McRithie, Ferny Rimuky and James P. Henderson, off Lockwood Folly’s inlet on 29 July 1862. He says that three of the four belonged to George Swain, “a Secessionist.” How Johnson came to have the surname Gauss while he was a slave is as yet unclear, though Gause was a prominent family in Brunswick County. The surname that Johnson adopted after he was free was that of his father, Tom Johnson, a slave. Marriage registration, December quarter, 1891, vol. 8d, p. 942, Oldham Registrar Office, Oldham, Eng.

[xii] Report of James F. Armstrong, U.S.S. State of Georgia, ORN series 1, vol. 7, page 694.

[xiii] The Blenheim arrived in Liverpool on 24 January 1863. Ship News, 26 Jan. 1863, The Times (London), p. 6, col. F, The Times Digital Archive, 1795-1985, Issue 24465, Via Info Trac.

[xiv] Johnson, Life of the Late James Johnson, 14-15.

[xv] English records shed light on Johnson’s later life. He married Sarah Ellen Preston, a spinster, on the 6th of June, 1869. The couple had one child, Alice. After Sarah Preston’s death, Johnson married a widow, Mary Ann Cook, at the parish church of St. Stephen’s, on 13 December 1891. During his residence in Oldham, local records listed his occupation as “iron worker,” blacksmith, and “iron striker.” He died on 24 February, 1914, age 66, of “chronic Bright’s Disease and Uraemia.” He is apparently buried in an unmarked grave in the city’s Royton Cemetery. Marriage and death registrations, June quarter, 1869, vol. 8d, p. 963; December quarter, 1891, vol. 8d, p. 942; March quarter, 1914, vol. 8d, p. 810, Oldham Registrar Office, Oldham, Eng.. See also, English census records, 1871, 1881, 1901 (Oldham/Greater Manchester/Lancashire Area), Ancestry library edition database (http://www.ancestrylibrary.com), accessed 19 May 2008.

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