The Enslaved as Spectacle: Ellen Craft, Sarah Parker Remond, and American Slavery in England

By Zackodnik, Teresa | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Enslaved as Spectacle: Ellen Craft, Sarah Parker Remond, and American Slavery in England


Zackodnik, Teresa, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Focusing on the lecture tours of African American abolitionists Ellen Craft (1851) and Sarah Parker Remond (1859), this paper argues their appearances and appeals on the platform capitalized on their English audiences' fascination with the "tragic mulatta" figure and familiarity with the "woman as slave" trope. Craft's "whiteness" clearly affected her audiences, who saw her as a living exhibit of the lowest to which American slavery would sink. Remond's lectures, in turn, invoked the figure of the "whitened" slave Ellen Craft embodied in order to stress slavery's horrors and facilitate an empathic appeal. Remond carefully managed that empathy by moving between embodied and rational appeals, and by standing as a figure her audiences could imagine would be enslaved in America despite being free-born.

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Before Ellen Craft arrived in Liverpool in early December of 1850, she had been circulating in American anti-slavery publications as what we might call slavery's zero limit and a "living proof" of its horrors and extremes. Indeed, Samuel May, Jr. brought her to the attention of Bristol Garrisonian John Estlin in just such a fashion, stressing her "whitened" features in a letter dated 2 February 1849:

   E.C. [...] has no trace of African blood discernible in her
   features [...] but the whole is that of a southern-born white
   woman. To think of such a woman being held as a piece of property
   [...] (while it is in reality no worse or wickeder than when done
   to the blackest woman that ever was) does yet stir a community
   brought up in prejudice vs. color a thousand times more deeply than
   could be effected in different circumstances. She was a living
   proof that Slavery [...] is as ready to enslave the whitest and the
   fairest as any other provided only the pretext be afforded. (1)

Ellen and her husband William effected a "daring escape" from Macon, Georgia in December 1848. Ellen, the daughter of her master Major James Smith and his house-slave Maria, was light-skinned enough to pass for white. With William posing as her slave, Ellen disguised herself as a rheumatic Southern gentleman en route to Philadelphia for treatment; travelling by rail car and steamer, the Crafts arrived in Philadelphia four days later. The Crafts lived in Boston until the Fugitive Slave Law passed in September 1850 forced them to leave the United States in early November for England, where they lived for nineteen years. Not only were the Crafts well known in the United States where their escape was recounted in both abolitionist and pro-slavery papers, but their "daring escape ... [was] widely reported in British newspapers." (2) Soon after their arrival in Liverpool, the Crafts accompanied William Wells Brown on a lecture tour of the north and west of England as well as Scotland from January through May of 1851, appearing at a score of anti-slavery meetings. (3) By 1854, the Crafts would be hailed as having made a "profound and abiding impression" (4) on their audiences who were drawn by the promise of seeing Ellen Craft, "the 'White Slave." (5) Ellen's "whiteness" and her status as living proof of the depths to which American slavery would sink created both the attention she labored under and the complex circuit of empathy and identification that her fellow African-American abolitionist, Sarah Parker Remond, would need to carefully negotiate.

On 12 January 1859, free-born Remond arrived in Liverpool to begin a lecture tour of Britain that came to be described as grueling and highly influential. (6) She appeared in cities and towns through England, Scotland, and Ireland between January 1859 and January 1861. (7) During this period, Remond delivered several speeches in which she invoked the figures of the female slave and the tragic mulatta, figures that Ellen Craft effectively embodied for her audiences. The 1850s were active years for British women in the antislavery cause and years in which women's rights agitation developed. …

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