Documenting the American South Logo
Loading
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives, First-Person Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

Austin Steward, 1794-1860
Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman; Embracing a Correspondence of Several Years, While President of Wilberforce Colony, London, Canada West
Rochester, N.Y.: William Alling, 1857.

Summary

Austin Steward's narrative, like many antebellum slave narratives, opens and closes with authenticating documents. In this case, these documents are predominantly letters to Steward and his publisher that vouch for the writer's character. In the preface that follows the opening letters, Steward writes that the facts of slavery are too horrible to reproduce faithfully. Speaking of himself in the third person, Steward explains that "so far from believing that he has misrepresented Slavery as an institution, he does not feel that he has the power to give anything like a true picture of it in all its deformity and wickedness; especially that Slavery which is an institution among an enlightened and Christian people, who profess to believe that all men are born free and equal, and who have certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (p.xii ).

Steward's story of his life in slavery begins in 1794 on Captain William Helm's plantation in Prince William County, Virginia, where he lived with his parents, Robert and Susan, and a sister, Mary. After Helm moves his household and all his slaves—including Steward—to New York, he hires Steward and his sister out to the brutal Mr. Robinson. Here, Steward receives so many blows to the head that he begins to suffer from chronic headaches. This pervasive brutality motivates him to seek his freedom legally. He speaks to a lawyer and the Manumission Society about this prospect, but he is quickly discouraged by the slow results. Anxious for freedom, Steward runs away. He writes: "But why, oh why, had I been forced to flee thus from my fellow men? I was guilty of no crime; I had committed no violence; I had broken no law of the land; I was not charged even with a fault, except of the love of liberty and a desire to be free! I had claimed the right to possess my own person, and remove it from oppression" (p.112). After his successful escape, Steward begins working for Dennis Comstock, president of the Manumission Society, and writes of the joy he felt upon earning his first wages. He quickly buys books and goes to school, noting that he is 23 but has only a third-grade education.

Meanwhile, Helm, left nearly destitute when his wife leaves him, plots a scheme to kidnap his escaped slaves and sell them to a Southern trader. He plans an elaborate "reunion party" to lure all of them together for easy capture. Steward heads for the party but turns back after "a presentiment took possession of [his] mind that all was not right" (p.118). Many do go, however, and there is a fierce fight in which Steward's father is mortally wounded. Helm files suit against Steward, but before the case is brought to trial, Helm dies. Steward writes that "Their wealth, power and bravery had come to naught; and no tribute was now paid to the memory of one of 'Old Virginia's best families'" (p. 148).

Now completely secure in his freedom, Steward opens his own general store in Rochester, New York. He becomes a Benjamin Franklin-esque leader in Rochester as his success grows, and he espouses practical advice that also anticipates that of Booker T. Washington half a century later. He tells his readers, for example, to privilege "industry prudence, and economy" (p. 159). The narrative also provides the full text of Steward's July 5, 1827, speech in celebration of emancipation in New York and reprints some press coverage of the event.

Despite this entrepreneurial success, Steward leaves New York for Canada in 1831. Moved by stories of the fugitives seeking refuge there, and in spite of premonitions warning him not to leave New York, Steward sets out to aid a blooming colony for free African Americans. Steward claims credit for suggesting the new colony be named Wilberforce, in honor of William Wilberforce, who was instrumental in securing the abolition of the slave trade in England in 1807 and worked for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. The colony is almost immediately plagued by intra-racial division and financial difficulty, as both of the colony's fund-raising agents (Mr. Paul for England, Mr. Lewis for the United States) embezzle all or most the large sums they had collected from donors. Attempts to secure the money or punish the offenders result only in a slander campaign against Steward and a bitter, and nearly deadly, feud between Steward and the agents.

Nearly ruined financially by life at Wilberforce, Steward re-settles in Rochester, where he relies on loans and other aid from friends for support. His re-opened business begins to fail, forcing him to take on a partner, but the store burns down shortly thereafter. Although disheartened by this loss as well as by the death of his daughter, Steward continues his anti-slavery efforts. His narrative concludes with the celebration of emancipation in the West Indies and a chronicle of the brutalities and injustices of American slavery.

Jennifer L. Larson

Document menu