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Mary L. Cox and Susan H. Cox
Narrative of Dimmock Charlton, a British Subject, Taken from the Brig "Peacock" by the U.S. Sloop "Hornet," Enslaved while a Prisoner of War, and Retained Forty-Five Years in Bondage
Philadelphia: The Editors, 1859.


According to his narrative, Dimmock Charlton (b. 1799) was born in the African country of Kissee, to a tribe of the same name. Scholar John Blassingame notes that the Kissi tribe, to which Charlton likely belonged, lives in what is now Guinea. Originally named Tallen, Charlton was captured in a tribal conflict when he was a child and sold into slavery. The slave ship on which he was being transported was captured by the British, and he was taken to England, renamed John Bull, and made a cabin boy on the HMS Peacock. In the War of 1812, this ship was captured by the USS Hornet, and Bull was taken to Savannah as a prisoner of war. The judge who had custody of Bull changed his name to Dimmock Charlton and sold him into slavery. Charlton was bought and sold frequently. He eventually came under the ownership of a master who allowed him to hire out his services. After many years, he attempted to buy his freedom. However, his master took his money and then sold him along with his wife and children. Charlton was defrauded a second time by another master who proceeded to sell each member of Charlton's family to separate owners. Eventually, Charlton was hired by. Benjamin Garman, who kept his word and freed Charlton when the agreed price was paid. The later events of Charlton's life are unclear, but he did attempt to free his family. Charlton eventually freed his granddaughter and moved her to Canada.

The Narrative of Dimmock Charlton is composed largely of a series of newspaper interviews previously published in The New York Times and the Anti-Slavery Reporter. It begins with a preface, titled "A Defence" (written by editors Mary and Susan Cox), which responds to charges—not specified here—made in the November 27, 1858, Anti-Slavery Standard against Charlton's character. It appears that Charlton was a subject of controversy within the Philadelphia anti-slavery movement. The editors assert that Charlton's friends attest to his truthfulness and moral character and that "They are willing to show any inquirers who wish an honest explanation . . . His statements . . . far from being 'various false pretences,' are substantiated by respectable authority" (p. 2).

"A Defence" is followed by two versions of Charlton's narrative, one reprinted from The New York Times and one from the Anti-Slavery Reporter (which itself reprints an original from the National Anti-Slavery Standard). The Anti-Slavery Reporter goes into greater depth and detail. The newspaper reporters interview Charlton as an adult, while he is free and seeking public support for his suit to gain custody of his granddaughter. Because the narrative is composed of interviews, Charlton's story is related through the perspective of a third-person commentary. His own voice is muted or suppressed.

Charlton, "a native of Kissee, peopled by a tribe of the same name" in Africa, recalls that his original name was Tallen and that he was captured in an inter-tribal war and sold to a slave dealer when he was around the age of ten (p. 4). Charlton spends approximately three weeks in the hellish conditions of the Middle Passage, until the Spanish slaver is captured by a British warship in approximately 1812. He is taken to England, given the name John Bull, and sent to serve on the HMS Peacock as a cabin-boy. Charlton later protests his American enslavement and claims British citizenship as a result of his capture and appointment on a British vessel. Although Britain had not fully abolished slavery at this time, Charlton's argument was likely based on the 1807 act in which British Parliament abolished the transatlantic slave trade. As Charlton had been captured and sold on a market that Britain had declared illegal, he considered himself a freed British subject.

After the HMS Peacock is defeated by the American schooner USS Hornet, Charlton is taken as a prisoner of war to the United States. Lieutenant William Henry Harrison intends to bring him to Washington, D.C., for trial but leaves him temporarily in the care of a Judge Charlton of Savannah. When Lt. Harrison returns for Charlton, the Judge claims that he has died of fever. The Judge renames him Dimmock Charlton and sells him to John P. Setz, a French tailor. Charlton protests and claims that because he is a free British subject, the Judge has no right to sell him. Nonetheless, he is forced to leave the city with his new master. After little more than a year with Setz, Charlton is sold to a series of masters. One of these, William Robinson, allows him to hire out as a stevedore. Robinson agrees that Charlton may save money and purchase his freedom for $800, but when Charlton gives Robinson the money after years of work, he is arrested and sold.

Charlton's new master, James Carr, calls Robinson "a d----d scoundrel" and promises to allow him to buy his freedom (p. 5). However, when the money is paid, Charlton learns he has been swindled for almost double his purchase price. Charlton, who had married an enslaved woman from Nassau and who has two daughters, also pays his master to purchase his family from their original owner, so that the family can be together. Carr also cheats Charlton over their purchase price, taking far more from Charlton than Carr had paid for them. Carr then claims that the family is free and under his "protection," until several years later when Carr sells the family, each to different masters.

Benjamin Garman purchases Charlton and keeps his word, allowing him to purchase his freedom. Charlton seeks help from the British consul and searches for witnesses who can identify him as a sailor on the HMS Peacock. He hopes to recover his family from slavery as well as the money he had been swindled out of by his dishonest masters. The largest incentive for Charlton to gain his freedom is his custody fight for an enslaved granddaughter, who had been brought to New York with two of her mistresses. Charlton seeks to establish legal rights to her guardianship. His granddaughter is declared free in light of his evidence and placed in his custody. Though the narrative ends on this happy note, it concludes with the somber reminder that the rest of Charlton's family remains in bondage. It lists the members of Charlton's family and their respective owners and suggests that they can be rescued through either financial or legal means. It concludes with a straightforward plea for help.

Works Consulted: Blassingame, John W., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, c1977, 325-38; Grant, Donald L., and Jonathan Grant, The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2001, 38.

Jenn Williamson

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