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S. H. Platt (Smith H.)
The Martyrs, and the Fugitive; or a Narrative of the Captivity, Sufferings, and Death of an African Family, and the Slavery and Escape of Their Son
New York: Daniel Fanshaw, 1859.


Nothing is known about Caesar, the main subject of The Martyrs, and the Fugitive, other than that he was taken from his slave parents as a child to work on a plantation in Virginia for a Colonel Halman. This narrative also tells of his parent’s martyrdom. As a boy, Caesar saw his mother killed, which encouraged him to escape from slavery to live life with his “wife and children” and “retain his Christian integrity” (p. 92). The narrative contains both historical and fictional elements. While the author, Smith H. Platt, states that the account is true, the narrator admits that he based some of Caesar’s life story and the story of his martyred parents on the experiences of other slaves.

Very little is known about the author, the Reverend Smith H. Platt, who was a clergyman in New York City, but existing sources call his reliability into question. Platt once reported that he was healed from a lameness for which he had to use a cane to walk, claiming that after “prayerful interposition and the rubbing of his knees by a fanatical woman at Ocean Grove” he was eventually healed of his lameness and no longer needed the cane (“Latter-Day Miracles” 5). Critics suggested that he was never lame and that his healing was a hoax.

An unnamed narrator opens the story by explaining to his little sister that he received Caesar’s history from a friend at his church and which he later wrote down. He tells her that he does not have the full story, but that he will “relate the history from this sketch” (p. 2). When the sister expresses concern about the accuracy of the account, he assures her of his belief in the slave’s story because he “cross-questioned” the man and gained “independent proof from other sources” (p. 6). She promises to listen to her brother’s story only if he allows her to ask questions, to which he responds: “Certainly; that is one of the privileges conceded to such attractive listeners” (p. 6). Throughout the narrative, she interjects questions about circumstances that are confusing, unclear, and difficult to understand.

The story begins in the southwestern interior of Africa where Bobah and his wife, Mobawah (Caesar’s parents), lived with their two children and her parents. Although the precise location of their village is unknown, Platt describes their home as a little hut “sheltered from the sun and rain by an almost impenetrable grove of banana trees and shrubs” (p. 8). One day, a war party, sent by African chiefs, storms into their village and burns it. The soldiers murder Mobawah’s aged parents and force Bobah and his family to an unknown distant village. There they are accused of “some trifling crime, and condemned, without a hearing, to be sold as slaves” (p. 10). Secured together with poles and vines tied around their necks, they are ordered to board a vessel bound for the Americas to be sold into slavery.

Relegated to the ship’s hold, the couple is forced to endure terrible conditions. Platt describes them “drag[ging] themselves over the bodies of others; and thus the deck was soon covered with blood and mucus, emitting the most horrid stench, breeding death continually” (p. 30). Platt also depicts graphic child abuse. Because a child refuses to eat, he is beaten and his swollen feet are placed in hot, boiling water, causing the nails and skin to peel off. It is not until the child “ceased to breathe” that the sailor “called its own mother to heave it over board” (p. 34). Platt also describes an act of infanticide committed by Mobawah, who refuses to allow her daughter to experience slavery:

”Slowly and quietly she laid her child upon the ground; then cautiously glanced around upon the sleeping slaves, to make sure that no eye beheld her, then quickly unwound the fibers of a short piece of rope that she had found, twisted it into a strong cord with a running noose around the neck of the innocent sleeper, and then with one hand over her mouth, suppress her cries, with the other she drew the noose tighter and tighter till the sufferer cease to struggle;…she gazed till the delirious joy burst forth, ‘Me child no slave--no slave!’ (p. 12)

With this anecdote, Platt emphasizes that slaves preferred death to the brutal life of slavery. Later, the family arrives in a place Platt calls “a Christian land, where the symbol of liberty proudly floats on every flag and a falsified Constitution declares that all men are born free and equal, but black men are chattels personal!” (p. 47) They had arrived in the United States.

Caesar is born after his parents have lived on several plantations near Savannah, Georgia. Shortly after his birth, he is taken from his parents to live in a “cotton-cleaning establishment . . . to be cared for” (p. 39). When Caesar is older, he is transferred to work on several other plantations in Virginia, owned by Halman, in which dangerous working conditions caused him to suffer several broken bones while he worked as a horse trainer. Ehese difficult experiences lead Caesar on a path to Christianity. His commitment to Christianity is strengthened “when he saw his mother martyred,” for embracing Christianity and “listened to her [dying] exhortation and prayer” (p. 79).

Caesar was fortunate to hear a doctor read the Bible while he worked on the plantation because Col. Halman did not believe Caesar would continue to pray after “seeing his mother’s fate” (p. 79). The doctor’s Bible reading was not the only thing that steered Caesar towards Christianity. While living with Col. Halman, his daughter, Molly, witnessed the dire living circumstances of Caesar, and “her very soul loathed the system which created such abominations” (p. 89). The only consolation she feels she can offer Caesar is encouragement. She encourages him to “remain faithful, hoping yet to overcome the opposition of her father, when she found [Caesar] in tears” (p. 91). Her intervention leads him to believe that there is hope for freedom.

Determined to escape, Caesar escapes from the plantation and runs until he reaches a river. He eventually crosses a river north of Virginia’s Blue Mountains and enters the free state of Pennsylvania, where he is taken in by an unknown Quaker family to whom he turns for help. His journey to freedom had not proven easy—the river current almost swept him away. However, during his escape and his near-death experience, “prayer was his refuge” (p. 87).

After living with this family for a short while, Caesar hears a man knock at the door and ask, “Have you a nigger working for you?” (p. 88). Caesar recognizes the familiar voice of his old master, Col. Halman, and runs out of the house never to return. Caesar continues his journey north, rejoicing that freedom would allow him to lead a Christian life. He eventually gains his freedom, but is “confined from two to six or eight months by sickness” (p. 94). To console himself, Caesar composes several ballads included in the book. The unnamed narrator concludes The Martyrs by noting that Caesar now lives at the mercy of others, “soliciting the aid of the benevolent to secure a small house, that he may die a free man and leave a shelter for his family” (p. 94).

Works Consulted: “Latter-day Miracles: The Supposed Cure of Rev. S.H. Platt—He Is Alleged Never To Have Been Lame,” The New York Times, 21 September 1875: 5.

Tia Pennerman

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