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John Thompson, b. 1812
The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of 25 Years in Bondage, and His Providential Escape. Written by Himself
Worcester: John Thompson, 1856.


Little is known about John Thompson outside of the information provided in his autobiography. Thompson was one of seven children born into slavery on the Wagar plantation in Maryland in 1812. He remained on the plantation of his birth until the death of the "old Mistress" in October of 1822 and the subsequent division of the property in 1823 (p. 28). Thompson and his family were sold to Mr. George Thomas. Shortly thereafter, Thompson was hired out to another plantation and continued to be moved from plantation to plantation for many years. Fearing being sent further south, Thompson made a successful escape to the North with another enslaved man. In Pennsylvania, Thompson found work and married, but following the arrest of other escaped slaves in his area, he joined a whaling vessel to avoid arrest. Thompson remained at sea for several years before returning to his family. Scholars B. Eugene McCarthy and Thomas L. Doughton, introducing Thompson's Life in their collection From Bondage to Belonging: The Worcester Slave Narratives, write that Thompson subsequently gave up sea-faring and relocated to Worcester, Massachusetts, where his narrative was published in 1856 and where he died in 1860.

Thompson begins with a traditional slave narrative opening: "I was born in Maryland, in 1812, and was slave to a Mrs. Wagar" (p. 13). Wagar's son, James H., owns and manages the plantation itself, including nearly 200 slaves, among them Thompson's parents and six siblings. "The first act of slavery" Thompson recalls is the sale of his oldest sister. He and his mother visit a trader's yard where she awaits "being removed far south" and the scene evokes "tears which, I believe, were bottled and placed in God's depository, there to be reserved until the day when He shall pour His wrath upon this guilty nation" (p. 14). Thompson also recalls other deprivations, including the meager food and clothing allowances given to slaves and how mothers were "compelled to leave their infants to provide for themselves" as they return to "labor in the field, sometimes a mile from the house" after only four weeks of care (p. 17). He also indicates that Mr. Wagar "was a very cruel slave driver" who "sometimes ordered all the slaves to assemble at the house" for a whipping "in order to secure the humble submission of the slaves" (p. 19).

Upon the death of Mistress Wagar and the subsequent division of property, Thompson's family is bought by Mr. George Thomas, "a cruel man" (p. 28). Thomas lends Thompson to his son, Henry, who whips him "senseless," leaving him "unable to move without assistance" for five weeks (p. 31). Along with multiple examples of owner cruelty, Thompson also includes the stories of slaves who escape or offer other forms of resistance, including Ben, a "faithful servant" who "philosophically concluded that death is but death any way, and that one might as well die by hanging as whipping; so he resolved not to submit to be whipped by the overseer" (p. 35). The overseer eventually overtakes him by trickery, however, and "whipped until his entrails could be seen moving within his body," injuries that left him unable to "walk, or sit, or lie down" for five weeks (pp. 36-37).

Thompson is hired out to Richard Thomas, one of George Thomas's brothers, who attempts to sell Thompson upon discovering that he had secretly learned to read and write. (Thompson begins his lessons covertly with one of his master's sons and continues to seek teachers throughout his life.). He is subsequently lent from master to master until "master Richard concluded to sell his plantation, and with his slaves remove to Mississippi" (p. 77). Resolving to escape rather than move further south, Thompson is almost foiled when another slave reveals his plans. However, crediting "God, warning me to avoid danger," Thompson escapes the waiting constable and the ensuing search (p. 79). He eventually heads North with a friend; they cover "at least forty miles" during their first day of travel by stealing two horses and using grape vines for bridles (p. 85). After abandoning the horses, the foot travelers encounter numerous obstacles, including toll bridges, tracking dogs and slave catchers, but they escape each time, a fact Thompson attributes to numerous African American helpers and the "salvation of God" (p. 90).

After they reach Philadelphia, Thompson's companion moves on to Massachusetts, but Thompson remains, temporarily strays from his pious path, regains his faith, and marries. After "several slaves near by were arrested and taken to the South," however, Thompson decides "to go to sea" (p. 103). Thompson lies about his experience to garner a position on the Milwood, a ship hired to obtain whale oil. He meets a cook who promises to teach Thompson all he needs to know about being a steward in exchange for helping him secure a position as a cook aboard the ship (p. 108).

Thompson becomes seasick almost immediately and, facing the wrath of the captain, admits that he is a fugitive slave with no experience. The captain "became as kind as a father to me" and instructs Thompson, who is "soon able to fulfill my duty" (pp. 110, 111). For much of the remainder of the narrative, Thompson provides detailed descriptions of the whaling industry, from the appearance and use of the harpoon to the variety of whales from which blubber can be obtained. Thompson spends over two years at sea, traveling all over the world. He ends his narrative with a lengthy discussion of his religious growth aboard the vessel, writing that "nothing else so much resembles the passage of a Christian from earth to glory, as a gallant ship under full sail for some distant port" (p. 132). Thompson concludes his narrative by relating freedom to salvation: "For freedom, like eternal life, is precious, and a true man will risk every power of body or mind to escape the snares of satan, and secure an everlasting rest at the right hand of God" (p. 143).

Works Consulted: McCarty, B. Eugene and Thomas L. Doughton, eds., From Bondage to Belonging: The Worcester Slave Narratives, Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2007.

Meredith Malburne

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