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James Watkins, b. 1821?
Struggles for Freedom; or The Life of James Watkins, Formerly a Slave in Maryland, U. S.; in Which is Detailed a Graphic Account of His Extraordinary Escape from Slavery, Notices of the Fugitive Slave Law, the Sentiments of American Divines on the Subject of Slavery, etc., etc.
Manchester, [Eng.]: Printed for James Watkins by A. Heywood, Oldham Street, 1860.


According to Struggles for Freedom, James Watkins was born Sam Berry around 1823 to Milcah Berry, a slave on Abraham Ensor's plantation near Cuckerville (likely Cockeysville), Maryland. Earlier editions of the narrative suggest that Watkins was born around 1821 and that Amos Salisbury, an overseer on Ensor's plantation, was his father, although this edition only hints at the relationship. After a religious conversion in 1840, Watkins attempted to escape, but was unsuccessful until 1844, when he fled to Connecticut. There he found work, married a free black woman named Mary, and fathered three children. In 1849, Watkins returned to Maryland to see his aging mother, who had been freed by Luke Ensor, Abraham Ensor's son. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Watkins fled to England, where he became a traveling lecturer.

Published in 1860 in Manchester, England, Struggles for Freedom is the nineteenth edition of Watkins's autobiographical narrative, which was first published in 1852 under the title Narrative of the Life of James Watkins. Although the two versions of the text share much of the same content, a few telling changes were made over the course of the narrative's many publications. While the first edition emphasizes the cruelty experienced by Watkins at the hand of his father, the 1860 version downplays this relationship altogether. Even more significant is Watkins' description of the treatment he encountered in England, as Struggles for Freedom provides more details about the racist attitudes only briefly mentioned in Narrative of the Life. Such changes suggest Watkins' increasing control over the content of his narrative, which was probably heavily influenced by an editor in early editions.

After a brief introduction condemning the Fugitive Slave Act, Watkins begins his autobiography with his childhood in slavery. At age two, he is taken from his mother and nursed by an old enslaved woman called Aunt Comfort, who cares for eighty to ninety other children. He recounts being forced to perform for white visitors to the plantation by dancing, singing, and imitating animals. When Watkins becomes old enough, he begins performing tasks around the plantation and soon becomes a body servant and maid to the ladies of the plantation. Although Watkins suggests that the position was one of relative privilege, he nevertheless suffers physical abuse when an unnamed "oppressor" loses a bet that Watkins can retrieve a bucket of water in a given amount of time (p. 14). The 1852 edition identifies the bettor as Watkins' father and overseer, Amos Salisbury, who dies of overexertion a year later, about 1836.

Luke Ensor takes over the plantation upon Abraham Ensor's death, and although described as a "moderate" master, he has a violent temper. At one point, a drunken Ensor beats Watkins in the head and shoulders with his cane for what he deems poor work, leaving him unconscious. Turning his injuries into an opportunity for resistance, Watkins convinces Ensor the beating has left him senseless. His charade is apparently effective, as Watkins notes, "this affair had a very salutary effect on Mr. Ensor, who never ventured to beat his slaves on their heads again" (p. 16). Watkins' desire for freedom is compounded when several siblings are sold. "Those separations," he writes, "made me sigh for freedom with an intensity of feeling I had hitherto been a stranger to" (p. 17).

Watkins' conversion to Christianity increases his desire for freedom. After a cholera outbreak around 1840 leads Watkins to worry about the condition of his soul, he attends a Methodist prayer meeting, where he is overcome with emotion and flees outside to pray. After "wrestling with God for the space of three or four hours," Watkins experiences conversion, as his "heart was so filled with the love of God that the fear of the whip, or even of death, was entirely taken away" (p. 19). When he returns to the plantation, Ensor demands he strip, intending to whip him for attending the prayer meeting. Watkins, however, reminds Ensor that "every stripe he laid on my back would be registered in heaven and rise up against him at the day of judgment," and Ensor releases him with a warning (p. 19).

Earning Ensor's trust, Watkins travels to Baltimore to sell produce from the plantation and soon becomes acquainted with and hopes to marry a free black woman named Elizabeth Simmerwell. Ensor objects and encourages Watkins to marry an enslaved woman instead, as Ensor would have no claim to the children of a free woman. Watkins continues to visit Simmerwell and is arrested for breaking curfew and beaten. When he returns to the plantation, Ensor canes him, and Watkins decides he must escape. Despite his mother's objections, Watkins flees for Canada in 1840. He travels for two nights safely before being apprehended and returned to Ensor, who orders the overseer to whip Watkins and forces him to wear a yoke for three months.

Watkins finally escapes in May 1844 and is aided by a Quaker man who suggests he change his name. After a brief illness, Watkins travels to New York and then to Hartford, Connecticut, where he is reunited with an uncle who helps Watkins find employment. He learns the alphabet from his employer's young daughter. Watkins later works for two other men in Hartford and meets Mary, the daughter of Thomas Wells, a free black man who objects to her involvement with a fugitive slave. Despite difficulties, the two marry in April of 1847, in an act Watkins notes is significant to asserting his freedom, as "in slavery the marriage ceremony is but a mockery" (p. 33). The two support themselves by making and selling hominy.

In May of 1849, Watkins returns to Maryland, risking his own freedom, to see his mother, in hopes that he might be able to free her. When he arrives, Watkins learns that Ensor has freed his mother after nearby plantation masters whip her for hiding information about escaped slaves, although she had no knowledge of their whereabouts. After visiting his mother for the last time, Watkins returns to his wife and two children in Hartford. Over the course of the next year Watkins succeeds in purchasing his brother Thomas.

In 1850, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act disrupts Watkins' life, and he flees the country to maintain his freedom. He leaves his wife and three children in Connecticut on January 20, 1851, makes his way to New York, and then sails to England. Three years later, Watkins sends for his wife, who joins him in Birmingham, until she becomes ill and returns to America at the recommendation of her doctors. Unable to find work, Watkins begins lecturing throughout England on the horrors of slavery, becoming a popular speaker and garnering the support of the religious community.

Although Watkins praises those who sympathize with his cause, he also provides examples of racism among the English. He recalls being refused work by merchants in Liverpool because they assumed he would steal (p. 42) and notes that English mothers often threatened to give misbehaving children to "the Black Man" or "Black Sam" (p. 44). He also condemns blackface minstrels as men who "profess to imitate, but who in reality only caricature men of my race" (p. 44). Watkins ends his narrative with a chapter entitled "Slave Torture" which includes articles, stories, speeches, and poems taken from sources both in the United States and England. The documents, which were not included in the first edition, serve to add credence to Watkins' narrative and situate the narrative within the larger context of slavery and the abolitionist movement.

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Christy Webb

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