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Henry Watson, b. 1813
Narrative of Henry Watson, a Fugitive Slave
Boston: Published by Bela Marsh, 1848.


According to his narrative, Henry Watson was born into slavery near Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1813. Watson's master, whom he remembers only as "Bibb," worked primarily at raising slaves for sale. Watson's mother, the cook in the great house, was sold when Watson was eight. Shortly thereafter, Watson himself was sold to Parson Janer, with whom he remained only a brief time before being sent to auction in Richmond, Virginia. Watson was purchased by a slave trader named Denton, who forced him to walk, along with many other slaves, to Natchez, Mississippi. Watson was purchased by the tyrannical Alexander McNeill, who kept Watson as a house slave for approximately five years. When Watson refused to inform on another slave, he was sent to work as a field hand on McNeill's farm. Watson was purchased by Alexander McNeill's brother, William, who, while initially kind, becomes cruel under the influence of his controlling and sadistic wife. Watson was then sold to an unnamed man who put him to work in a hotel dining room. Over the next few years, Watson developed a gambling habit, stabbed another slave, and was hired out and sold. A Northern man eventually alerted Watson to a means of escape on a ship bound for Boston. Upon reaching Boston at age 26, Watson met William Lloyd Garrison, who advised him to flee the country. Watson spent a few months in Britain but returned to the United States, where he remained, with his unnamed wife, at the close of his narrative.

Watson begins his Narrative with a dedication to the well-known publisher "Mr. Henry Holt," whom Watson credits for the publication of his story (p. 4). He then outlines what he recalls of his childhood, including his mother, Letty, who often keeps Watson with her while she works as a cook in the "great house" (p. 5). Watson recalls being told one evening by his mother to go to sleep and waking the next day to find her gone. Watson falls ill due to the "cruel separation." His caretaker, "an old slave-woman," informs him that his mother "was knocked down, tied, and thrown into the buggy" of a slave dealer while he slept (p. 6).

After he recovers, Watson is sold to Parson Janer, who quickly sells him to a slave dealer. Watson is purchased at auction by a man named Denton, who transports slaves to the "Southern market" (p. 9). Denton marches all of his purchased slaves to Tennessee, where they are forced to pick cotton for several days. Four slaves die in Tennessee "from exposure on the road" before the remainder continue on to Natchez (p. 10). There, Watson is purchased by Alexander McNeill, who flogs him severely for any reason, including "not placing his clothes in the proper position on the chair" (p. 13). Watson learns that McNeill's wife left him for sleeping with one of his slaves; when she refuses a reconciliation, McNeill's cruelty increases. McNeill purchases a farm near Vicksburg, Mississippi, and takes a new slave woman "to wife" (p. 14).

After five years of employment as a house servant, Watson is severely whipped and sent to work in the fields when he refuses to tell his master which slave had stolen a pig from the farm. Watson, unaccustomed to working in the fields, cannot keep up with the other field hands and suffers greatly at the hands of the overseer. After approximately a year in the fields, during which time Watson would "pray fervently for a termination of my sufferings in death," Watson is sold to Alexander's brother, William (p. 21).

Watson finds William McNeill pleasant at first. He travels with William and recruits slaves for him as "he did not wish to purchase any that were not willing to go with him" (p. 22). The slaves and Watson are brought to a new farm William McNeill is establishing; after eventually handing the new endeavor over to an overseer, William takes Watson away to his homestead where he is assigned to "take care of the horse and carriage," along with other outdoor household duties (p. 23). Watson soon discovers that Mrs. McNeill "seemed to take delight in torturing,--in fact, she made it a pastime" (p. 23). William McNeill becomes "a mere automaton" under her rule, and "he became through her a most cruel man" (p. 24). When William decides a field hand would be more useful, he asks Watson to find himself a new owner.

Watson finds a "gentleman" who buys him and puts him to work as a waiter in his new hotel (p. 25). Disappointed that his position allows him to earn only a little money on the side (unlike many other hotel employees), Watson turns to illegal gambling, at which he becomes "very expert" (p. 26). He is eventually caught, tried, and sentenced to sixty lashes. Two years later, after "having drank freely of liquor," Watson stabs a man, who survives (p. 28). Watson's owner hires an attorney, who convinces the court to release Watson to his owner for a flogging.

A little more than a year later, Watson encounters a Northern man who "seemed to manifest a great deal of sympathy" and suggests to Watson the possibility of escape (p. 33). The man advises him to ask for passage on a ship that would soon be embarking for Boston. He provides Watson with specific details about Boston so that Watson can claim to be a free man seeking a return trip home. The man also alerts sympathetic sailors on the ship to be on the lookout for him. As the captain is interviewing Watson, the steward steps forward, pretends to know Watson, and pays for his passage.

In Boston, Watson meets William Lloyd Garrison and recounts his story of slavery and escape. Garrison advises him to flee to Canada or Britain. Watson is hired by a man named Hodges and travels England with him. After a few months, Watson decides to return to the United States. Watson's own narrative ends with a brief description of his wife's escape from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland (but no details of when or where they met are provided). The final pages of the publication include a long appendix, which includes an "Extract from Weld's American Slavery as It Is," multiple poems (authors not listed), and "Extracts from the American Slave Code" (pp. 42-48).

Meredith Malburne

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