From Maryland to Manchester: the extraordinary story of James Watkins, fugitive slave

'I was followed and hunted by the civilised Americans, as they would hunt a wild beast'

This week a Mill reader suggested we write about the workers of Manchester and Bolton, and their principled stand against slave cotton in the 1860s. During the research, and thanks to The Bolton News, I came across James Watkins, whose extraordinary and little known story is told below.

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Mounted on the outside wall of the restaurant in Westhoughton, Bolton, is a small plaster cast of an African American man. It peers down onto Market Street and the customers entering the Provenance Food Hall, and is assumed to be a likeness of James Watkins, who lived in Bolton in the mid-nineteenth century. An entry in the 1861 census shows that Watkins also lived in Manchester, at 74/73 Piccadilly. His profession is listed as “lecturer on slavery” but that doesn’t really capture who he was. Because Watkins was a slave. Or he was if he ever went home. He had escaped from his owner in Maryland, been guided to safety in Connecticut by members of the Underground Railroad, and came to England to avoid being captured by slave catchers under the dreaded Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He was a man on the run. 

As a lecturer, he criss-crossed the country, in particular the North West, speaking to crowds in churches and school houses, including in Altrincham, Burnley, Bury, Congleton, Didsbury, Dewsbury, Fleetwood, Macclesfield, Oldham, Stockport, Scarborough, Salford, and Uttoxeter. Watkins lists all these locations and dozens more at the end of his brilliant, disturbing autobiography, which was first published in Bolton in February 1852, by Kenyon and Abbatt Printers on Market Street. “In Bolton I was introduced … to Mr. and Mrs. Abbatt and family, a kindness for which I can never be too grateful,” he writes. “For I here found a "home" of the best description, and in Mrs. Abbatt a mother; at whose fireside I have received many lessons, useful both for time and eternity.” 

Eight years later, he published a revised edition of the book, this time printed in Manchester. For whatever reason, in this edition Watkins felt he could be more honest about his experiences in England. He describes the “ignorance and the prejudice” of a “certain portion of this community”. It makes his book unusual among slave narratives published in this period, which tended to focus entirely on this country’s virtues as a land of freedom and tolerance. Watkins admired his newly adopted country, calling it “the home of the oppressed, the refuge of the persecuted, and as the freest and happiest land under heaven”. But he didn’t mind telling his readers about its dark sides, like when he hears mothers “threaten a naughty child with being handed over to ‘Black Sam’”. 

“He is a rare example of a guy who says ‘Things are great in England, but they are not perfect,’” says  Professor William L. Andrews  at the University of North Carolina, and author of Slavery and Class in the American South: A Generation of Slave Narrative Testimony, 1840-1865. Andrews thinks Watkins is an important figure - unknown to the public and rarely studied by scholars. “He was a walking, talking advertisement for everything that the slave powers in the South wanted British people not to know,” Andrews told The Mill this week. So, almost 200 years after his birth, here is James Watkins’ story. 

A poster advertising one of Watkins’ lecture, in Stourbridge. The illustration shows Watkins wearing a “yoke” with bells attached, which he was made to wear for three months as a punishment for trying to escape.

The Baltimore slave pen 

“I was born on Mr. Abraham Ensor's plantation, about six miles from Cuckerville, Baltimore Co., Maryland. I do not know the date of my birth - slaves know little of dates - but, from what I have been able to gather, I think it was about the year 1823.” James Watkins, as he later became known, writes his autobiography in a clear, deliberate style. No nonsense, and eschewing the airy and the abstract - except when he’s talking about God. He rarely dwells for long on a story, and when he does, you know it matters to him.

When he was about two years old he was removed from his mother and put in the care of an elderly female slave known as Aunt Comfort, who watched over eighty or ninety slave children. Sometimes his master brought visitors to be entertained by the brood, making them run on their hands and knees like dogs or butt into each other’s heads like sheep. “When we saw them coming towards us we ran to our cribs, fearing lest they should be coming to buy some of us,” he writes. When he was a bit older he worked on the farm, clothed in rags and sleeping under a tree or huddled with other slaves in a shed, without a bed. After that he was effectively promoted to a much more desirable role in the household, waiting on the ladies and helping them in and out of their carriages. 

When Ensor died, and his son took over the estate, many of the slaves were sold. It was the first taste Watkins got of forced family separation, which emerges in his book as the deepest pain of his life - a trauma unique to the slave experience. More terrible than the beatings he gets from Ensor, or the humiliations of his daily routine. “We dreaded being separated,” he say, “for we poor slaves, with all our degradations, have strong natural affections.” Watkins seems keen to show his readers not just the events of his life but the feelings he and his family members experienced - to show them in their full humanity. He says he often saw his mother crying, and once asked her why. "I am sick at heart to think that I am a poor wretched slave for life, and you and your brothers and sisters are in the same condition,” she answers. 

Ensor’s son Luke took over the estate, and decided to sell one of Watkins' sisters, and two of his brothers, as well as a cousin. He persuaded his master to let him and his mother go to Baltimore to say goodbye to his siblings. They were being held in a pen, ready to be sold to the Southern states, where slaves knew that the work was usually more brutal and the chances of escape vanishingly slim. 

He writes in his book:

I shall never forget going down to Baltimore to take a last farewell of my relatives. I had to intercede with Mr. Ensor for a length of time before he would consent to let me go on such an errand. At last, after ridiculing the idea of black people having any feelings, he consented, and to Baltimore I went, along with my poor mother. We found our relatives in a large prison, in Pratt-street, together with eight or nine hundred other slaves, who belonged to two slave dealers, named Slater and Woodfork, who had bought them for the southern market; and although they do all they can to keep up the spirits of the poor wretches, by supplying them with plenty of whisky, and amusements of various kinds, yet the grief and anguish that prevailed amongst them were beyond description. My mother and I were only allowed about half an hour to take leave of those whom we were about to lose for ever.

Austin Woolfolk, who Watkins refers to as Woodfork, was a notorious slaver from Georgia, known for moving his slaves at night and for assaulting an anti-slavery campaigner. Frederick Douglass, the world famous fugitive slave and star speaker of the abolitionist movement, wrote that he feared being sold to Woolfolk. Hope Slatter, referred to as Slater by Watkins, was among Baltimore’s most prolific traders, who took out ads in the city’s newspapers almost every day, seeking and selling human beings. One from this period advertised a “sprightly bright mulatto girl only seven years old, as fine a servant as I ever saw,” costing $250. “I shall never forget the parting as long as I live,” Watkins writes about the ordeal in Baltimore. He feared his mother and aunt “would never see through their grief at parting with their children, which proved to be for ever, as they never saw them again.”

Escape to the North 

The experience radicalised Watkins and focused his mind on the idea of escape. “Mr. Ensor had always tried to make us believe that we could not take care of ourselves if we had the liberty,” he writes, but conversations with two Irishmen he met near the estate fed his inner resolve. He had now been promoted again, to the role of a “market-man” - a slave trusted to take the plantation’s produce to market in Baltimore. On those trips, he got a taste of free life, staying in an inn called the Bull’s Head, and starting an illicit relationship with a free woman, with whom he fell in love. “His horizons expanded dramatically,” says Professor Andrews, who has studied dozens of slave narratives over the course of his career, “And that’s part of the reason he can’t stand to be a slave any more.” 

Some time in May 1840, when he was about 17 years old, Watkins said goodbye to his mother at her hut, and stole away into the night. He took the North Star as his guide, hoping to push through Maryland’s swamps and woodlands towards Canada, afraid to walk on the high road even during the night. On the third night, his escape fell apart. 

I was overtaken by John Nelson and Bill Foster, two negro-catchers, who resided a few miles from Mr. Ensor. These men had a number of bloodhounds with them, which soon scented me out, I got upon my feet, and had a most desperate struggle with them, but they succeeded in tearing my clothes to rags. They endeavoured to seize me by the throat, and bit me severely on the breast, the marks of which are plainly visible to this day. The fellows now came up, and made them loose their hold, at the same time exultingly shouting, "Well, Ensor Sam, we've got you at last!" They then handcuffed me, and dragging me along some distance, mounted their horses, while I trudged along on foot, weak, wretched, and miserable.

Slave runaways were relatively common, but often they took off for a few days or weeks and then returned, which was called “lying out”. Only a minority of slaves who escaped were actually trying to get to the free North, and only a fraction of those succeeded. From the Deep South, it was almost impossible. From a border state like Maryland it was merely exceedingly difficult. You needed to be lucky, says Andrews. And on his second escape, Watkins got lucky. Because this time, in a twist that a man like him could only credit to divine providence, he stumbled into the Underground Railroad. 

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On the fourth night of his escape the runaway was hiding on the side of a mountain when he realised people were on his tail. “I heard the voice of bloodhounds on my track, along with the noise of a number of negro hunters,” he writes. But this time Watkins had taken a clever precaution. Before going to bed he had sprinkled snuff and cayenne pepper in a large circle around his hiding place. “When the dogs came up, full tilt, to this place, they began sneezing terribly, which caused them to lose scent of me entirely, although I was only about three hundred yards from them,” he writes. “I distinctly saw the men and dogs; all of them appeared to be at a loss, and I was very glad to see them move off in another direction.” If Watkins needed any more evidence that he was a wanted man, it came at around midnight the following night, when he was accosted by two men and a woman. They accused him of being a runaway slave, and by the light of a lantern read out an advertisement offering a reward for his capture:

My runaway negro boy, Sambo, bullet head, full eyes, big mouth, flat nose, and a cut over the eye. A reward of 250 dollars will be given to bring him back alive, and 150 dollars if brought back dead. — Luke Ensor.

Watkins played dumb, but one of the men grabbed him by the collar. He realised they were determined to capture him and claim the money, and struck the man with “a heavy blow”, throwing him to the ground. Soon he had violently dispatched the others, and fled into the night. The following evening he was tracked again, by two men who chased him along a river. He jumped in and swam across it, losing his bag, and all the food he had.

After twelve more days on the road, he was “oppressed by hunger” as he reached a town called Little York. Near there, Watkins got his massive break, when he came across a black man and a white man walking together. They asked him where he was going, but he was too nervous about being betrayed to request their help. “Shortly after, the coloured man returned, and invited me to his house,” he writes. Watkins was nervous, but he was also hungry and desperate, and eventually the stranger persuaded him. At home, in the early hours of the morning, the man fed him a good breakfast. He then took Watkins to a boat and ferried him across the river to a town called Columbia, then took him to the home of an “old Quaker gentleman” who took the escaping slave in, and made him feel at home.

That’s when Watkins must have realised that he had found the Underground Railroad, the series of secret routes and safe houses set up to help escaping slaves, often operated by Quakers. Members of the network developed signs to tell each other when it was too dangerous to drop off an escapee because slave catchers were in the area, like leaving one boot outside the door instead of two, or putting a candle in a particular window. Sometimes slaves knew where one of the safe houses was before they escaped, but many who were lucky enough to be helped by the network got access by recognising Quakers on the road at night, or found their way entirely by chance, like Watkins did. 

The Quakers shepherded him from one safe house to the next - each one a station in the metaphorical railroad. In one of the houses Watkins was taken to, the man hiding him recommended a name change, so Sam Berry became James Watkins. The man hired him as a paid servant, but about a fortnight later “some negro hunters were seen about the neighbourhood, and my employer considered me in danger, so he paid me a month's wages, and took me to the railway station, where he got me stowed away into a covered luggage van, paying all expenses himself,” Watkins writes. “He then took a seat in one of the carriages, and off we started for Philadelphia.” On arrival, Watkins was finally in a free state. 

Reflecting on his escape, he writes: “Upon my flight from the land of Egypt and the house of bondage, and during my journey of six weeks through the dark wilderness which separated me from the land of freedom, I was followed and hunted by the civilised Americans, as they would hunt a wild beast.” 

To Manchester 

In Hartford, Connecticut Watkins built the closest thing he would ever have to a normal life. He got a job as a butler and married a free woman. He also reunited with an uncle who had also escaped the Ensors. The other slaves had been told the uncle had been caught and taken to Georgia, which was considered “the most horrible degradation the mind of man can imagine.” Through friends, Watkins raised enough money to pay for the freedom of two of his sisters, and one brother. 

But the idyll was interrupted in 1850 by the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, the “abominable law” which suspended the rights of escaped slaves in the Northern states, and meant heavy fines or prison for anyone deemed to have helped or hidden them. Anyone who had assisted Watkins was now in grave legal jeopardy. “Mr. Chamberlain, one of the city constables, sent for me, and told me that Mr. Ensor had offered one thousand dollars for my apprehension,” he writes. “Also, that if I did not leave the city, he was afraid he would be necessitated to arrest me.” 

So, once again, Watkins hit the road, making his way to New York. The new law meant that secrecy was paramount. For four days he sheltered in a hotel, rarely leaving his room, until his sailing day to Liverpool arrived. A close carriage took him to the dock, and he was concealed on the ship until it got out to sea. He never revealed the name of the boat, fearing it might expose the captain to prosecution under the Fugitive Act. “When we entered the Mersey and came into the docks at Liverpool, I could not help leaping and shouting for joy, and I sung a song of liberty,” he writes. “Some of the bystanders and waiters declared that a "mad black man" had just landed from an American ship. They little knew the emotions I was then the subject of.” 

Watkins may have been beyond the reach of the fugitive law, but his initial experiences in Liverpool were difficult. He writes that he was treated with contempt by the bosses he approached for work, and says some merchants told him they wouldn’t consider employing a "nigger who would steal." When he asked them why they thought he was a thief, they told him that his escape represented an act of theft - from his master. He felt “the people with whom I came in contact in Liverpool had imbibed so much of American feeling in relation to men of my colour.”

This is a rare insight into racism in England from the perspective of a black man in the nineteenth century. Unlike Douglass, who socialised with aristocrats, Watkins “gives you the other side of it” says Andrews. “He’s moving in lower circles, and he sees American style racism practiced in England.” At another point, Watkins describes seeing minstrel shows in taverns, which make fun of his fellow African Americans. “We have public exhibitions in pot-houses and low singing rooms of men who black their faces, and perform such outlandish antics as were never seen amongst the negroes, and who profess to imitate, but who in reality only caricature men of my race,” Watkins writes. 

After about a year he moved to Manchester, where his career as an anti-slavery lecturer began. He was encouraged to lecture by a group of men in the area, mainly clergymen, and in particular a Reverend Francis Tucker of Greenheys, in whose schoolroom he gave his first talk. The fugitive slave had never spoken publicly before, but he appears to have taken to it quickly. He lectured in smaller venues around the country, where famous speakers like Douglass didn’t venture. The country he toured was far from united in its opposition to slavery. The Spectator, which was almost alone among the British press in supporting Abraham Lincoln, conceded that it was swimming against the tide, noting that the educated classes in Britain had “become unmistakably Southern” in their attitudes. That included The Manchester Guardian, which backed the South. 

Industrialists whose businesses relied on the flow of cotton from the Southern states tried to persuade the British government to intervene on the side of the Confederacy. But many cotton workers in Lancashire organised public meetings to support the Union. They “were acutely aware, every day, that the last hands to touch the cotton before them had been black hands and unfree,” according to the journalist Paul Mason, who is descended from workers in the area. A large meeting at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1862 passed a motion in support of Lincoln, and of abolishing slavery. “Justice demands for the black, no less than for the white, the protection of the law,” their letter said. Lincoln replied, in words that can now be read on his statue in Lincoln Square. "I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.” 

How influential was James Watkins in waking up the workers of the North West to the horrors of slavery? It’s hard to say. When he released the second edition of his book in 1860, it was in its ninth printing, suggesting it had sold well over the previous decade as he toured the country. He also seems to have been able to make a living from his lectures - not a grand living, but enough to pay his rent. “I think he’s changing peoples minds simply by the fact that he’s standing in front of people and giving a coherent account of his life and the atrocities of slavery,” says Andrews. Watkins writes that he was grateful for the reception he got from many working men. “I would not forget the thousands and tens of thousands of the poorer classes, or, as they are called, the "lower orders," who have received me with unexampled kindness, and have so nobly rallied round the cause which I advocated,” he writes.

By the 1880s, Watkins had returned to Maryland, where he was listed in the census, aged 51. Little seems to be known about where he ended his life, or whether he ever saw his wife again after a brief trip she made to England, quickly returning to Connecticut due to ill health. It’s unlikely he ever saw his mother again. No one has ever researched his life in depth, or written a biography. Aside from the little plaster cast looking down on Market Street in Westhoughton, there’s very little sign of Watkins in Britain, or memorial to his work. Maybe there should be.

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