"I THINK IT IS TIME FOR THE SLAVES TO SPEAK": RARE 1843 EDITION OF MOSES ROPER'S NARRATIVE, PUBLISHED IN ENGLAND AFTER FLEEING THERE IN 1835, WITH ENGRAVED FRONTISPIECE PORTRAIT AND FOUR ENGRAVED ILLUSTRATIONS—BELIEVED TO BE "THE FIRST ILLUSTRATED NARRATIVE EVER PUBLISHED BY A U.S.-BORN ENSLAVED PERSON"—IN ORIGINAL CLOTH
ROPER, Moses. A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, From American Slavery. London: Harvey and Darton, 1843. Small octavo (measures 3-3/4 by 6 inches), original brown cloth; pp. (2) (i-v) vi-viii) (9) 10-122 (2).
1843 edition of Roper's forceful and direct account of his nearly two decades as a slave, containing "some of the most visceral accounts of torture documented during slavery," an especially rare work that extends the tradition of transatlantic slave narratives begun by Olaudah Equiano in the 18th century, this work believed to be "the first illustrated narrative every published by a U.S.-born enslaved person," with five engraved illustrations including frontispiece portrait and full-page engraving of Roper's brutal torture on the "cotton screw."
The son of a white slave-owner and an enslaved woman, Moses Roper was sold as a child of six and would suffer nearly 15 owners before he finally escaped in 1834. His frank and often terrifying Narrative, written and published in England after fleeing there in 1835, contains "some of the most visceral accounts of torture documented during slavery" (Steverson, Constitutive Relationship, 5). In writing of the brutality that answered his escape attempts, Roper recalls one especially vicious slaveowner named Gooch, who hauled him above the ground and had him whipped him with hundreds of lashes—an event visualized in one of the book's engravings (53). Another time Gooch hung Roper nearly ten feet high, lashed to the arms of device known as a "cotton screw," then swung him repeatedly around in wide circles—an experience captured in another engraving (61). Roper's suffering also included a day when Gooch "put the fingers of my hands into a vice and squeezed all my nails off. He then… ordered a man to beat my toes, till he smashed some of my toes off. The marks of this treatment still remain upon me." A third engraving in the book shows an enslaved woman standing with "iron horns and bells attached to the back of her neck to keep her from running away" (27). Roper describes it as a "very ponderous machine, several feet in height, and the cross pieces being two feet four, and six feet in length." The image "represents Roper's encounter with a young girl whom he had seen while running an errand for his master. With the machine attached, the young girl attempted to run away to a more humane master, but only managed to get four miles before, being nearly dead from exhaustion; she was caught by the overseer" (Steverson, 26).
Roper's autobiography is one of the rare works to stand in the tradition of transatlantic slave narratives shared by Olaudah Equiano's 18th century work. In addition, this is believed to be "the first illustrated narrative ever published by a U.S.-born enslaved person" (Cutter, Revising Torture, 372). Its text and images transformed white audiences "from distant participants to witnesses in the violent drama of slavery, forcing them to act against such an injustice… activist-authors such as Moses Roper… used illustrations alongside their narrative texts of barbaric plantation life to counteract popular, contemporary stereotypes of a happy and peaceful life in slavery" (Jeffrey, in Journal of Modern Slavery, 124-27). Hannah Rose-Murray highlights one of Roper's lectures in Britain, when he "spoke to a crowded audience in Leicester, and during one section of his speech, declared: 'Many will say 'This is the slaves' side of the question. The slave-holders would tell a different story… I think it is time for the slaves to speak.' In an extraordinary chapter of the antislavery movement, hundreds of black activists… echoed Roper's bold decision to tell the truth about slavery." He would lead the way in the 19th century for Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown and others to take the American abolitionist cause to Britain. "Ida B. Wells built on the precedent set by Roper and declared to a Leeds audience in 1894 that 'it was her mission to tell the black people's side of the story'"(Interview: Anti-Slavery Dynamite).
After marrying an Englishwoman in 1839, Roper continued his abolitionist lectures across England until 1844, the year after this work was published. "He eventually purchased a farm in western Canada and moved there with his wife and their child. Most details concerning the rest of Roper's life, including the date and place of his death, remain unknown… In the Narrative's first edition, a letter from Rev. Thomas Price, one of Roper's British sponsors, introduces the text. In later editions [as here], Roper excises Price's letter, and introduces his work himself. In doing so Roper emphasizes his authorial independence by breaking with one of the formal conventions of fugitive slave narratives, in which prominent white abolitionists typically introduce an African American's autobiographical account." Historians notes that another "unique feature of Roper's Narrative is its frank discussion of how his light skin tone sometimes enables him to 'pass'… in order to avoid capture and re-enslavement." Kristina Bobo calls his Narrative "one of the earliest accounts of passing in African-American literature" (Documenting the American South). With engraved frontispiece portrait (not present in pre-1840 editions), along with three in-text engravings and full-page engraving of "The Cotton Screw." Fifth Edition, later printing with "Twenty-fourth thousand" on title page: initially issued in London in 1837; first American edition, 1838. Blockson 453. See Brigano A453; Sabin 65464, 73141; Work; 313. Contemporary owner inscription of Samuel Fairhead, of Tunstall, Suffolk, England, dated year of publication. Along with owner inscription of George Fairhead, his brother. Small bit of early marginalia, as if in a child's hand (51).
Text generally fresh with lightest scattered foxing, only faint soiling to original cloth. A very desirable near-fine copy.