Reminiscences of Fugitive-Slave Law Days

SLAVERY   |   Herman MELVILLE   |   Austin BEARSE

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HE "SLIPPED OFF HIS IRONS… I TOLD HIM TO FOLLOW ME AND HE JUMPED INTO THE BOAT QUICK": FIRST EDITION OF CAPTAIN AUSTIN BEARSE'S MEMOIR, REMINISCENCES OF FUGITIVE-SLAVE LAW DAYS, 1880, AND DRAMATIC RESCUES WITH HIS SHIP, THE MOBY DICK

BEARSE, Austin. Reminiscences of Fugitive-Slave Law Days in Boston. Boston: Warren Richardson, 1880. Octavo, original printed tan wrappers; pp.41. $1650.

First edition of the dedicated abolitionist’s account of his work for the Boston Vigilance Committee in fighting the Fugitive Slave Law, documenting his "daring rescues of captured fugitives with his sleek 36-foot sloop, the Moby Dick" with frontispiece of his ship, rare in original wrappers.

"In November 1851, Melville's literary leviathan first breached into view. Six months later the schooner, Moby Dick, Captain Austin Bearse, master… began its service for the Committee of Vigilance as a major link in the Underground Railroad from slavery to freedom…. The ostensible business of the Cape Cod sea-captain was to take out parties of fishing or sailing trips; actually he was at the beck and call of the Committee" (Kaplan, The Moby Dick, 173). Born in Massachusetts in 1808, Bearse worked on slave-trading vessels before he early returned home, regarding American slavery to be "as barbarous as any other on the globe." He became involved in the Underground Railroad, the work of abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Abigail and Lydia Mott, and proved especially key to the Boston Vigilance Committee in its efforts to rescue fugitives from ships. Led by Captain Bearse, the Vigilance Committee made "daring rescues of captured fugitives with his sleek 36-foot sloop, the Moby Dick" (Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 83). In Reminiscences, Bearse vividly describes his work, such as the time he boarded a ship to rescue the fugitive Sandy Swan. When the ship's mate refused, Bearse notes: "I went aft and… I said roughly, to blind the mate, 'I want him, damned quick!'–and I started for him… [Swan] had slipped off his irons… he afterwards said that God had told him in the night that somebody would set him free in the morning. I told him to follow me, and he jumped into the boat quick."

William Siebert, author of Underground Railroad (1898–99), chronicled Bearse's work, including the time he was sent to free a stowaway from a southern schooner, the Sally Ann. When the ship's captain refused to hand over the enslaved man, Bearse tricked him into thinking he had an armed force backing up the rescue. In the shadows of night, Bearse nailed "a dozen fisherman's coats and hats" to the rails of the Moby Dick. With that, "the Sally Ann's captain saw… what seemed to be a considerable force to contend with and surrendered the slave." In this fascinating memoir, published shortly before his death, Bearse also writes of his close association with Wendell Phillips, includes correspondence with Garrison, quotes speeches by Phillips, and cites articles in both northern and southern newspapers. "Described by Thomas Wentworth Higginson as 'an intense anti-slavery man [who] possessed much force of character,' Austin Bearse proved essential to the success of the 1850 Boston Vigilance Committee" (National Park Service). Work, 336. Contemporary owner signature dated 1883 above front wrapper.

Interior very fresh, wrappers with light edge-wear, small gutter-edge pinholes. A near-fine copy in very elusive original wrappers.

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