Moses Roper in Buckinghamshire

Published
16.10.2020

It is Black History Month.  At Buckinghamshire Archives we are at the start of our journey to find stories of people of colour within the thousands of boxes of documents in our care.  Some stories are easier to find than others…and the story of Moses Roper is one example. 

The facts about Moses:

Moses was born into slavery in 1815, in North Carolina, USA.  His mother was a slave, who was owned by Moses’ father, a white farmer. 

At the age of 7 Moses’ father sold him on.  Moses was separated from his mother, and would go on to have at least 17 owners over the next twelve years, across the southern states of America. 

Moses escaped from slavery in 1834, and, posing as a freed slave, travelled to New York.  A year later he sailed to England. 

This is a harrowing story.  But what is Roper’s connection to Buckinghamshire?  Moses appears in our collection on this promotional poster for a talk that he gave at Haddenham Baptist Meeting House, ten years after his escape, in 1844.  Nine of those years Moses spent in Britain; one of the reasons that he came here was likely to have been the fact that Britain had recently made the trade of people as slaves illegal throughout its empire.  There was an active and growing network of people who wanted to abolish the trade and use of slaves entirely, and flushed with their recent success, they were natural allies keen to support Moses. 

Other escaped slaves came to the UK to tell their stories and campaign for change: Frederick Douglass being the most well-known, arriving here in 1845.  Preceding Douglass by ten years, it’s easily argued that Roper established the idea of escaped slaves talking about their experiences throughout the British Isles.     

Moses’s relationship with the Abolitionist network around the UK is interesting: he would have been a valuable asset to their cause, but, instead of what could have been a one-sided relationship, it seems to have been, at least at first, a mutually beneficial arrangement.  In 1836, using connections in the network, he started touring around England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, lecturing on his experiences as a slave in America, and gaining a lot of publicity.

A priority for Moses was to get himself an education.  It is unclear whether he paid for this himself, with money earned from lectures, or if he was supported by donors from the Abolitionist movement. Either way, he used this education to write his life story: Narrative of Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery

By writing his own story he kept control of his narrative, and indeed this poster is also evidence of the control he kept.  It is not drawn-up by the Haddenham Baptist Meeting House, it would have been printed on the order of Roper, and posted to all of the venues that he was due to speak at, with gaps for location and date.  This way Roper was able to say everything that he wanted to say.  Indeed the write-up of this event in the Bucks Herald, the following week was pretty much the text on this poster, verbatim. 

Moses Roper Poster

Moses grew distant from the UK Abolitionist movement, alienating supporters and audiences with his graphic descriptions of slavery.  He took to each talk examples of shackles and other apparatus common in American, and demonstrated their uses.  Many people questioned the veracity of his testament: whilst the use of slaves in America was established fact, the brutality employed by slave owners and traders was not well known: even sympathetic audiences struggled to believe elements of Roper’s testimony.

Roper relied on giving talks for his income: selling his book and raising subscriptions for subsequent print runs of it.  No audience was too small…as well as speaking in towns such as Aylesbury, High Wycombe and Buckingham, he also spoke to audiences in small rural locations in the county, including Ludgershall, Quainton and Cuddington.   

Moses went on to marry a woman from Wales, they had children and lived in Canada.  However his later years appear sad and full of struggle.  He sees the end of slavery in America in 1863, but it coincided, unsurprisingly, with a downturn in his career, which was built on campaigning for that very liberty.  He becomes estranged from his family, and is an itinerant worker in New England, at the time of his death in 1891.

This is just one life, sparked by one piece of paper in our collection.  Who knows what stories are waiting to be found in our collections?     

You can find out more about Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass and other peers here: frederickdouglassinbritain.com

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