It’s estimated that around 12 million Africans were enslaved over the course of the triangular slave trade, with many millions more born into slavery. But it’s often individual histories that can help us to understand the plight of enslaved women, men, and children.
So here, as we learn about the triangular slave trade, its impact on modern life, and its links with Deptford, we share one of those histories – that of Henry ‘Box’ Brown.
Henry Brown was born enslaved in Virginia, in 1816. Aged 33, Henry had endured innumerable and unimaginable hardships working in a tobacco factory, and seen his wife and child sold away to another slaving family. In a later book, Henry wrote, ‘my mind has groaned under tortures which I believe will never be related, because language is inadequate to express them’, discussing ‘the cruelties, both bodily and mental’ that the traffic in human beings wrought upon men and women.
Losing his wife and child acted as a catalyst to Henry, and in 1849, he put all his efforts into escaping the chains he’d been forced into. His means of escaping is what has ensured his name is still known almost two centuries later.
On the morning of March 29th, Henry posted himself to freedom inside a box.
Henry had help from a free Black man who lived locally. With this man’s help, Henry arranged for a box to be made, three feet long and two feet wide. Henry squeezed himself inside and hid. The box was then mailed 350 miles to Philadelphia, across land and water, with Henry cramped inside for the entire 27-hour journey.
Once in Philadelphia, Henry was greeted by William Johnson – a barber, who collaborated with the Underground Railroad, which was a network of people and safe houses guiding the way to freedom.
Henry Brown had escaped slavery. He used his hard-won freedom to lecture across New England on the evils of the trade in people.
A year later, however, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the Southern states of America. This made it legal for Southern slaveholders to drag previously enslaved individuals back into enslavement – even if they’d fled to the Northern states, like Henry had. It wasn’t safe anymore for Henry ‘Box’ Brown.
That’s when Henry made his second journey – this time to England, and thankfully not in a box. There, he shared his story – touring the country and re-enacting his unusual bid for freedom on stage. His was a different sort of contribution to the abolitionist movement, capturing the public imagination with his dramatic tale.
To gain support for the abolitionist cause, Henry continued to lecture against slavery, and wrote his book, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown – freely accessible to read online here.
The story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown can sound ridiculous when you first hear it, like a children’s fable about the man who posted himself in a box. But when you stop and think about the reality of this history, it’s a terrible awakening to the horrors of slavery. The details of Henry’s passage to Philadelphia inside a box – sometimes upended – aren’t for the faint-hearted. Henry was so desperate to escape life in the tobacco factory that he risked a journey that, in his own words, nearly killed him.
Yet, at the centre of his efforts, there’s a clear sense of Henry’s hope – his determination to find a better life and, after achieving freedom, to dedicate this life to advocating for those still enslaved.
At MoSaF, we’re continuing that legacy of hope, revisiting these histories to educate, motivate, and empower change for a future free from racial prejudice and discrimination. Together, we can learn from and celebrate the rich cultures we share across the UK.