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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Harriet Jacobs: Sexual Abuse In Slavery

Shedding light on the horrific reality of sexual abuse endured by enslaved women through Harriet Jacobs' harrowing autobiographical narrative.


Sexual abuse in slavery faced by black women becomes the topic of my third and final book reviews for Black History Month 2022 UK. My final book is Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. This book follows the same pattern as my last post, Jubilee – Margaret Walker: Better Future For My Children, where the oppressed do not have a voice.

Earlier publication on slavery was overwhelmingly male-dominated. Harriet Jacobs’s book presents one of a woman’s first and most comprehensive slave narratives. However, she does not shy away from detail in her effort to bring to light the sexual abuse in slavery.

She does not spare herself from the actions she takes. That would otherwise not have taken had desperation not been present. In her story, she details the sexual abuse of slaves, the brutality of the slave owners and the torment of mothers being separated from their kids.

Picture of Harriet Jacobs in Chair. The lady that escaped sexual abuse in slavery

Who is Harriet Jacobs?

Harriet Ann Jacobs (in the book known as Linda), born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813, was an African-American writer. She was the daughter of Delilah, the slave of Margaret Horniblow, and Daniel Jacobs, the slave of Andrew Knox.

Quitting was not in Harriet Jacob’s makeup. She eluded the predatory repeated sexual advances by her master for years from a young age. She managed later to escape to the North. And this autobiography is her account of her suffering.

Escaping to the North took a lot of work. She spent nearly seven years hiding in her grandmother’s tight den. She only surfaced at night when it was safe for her to do so, just to stretch herself and exercise.

The birth of a book on sexual abuse in slavery

Harriet Jacobs’s autobiography, ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published under the alias Linda Brent in 1861, is one of the last of over a hundred slave narratives published separately before the Civil War. The Quaker (the Religious Society were among the first white people to denounce slavery) abolitionist Amy Post first suggested the idea to her; however, she resisted.

She could not think of a worse thing to do than to relive her distressing experience of sexual abuse in slavery. Thank God she relented. She felt her duty was to try to be “useful in some way” to the antislavery cause.

Harriet Jacobs did not have to contend with what many of the slaves of her time had to. Her lovely mistress taught her how to read and write before she passed away. The mistress she lived with until she was twelve years old was a kind and considerate friend. Her most significant obstacle was finding the time to put ink on the paper. Finally, in 1851 Harriet Jacobs gained her freedom when her employer purchased her. This meant that she was no longer a fugitive. First, however, she needed to work for them as a nursemaid.

She started to write the book in 1853. Still, She was constantly tired, working twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week looking after five children, including a newborn baby. The only time she had was when they slept at night. So this is what she had to say in a letter:

I have not yet written a single page by daylight… With the care of the little baby, the big babies, and the household calls, I have but a little time to think or write.


[if I] could steal away and have two quiet months [to myself]. Would work night and day though it should all fall to the ground… The poor book is in its Chrysalis state and though I can never make it a butterfly I am satisfied to have it creep meekly among some of the humbler bugs

With all her misgivings, the book did snail along, with her stealing any time she could at night. Finally, in March 1857, after four years of work, she finished the book. Publishing became her next challenge, which took years. When she finally got the go-ahead, the book was overshadowed by the Civil War. The book was forgotten for decades until its rediscovery in the late twentieth century.

Portrait of abolitionist Amy Post.She help bring the sexual abuse in slavery to life
Harriet Jacobs was close to abolitionist Amy Post. She revealed her full life story to her. Who then convinced her to write a book

Passion for slavery story to be told

Once Harriet Jacobs decided the story of sexual abuse in slavery would be told from her viewpoint, she pushed on to make it happen. Whilst she felt the pace was slow, she explains that she was born as a slave and raised as a slave. She then remained in slavery till she was twenty-seven years old. Then life was complicated with raising her kids.

Her passion for her narrative to be told is emphasised by her constant assertion that the material in the book is not fiction. There are many sections in the book where her and others’ escapades can easily be perceived as unreliable. However, Harriet Jacobs assures us that none is exaggerated and strictly factual.

O, what days and nights of fear and sorrow that man caused me! Reader, it is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I tell you truthfully what I suffered in slavery. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once suffered.

Harriet Jacobs’s sexual abuse in slavery told

The early years

It was not until the age of six then Harriet Jacobs realised she was a slave. Her father was a carpenter. He was a knowledgeable man. He agreed with his mistress that he would be allowed to work away from her. In return, he would pay $200 a year for this level of freedom. Due to this arrangement, Harriet Jacobs perceived that she was an average child.

She had one brother named William, who was two years younger than her. Her most excellent shining star was her maternal grandmother. The grandmother was the daughter of a plantation owner. He granted her mother and his three children freedom when he passed away. He told them to travel to a different part of the country to get away from the slave states. However, this was during the Revolutionary War. During their journey, they were captured and sold to different owners.

When Harriet Jacobs turned six years, her mother died. At this point, she heard people speaking about her being a slave. The grandmother’s mistress had a child who became Harriet Jacobs’s mother’s mistress. Harriet Jacobs referred to her mother’s mistress as a foster sister to her mother. Her mother and white foster sister both received breast milk from her grandmother.

Due to this, her mother had to be weaned at three months so the white foster sister could have enough milk. They were like sisters and played together as kids. When they both became women, her mother was a faithful servant to her white foster sister. When Harriet Jacobs’s mother was on a deathbed, her white foster sister promised that she would ensure that her children would never suffer.

Harriet Jacobs’s mum was a noblewoman and a slave only in name. However, misfortune was waiting for Harriet Jacobs. At twelve years old, the mistress fell ill and passed away. A mistress that she loved dearly.

The mistress had promised her mother that she would look after her kids and ensure that nothing happened to them. Now she was gone. After the will was read, Harriet Jacobs was given to the mistress’s sister’s daughter, who was five years old.

The heartbreak of slavery, where two beautiful children can play together. One of fair white skin and the other a black slave. Harriet Jacobs often observed their play’s joyous laughter and happiness (as her mother once did). What is not told is the inevitable blight that the slave will endure. The laughter exchanged for pain, the white child will grow into a fairy woman filled with happiness, in the heart of the black slave filled with despair.

[Through no actions of her own], she had drunk from the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race on compelled to drink.

Thrown into the lion’s den, the perpetrator

Slaves have no rights; dogs have more rights than a slave. Harriet Jacobs found herself with a new master and mistress. Dr Flint, the local doctor, was married to the sister of the mistress she had just lost. They were the parents to the daughter that would become Harriet Jacobs’s mistress. The same family purchased her brother William.

At the age of thirteen, Harriet Jacobs’s father passed away. The saying it does not rain, but it pours, comes to mind. Her heart was shattered, questioning the will of God. Yet, she was grateful that the one key pillar in her life still stood in the form of her grandmother. Her grandmother offered her shelter from all the unpleasantness.

Dr Flint, her new master, had defrauded Harriet Jacobs’s grandmother. The grandmother had loaned her mistress $300, yet when she passed away, Dr Flint (son-in-law) was appointed executor and would not pay her the money.

To make matters worse, the mistress had promised the grandmother and told everyone that the grandmother would be a free woman when she passed. This was mentioned in the will. However, Dr Flint ignored it and put her up to be sold. All those in the neighbourhood were disgusted with his actions and refused to buy her. Finally, after some time trying to sell her, an old lady, a relative of the mistress, bought the grandmother and gave her freedom at 50 years old.

The old lady was appalled by the actions of Dr Flint and wanted to honour a relative’s wishes. Mrs Flint, whilst her mobility was not excellent, was equally as wicked as her husband. With limited strength, this did not hold her back when it was time for her to unleash the whip. She was a hawk dealing with the slaves, treating them like animals.

Young Harriet Jacobs sitting on mother’s lap
Born (11 February 1813), Harriet Jacobs born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina, to parents Elijah and Delilah Knox

In sexual abuse in slavery, the predator is on the loose

The craziest unimaginable thought is that Southern women would marry men, knowing that they were the fathers of many slave kids. Sexual abuse in slavery creates selective amnesia. They overcome such despicable acts if their minds return to them by seeing it as a business transaction. Children of property, plantation tradable, in the exact liking to animals and produce.

Two years had elapsed since Harriet Jacobs moved in with Dr Flint’s family. She was now fourteen years old. She remembers the day well, a lovely spring morning. When her master uttered harsh and scorching words to her. The words sunk so deep that she forgot where she was. He had informed her what he thought of her, so Harriet Jacobs would know her place.

When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in everything; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must ensure surrender to his, never before heard my puny arm felt half so strong.

This was the very moment she discovered her own shortcomings. She had not lived fourteen years in slavery for nothing. She had felt, seen, and heard enough to read characters and question the motives of those around her.

At this very moment, she knew that the war of her life had just started. Knowing that she was one of God’s most powerless creatures, she resolved never to be conquered; sexual abuse in slavery would not happen to her.

As Harriet Jacobs turned fifteen years old, the predator, Dr Flint, silently began to whisper disgusting words to her. As younger as she was, she could not ignore these advances. His age and her youthfulness were of grave concern to her as the possible impact on those around her.

During her sixteenth year alive, she could sense that Mrs Flint was not happy having her around. She could tell that Mrs Flint was becoming jealous of her. The husband and wife exchanged words about why Dr Flint never punished Harriet Jacobs or allowed anyone to punish her. Mrs Flint sensed her husband had ulterior motives. A reasonable human would, in this instance, look to protect the innocent child, but not Mrs Flint.

When Harriet Jacobs found love with a free black man and wanted to marry him. For the first time, Dr Flint would pounce on her and hit her. The sign of a jealous sick old man. Dr Flint took the opportunity to remind Harriet Jacobs that he could kill her if he so wished. In her eyes, there is no adequate description of all the saturating corruption produced by slavery. A slave girl is raised in an environment of dissolution and fear.

I can testify, from my own experience and observation, that slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters and makes the wives wretched.


And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation.

The need to come up with a desperate plan

Due to the actions of Dr Flint, Harriet Jacobs had to devise a plan to evade her predator and avoid sexual abuse in slavery. In desperation to get his prey, Dr Flint decided to build a house for Harriet Jacobs not too far from his place. He even had the cheek to tell her he would do it with little expense and trouble. For this, Harriet Jacobs needed to devise a plan to avoid being forced to live in this place where she would be abused.

Harriet Jacobs felt the accumulation of pressure from Dr Flint’s advances and the jealousy of his wife. Harriet Jacobs had been receiving attention from an unmarried white gentleman called Mr Sands. He was aware of her troubles as gossip started spreading in the neighbourhood. This gentleman did all he could to meet up with Harriet Jacobs as often.

She found the interactions to be flattering. An educated white man showing interest in her. Whilst she was not foolish to see the gulf between them, she chose to go for it. Mr Sands had told her that he would work out a way to buy her from her master.

Dr Flint felt no shame when he discovered Harriet Jacobs was pregnant and expecting Mr Sands’s baby. He dared to tell her that she had disgraced herself and her family and had sinned against her owner. Dr Flint suggested he would give her one last chance, provided she promised never to see the child’s father again.

He told her to never look to him for help when she refused his offer. Soon after Dr Flint joined a church and got confirmed, this did not impact him to turn his back on his sinful ways. In his sad mind, he committed to pursuing his agenda of inflicting sexual abuse in slavery. Time and time again, his offer was turned down by Harriet Jacobs. This was often met with; statements such as, I will sell the children.

When he learnt the second child was imminent by Harriet Jacobs, his anger boiled beyond measure. He rushed through the house and returned with scissors to remove Harriet Jacobs’s hair in front of her firstborn. A few days after she gave birth, Dr Flint sent for Harriet Jacobs to come to his office. He hit her and insulted her, all aiming to convince her to take up this offer. This is what he had to say:

I have seen very little you of late, but my interest in you has not changed. When I said I would have no more mercy on you I was rash. I recall my words. Linda, you desire freedom for yourself and your children, and you can obtain it only from me. If you agree to what I am about to propose, you and children shall be free.


There must be no communication of any kind between you and their father. I will procure a cottage, where you and your children can live together. Your labour shall be light, such as sewing for my family.


Think what is offered you, Linda – home freedom! Let the past be forgotten. If I have been harsh with you at times, your wilfulness drove me to it. You know I exact beings from my own children, and I consider you yet child.

When she replied with ‘no’, he sent her to his son’s plantation for hard labour. Mrs Flint and Dr Flint told their son to be very hard on her. Harriet Jacobs worked hard and could only attend to her daughter Ellen during lunch. On many days, Ellen (daughter) cried herself to sleep. Finally, her daughter got ill, and Mr Flint allowed the kids to return to their great-grandmother. Harriet Jacobs would sneak out in the middle of the night to go and see them.

After a month on the plantation, the aunt of Dr Flint (and great-aunt of Mr Flint) came to visit the family on the plantation. This is the aunt who purchased Harriet Jacobs’s grandmother when Dr Flint put her on the auction block. The aunt came under false pretence. She acted as if she was checking up on the family. Still, she wanted to ensure that Harriet Jacobs was not being mistreated. She was aware of the evil nature of her own family. She loved Harriet Jacobs’s grandmother and wanted to help lessen the pain.

See condoled with me in her own peculiar way, saying she wished that I and all my grandmother’s family were at rest in our graves, for not until then should she feel any peace about us.

The $100 reward notice for the return of the runaway slave Harriet Ann Jacobs
Harriet Ann Jacobs $100 reward notice for the return of the runaway slave

Runaway girl

After discussing with the great aunt, Harriet Jacobs believed she needed to run away. Runaway from possible sexual abuse in slavery at the hands of Dr Flint or potentially being sold. After Young Mr Flint married, Harriet Jacobs could hear both Dr Flint and Mrs Flint speaking in private with their son on multiple occasions. They were advising him to go and bring Harriet Jacobs’s kids from the grandmother to the plantation and start to make life hard for her.

Harriet Jacobs decided to make plans to run away. But when she visited her grandmother. Gran’s maternal instincts detected all was not well. She pulled Harriet Jacobs close to her and said;

Linda, do you want to chill your old grandmother? Do you mean to leave your little, helpless children? I am old now and cannot do for your babies as I once did for you.

This deterred Harriet Jacobs for a while, but her mind was made up, and only time would show her what to do. Harriet Jacobs had no faith in the new wife (Wife to Mr Flint). She had seen enough from her short stay. To know that her rule over the slaves would be less severe than that of the master or the overseers. This is what Harriet Jacobs had to say about her race;

Truly, the colored race are the most cheerful and forgiving people on the face of the earth. That their masters sleep in safety in owing to their superabundance of heart; and yet they look upon their sufferings with less pity than they would bestow on those of a horse or a dog.

Against her grandmother’s wish and Mr Sands’s (the white father of her kids) best intentions to buy her, she made a dash for freedom. First thing in the morning, Dr Flint raised the alarm, and a search party was in action. They searched everywhere and paid particular attention to her grandmother’s place. The following day advertisement was posted everywhere, in every public place for miles. A $100 was offered!

Some family members felt it best if Harriet Jacobs returned to Dr Flint, pleaded for forgiveness, and accepted her punishment. This was to no avail. Harriet Jacobs was not for turning. For her, once she took the first step, that was it. Her motto was:

Give me liberty, or give me death.

An old white lady that had known Harriet Jacobs’s mother and knew the grandmother well called in to see her grandmother. Seeing how upset grandmother Martha was, she inquired as to the status of Harriet Jacobs and offered to help. This white lady was special. All the slaves she owned loved her dearly. She never once sold a single slave and treated them like humans.

The white lady offered to shelter Harriet Jacobs at her house. The search for Harriet Jacobs was moving from black house to black house, and the old lady felt her house would be the best place. But this operation had to be top secret. If anyone were to discover such plans, it would destroy her and her family.

There was a small storeroom next to her bedroom. This was to be Harriet Jacobs’s place of safety. To ensure no one would find out, only one servant (a close relation of Harriet Jacobs) would have the key, and all other servants will be kept away.

In her new concealed room, Harriet Jacobs could see up the street and see Dr Flint often on his way to his office. Yet, as anxious as Harriet Jacobs was being so close, there was a hint of satisfaction seeing him and knowing she had eluded sexual abuse in slavery.

Thus far I had outwitted him, and I triumphed over it. Who can blame slaves for being cunning? They are constantly compelled to resort to it. It is the only weapon of the week and oppressed against the strength of their tyrants.

Children and brother sold

Dr Flint made this a personal project; I believe he must have felt that he was personally responsible and wanted to do all he could to get Harriet Jacobs back. He made frequent trips to New York, believing that Harriet Jacobs was there. When these failed, he had Harriet Jacobs’s kids and brother imprisoned.

After more trips to New York to search for her and the mounting bill of the kids and bother being kept in prison. He realised that this failed to achieve his aim of forcing Harriet Jacobs to escape hiding or travel back to the South from the North.

Dr Flint had expended a tidy sum of money by now with the kids and bother now having spent two months in jail. Harriet Jacobs and friends found this to be an opportunist moment. After discussions with Mr Sands, they arranged for a slave trader to make an offer for the brother and kids. Dr Flint accepted and, in his rush to complete the deal, did not put any stipulations on making sure that the kids and brother were not sold back into the same town or area.

It was too late when he came to his senses and rushed to the slave trader. The slave trader informed Dr Flint that they had been sold already. After a few days, Dr Flint noticed that the kids and the brother were at the grandmother’s place. Dr Flint asked who had purchased them, and she informed him that Mr Sands was now the owner of all three.

Harriet Jacobs' Grandmother's House and the den she hide in for years
The house of Harriet Jacobs grandmother and where she spent 7 years of her life

A new hiding location was needed

Suspicion had been aroused that Harriet Jacobs could be in the vicinity. The house of the lovely old white lady was searched, but Harriet Jacobs could not be found. A decision was made to relocate Harriet Jacobs.

A small shed was added to the grandmother’s house some years ago. There was a small space in the cavity of the roof, which had not been occupied by anything but rats and mice. It was a pent roof covered with nothing but shingles. The room length was only 9 feet long and 7 feet wide. The highest part was 3 feet high and sloped down abruptly to the loose floorboards. There was no admission of light or air.

One of Harriet Jacobs’s uncles had successfully installed a trapdoor. It was not a pleasant place to live in a cramped position day after day without light. However, she would rather this than be subjected to sexual abuse in slavery or being a slave.

Many nights Harriet Jacobs felt restless. She had no room to toss and turn and desperately needed fresh air. Whilst in a confined space, she had been informed that Dr Flint had hurried back from a trip to New York to find her. The rush to get home was to revenge Mr Sands for buying his kids and Harriet Jacobs’s brother.

Mr Sands was the favourite candidate to win a seat in Congress. To sabotage Mr Sands’s effort, Dr Flint tried to convince people not to vote for him. However, his exertions were pointless as Mr Sands sailed home. Mr Sands was due to leave for Washington to take up his role in Congress. This did not sit well with Harriet Jacobs. She was worried that should anything happen whilst he was away, her kids and brother will end up in his family’s hands as slaves again.

She risked exposing her hiding place to see him before he left. Harriet Jacobs came down from her hiding location and found a position where she could not be spotted or reveal her beautiful den. She waited as Mr Sands came to say goodbye to her grandmother. She surprised him when she quietly called out for him in the dark. He was shocked and worried about her risking it all. But she told him that she wanted him to emancipate her kids and brother to ensure that should anything happen, they would be free, and he agreed to do this.

Ensure the kids are safe!

Dr Flint had not given up on his cunning and deceptive ways. He would often mention to Harriet Jacobs’s family and friends that he had contact with her and that she wanted to come back. He would suggest that they all do what they can to bring her back.

Harriet Jacobs decided to play games with him to throw him off her trail. She arranged for letters she had written to be posted from New York to Dr Flint and her grandmother. And true to form, it worked and diverted Dr Flint’s actions from his own town to faraway states.

Dr Flint was still posturing, and his next angle of the attack came via his daughter. He believed that when he sold the kids and the brother, his daughter was underage and did not consent to sell the kids. Therefore, giving the daughter was the legal owner of Harriet Jacobs; this meant that the kids belonged to his daughter.

Whilst Mr Sands believed this to be false, he felt it was best if the kids would leave the South for the North. So, in an agreement between Harriet Jacobs and Mr Sands, their daughter Ellen was sent North to stay with Mr Sands’s sister in Brooklyn, Long Island. She would be taken care of and sent to school.

The family arranged for Harriet Jacobs to see her daughter before she left. Harriet Jacobs revealed herself to her daughter, who did not have much memory of her mother. She had been in hiding for 6 years, and Ellen was very young when mum took off.

Harriet Jacobs told her daughter that she could never mention the meeting to anyone. Ellen would keep to her word of not revealing the secret. Both mother and daughter spent the night together. Harriet Jacobs promised to see her soon in the North. When Harriet Jacobs returned to her den, she cried in so much pain about the lost time and now losing her daughter.

True to form Dr Flint and his family, who had not been aware of the plans for Ellen. When they discovered after she had left, anger followed. Dr Flint tried to scare people, but this did not carry much weight.

At the age of seventy-three years, my grandmother lost her last daughter. The sad part was that this daughter worked for Dr Flint’s family. Grandmother had not entered their house for a few years. She was not a big fan of the Flints. However, she did go to her bedside until she passed away.

Plans to escape the South and avoid becoming a victim of sexual abuse in slavery

After living in a little hole for almost seven years, almost deprived of air and light. Finally, the time had come to plan to escape. With Harriet Jacobs’s body suffering from the effects of an extended stay in a cramped space, she was sure this was the time to leave.

Night after night and year after year, straining to see a star, hearing the slave hunters speak about catching slaves (especially her), peeping to see her kids play. Finally, she felt she needed to act and bring her family together. Mr Sands was planning for their son Benny to also move to the North. Harriet Jacobs’s anxiety built up, feeling she could lose her kids for good.

The conditions in the dismal den were getting worse. The roof needed fixing, but her uncle did not want to risk it, just in case someone caught a glimpse of her. The roof leaked when it rained, and clothes and bedding would become drenched. This increased the pain and aches in her cramped and stiffened limbs. With each drop of rain and the pain building in her body, plans to escape were being sharpened in her mind.

Plans had been hatched for Harriet Jacobs to board a ship and conceal herself in a little cabin. As Harriet Jacobs had done with her daughter, she wanted to see her son and say goodbye. This was arranged with her support team. The first thing the son said was that he had known about her hiding place.

Benny (son) told his mother he had known for a long time. Once as they were out playing, he heard a cough and knew it was her. From that moment, whenever he saw his sister, friends or other people close to the den, he would do his best to move them away. He was worried that his mother might cough again and reveal herself.

Another runaway slave (Fanny) was good friends with Harriet Jacobs, who had been hiding in her mother’s place. Like Harriet Jacobs, Fanny was concealed well, so she could not be found. When the time came for the escape, Harriet Jacobs and Fanny got on the ship and left the South. Both ladies could not rest till they were in Philadelphia waters.

Seated Harriet Jacobs, with a white lady standing next to her
Harriet Anne Jacobs, seated, wrote of her cruel treatment as a slave in Edenton

Free in the North

Harriet Jacobs and Fanny arrived safely in Philadelphia. They did their best to fit in and avoided drawing any attention. The ship’s captain could sense this and told them he would help them find their feet.

The captain found a respectable-looking black man and conversed with him. The captain introduced the gentleman as the Rev. Jeremiah Durham (minister of Bethel church). He took Harriet Jacobs home with him and placed Fanny with his neighbour.

Harriet Jacobs told him all that had happened to her. Rev. Jeremiah Durham was very appreciative of her honesty. However, he advised her to be careful not to reveal too much to others, as this could expose her. Rev. Jeremiah Durham booked tickets for the ladies with the help of the Anti-Slavery Society for them to go to New York.

Harriet Jacobs and Fanny were ignorant about the North. They were astonished when they discovered that coloured people could not travel at the front of the trains. They were surprised stepping into the cart which coloured people had to travel in. It was a large, rough carriage with windows on both ends. Windows were placed so high you could not see out of it.

The cabin was packed with people of all nations, excluding white people. Their section of the train had beds and cradles, with screaming babies all around them. The men were smoking cigars and pipes and drinking whisky. The smell was strong, and the jokes and songs were not much comforting to Harriet Jacobs.

Arriving in New York was different. They had to adjust to the new way of life instantly. They were nearly tricked out of money trying to get a taxi. The two ladies bid each other goodbye and went their separate ways. The Anti-Slavery Society provided a place for Fanny to stay. Harriet Jacobs reported that Fanny had done well in the years after leaving the South.

Harriet Jacobs made her way to try and locate her daughter. After a night’s stay with friends, it was arranged for her to meet her daughter. Harriet Jacobs was apprehensive about such a meeting. She did not have trust in Mr Sands’s sister, who her daughter was living with. It was decided it would be best if a friend would pick up Ellen and bring her.

On her way to meet her daughter, Harriet Jacobs passed two ladies and recognised that one was a friend from the South. They embraced, and the lady said to Harriet Jacobs, do you not notice the other girl? Harriet Jacobs took a close look. Only at this moment did she notice it was Ellen. Ellen had grown considerably since they said goodbye to each other two years back.

Instantly, Harriet Jacobs could tell that her daughter was unhappy. First, she questioned her if the family had been treating her well. Then, without wanting to burden her mother, she avoided the question and asked when they could live together. This confirmed Harriet Jacobs’s suspicion that Ellen was unhappy. Worrying for Harriet Jacobs was the promise of schooling for Ellen had not been fulfilled. Ellen could not read or write at the age of nine years old.

Finding her way in a free state

If motivation was required, Harriet Jacobs was now driven after seeing her daughter. The first objective was securing employment. This was laced with hazards; being new and a runaway, one had to be careful. Employment was often gained via recommendations. A friend of Harriet Jacobs had informed her that a family was looking for a nanny.

It was an English lady called Mrs Bruce, married to an American. Mrs Bruce was a charming, kind-hearted lady who took to Harriet Jacobs immediately. However, she noticed after a while that Harriet Jacobs was always sad. Harriet Jacobs told her it was due to her separation from her children. However, Harriet Jacobs did not tell her about her situation and having to survive becoming a victim of sexual abuse in slavery. Harriet Jacobs felt it was too soon; she was a white lady.

The family Ellen was staying with technically, her family did not provide good care to her. In addition, the family was low on money, and it would fall on Harriet Jacobs to use her limited funds to clothe and support her daughter.

Harriet Jacobs wanted to take control of her life, so she decided to write to Dr Flint and the daughter she had been given to. Unfortunately, this did not generate a response from either father or daughter. Finally, months passed, and a response came from the girl’s brother. Based on the content and style of writing, Harriet Jacobs concluded that the old tyrant Dr Flint was still scheming.

Word would soon come that Dr Flint would visit the North to look for Harriet Jacobs. Giving Mrs Bruce was not aware that Harriet Jacobs was a fugitive, Harriet Jacobs made up a story that her son was in trouble and needed to travel to him to provide assistance. She travelled to Boston and met emotionally with her son, who was staying with her brother.

When Harriet Jacobs returned to New York, she met her daughter at her house. But, Mrs Hobbs (sister of Mr Sands) had a brother staying with her. This did not please Harriet Jacobs, the brother who lived in the South and was not pleasant or clean-hearted. So, Harriet Jacobs tried to avoid going into the house. However, the Hobbs insisted, and she obliged and preceded to greet him inside the house.

Daughter Ellen felt this was a hazardous situation and advised the mother for them to leave immediately. However, their suspicions were well founded. The following day it was discovered that the brother had written to Dr Flint about an encounter with Harriet Jacobs. He told Dr Flint about where she was living and who she was living with.

Harriet Jacobs had no choice but to confess to Mrs Bruce about being a fugitive and the risk of her becoming a statistic of sexual abuse in slavery. Mrs Bruce was very supportive; she called some top lawyers to enquire about the best cause of action. They advised her that it would be better for her to leave New York, as the law favoured the slave owners.

Mrs Bruce, a genuinely lovely lady, touched by the spirit of God, purchased new clothes for Harriet Jacobs and her daughter before they left. Mrs Hobbs had agreed that Ellen would leave with her mother for ten days (she never returned). So they left New York and went to stay with Harriet Jacobs’s brother and her son Benny. Benny was surprised that his sister had not progressed in reading and writing. He told his mum that his sister had left with the promise of schooling. However, he did not mention this in front of his sister as she was sensitive and mindful.

Trip to England and the return to America

A piece of sad news was to befall Harriet Jacobs. Mrs Bruce had passed away. Harriet Jacobs was distraught. She had found Mrs Bruce to be a kind and passionate person. A person that showed her so much love and care, but now she was gone.

Mr Bruce located Harriet Jacobs and asked if she could accompany him to the UK to see Mrs Bruce’s family. He was mindful that his little daughter liked Harriet Jacobs a lot, and now that Mrs Bruce had passed, it would be of great help.
Harriet Jacobs was reluctant to do this. She was worried about being away from her children. Finally, however, arrangements were made for the brother to look after Ellen, and Benny would be placed in a trade training school. The bonus of accepting Mr Bruce’s offer was that the money would be great.

They sailed from New York to Liverpool in 12 days. Then they proceeded directly to London. She was pleasantly surprised with her treatment. Harriet Jacobs was treated according to being a human and not by her complexion. She slept in the same room that a white person would sleep in. Harriet Jacobs enjoyed the luxury of the stay in the hotels.

She had heard before travelling about the oppression of the poor white Europeans. She saw many of the poorest. However, Harriet Jacobs felt that whilst the condition of even the meanest and most ignorant among them, they were vastly superior to the conditions of the most favoured slaves in America. Harriet Jacobs did love her time in England, but after 10 months, she could not wait to go back home to see her children.

When they returned to the United States, Harriet Jacobs was happy to learn that Ellen was having fun in school. But she was sad to hear about Benny. He was at the trade school, they loved him, and he was the best. But soon, the kids discovered that he was black. The white kids suddenly turned on him, the same boy they all loved playing with. They did not want to study in an environment where blacks studied. So he decided to leave and go and work on a ship at sea.

Soon after her return from her trip to England, a letter arrived from Mrs Emily, Dr Flint’s daughter. Mrs Emily was the legal owner of Harriet Jacobs. Mrs Emily said that she wanted to sort things out now that she was married and away from the control of her father. So Mrs Emily made an offer for her to come back to the South to work for her and that Mrs Emily would look after her. And if this arrangement was not to Harriet Jacobs’s liking, she would consider selling her so she could be free. She said that she remembered how lovely Harriet Jacobs was to her when she was little and wanted to ensure that things could finally be sorted.

After two years in Boston, Harriet Jacobs decided it was also the best time to tell her daughter about who her father was. As she explained, Ellen told her that she knew it all. Ellen told her mother that whilst staying with Mr Sands’s sister, one of the maids had told her all about it.

Harriet Jacobs daughter said to her mother that Mr Sands was nothing to her. Ellen told of a time when Mr Sands and his new wife came to New York with their baby daughter. That Mr Sands did not even look at her as a human and only played with his little daughter. All she wanted was for him to cuddle her, which did not come. She did not understand at the time, as she was young, but now she understands. Ellen told her mother not to worry; she only wanted her in life and not him. You do not have to explain yourself to me.

After discussions with her brother, Harriet Jacobs decided that placing her daughter Ellen in a boarding school to progress in her learning was best. After many deliberations, she decided it was the best thing to do against her selfish needs.

Mr Bruce had remarried and had a new child. The Bruce family were looking for a nanny. Mr Bruce asked Harriet Jacobs if she would be interested. Harriet Jacobs accepted his kind offer. However, a new Fugitive Slave Law was passed weeks after she began her new employment. Making the lives of runaway slaves living in New York very hard. Harriet Jacobs was worried, and the new Mrs Bruce decided that Harriet Jacobs should move to the countryside with her little baby daughter.

New Mrs Bruse felt that if Harriet Jacobs was captured, they would have to bring her and the baby back to them by having the baby. This will offer them a chance to help Harriet Jacobs. Around the same time, news came from Dr Flint, who said he knew she had been in Europe, and now that she had returned, he was planning to come and get her.
After a few months had passed, those that Dr Flint used to track her lost track of Harriet Jacobs. Dr Flint lost all leads as the trail went cold. Finally, Harriet Jacobs was able to return to New York.

Monuments for Harriet and Louisa Jacobs after preservation at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Monuments for Harriet and Louisa Jacobs after preservation at Mount Auburn Cemetery

Free at last for life and free from sexual abuse in slavery

The Bruce family displayed unmatched love for Harriet Jacobs and the warmth she always felt. However, on many occasions observing Harriet Jacobs’s body language would suggest otherwise. The suffering of her journey from childhood to the current fugitive tag was taking its toll on her.

Harriet Jacobs felt a degree of gratefulness, but trepidation in the heart could still be felt. How can this be in a so-called civilised country? The land of the free, yet people of colour are bound in chains without a voice. Persecution was assigned to each person of colour for being born the way God wanted. The agony of not being free to enjoy those close to you and constant risk as a woman of sexual abuse in slavery.

Harriet Jacobs often received letters from her grandmother, updating her on life in the South. Knowing that each letter could be the last one from an ageing grandmother. An extract from one of the last letters went as follows:

Dear daughter: I cannot hope to see you again; but I pray to God to unite us above, where pain will no longer rack this feeble body of mine; worse sorrow and parting from my children will be no more.

God has promised these things if we are faithful to the end. My age and feeble health deprive me of going to church now; but God is with me here at home… May he protect them and provide for you, is the prayer of your loving old mother.

Such letters from Harriet Jacobs’s grandmother cheered her up and saddened her. Whilst her predicament prevented her from going to the South to see her grandmother, the message of love was felt. The news came to Harriet Jacobs that Dr Flint had passed away. Her first thoughts were that she hoped he had made peace with God. This was followed by self-reflection.

I remember how he [Dr Flint] had defrauded my grandmother of her hard earnings she had loaned; how he tried to cheat her out of the freedom her mistress had promised her, and how he had persecuted her children; and I thought to myself that she was a better Christian [grandmother] than I was, if she could entirely forgive him.

I cannot say, with truth, that the news of my old master’s death softened my feelings towards him. There are wrongs [sexual abuse in slavery] which even the grave does not bury. The man was odious to me while he lived, and his memory is odious now.

Dr Flint’s death did not change anything regarding Harriet Jacobs. She was still in danger, as Dr Flint had left his family little, aside from the property he could not catch. Nevertheless, not long after his death, his daughter and husband (Mr and Mrs Dodge) would travel to New York to locate Harriet Jacobs.

Harriet Jacobs found out they were staying in a low-class hotel, which confirmed what she had been told: the Dodge’s were short of money. Harriet Jacobs informed Mrs Bruce of her imminent danger. Mrs Bruce arranged immediately for her to leave New York and stay with some friends whilst they found time to figure out the best solution.

Indeed, the following day after Harriet Jacobs left with Mrs Bruce’s baby daughter, three people came to enquire about her. Mrs Bruce became scared and suggested that Harriet Jacobs leaves their state for good. However, after years of running, Harriet Jacobs was exhausted and would not listen to Mrs Bruce. She decided to return to the Bruce family, but before she left for a return, she received a letter from Ms Bruce.

Mrs Bruce intended to end this persecution of Harriet Jacobs by purchasing her freedom. Harriet Jacobs did not greet this news with happiness. She was grateful for the generosity and kindness, but the idea was unpleasant. Harriet Jacobs was fed up with being a commodity. She wrote to Mrs Bruce to inform her that she should not purchase her freedom, as she did not want to be transferred like a slave from one person to another.

Mrs Bruce, without Harriet Jacobs’s knowledge, arranged with an intermediate to purchase Harriet Jacobs from the Dodge’s. A fee of $300 was agreed upon with Mr Dodge. In addition, they signed a legal document to relinquish all claims to Harriet Jacobs and her two children forever. Mrs Bruce wrote a letter the following day to Harriet Jacobs saying:

I am rejoiced to tell you that the money for your freedom has been paid to Mr Dodge. Come home tomorrow. I long to see you and my sweet baby.

Harriet Jacobs read the letter over and over again. She could not believe it. Then, finally, a gentleman beside her confirmed that it was true, that he had seen the bill of sale. She had rejected her freedom being purchased, but she confessed that when it was done, she felt a heavy load lifted from her weary shoulders.

They all cried together when she returned home to her benefactor’s family. Mrs Bruce, who appreciated Harriet Jacobs’s qualities, said to her;

O Linda, I’m so glad it’s all over! You wrote to me as if you thought you were going to be transferred from one owner to another. But I did not buy you for my service. I should have done just the same, if you had been going to sail for California tomorrow. I should, at least, have the satisfaction of knowing that you left me free woman.”

With a heavy heart, Harriet Jacobs reminisced:

I remember how my poor father had tried to buy me when I was a small child, and how he had been disappointed. I hoped his spirit was rejoicing over me now. I remember how my good old grandmother had laid up her earnings to purchase me in later years, and how often her plans had been frustrated.

How that faithful, loving old heart would leap for joy, if she could look on me and my children now that we are free!

Harriet Jacobs’s grandmother lived to celebrate her freedom. However, a letter came not long after saying that she had gone. The letter read:

Where the wicked ceases from troubling, and the weary are at rest.

Untold stories of slavery

The plight of slave mothers

Manny mothers wish to have healthy kids and then switch their attention to rearing them. This was not the case for slave women. They knew they would be taken and sold at any given time when their kids came of age. They can cry but are powerless and unable to fight to protect their kids. Many such stories were littered throughout the book.

Harriet Jacobs once observed a mother lead seven kids to the auction block. The mother knowing that some of her kids would be sold, was inconsolable. The auction took all the children and sold them to different slave traders. Finally, their mother was sold to someone in her own town. Before night, her children were far away from the nest. This was the story of human suffering during slavery.

Being worn down by mistreatment

Reading the book, you cannot help but feel the pain through the written words. I am deeply touched by the atrocities black people have faced in the past and present.

My first experience with the history of slavery was when I saw Roots (the 1977 film Kunta Kinte, a boy who was sold into the slave trade after being abducted from his African village) at school. The three other black boys, a few Asians, and I were unhappy. The film allowed the whites in the class to make fun of the blacks. In fact, the film got banned from UK TV as riots broke out.

The brutality of mistreatment and whipping had rendered so many slave men into submission. As Harriet Jacobs puts it, so much so that many of these men would step aside and allow their masters access to their wives and daughters.

Do you think this proves the black man to belong to an inferior order of being? What would you be, if you had been born and brought up as a slave, with generations of slaves for ancestors?

I admit that black man is inferior. But what is it that makes him so? It is their ignorance in which white men compel him to live? It is the torturing whip that lashes manhood out of him; it is the fierce bloodhounds of the South, and the scarcely less cruel human bloodhounds of the North, who enforces the Fugitive Slave Law.

The creativity in the wicked mind of the slave owner had no boundaries. One of the favourite forms of punishment was to tie a rope around a slave’s body and suspend them from the ground. This was coupled with a fire lit over them, from which a suspended piece of fatty pork. As this is cooked, the hot drops of fat continually fall on the bare flesh of the slave.

On some plantation farms, if you stepped out of line. Sometimes there are no words spoken by the master. The last thing the slaves would be aware of would be what they did. Some of the masters would shoot them in the head. They would fall to the floor, never again breathing fresh air. A rough box is constructed, their coffin and home till their souls reach God.

Runaway slaves are tracked by trained bloodhounds. If the slaves are unlucky to be caught, then their fate lies in the mouth of the dogs. They are let loose on the runaways to tear the flesh from the bones. In uncivilised, unpoliced communities of slavery, cruelty has no boundaries.

A slave who was a bodyguard for his master did something slight, his punishment? He was stripped of all clothes except his shirt, whipped and tied to a large tree in front of the house. It was a stormy cold night; the slave was nearly frozen to death.

A runaway slave that was captured and returned to his master. After getting hundreds of lashes, was confined to a small room tight in space. He was only fed bread and water to drink. It was intended for him to be in this small space for the same length of time he had been away. Eventually, after neglect, they notice a smell from the small space. The water had not been touched when they noticed the bread was gone. So they opened the space to find that he had passed away and was partly eaten by rats and vermin.

Women are considered on the same par as animals. They have no value unless they add to the owner’s stock by reproducing [babies]. A woman that ran away and was caught and returned to her master was shot from point-blank range. The owner was not held by anyone to account for his appalling behaviour.

Risk of getting caught

With too many slaves, the slightest opening to escape their imprisonment was worth the risk. But, knowing that capture could mean death, severe whipping, or starvation to the brink of death, many still chose to take the risk.

The moral of the story? Plainly put the risk of death, working like an animal, poverty and hardship with freedom were not preferable to the treatment and sexual abuse in slavery. Furthermore, the harsh environment of slavery makes those with staunch Christianity beliefs forget God’s presence.

No, I did not think of him [God]. When a man is hunted like a wild beast, he forgets there is a God, a heaven. He forgets everything in his struggle to get beyond the reach of the bloodhounds.

There are angels amongst the evil surroundings and sexual abuse in slavery

A clergyman, who the slaves felt God had sent to them, became a person of hope. When the black churches in the woods were torn apart by the whites. The slaves were forced to attend white churches. It was depressing for them, as the preaching was about how blacks were the lowest in society. But this clergyman preached to and touched the slaves. It was the first time that they felt human. In one of his sermons this is what he had to say:

For two years I have been striving to do something for the colour people of my parish; but nothing is yet accomplished. I have not even preached a sermon to them. Try to live according to the word of God, my friends. Your skin is darker than mine; but God judges’ men by dear hearts, not by the colour of their skins.

To hear such a strange doctrine from the southern church was surprising. It was viewed as very offensive to the slaveholders.

The slave trader that colluded with Mr Sands and the family to buy the kids, and the brother was a good guy. Upon hearing the mother’s faith in the kids and the description of the brother being bright and honest. He wanted to buy the brother himself. But decided against this. He wanted to help the family. This is what he said to William (the brother).

Remember, I have done you a good turn. You must thank me by coaxing all the pretty gals to go with me next fall. That’s going to be my last trip. This trading in niggers is a bad business for a fellow that’s got any heart.

Harriet Jacobs detested slave traders, but this guy’s kindness touched her. She felt that he had a heart, unlike the others that took pure pleasure in what they did. Moreover, the slave trader wanted to help the family so much that he did not charge them the customary fee.

The original book copy of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Original book copy ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’

Suppressed potential

Many of the slaves had a burning desire to better themselves. However, imprisonment prevented them from fulfilling their potential. One example was a 53-year-old black man who approached Harriet Jacobs to teach him how to read. He said he could not pay her money but would bring lovely fruit when the season for harvesting came.

It was a crime for anyone to teach slaves how to read and write, but this did not deter Harriet Jacobs. She found a quiet location where no prying eyes could see them. They would meet up three times a week, astonishingly this old black man-made fantastic progress.

As soon as he could string two syllables together, he wanted to spell words in the bible. His only wish was to be able to read the bible so that he could know how God wanted him to live. At the end of six months, he had read through the New Testament and could find any text in it.

If this is not a sign of prisoned potential, I don’t know what would be considered so. Harriet Jacobs mentioned that many slaves were thirsty for the water of life. However, the law forbade it.

Talk to American slaveholders as you talk to savages in Africa. Tell them it is wrong to traffic in men. Tell them it is sinful to sell beer on children, and atrocious to violate their own daughters. Tell them that all men are brethren, and that man has no right to shut out the light of knowledge from his brother. Tell them they are untroubled to God for sealing up the Fountain of Life from souls that are thirsting for it.

The pain unfelt by others

To the slaves in the South, many in the North turn a blind eye to the atrocities beneath them. They allow their daughters (turn a blind eye to the sexual abuse in slavery these same men are committing) to marry men of the South, and they applaud the entrepreneurship from the South. When those from the North visited, they were presented with a façade that everything was roses.

What does he know of the half-starved wretches toiling from dawn till dark on the plantations? Of mothers shrieking for their children, torn from their arms by slave traders? What young girls are dragged down into moral filth? Of pools of blood around the whipping post? Of hounds trained to eat human flesh? Of men screwed into cotton gins to die?

The slaveholder showed him none of these things, and the slaves dared not tell of them if he had asked them.

Harriet Jacobs’s final note after surviving sexual abuse in slavery

Readers, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage. I and my children are now free! We are as free from the power of slaveholders as are the white people of the North, and though that, according to my ideas, is not saying a great deal, it is a vast improvement in my condition.

The dream of my life is not yet realised. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own. I still long for a hearthstone of my own, however humble. I wish it for my children’s sake far more than for my own. But God so orders circumstances as to keep me with my friend Mrs Bruce [purchased her freedom].

Love, duty, gratitude, also bind me to her side. It is a privilege to serve her who pities my oppressed people and who has bestowed the inestimable boon of freedom on my children”

This was the story of a lady who endured sexual abuse in slavery. A book that was so nearly lost but has been brought to the public to provide a first-hand account of slavery from a powerful black woman!



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