Nineteenth-Century Biography: Josephine Brown’s Biography of An American Bondman (1856)
By Sarah Patterson
Josephine Brown’s Biography of An American Bondman, By His Daughter (1856) recounts the enslavement, entrepreneurial ventures and British lecture tours of William Wells Brown, the wildly popular nineteenth-century self-emancipated abolitionist and temperance activist. While teaching in Woolwich, England, Josephine Brown was motivated to pen a biography upon learning that Wells Brown’s latest memoir Narrative of William W. Brown, An American Slave, Written By Himself (1849) was out of print in the United States. Brown also believed that the book would enlighten her white peers in France on the nature of American slavery. A source of fascination among pro-abolition readers, Biography represented the success of a young African American woman living and working as a teacher abroad. Brown’s first and single extant book-length publication exhibits the textual malleability of the nineteenth-century biography and the ways such textual freedom allowed Black women writers to creatively remark upon race and politics.
Following conventions of nineteenth-century biographical writing, Biography of An American Bondman integrates reprinted passages from autobiographies, newspapers and legal documents into the author’s commentary on slavery and racial injustice in America. The majority of Biography follows Wells Brown through his early life as an enslaved youth in the South and his entrepreneurial endeavors as a self-educated fugitive after he escapes to the North. The remaining portion of the biography chronicles Wells Brown’s anti-slavery lectures and journalistic activities in Europe as well as the circumstances of his manumission in 1854.
Josephine Brown reprints content to support claims about racial injustice in America. Reviews published in popular English newspapers describe Wells Brown’s lecture tours and public appearances in London and largely attest to the fugitive’s “superior talents.” Chapter 21, for example, offers insight into how the English press portrayed nineteenth-century abolition lecture culture and the context of prominent debates about American slavery as understood by Europeans.
In another example, Josephine Brown reprints Wells Brown’s freedom papers to expose white American Christians as hypocrites and as smears upon America’s reputation in global affairs. Chapter 23 describes the legal process by which William Wells Brown is emancipated from slavery. Included in the chapter are reproductions of manumission documents from the Missouri County Circuit Court.
At the end of this chapter, Brown declares: “The foregoing, reader, is a true copy of the bill of sale by which a democratic, Christian American sells his fellow-countryman for British gold.”
Josephine Brown’s achievements constituted an anomaly during the 1850s. Nevertheless, scholars have rarely considered the ways Brown’s literature represents the perspective of a young Black abolitionist intellectual. As my scholarship seeks to show, Brown’s literature provides an important glimpse into the political opinions of a freeborn African American woman educator during one of the most transformative eras in American history.
Josephine Brown. Biography of an American Bondman. Special Collections, University of Delaware LIbrary
Sarah Patterson is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Delaware. She is currently writing a dissertation about nineteenth-century Black educational philosophies, particularly among African American women educator-intellectuals. Reach Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.