In his day, Moses Roper, a slavery escapee in the 19th century, was a prominent socialite who toured Britain and Ireland telling a moved and shocked audience of his horrifying experiences in Florida.
He is largely overlooked today, but, argue two Newcastle University academics, the important story of this fascinating man represents a “missed opportunity” for Britain’s abolitionist movement to have earlier helped abolish slavery in the US.
Bruce Baker, a reader of American history, said it was surprising how little attention had been paid to Roper since he was a pioneer. “Historians haven’t really paid much attention to Roper, even though he was the first runaway slave to lecture on the abolition cause in Britain and Ireland.”
Baker and his colleague Fionnghuala Sweeney, a reader of American and Black Atlantean literature, have now a paper published in a scientific journal and are working on a full biography of Roper. They aim to save him from darkness by painting the picture of a radical, driven man ruined by the British abolitionist movement that turned against him.
Roper escaped enslavement in Florida in 1834 and, fearing for his safety, made his way to Britain, where he was supported by churchmen and abolitionists. They helped fund his education, and in 1837 he published the first edition of his tale of the adventures and escape of Moses Roper from American slavery.
In April 1838 he gave his first public solo recital at Howard Street Chapel in Sheffield. Later that year, in Leicester, he told his audience: “You heard the story of the slave owners 250 years ago. Now I think it is time for the slaves to speak.”
He lectured in villages and towns across Britain and Ireland and was generally well received. But not always.
The Hampshire Advertiser accused him of exaggerating the violence he suffered, saying no one could have inflicted as many lashes as Roper claimed he received. Roper, reluctantly, “offered to prove to the editor’s person… that he could whip 500 lashes… without resting.” Baker and Sweeney say, “There is no evidence that Roper’s offer was accepted.”
By 1839, Roper had updated his narrative three times, married a British woman, and appeared to be in a good place.
Baker said: “This should have been a prime moment for the British abolitionist movement to turn their attention back to ending slavery in America, with the testimony of someone who has actually experienced slavery to advance this, but for different reasons this does not happen.”
The main reason was a falling out with a London pastor named Thomas Price, who had expected Roper to become a missionary and teach children in Africa. Price was unimpressed by Roper’s writing and teaching career, denouncing it in a published letter as “a permanent system of genteel begging.”
The dispute had devastating consequences for Roper, who was sidelined at a critical time. It’s a missed opportunity for the abolitionist movement, Baker said.
“It seems that if Roper had been supported in an organized way by the abolitionist movement, there might have been more political pressure to do something about slavery, especially with the power of the British Empire behind it.
“The few years that are lost are an important time because there are events underway in North America that then in some ways overtake the abolitionist movement.” There could have been “other policy options if there was more welcome, more platform for black people.” abolitionists would have existed”.
By the time Price was writing, Roper had made a sizable sum from book sales. Suddenly he lost money and feared going to jail.
The Roper family moved to Wales from London and later emigrated to Canada before returning to Wales. He died in the USA in 1891.