During the nineteenth century, hundreds of fugitive slaves from the United States made Britain their home. Some became famous as antislavery lecturers, others as boxers or singers, but we will never know the names of all of them. Whilst reading around the history of fugitive slaves in London, I came across Josiah Henson (1789-1883). Born a slave in Maryland, he was destined to become one of the most famous African Americans.
Henson witnessed severe acts of violence in Maryland, including a brutal attack on his own father (he had an ear nailed to a whipping post) and Henson himself was whipped many times. He diligently saved $450 to secure his freedom until his master changed his mind and set the price of his freedom at $1350. At this point, Henson decided his best course of action was to run away to the North. He eventually settled in Canada. with his wife and four children, and even founded a labouring school for blacks in Canada.
But Henson's claim to fame goes deeper than this. It's thought he was the inspiration behind the character of George Harris in the famous antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel sold 150,000 copies in the US in the 1850s, and over one million in Britain. The book created a storm in the British press, and Queen Victoria herself was very impressed with it - when Henson arrived in Britain, she invited him to Windsor Castle, and gave him a signed portrait of herself. Henson went on to meet the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop asked him where he had received his education, and Henson replied "from the university of adversity."