Black History Month 2021: William John Brown and his escape from slavery
In August 1830 William John Brown appeared before the magistrate at the Belfast Police Court. Mr Brown, an enslaved man from America, entered the courtroom accompanied by members of the Society of Friends.
Newspaper reports describe him as looking crestfallen and physically frail- the fifty-year-old slowly took the stand and was said to have recounted his story in a feeble voice. William was enslaved as a young man in Virginia, but had worked his way out of bondage and received his papers of freedom. Now a free man he got married and had five children and settled in Baltimore, Maryland. However, in 1826 a band of slave speculators, commonly known as ‘slavers’, arrived at his family home where they manhandled him, placed a blindfold over his eyes, bundling him into a waiting cart and drove off. During the course of the attack, they also took possession of his cherished papers. Arriving soon after at a nearby port the slavers forced him to board a slave ship which set sail from Maryland and arrived in New Orleans. While in New Orleans he was sold numerous times and ultimately he was forced to load bales of cotton onto trading vessels, many of which were bound for Europe. One such vessel was the copper-bottomed brig the Planter owned by John Vance, a cotton and cloth merchant based in Donegall Place, Belfast.
Brown managed to secure the trust of one the Planter’s crew. Buying a dollars’ worth of biscuits from him. Brown told his sympathetic confidante that, once the cargo was loaded, he was going to escape from his captors. Once the last bale was in the ship, Brown made his way into the brig’s hold and hid inside a bale of cotton as the Planter set sail for Belfast. During the voyage, he kept himself alive on his dollars’ worth of biscuits and only ventured out at night for water. As the brig was being unloaded in Belfast, Brown made good his escape but was spotted by a crewmember who informed the police. While in custody, the police contacted the philanthropic Quakers who appeared in court to lend their support to Brown’s testimony and to vouch for his character. Having listened intently to his story the Magistrate felt proud to announce that the man who stood before him was no longer a slave and that he would leave his court room a free man.
William John Brown went on to find employment as a labourer in Belfast, living near Smithfield Market. However, the trials and traumas of his life finally exacted their toll. He died in November 1831 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Clifton Street Cemetery run by Belfast Charitable Society. A tragic note beside his entry in the burial records that his wife and children were still enslaved in America.