Emerging from obscurity amongst a literary genre dominated by the widely recognisable names of former slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Olaudah Equiano, the name Henry Goings, an identity assumed by Elijah Turner in 1839, is relatively unfamiliar. Born around 1810, Goings was uncertain of his date of birth but sure of his status as a slave.
A narrative brimming with astute observation and harrowing recollections of slavery, Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery brings to the historical fore the story and experiences of a remarkable slave. Having escaped to Canada, Goings began writing his narrative in the 1850’s before it was published in Stratford, Ontario in 1869. Condemning the oppressive slave system of which he had been a victim, little did Goings know that his story would remain elusive and unknown for over one hundred years until it was purchased by the University of Virginia Press in 2006. Offered to them by an antiquarian book dealer, the narrative once presumed unfinished was authenticated as Goings’ narrative after meticulous research.
Assuming the spotlight, Goings takes the reader on an emotional journey through his experience of slavery in the United States. Retold in five chapters, he exposes a world of slave-owner brutality, fugitivity, and slave ingenuity, climaxing in his escape to Canada. Essentially a slave narrative entwined with a freedom narrative, Goings is composed in his articulation of his experience and in his observations of slavery, only breaking from this writing style when directly addressing the reader to the feelings of hopefulness that many slaves felt as a consequence of slave-owners and their constructs. This brief but asserting style of writing, informing the reader that the experience is raw without divulging too much supplementary detail, is effective in presenting the emotional scarring engrained on the slave throughout the course of enslavement. The theme of slave movement and separation is addressed and juxtaposed with a discussion of slave vulnerability. Specifically, slave vulnerability to sale and the dislocation of personal relationships between slaves is discussed.
Driven by “Western fever” and his owner’s constant craving for success, Goings discusses travelling with his master across the United States. These social insights are not only useful to slavery historians but provide social historians with regional and historical snapshots from a slave perspective. Goings visits Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and New Orleans from 1820 until 1839. His remarks on witnessing the Old Sage (Osage), the first steamboat to navigate the Tennessee River and his travels on Jackson’s Military Road are standout examples. It is throughout this discussion that his desire to escape slavery becomes most apparent.
Questioning why he is denied reading instruction and perplexed as to how a person can claim it their right to own another, Goings resolves to escape – “Still there was the consciousness that I was but a ‘slave,’ a piece of property controlled, and owned by another…I felt I had no will of my own.” (27) Inherited by Mary Smith on the death of her husband and his owner, Joseph Smith, Goings (at this stage named Smith by his owner) purchases the freedom papers of a free mulatto man named Henry Goings, resolving to escape with his new identity. Marking an important phase in the transition from slave to free in his life, Goings adopts the mind-set of a runaway – “From that moment I decided to escape…I was about to engage in an enterprise in which failure would be punishment, probably punishment to the death. I must summon courage, for I was now to fight the battle of life.” (37) Embodying the radical “Give me liberty, or give me death” message espoused by the Virginian orator Patrick Henry, Goings embarks on an all or nothing escape attempt. Exposed to life as a fugitive slave, the reader follows Goings in the five year period from 1839 as he travels through states such as Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio before finally arriving at his destination in Amherstburgh, Ontario, Canada. Labouring as a barber, a waiter, and a hotel worker, Goings writes of his arrival in Canada and his subsequent attempt to be reacquainted with his wife. An attempt fraught with betrayal, Goings returns to Perrysburg, Ohio believing that a free man named George Wilson can reunite him with his wife only to be betrayed by him. Goings escapes and returns to Canada.
Having escaped slavery and avoided recapture, the narrative assumes a more withdrawn tone with Goings remarking not as a slave but a free man observing what he perceives as the inconsistencies of slavery and southern culture. Drawing on theological concepts to condemn pro-slavery ideologies, he provides the reader with a commentary on developments during the Civil War, probing the significance of the campaign and the broader issue of slave emancipation. Presenting the war as a chance for African Americans to realise the rights and equality advocated by antebellum abolitionists but also pessimistic of the Southern slave states ability to embrace any form of abolitionism, Goings is uncertain of the fate of his fellow African Americans. Written from his Canadian home in Stratford, Ontario and now father to Catharine, Samuel, Harriett, Maria, and James, Goings assumes a dejected tone, accepting that black Americans in the era of Reconstruction would not enjoy the full citizenship or equality in the United States.
On the whole, the narrative is an original account of slavery which commands appreciation amongst the slave narrative genre of literature and offers an original account of American slavery. An articulate retelling of one man’s experience of slavery, this edited edition is supplemented with in-depth footnotes which attest to considerable research. The editors’ appendices contain useful maps and correspondence while small additions to the narrative such as the chronology of Goings’ life following the introduction are considerably useful. For social historians, and particularly slavery historians, this book is an exciting find, with the University of Virginia Press deserving of considerable gratitude for their purchase and publication of this fine work.
Shaun Wallace is an Economic and Social Research Council-funded PhD candidate jointly supervised at the University of Stirling and University of Kent. His thesis examines the relationship between black literacy and slave rebelliousness in the United States during the Early National period.