Harriet Tubman: The Transnational Perspective

Africa has suffered the most from the ravages of slave trade. An estimated 18 million Africans were taken to Europe and the ‘new world’ to meet the increasing demand for slaves. With the colonization of the Americas starting in the 16th century, a new slave market opened up, and the trans-Atlantic salve trade became one of the deadest businesses on earth; slave trade between Africa and the Americas was an insidious but lucrative venture for slaveholders especially in the southern states of America. The very word ‘slavery’ invokes horrific pictures of brutality and oppression. In the minds of many, though, those pictures belong to the past. For example, some envision the slave ships of bygone centuries—creaking wooden vessels with holds crammed full of frightened hordes of humanity, huddling in almost unimaginable filth. Modern international convention laws prohibit such forms of slavery. However, this ordeal produced many historians including Harriet Tubman. Due to her complexities as an illiterate woman, her contributions as a transnational women’s suffragist go unnoticed and unrecognized in modern scholarship.

How can we tackle the host of components that have structured the United States and Canada into the nation-states they are today without participating in an act of erasure of some history, life, or experience? Do we focus on the nation itself? And if so, what do we label the “nation-state?” Is this simply a spatial question, or is it one of race, gender, sexuality, economics, and politics (among other topics)? Or must we, in this globalized world, insist upon a transnational lens to fully comprehend the history, future, and present states? Racial integration was more common in the North, and slaves came together due to religion and the material realities of their “class.” How does a class-to-race orientation reshape our perspectives of American slavery and the implications it held for racial relations? How does re-conceptualizing Harriet Tubman as a pluralist (transnational) figure reframe the United States and Canada’s trajectory toward independence, freedom, and democracy? This paper will expound on the transnational identity created by Harriet Tubman together with other abolitionists in the Canada-United States frontier. This would be conducted based on selected readings from Sarah Bradford, Robin Winks, et al. Parallels from this essay would be made to the national identities and geospatial implications in the United States and Canada heavily represented by Blacks with supporting references.

Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, entered a world that did not fully value her but grew to be a black heroine. Her birth is reported around 1820s in Dorchester County, Maryland, provides evidence that some of her stories have been imperfectly accounted. She quickly earned the pseudonym ‘Moses’ even as a woman for her valour and self sacrifice in leading as many as possible from the land of bondage. Her parents are reported to have loved and cared for her but unable to safeguard against the institution of slavery. Although her father was freed in 1840 and purchased his wife in 1855 (Humez, 2003; Bradford, 2004), the culture of slavery prevented any true realization of freedom in Dorchester, Maryland. As was true for many enslaved children, Harriet was forced at an early age to work under harsh conditions, was hired out, and saw siblings sold and parents pulled away from their own children to care for others. She endured serious illnesses, including a head trauma incident that was inflicted by a metal object thrown by an overseer to prevent the escape of an enslaved man. She suffered a lifelong disability similar to narcolepsy, which did not deter her in her efforts.

Over the centuries, both individuals and nations have fought to free themselves from bondage. In the first century, Spartacus led an army of Roman slaves in a vain fight for freedom. The revolution of Haitian slaves, some two centuries ago, was more successful, resulting in the establishment of an independent government in 1804. Slavery persisted far longer in the United States, as there were slaves who struggled rigorously to free themselves and their loved ones. The early abolitionists who fought sincerely against slavery by advocating its abolition or by aiding runaway slaves charted the ‘tracks’ of this Underground Railroad. Still, it was not until late in the 19th century that the practice was finally outlawed throughout that country. In 1849, Tubman escaped with the assistance of the Underground Railroad. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, she joined the antislavery movement and found wage work to support herself. Unfortunately, she missed the love and support of her family, which Bradford described as a “bitter drop in the cup of joy” (Bradford, 2004, P. 18). This engendered a spate of cross border travels that set the stage for Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad. She further travelled north to British Canada, in hopes to avoid being recaptured. Many motives have been identified for the trip to British Canada and most have been associated with ‘New Canaan’. As a conductor in this UGGR network, Tubman would go on to rescue approximately three hundred (300) enslaved persons in about nineteen (19) trips. Before, Tubman becomes the prodigious conductor on the railroad; her quest to reach Canadian soil was surmised to involve resistance to enslavement in America, and also to sidestep sexual exploitation and gender degradation. Female runaways and refugees reasoned that their desires could be achieved in Canada, both because slavery had been abolished via the Imperial Act and because of Queen Victoria’s reign, gave the impression of better conditions for people of color.

Tubman recognized and had some faith in the comparative freedoms provided “in Queen Victoria’s dominions!” as opposed to Uncle Sam’s land when returning to Canada with some fugitives. (Bradford, 2004, P. 28) The appeal of Queen Victoria and Britain’s aversion towards slavery helped propagate the traction of fugitive slave movement to Canada. These discourses, which described Canada as this utopia devoid of racism and sexual bigotry contributed to the increase in escapes from the south. Runaway Rev. Josiah Henson adds, “The excellent and most gracious Queen of England and the Canadas,” had provided conditions “vastly superior to that of most of the free people of color in the Northern States” (Henson, 1858) Such widespread sentiment among black fugitives may have also influenced Tubman’s views of Canada as a refuge from the abuses of American slavery. Tubman had high esteem and regard in the monarch to protect her. This faith and attachment to the Queen and the land of her people paved the way for her transnational agenda. She continued to provide support for those she had helped cross the borderline with funds to help in their settlement. These funds and support network included Western New York, Philadelphia and Massachusetts manipulated the border as if it was not there. Tubman’s rationale for relocating to British territory and moving across the American–Canadian international border is explored principally through the lens of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and racial liberation. The rescue missions were done at great peril to Tubman because of the bounty on her head and the Fugitive Slave Act’s support of the rights of owners to reclaim their human property. To end this travesty, Tubman willingly served in the Civil War. Unfortunately, most slave narratives confirm the mythologies about the “Queen’s soil”. Racism as well as sexist beliefs were a transcending sentiment, which did not discontinue at the American-Canadian international border. Still, these women in the dominion of Canada fought to challenge constructed borders, whether racial, sexual, or national. She purchased a care home for her aged parents in Auburn, New York. She was sensitive to the harshness of the Canadian cold weather on them and particularly concerned about the discontent of her aged mother. (Clearly, the resettlement of older persons is a great challenge that requires special sensitivities.).

Tubman served in the Civil War as a nurse, scout, commander, and resettlement agent. The Army recognized the transferability of Tubman’s Underground Railroad skills to military service; she had traversed the plains of the United States to Canada surreptitiously and helped free her people in bondage. Tubman was among the group of people from New England’s Freedmen’s Aid Society who were dispatched to Port Royal, South Carolina, to assist with resettlement. In 1861, when Union troops captured the strategic town of Port Royal, plantation owners fled and left more than 10,000 former enslaved persons who were known as contraband property. The leaders of the Port Royal Experiment were philanthropists, abolitionists, and Quaker missionaries who established systems to prepare former slaves for freedom by teaching them how to read and survive economically. According to several sources, Tubman’s only hesitation about going to Port Royal and engaging in Civil War service was concern for the care of her aging parents and other persons whom she was supporting in her Auburn home. As Cheney (1865, quoted in Humez, 2003, p. 51) stated, “The only condition she made was that her old parents should be kept from want.”

Tubman was the first woman to command an exquisitely executed military raid in South Carolina (Clinton, 2004) that liberated more than seven hundred (700) enslaved persons. It produced hundreds of new refugees, and Tubman reported women and children being dropped “unceremoniously into her lap” (Clinton, 2004, p. 169) at Port Royal. As a resettlement agent, Tubman “helped newly freed women in the refugee camps adapt to a new life working for wages” (Humez, 2003, p. 55). More impressive was the report that she invested the $200 that she had drawn for her govern- mental service to build a washhouse to assist the women in supporting themselves. She also gave up her wages to avoid ill feelings from other African Americans who were not receiving this privilege and support. To support herself and others, she made and sold homemade pies, gingerbread, and root beer. This self-sacrifice is a hallmark of her role as a peacemaker and servant leader.

The war had ended, yet her dignity was still being challenged. Tubman fought for military compensation that was denied her because of issues of gender and the reported informality of her service. After the Civil War, Tubman served as a caregiver for freed African Americans in Auburn, New York. Challenged by her injuries, she had problems supporting herself and her parents and a variety of kinfolk as well as boarders. To survive the aftermath of war and freedom, she and the members of her household engaged in a variety of entrepreneurial and help activities, including raising vegetables and chickens, operating a pig farm, making baskets, taking care of children, and cooking and other domestic work. In addition to caring for her Auburn family, she still offered assistance to two schools for freed persons in South Carolina. In June 1886, Tubman bid on a 25-acre farm project with several buildings. Without a plan to pay for the purchase, she relied on her faith and skills as an organizer. Consequently, she received money from the AME Zion Church conference and a bank mortgage loan to pay $1,350 of the $1,400 required down payment. She called the property the “John Brown Home Project” (a tribute to the slain abolitionist and friend). To support the home, she made regular public presentations, especially before feminist groups. She also appealed to the National Association of Colored Women for support at its 1896 founding convention. The care of African American elderly persons is reported as the first type of organized reform initiated by small groups of African American women (Humez, 2003) has been assimilationist from the Cold War years to now.

Placing Tubman simply into a national context is misleading considering that she lived in St. Catharines, Canada West between 1851 and 1858. Tubman was overcame boundary markers including national borderlines and the intersectionality of her other known works. She came to be able to navigate the overlapping worlds of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and the African diaspora. The solid relations and networks she crafted with people and organizations on each side of the border confirmed a clear transnational outlook. Some of these relationships included the abolitionist, John Brown, whom she worked with from St. Catharines. St. Catharines in Canada West, was an ideal location for the operations of Tubman. Mostly due to its close proximity to the United States border where she traversed the Niagara area through Lewiston. In addition, Canada as the land of freedom did indeed happen as there is evidence that Harriet lived at St Catharines, and it is even stated that “placing Tubman simply into a national context is misleading considering that she lived in St Catharines, Canada West between 1851 and 1858” (Broyld, 2014, p.79). Furthermore it is affirmed that Harriet played significant role in the emancipation of slaves and helping African-Americans in their transitions to liberation and economic subsistence (Crewe, 2006). Crewe (2006) refers to Harriet as a peacemaker and stateswoman and pioneer in social welfare with her contribution to the resettlement of the black people.

In sum, this paper expounded further on Harriet Tubman through the lens of transnationalism on the Canada-United States border: Yet, slavery is by no means dead. The human rights organization, ‘Anti-Slavery International’ calculates that 200 million people still live in some form of slavery. Historical literature has stopped examining Tubman’s resourceful usage of the borders and her transnational alertness. Most depict Harriet Tubman by and large from a nationalist, American-based perspective and overlook the underlying motivation of British law and Queen Victoria’s reputation for protecting refugees as incentives for Tubman and others fleeing to Canada (Larson, 2004) Through the cogent analysis from the readings, can the institutions in the Canadian-American society reconstruct Harriet Tubman’s work in a more global and transnational context? It is evident that more attention is needed in academia to achieve this in interdisciplinary field.

Works Cited:

Bradford, Sarah. Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. Dover 2004.

Clinton, C. (2004). Harriet Tubman: The road to freedom. Boston: Little, Brown.

Crewe, S. E. (in press). Harriet Tubman’s last work: The Harriet Tubman Home for aged and indigent Negroes. Journal of Gerontological Social Work.

Henson, Josiah. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated By Himself. 1881 edition.

Humez, J. M. (2003). Harriet Tubman. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Winks, Robin W. The Blacks in Canada: A History. 2nd ed. Montreal and Kingston:McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.

07 September 2020
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