Taken Aback in Vermont
Book Review: The Blind African Slave by Jeffrey Brace
Jeffrey Brace had already lived a remarkable life by the time he arrived in Vermont in 1784 at age 42. A soldier in both the Seven Years' War and the American Revolution, Brace had spent time in Barbados, sailed up and down the eastern coast of North America, and traveled to Ireland. During the second half of his life, he would farm and raise a family in Poultney, be hounded into moving to the St. Albans area, go blind, and acquire a reputation as an orator and devoutly Christian abolitionist.
Jeffrey Brace, known originally as Boyrereau Brinch, was also enslaved for 25 years.
All these events, including the joy of freedom and the sting of racism he experienced in Vermont, are related in an autobiography that ranks as a most unusual slave chronicle. Brace's story, published in St. Albans in 1810, likewise illuminates the early history of Africans in Vermont and sparks questions about the state's status as an anti-slavery redoubt.
The Blind African Slave, or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nick-named Jeffrey Brace had moldered forgotten on University of Vermont library shelves for more than 175 years. Kari Winter, a former UVM English professor and a specialist in the literature of slavery, rediscovered the book in 1997.
Tipped off by a friend at the University of North Carolina, Winter found a fragile copy of Brace's book in the Special Collections section of the Bailey-Howe Library. "I was perplexed by the text's disappearance from history," she writes in a lengthy introduction to the autobiography, which was republished late last year by the University of Wisconsin Press.
Winter says she knew at once that Brace had told a true story. "I was persuaded by his voice, which is very distinctive," Winter said in a phone interview from Buffalo, New York, where she has been teaching at the state university for the past two years.
But at least one historian did express scholarly skepticism in regard to Brace's account, which is presented in an as-told-to form by Benjamin Prentiss, an abolitionist white attorney in St. Albans. Any doubts about the book's veracity have since been dispelled by Winter's extensive research. Sifting through public records in Barbados, Connecticut and Vermont, Winter found evidence that validates key aspects of Brace's autobiography.
His book is one of thousands of extant slave chronicles, some of which are only a few paragraphs in length. But The Blind African Slave is the second-longest such account published prior to 1830, exceeded only by the chronicle of Olaudah Equiano, which has become a standard text in college-level American Literature courses. Brace's book is also one of only a few in which a former slave recalls life in Africa.
Boyrereau Brinch was born around 1742 in a West African kingdom that is likely part of today's Mali. He describes a happy family life and recounts adolescent activities such as swimming with friends in a local river. It was on one of these outings, we are told, that the boy, then about 16, was abducted by European slavers. This tale of capture by white men in the West African interior is "not implausible," Winter notes in her introduction. Much more often, however, Africans were seized by other Africans and sold to whites who did not venture far inland. Winter suggests that Brace and/or Prentiss "may have simplified Brace's story by eliminating mention of African intermediaries in the slave trade."
The chronicle then relates Brace's harrowing journey to the New World via the Middle Passage, taken by millions of other kidnapped Africans. In Barbados, Brace was sold to a sadist named Welch who had a black wife and a white maid. He later became the property of a British Navy captain on whose ship he fought during the Seven Years' War (1756-63). Brace was then bought and sold several times in Connecticut, where landowners were then importing about 150 slaves per year.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution, Brace enlisted in the Continental Army in hopes of gaining freedom through manumission -- the legal process whereby an owner would free a slave. Brace does not fail to highlight the irony of a black man fighting for the freedom of white men who had enslaved him: "Alas! Poor African Slave, to liberate freemen, my tyrants!"
Following the war's end in 1783, Brace decided to move to Vermont because he had heard "flattering accounts of the new state." Probably foremost among Vermont's attractions to a black person was its 1777 Constitutional ban on slavery -- the first such prohibition among the states.
"I enjoyed the pleasures of a freeman," Brace says in regard to his new home. "My food was sweet, my labor pleasure; and one bright gleam of life seemed to shine upon me."
Brace earned money to buy land in Poultney and then went to work in Dorset so he could purchase equipment and animals for his farm. It was in Dorset that he met Susannah Dublin, a widow with two children and "a native African female who possessed a reciprocal abhorrence to slavery." Brace married Dublin but tells us little about her, explaining that an accounting of her sufferings would expand his story "beyond the bounds of my limits." Winter calls this "the most unfortunate omission in Brace's memoir."
The family quickly encountered some ugly aspects of Vermont's social order in the late 18th century. Dublin's two children were "bound out" as indentured servants -- one to a woman in Manchester and the other to a man in Poultney. This lawful transfer of custody, predicated on an assumption that African-Americans made unfit parents, reflected "Vermont's pervasive racism and its entrenched practice of exploiting children, especially black children," Winter writes.
Returning to Poultney in 1795, apparently with three children of their own, Brace and Dublin soon experienced harassment from a white neighbor named Jery Gorham, who coveted their land. Brace tells us that Gorham turned his cattle loose on the couple's property, tapped their maples without permission, and generally made himself a nuisance. Gorham also tried to have the couple's children bound out, but the couple fiercely, and successfully, resisted his efforts.
Seeking security and serenity, Brace considered moving from Vermont to Kentucky at the invitation of his friend Matthew Lyon, a radical U.S. Congressman who had been imprisoned on charges of sedition. Brace ultimately decided to remain in Vermont, fearing that he might be re-enslaved in Kentucky.
But he did sell the Poultney farm and moved to Sheldon, and later to Georgia, Vermont, with his family. Susannah died in 1807, but Brace's life in northern Vermont was otherwise relatively tranquil. In a coda to his 1810 chronicle, Winter relates that in 1821, after a lengthy legal battle, Brace finally managed to win pension payments totaling $328.23 that were due him as a Revolutionary War veteran.
Franklin County court records "paint a picture of an elderly Jeffrey Brace who was destitute of property and dependent on his children and the charity of friends," Winter writes. But he was also a respected member of his community, renowned for his powers of memory and recognized as a devout Christian exponent of abolition.
Jeffrey Brace died on April 20, 1827.
His extraordinary story would have remained unknown to contemporary Americans had Winter not exhumed his narrative. Through The Blind African Slave, she observes, "Brace forges meaning and an identity from his violent, fragmented and courageous life."
The resurrected autobiography comes to Vermonters "like a gift," suggests Jane Williamson, director of the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh. The book should prove enticing as well as educational, Williamson says, "because the best way to engage people in history is through personal stories."
Rokeby, a former farmstead of the Robinson family and a stop on the Underground Railroad, is seen by today's Vermonters "as a safe haven for fugitive slaves, a kind of Nirvana," Williamson notes. But, she adds, Rokeby wasn't quite that, and neither was Vermont. "It's a more complicated story," she says.
Williamson seconds Winter's suggestion that some Vermon-ters probably held slaves, not-withstanding what the state Constitution decreed. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise, Winter adds, because "there was a lot of racism in Vermont."
There were also a significant number of black people living in the state 200 years ago, Winter says. "The historical whiteness of Vermont is a fiction. Vermont was more multiracial and multicultural in the late 18th century than today," she maintains. And traces of those early sons and daughters of Africa can still be found. Jeffrey Brace's own descendants, for example, have lived continuously in the St. Albans area for the past 200 years, Winter notes.
The Blind African Slave will likely inspire a reassessment of aspects of Vermont's past, and of its self-image. "It's important for Vermonters to realize," Winter says, "that while there's a lot of the state's history to take pride in, there's also a lot that needs to be critically examined."