The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

A Life in Bondage: The Narrative of Moses Grandy

Fielding reference questions at the MHS often means I come across fascinating material that I might not have the opportunity to discover for myself.  One particular inquiry introduced me to Moses Grandy, an African-American born into slavery in about 1786 whose experiences during and after his bondage have fortunately been recorded for posterity.  The Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: formerly a slave in the United States of America is a disturbing but truthful account of one man’s suffering under forced servitude. Grandy’s narrative provides a firsthand insight into the lives of the men and women who lived in captivity.

The story of Grandy’s life, written down by noted abolitionist George Thompson and first published in 1843, became popular with the abolitionist movement both in the United States and abroad.  Grandy’s story, like a number of other slave narratives including those of Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northrup, served to illustrate for a wide audience the cruelties of slavery and the outrages endured by those kept in bondage.  Stories of this kind helped to spread the message of abolitionism far and wide in the decades prior to the American Civil War. 

Like many enslaved men and women, Grandy witnesses the break-up of his family when his siblings and father are sold away.  He recounts how his mother at times would hide some of her children to prevent them from being sold, but several of his brothers and sisters would be sold away never to see him again.  Grandy later witnesses the sale of his first wife.  When he protests her sale to the man who has purchased her, he is threatened at gunpoint and forced to watch her go.  As she is taken away, Grandy beseeches her new master to let him see her one last time.  “I asked for leave to shake hands with her, which he refused, but said I might stand at a distance and talk with her.  My heart was so full, that I could say very little.”  In addition to this heart-wrenching instance, Grandy describes in detail the atrocities endured by his fellow enslaved Americans, including beatings and malnourishment.  Grandy himself states that he was often half-starved for lack of proper meals. 

Grandy’s account also offers detail into some of the common practices of slaveholders and into the variety of responsibilities with which an enslaved individual may have been entrusted.  The narrative is an important historical source for studying the practice of “hiring out” slaves to work temporarily for different masters.  Moses is hired out by his master James Grandy at the age of ten.  He describes in detail some of the horrific incidents he experienced in the employ of various individuals, ranging from brutal beatings to being fed so little that he was forced to eat ground cornhusks.  One particular master who hires Grandy multiple times is described as a great gambler who would keep Grandy up for several nights in a row without sleep to wait on his gambling table.  In one case, Grandy writes that he “was standing in the corner of the room, nodding for want of sleep, when he took up the shovel, and beat me with it: he dislocated my shoulder, and sprained my wrist, and broke the shovel over me.”  A number of frightful incidents like this are described or referred to in the narrative, sometimes with Grandy as the victim and other times with him as a witness to similar instances of brutality.

However, Grandy also provides a valuable account of many of the tasks he performed at one time or another.  Grandy’s narrative provides a unique example of how enslaved men and women often became highly skilled laborers and artisans.  Grandy himself is managing ferry crossings at Sawyer’s Ferry in Camden, North Carolina by the age of fifteen.  He is eventually hired as a freightboat captain for several boats which navigate and transport goods on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal and the Pasquatonk River.  Grandy explains that he “took some boats on shares…I gave [the owner] one-half of all I received for freight: out of the other half, I had to victual and man the boats, and all over that expense was my own profit.” 

Grandy works a wide variety of other jobs as well, including the cutting of timber for the canal and working as a field hand.  Through these different tasks, Grandy is able to save up enough of his earnings to purchase his freedom.  However, he twice gives the money for his freedom to his respective masters and twice they keep his money and refuse to free him.  Ironically, it is one of the most brutal overseers described in his narrative who apparently expresses outrage over Grandy’s treatment and who connects him with a man who is willing to buy Grandy and help him earn his freedom.

The Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy can be read in its first American edition, published in Boston by Oliver Johnson in 1844, here in the MHS reading room.  For those researchers who are unable to come to the MHS in person, Grandy’s narrative can be read through Project Gutenberg, as well as through the Internet Archive.





permalink | Published: Saturday, 27 June, 2015, 1:00 AM


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