Harriet Tubman - The road to freedom by Catherine Clinton

Written by Rose

From the moment Harriet Tubman took her first breaths as a tiny baby, she was owned, much like a chair or house. She was a commodity, to be used by a white slave owner as he wished, a man who also held her parents and sibling’s captive. She began working at age five, as the carer for a baby she could barely hold and was repeatedly beaten by the lady of the house. Slaves negotiated to try and keep families together, but the ever-present danger of separation generated tremendous anxiety. Tubman would witness two of her sisters dragged away, sobbing, to be sold on the slave block. It was one of Tubman’s most harrowing memories that evolved into a fire of fear in her mind, affecting her transition into adulthood. To understand an adult, one needs to excavate the past, much like an archaeologist: to unearth the primary stages of childhood and analyse the experiences that shaped the adult personality. Intense childhood trauma is often an enduring ghost that shadows a wounded child into maturity. The damaging impact of child abuse and the effect on the adult is widely recognised. Yet in some cases, as this biography demonstrates, trauma can be transformed into a positive powerful force. Catherine Clinton’s skilful writing creates a compelling personality, a presence whose bravery and rebelliousness reverberated through time. Tubman was driven by a dream, her freedom and the freedom of other slaves. She nurtured this dream. It became a vision she described to other people. Tubman visualised herself as a majestic bird, effortlessly flying over the rivers and lands, looking down at the earth below, experiencing the feeling of freedom. As a little girl, working in the fields, she would have watched the birds soaring over the plantations, unrestricted. This dream of the bird became a vivid glorious film in her mind, that breathed with a vibrancy which made her heart quicken with joy. Once the slave owner who’d promised her mother freedom died and his son refused to honour his wishes. The dream was ignited. Despite knowing that she may die, she travelled a hundred miles with a price on her head, ultimately escaping to freedom. Many doors were closed to Tubman, some people did not want to help a slave due to repercussions to themselves and their families. It’s commendable that some people did open their doors and helped her. The biography is expertly written, presenting a powerful portrait of a female activist and political abolitionist. A film about Tubman’s life was recently released.

What’s included in the book

Catherine Clinton’s biography of Harriet Tubman contains detailed information about the laws of slavery including the First fugitive slave act, created to combat runaway slaves by making stricter harsher guidelines to limit any freedom that a slave had, this was to stop the number of slaves that tried to escape. Clinton makes it clear in the book that though many slaves ran from their white owners, many were forced to return. Slave patrols are discussed detailing their work and how they stopped slaves from crossing the borders. Additionally, and perhaps more interestingly there is also in-depth historical knowledge about the groups of abolitionists and their work, and how they helped slaves escape from owners, bounty hunters and slave patrols, guiding many into freedom. The Quaker’s were a strong force at the time of slavery, providing runaway slaves with food, shelter and advice as they travelled to the North. Many educated people in Philadelphia, one of the first stopping points for Tubman, after she escaped, were strong opposers to slavery, and some offered Tubman friendship and financial aid after she arrived.  

Tubman’s life in Philadelphia and her later decision to return to Maryland and help her parents and brothers escape to freedom are all documented. Clinton describes Philadelphia of that historical that provides a clear image of how the city worked and how African American’s lived freely. However, even though free, Tubman witnessed severe racial inequality in Philadelphia. African Americans, though free, were often pushed into poverty and unable to find work, as few white people would employ them in good jobs. Many lived in squalid buildings in the worst parts of the town. I think this demonstrates that although the freedom was miraculous to Tubman and to any owned slave, especially one that had been captive from birth and experienced no freedom or autonomy as an adult, Tubman was aware of the racial tensions and the mistreatment of her people even in freedom. She will have been aware of the lack of opportunity for slaves in freedom.

There were other great men at this time that spoke out about slavery, including the abolitionist and social reformer, Frederick Douglas, possibly one of the most famous writers on Slavery and the life of the African American. He wrote many articles and was an activist himself, a man who’d also been a slave and a man who because of slavery did not know the name of his father. However, the male African American heroes seem to have been given a voice much more than the female African American’s of the time.

Because of Tubman’s life as a slave and the way African American’s were considered by many white people as of ‘lower station’ in life, many pertinent documents about her life that most biographies would contain are missing. Tubman would never know the date or year of her birth, these were details were written by the owner in a ledger, but they were often lacking detail showing how little the owner of the slaves regarding them. However, Clinton provides a wealth of information from newspaper articles, friends that left written testimonies about Tubman’s character and her life. These sources and the statements have been made by people who were upstanding in the community and can be relied upon to be authentic in their descriptions of Tubman and her work. A brief biography that was written when Tubman was elderly, to help her with funds is also used in the biography. Though it’s true that there are gaps in time when a fuller story would have been fascinating, although her marriage is mentioned, much of the married life is left out of the biography, and this seems to be the lack of information from that time.

Tubman eventually went on to work with underground Railway (UGRR), Clinton discusses the arguments that have been made about the UGRR over the decades. The fact that they did not create documents of their activities in many cases, simply because if the documents were found they could be prosecuted. The work of the UGRR is described by Clinton as she leads the reader into a detailed chapter of Tubman’s role helping free slaves by working for the UGRR. Tubman risked her life again and again to help others while working on the UGRR and she was one of the few females who worked with men in the UGRR to free slaves.

After her work at the UGRR Tubman’s work helping slaves and African American soldiers in the civil war is documented by Clinton. She travelled to South Carolina where she helped DR. Henry K. Durant as a nurse, treating patients with malaria, typhus, and cholera. The way African American soldiers are treated in the war is documented by Clinton in the biography. Tubman found it hard to see the African American soldiers receive less help than the white soldiers, in funds and with uniforms. But she did believe that the civil war may end slavery and was hopeful about an end to slavery. She helped in the civil war for over two years before she developed health problems, due to an injury received as a slave in her younger days.

In her elderly years she fought for a small pension to help her and her family survive, though struggled to find documentation to prove her work during the civil war. Eventually, others intervened, and though it took a long time she did eventually receive a monthly income. She married a soldier she’d met during the civil war, more than twenty years younger than she was. The young man had been diagnosed with tuberculous. They were together for twenty years before he died. She spent a great deal of her time in her advanced years helping the poor elderly African American’s, setting up a piece of land and a house where the destitute could receive help with food and bedding. She also supported the women’s vote and often attended meetings by female activists. 

It’s an insightful biography, very detailed, with immense knowledge about the history and culture of the time and the history of slavery. It’s a well-documented account of Tubman’s life. Clinton has obviously taken care with her research and the sources that she uses to let us into Tubman’s life story. It’s a wonderful read and I recommend it to anyone interested in slavery and America and the African American heroines of this time.