Memoirs of Slave Who Died in Vermont To be Republished This Fall
The last time Jeffrey Brace saw his parents was in Africa as he headed to the river for a swim with friends. “My mother pressed me to her breast, and warned me of the dangers of the waters, for she knew no other,” Brace said. His father placed his own formal cap on his head and told him “to return before the setting of our great father the sun.”
Brace, 16, never came back: The danger was not from the waters, but from English slave traders who came across the sea. “Eleven out of 14 were made captives, bound instantly,” Brace would write later. They “were hurried to their boat, and within five minutes were on board, gagged and carried down the stream like a sluice; fastened down in the boat with cramped jaws.
“I was pressed almost to death by the weight of bodies that lay upon me; night approached and for the first time in my life, I was accompanied with gloom and horror,” he said.
So began Brace’s life as a slave in 1758, which ended many years later in freedom on a farm in Vermont. His story, recounted in a memoir published in St. Albans in 1810, is coming back to life.
The Blind African Slave; Or, Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace will be published this fall by the University of Wisconsin Press. It tells the story of Brace’s homeland, the brutal ship passage to the United States, his slave owners in Connecticut, fighting in the Revolutionary War, and his final years in Vermont, where he married and had children.
The memoir is a rare first-person account from the early years of slavery and perhaps the first book published in St. Albans, said Dr. Kari Winter, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, who researched the book and wrote an introduction to the new edition.
“I was very compelled by it. I was astonished,” said Winter, who, at the urging of a colleague, found the original book in the special collections library at the University of Vermont, where she used to teach.
“This book is really a find,” said Dr. William Andrews, a professor of African American literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has written and edited books on slave narratives and gathered the accounts online. “We have almost no autobiographies in the African American tradition by people who were themselves African born,” he said. “Then when you add Brace’s striking story in America, being in the Revolutionary Army and so on, that’s almost unique.”
“This is one of the great American stories,” Winter said. “Benjamin Franklin is often thought of having written the founding biography, which is rags to riches. Jeffrey Brace’s story is far more dramatic. He was stolen from his family … separated from his language.”
Brace was blind, but Benjamin Prentiss, a White abolitionist lawyer in Milton, wrote down Brace’s memoirs, with his own research and passages from scripture Brace had chosen. Harry Whitney, a St. Albans newspaper publisher, printed the book in 1810.
There are just a few fragile copies left. Republishing it will shed light on American history and slavery in New England, “something we’ve been hesitant to examine,” Winter said. “I hope that he will become an acknowledged part of cultural history,” she said. “That he can in a sense become a Vermont icon.”
— Associated Press
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