Thursday, 21 August 2014

Review of The Life of Josiah Henson

I decided to shorten the title of this book in the title above because it's a bit of a mouthful: The Life of Josiah Henson, formerly a Slave, now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. However, the entire title is incredibly important - it highlights the progress Henson made through his bravery and belief in the right of his freedom. Although he did not physically write the book itself (having had that privilege snatched from him by his "masters"), Henson is remembered as a powerful orator and narrated this book to be written word for word from his speech.

The novel begins with Josiah Henson as a child. He was born into slavery and at first sees no other way forward in his life. However, as he grows to reach a pre-pubescent age, he begins to realise that he is physically superior to many of his fellow bondsmen. This offers Henson, or "Siah" as he's known, to gain opportunities which he recognises that others around him do not have. Even though he is able to accomplish tasks with a great level of alacrity he still suffers at the hands of dominant white men. By the time he reaches adulthood he is physically impaired. The beating which did this irreparable damage to him really stuck out to me. He was set upon by a white man and a couple of his slaves. Although strong, Siah could not fight against four men, and was almost beaten to death. He received this because he was perceived to have done something wrong: if this fit and able, incredibly intelligent man was liable to such beatings, then one can only imagine the sufferings of those who couldn't fulfill their tasks as readily. Siah uses his wit and incredible physical abilities to earn money during his time as a slave. I'm NOT going to spoiler this one, as I think it's an incredibly important book to read, but I will just say that his attempts to buy himself freedom do not go exactly to plan ...

So if you've been keeping up with my recent posts, you'll know I reviewed Twelve Years A Slave ( and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave ( Although I felt the style and narrative of The Life of Josiah Henson reminded me a little of Twelve Years a Slave, they obviously still offer an incredibly different viewpoint on the topic of slavery. The biggest lesson which I feel Henson tried to express through his writing is that slaves are no less intelligent than their masters. Henson himself was stripped of all means of education as a child and all contact with the commercial world, however, by adulthood he had enough wit and sense to free himself from captivity successfully and build a safe haven for former slaves. He is largely the reason why the next generation of his family were schooled - he chose the correct way forward at every turn point so that the community had enough money to build a school. Moreover, Henson expresses more potently than the other writers just how great an affinity there was amongst the slaves owned by each master. They were not just holed up together like animals as the masters thought, but had genuine bonds and feelings for one another. 

The utter barbarity of white slave traders was (I think) expressed and felt by Henson more through their words and legal actions than their physical abuse. The tragedy of the plot lies in Henson's attempt to purchase his own freedom. He is thoroughly respected by his master and purchases his freedom, only to find that he has been betrayed in the worst way. The document which declares his freedom has been destroyed, to be replaced with another one which indicates that he owes an insurmountable sum of money in order to become free. At this point it really struck home for me that, no matter how well you performed as a slave, or how much you had done for a master personally, they would rarely (if ever) see an individual as more than a piece of property.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?

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