When slavery was legal in the Southern states of America, there was born in Maryland a girl called Harriet Tubman. Many years before, in 1745, her grandparents had been captured from the Ashanti region of Africa, and ever since her family had been forced to work as slaves in America.
From her youngest days she was taught to believe, like all her brothers and sisters, that slavery was a blessing and something for which she should be grateful; but Harriet Tubman never believed this, and for as long as she could remember she hated slavery and longed to be free.
This was confirmed when she saw two of her sisters being taken away in chains to be sold further South, and the grief of her parents as the children left. She resolved then that she would not spend her life in slavery, but would somehow, some day, make her way to the Northern states of America where she could be free.
When she was about thirteen years old she received an injury, the effects of which, she felt for the rest of her life. She was standing in a doorway, bravely trying to prevent her owner from chasing a slave who didn’t want to be punished, when the weight, which was hurled at him, hit her instead, giving her a blow on the head that nearly killed her. She did not lose her life, but the damage it did meant that for as long as she lived she would frequently fall into a deep sleep, quite suddenly, from which no one could wake her.
It was this inconvenient habit of falling asleep at the most inappropriate times that made her into a ‘useless’ slave. She was hired out to other plantations, but was always sent back, after having been cruelly treated. Twice she was made so ill that many thought she would die, but she was lovingly nursed by her mother, and her own natural good health asserted itself, making her as strong as ever.
It was when she was in her twenties that the plantation owner died, and all the slaves awaited their fate with fear and trepidation, for the land was sure to be divided, and the slaves sold.
One day, Harriet Tubman heard that buyers had come that very day to take her and two of her brothers away. She immediately resolved to escape with her brothers that night. She didn’t tell her parents or anyone else, for this was the wisest and safest thing to do; but to say goodbye in a way they would later understand, she passed beneath the window of every cabin, singing a song that ran thus:
When dat ole’ chariot comes
I’m gwine to leave you
I’m bound for the Promised Land
Friends, I’m gwine to leave you.
I’m sorry, friends, to leave you,
Farewell! Oh farewell,
But I’ll meet you in de morning
Farewell, oh farewell.
As Harriet’s familiar voice was heard by the people in the cabins, they peeped out and watched her pass; and for many years after Harriet Tubman’s unusual departure and heartfelt song, were famous on the plantation.
Meanwhile, the three runaways left their home, but they had not gone far when the two brothers turned back. They were gripped by the fear of what might happen to them if they were caught. But Harriet Tubman had overcome this fear. She later said:
‘I had reasoned out this in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to: liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have de other.’
So Harriet continued alone. With no money, no food, no friends, no directions, not even a map, she journeyed onwards with nothing but the North Star to guide her. She travelled by night, and in the daytime she would try to find somebody who would give her a little food and shelter. After many days she crossed the border between North and South, and knew for the first time that she was free!
‘I looked at my hands, to see if I was de same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything, I felt like I was in heaven.’
But when she remembered how all her friends and family were still suffering down in the South, she was not content to enjoy her freedom alone. There and then, she solemnly vowed that one day she would return and bring them back to freedom.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Harriet Tubman did just this. In the ensuing years she earned enough money to return nineteen times, and rescued not only her family and friends, but also anyone else who dared to go with here – in total three hundred people.
Such a thing had never been done before, and was never done after, the courage and cunning needed being almost superhuman. Harriet Tubman had all the governments of the Southern states against her, and posters were pasted in the places she had to pass through, offering a reward of $40,000 dollars for her capture, dead or alive! She always had to travel at night and would often have to ford rivers, cross mountains, sleep outside, lie hidden in forests and endure any sort of weather, without shelter. All this combined with the fact that she could fall into a deep sleep at any point, because of her injury.
Several times one of the people she was rescuing would be overcome with fear and exhaustion, and tell her that they were going to return. Then Harriet would famously pull out her gun, and tell them to ‘go on or die’, because dead men tell no lies. She knew that if she let the person return, then the rest of the band would be put into danger, and maybe caught, or even killed. Fortunately she never had to shoot anyone, because they always agreed to continue. In fact, Harriet Tubman was never caught, and didn’t fail in bringing a single person back to freedom. She saved her brothers and sisters, their wives and children, and would even take babies, who were given opium so they would sleep soundly and not cry. On one of her journeys she succeeded in bringing back her aged parents, who were then in their seventies, after having made them an ingenious little cart to sit in, as they were too old to have been able to walk the distance.
When the Civil War came, which culminated in slavery no longer being legally possible, Harriet Tubman went to the South again to help rescue the slaves on the plantations, and nurse the wounded soldiers. Her help was much appreciated, as her knowledge of healing plants saved the lives of many men. Despite this she was not given a soldier’s pension, much to the outrage of her friends who could not bare to see her so poor. They wrote her biography (as Harriet Tubman never learnt to read or write herself) and gave her the money that the book sold. The book is thought to have passed into the hands of Queen Victoria, because Harriet Tubman received from the Queen, a silver Jubilee medal, a shawl, and an invitation to go to England and attend her Diamond Jubilee Anniversary Celebration! Harriet Tubman was delighted with the royal invitation, but did not go to England, as by this time she was very old.
People would often ask Harriet Tubman how she dared to do what she did, and how she managed to come through safely, and her answer was that she listened to her feelings, which spoke to her inside, and they always told her what to do. This ‘instinct’ saved her life many times, sometimes quite miraculously, for her feelings always proved to be true.
In her final years she was looked after by the many people that she had saved and cared for when she was younger, and she passed away in the year 1913, at the age of ninety-three.
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