American Times: Washington

Story of black slave's escape to freedom is finally authenticated as the real thing
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The Independent US

The story was written more than 140 years ago with a sharpened goose quill on paper made from linen and cotton rag paper. It tells, with heavy-handed moralising and amazing coincidences, of the life of a black slave woman who escaped to freedom.

After remaining unpublished and largely unnoticed since 1857, The Bondswoman's Narrative has now been authenticated as the real thing – an autobiographical account of a woman who fled slavery. As such, it is not only the earliest known novel by a female black slave but probably the earliest novel by a black woman anywhere.

Nellie McKay, professor of African-American and American literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said: "This is of considerable value. It's very important just because it shows us what was being produced at the time."

The manuscript, signed by Hannah Crofts, was bought at a recent auction by another academic, Henry Gates, professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, for $10,000 (£7,000). After months of painstaking detective work to authenticate the book, the media company AOL Time Warner has decided to publish it.

One of the experts involved in the authentication of the 300-page manuscript was Joe Nickell, a historical document consultant and author of several works on the history of pens, paper and writing. "You look at everything that you can," he said. "A forger may be an expert on free hand penmanship, he may be an expert on using the correct paper, but then there is the vocabulary, the spelling. Many people tend to be good at one or two things but I am looking for a fatal flaw."

Mr Nickell started by looking at the paper, which he dated to the late 1850s by looking at the fibres of linen and cotton. He then considered the pen. He was convinced it was a quill, the size suggesting it was from a goose. He also examined the chemistry of the ink, the binding of the manuscript, the style of the handwriting and the vocabulary. Words such as "superscription", meaning the address on a letter, were commonly used in the 1850s but rarely since.

The most remarkable piece of detective work relates to the slave owner mentioned in the narrative who takes the slave character on a visit to Washington where they see the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, which was completed in 1853.

In the narrative, the slave owner is named as John Wheeler. Mr Nickell was able to trace such a man who was a plantation owner as well as a government official in Washington and a diplomat to Nicaragua. Amazingly, Mr Wheeler's diaries mention a trip to Washington during which he and his party visit the Jackson statue. Mr Wheeler's diaries also refer to the loss of a slave called Jane Johnson: The Bondwoman's Narrative talks of a slave called Jane who escapes.

Mr Nickell said: 'I am as certain as one can be," when asked how satisfied he was that the work was original. The novel itself may not win many plaudits. Critics say it is overly melodramatic but the work is revealing in its depiction of slave life.

It talks of the sexual dynamics between the slave owners, their wives and the slaves, the relationship between female slaves and slave owners' wives and the prejudice shown by house slaves towards those who worked in the fields. Above all else, The Bondswoman's Narrative is a celebration of freedom.

Very little is known about Ms Crofts – no one has been able to trace any descendants. If we believe the account is autobiographical, Ms Crofts escaped from bondage in 1857, slipping away to New Jersey where she picked up her quill and began to write. Now, almost a century and a half later, her incredible story is about to be heard.