Harriet Tubman: Reconstruction Through the Transnational Lens

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Africa has suffered the most from the ravages of slave trade. An estimated eighteen (18) million Africans were taken to Europe and the ‘new world’ to meet the increasing demand for slaves. With the colonization of the Americas starting in the 16th century, a new slave market opened up, and the trans-Atlantic salve trade became one of the deadest businesses on earth; slave trade between Africa and the Americas was an insidious but lucrative venture for slaveholders especially in the southern states of America. The very word ‘slavery’ invokes horrific pictures of brutality and oppression. In the minds of many, this horrific imagery belongs to the past. Some visualize the slave ships of past centuries. However, this ordeal produced many historians including Harriet Tubman. Due to her complexities as an illiterate woman, her contributions as a transnational women’s suffragist go unnoticed and unrecognized in modern scholarship.

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How can we tackle the components that have structured the United States and Canada into the nation-states they are today without participating in an act of erasure of some history, life, or experience? Do we focus on the nation itself? And if so, what do we label the “nation-state?” Is this simply a spatial question, or is it one of economics, race, gender, sexuality and politics (among other topics); or must we, in this globalized world, insist upon a transnational lens to fully comprehend the history, present and future? How does re-conceptualizing Harriet Tubman as a pluralist (transnational) figure reframe the United States and Canada’s trajectory toward economic independence, freedom, and democracy? This paper will expound on the transnational identity created by Harriet Tubman together with other abolitionists in the Canada-United States frontier. Similarities from this essay would be made to the national identities and geospatial implications for the United States and Canada which are heavily represented by Blacks.

Harriet Tubman, born to a world that did not fully value her but grew to be a black heroine. Her birth is reported around 1820s in Dorchester County, Maryland, and she quickly earned the pseudonym ‘Moses’ for her valour and self-sacrifice in leading as many southern slaves as possible from bondage. Harriet was forced at an early age to work under harsh conditions, was hired out, and saw siblings sold and parents pulled away from their own children to care for others. (Humez, 2003) She endured serious illnesses, including a head trauma incident that was inflicted by a metal object thrown by an overseer to prevent the escape of an enslaved man. She suffered a lifelong disability similar to narcolepsy, which did not deter her in her achievements.

Over the centuries, both individuals and nations have fought to free themselves from bondage. The revolution of Haitian slaves, some two centuries ago was successful, resulting in the establishment of an independent government in 1804. Slavery persisted far longer in the United States, as there were slaves who struggled rigorously to free themselves and their loved ones. The early abolitionists who fought sincerely against slavery by advocating for slavery abolition or by aiding runaway slaves charted the ‘tracks’ of this Underground Railroad. It was not until late in the 19th century that the practice was finally outlawed throughout that country. In 1849, Tubman made her escape with the assistance of the Underground Railroad. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, she joined the anti slavery movement and found wage work to support herself. She further travelled north to enjoy the romanticized British Canada, in hopes to avoid being recaptured. Unfortunately, she missed the love and support of her family, which Bradford described as a “bitter drop in the cup of joy” (Bradford, 2004, P. 18). 

This engendered a spate of cross border travels that set the stage for Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad. Many motives have been identified for the trips to British Canada and most have been associated with the ‘New Canaan’– her quest to reach British Canadian soil involves resistance to enslavement in America, and also to sidestep sexual exploitation and gender degradation. Female runaways and fugitives were convinced their needs could be achieved in Canada, both because slavery had been abolished via the Imperial Act and because of Queen Victoria. This registered the impression of better conditions for people of color. As a prodigious conductor on the Underground Railroad network, Tubman would go on to rescue approximately three hundred (300) enslaved persons in about nineteen (19) trips.

Tubman recognized and expressed the faith she had in the comparative freedoms provided “in Queen Victoria’s dominions!” as opposed to Uncle Sam’s land when returning to Canada with some fugitives. (Bradford, 2004, P. 28) The appeal of Queen Victoria and Britain’s aversion towards slavery helped propagate the traction of fugitive slave movement towards Canada. These discourses, which described Canada as a utopia devoid of racism and sexual bigotry contributed to the increase in escapes from the south. Runaway Rev. Josiah Henson adds, “The excellent and most gracious Queen of England and the Canadas,” had provided conditions “vastly superior to that of most of the free people of color in the Northern States” (Henson, 1858) Such widespread sentiment among black fugitives may have also influenced Tubman’s views of Canada as a refuge from the abuses of American slavery. 

Tubman had high esteem and regard in the monarch to protect her. This faith and attachment to the Queen and the land of her people paved the way for her transnational agenda. She continued to provide support for those she had helped cross the borderline with funds to help in their settlement and activities. These funds and support network included people from Western New York, Philadelphia and Massachusetts manipulated the border as if it was not there. She managed to convince abolitionists and sympathizers to invest in her endeavors over the border and was confident the British government would not extradite her for the criminal operations. 

Tubman’s rationale for relocating to British territory and moving across the United States–Canadian international border is explored principally through the lens of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and racial liberation. The enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act’s support of the rights of owners to reclaim their human property rendered the rescue missions dangerous for Tubman because of the bounty reward. Unfortunately, most slave narratives confirm the mythologies about the “Queen’s soil”. Racism as well as sexist beliefs were a transcending sentiment, which did not discontinue at the American-Canadian international border. (Winks, 1997) These women in the dominion of Canada fought to challenge constructed borders, whether racial, sexual, or national. Tubman purchased a care home for her aged parents in Auburn, as she was sensitive to the harshness of the Canadian cold weather on them and particularly concerned about the discontent of her aged mother.

Tubman willingly served in the Civil War as a nurse, scout, commander, and resettlement agent. According to several sources, Tubman’s only hesitation about going to Port Royal and engaging in Civil War service was concern for the care of her aging parents and other persons whom she was supporting in her Auburn home. (Humez, 2003) The Army recognized the transferability of Tubman’s Underground Railroad skills to military service; she had traversed the plains of the United States to Canada surreptitiously and helped free her people in bondage. She must have learnt of some herbal medicines probably in her journeys to the ‘cold north’ and some defensive tactics to stay out of sight of bounty hunters. 

Tubman was among the group of people from ‘New England’s Freedmen’s Aid Society’ who were dispatched to Port Royal, South Carolina, to assist with resettlement. In 1861, when Union troops captured the strategic town of Port Royal, plantation owners fled and left more than 10,000 former enslaved persons who were known as contraband property. The leaders of the Port Royal Experiment were philanthropists, abolitionists, and Quaker missionaries who established systems to prepare former slaves for freedom by teaching them how to read and survive economically. All of these initiatives by Tubman would support her transnational agenda in keeping up with her philanthropic aspirations.

Tubman was the first woman to command an exquisitely executed military raid in South Carolina that freed more than seven hundred (700) enslaved persons. It produced hundreds of new refugees, and Tubman reported women and children being dropped “unceremoniously into her lap” (Clinton, 2004, P. 169) at Port Royal. Tubman “helped newly freed women in the refugee camps adapt to a new life working for wages” (Humez, 2003, P. 55). She invested her earnings and gave up her wages from her governmental service to build a washhouse to help the women in supporting themselves. She was involved in the trade of homemade pies, gingerbread, and root beer to further support people of color that were displaced. This propitiatory sacrifice is a hallmark of her role as a peacemaker and servant leader.

The war had ended, yet her dignity was still being challenged. Tubman fought for military compensation that was denied her because of issues of gender and the reported informality of her service. Tubman served as a caregiver for freed African Americans in Auburn, New York. Confronted with her injuries and in order to survive the aftermath of war and freedom, she and the members of her household engaged in a variety of entrepreneurial activities, which included vegetable gardening, poultry and swine farming, child care, basket weaving and other domestic work. Additionally, she helped in the maintenance of two schools set up for freed persons in South Carolina. 

She is mythologized with some form of super power to discern situations and their outcomes but in once case, she bid on a 25-acre farm project without a plan for payment. Consequently, reliant on her faith she received funds from the AME Zion Church conference and a bank mortgage loan to offset the cost of the property. She called it the “John Brown Home Project” which was a tribute to fellow friend in the Undergrounds Railroad operations. Brown and Tubman had a lot of discussion about their operations especially from St. Catharines in their efforts to abolish slavery. (Sernett, 2007) To support the home, she made regular public presentations and appeals especially before feminist groups.

Placing Tubman simply in a national context is misleading considering that she lived in St. Catharines, Canada West between 1851 and 1858. She navigated the overlapping worlds of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and the African diaspora with support from the solid relations and networks she crafted with people and organizations on each side of the border; this confirmed a clear transnational outlook. Some of these relationships included the abolitionist, John Brown, whom she worked with from St. Catharines, which was a prime location for the operations of Tubman. Because of its close proximity to the United States border for which she traversed the Niagara area through modern day Niagara-Lewiston, it helped in the evasion of slave catchers in the Buffalo-New York area. 

Furthermore it is affirmed that Harriet played a significant role in the emancipation of slaves and helping African-Americans in their transitions to liberation and economic subsistence (Crewe, 2006). Crewe considers Harriet as a peacemaker, stateswoman and pioneer in social welfare with her contribution to the resettlement of the black people. It is almost appropriate that the interdisciplinary studies of her works are not segregated to one specific study. Women and Gender studies, English Literature, History, Politics are notable academic fields that can help shape the discourse through a transnational lens.

In sum, this paper expounded further on Harriet Tubman through the lens of transnationalism on the Canada-United States border. Past literature has stopped examining Tubman’s resourceful usage of the borders and her transnational alertness. Most depict Harriet Tubman from a nationalist, American-based perspective and overlook the underlying motivation of the British law and Queen Victoria’s reputation for protecting refugees as incentives for Tubman and others fleeing to Canada (Bradford, 2004) Harriet Tubman was a hero that challenged boundary markers and social constructs through her expertly transnational relations across the United States-Canada border. It is evident that more attention is needed in academia to achieve this in an interdisciplinary context.     

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