The early 17th century

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The beginning of 300 years of captivity on the African people in Northern America began in the early 17th century. Formerly indentured labourers in Africa, they were forced to move to Virginia, where the first ships landed in 1619. Malnutrition, beatings, rape, and other atrocities motivated by hatred soon surged into the lives of millions of African Americans. Many demonstrated bravery, but few documented their incredible journeys.

Josiah Henson's Journey

In Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, the life of an African American slave is described in a manner similar to that of Josiah Henson, a former slave who subsequently settled in Canada. Josiah’s journey bloomed at the turn of the 18th century when slavery was at its midlife and the abolitionist movement yet to develop. His narrative presents strong cases of courage when separated from family after being auctioned off as property; following the death of his master. However, Josiah’s journey differs drastically from Uncle Tom’s, because Josiah’s story outlines the bravery of a slave who was mistreated and neglected, yet prevailed in finding freedom through escape. On the other hand, Stowe wrote for the purpose of delivering an abolitionist message through the Christ like fictional character of Uncle Tom. The purity in Tom’s soul, to not commit acts of sin, at times where others would, moved people. Uncle Tom’s Cabin more effectively conveys the efforts by abolitionist to end slavery; through Stowe showcasing family separation during slave trade, incorporation of “easy to read” diction, pathos and logos as literary devices, and mirroring of Uncle Tom’s journey to Jesus Christ’s.

Slavery as Conditional

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe intends to inspire outrage and pity originating from slavery. In her book, the slaves and their masters have a cordial relationship. The slaves do not experience mistreatment while at Shelbys' and Clares' houses. Her primary objective is to portray slavery as conditional and her main aim is to characterize the vices associated with slavery. Shelby and St. Clare are both kind-hearted and intelligent, but their willingness and participation in slavery makes them hypocrites and Stowe portrays them as possessing weak morals. At one point, Shelby results to selling off Tom to settle some debts. Further, Marie refuses the slaves to mourn the death of her daughter Eva so that she could get attention instead. Slave owners believed that they acted in the best interest of their slaves but Stowe disputes the claim by indicating that freedom would be the only action that would work in the best interest of the slaves. In the narrative of the Life of Josiah Henson: former slaver then inhabitant of Canada, Henson does not mention the incidence which indicates that Stowe came up with the scenes for a particular purpose. For Stowe to achieve her intention of demonstrating the evils connected with slavery, she takes the reader into the Legree plantation (Stowe 121). At the Legree plantation, all atrocities against slaves happen such as sexual abuse and beatings which is an indicator that in the worst of scenarios where there lacks kindness, slavery is inhuman and a nightmare. Stowe utilizes rhetorical methods to portray the worst and the best case scenario that any slave would find them self.

The Theme of Christianity

The theme of Christianity is much embedded within the narrative of Uncle Tom's cabin. In the autobiography by Henson, he explains how as a young boy he started working at Mr. R's plantation Henson would take water to the men in the farms, and when he became older, he began to work in the fields. In the book, he gave the accounts of his everyday life and explained their dire situations as slaves. Henson stood out from the other slaves from a tender age due to his skill, intelligence, obedience, loyalty, and usefulness. Stowe builds on these characteristics to bring out different themes in her book, Uncle Tom's cabin. At one time Henson asks his master to allow him to go to a sermon as his mother had suggested. In the sermon, the preacher talks about Hebrews 2:9, "That he, by the grace of God, should taste of death for every man." (Henson 11). Being a slave, he was touched by the thought that Jesus cared for every human being despite their caliber. It was his first time to listen to the word about Jesus, and he was much impressed. It was the beginning of a new life when he learned that Jesus died on the cross so that every man could live.

Uncle Tom as a Christ-Like Figure

Stowe alludes the story of Uncle Tom to that of Jesus. The Uncle Tom figure is more Christ-like primarily because of the way Tom dies. Tom like Jesus dies a sacrificial death so that he may offer salvation to other slaves. The scene and Tom's actions are almost similar to those of Jesus before his death. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Tom is a model Christian. Tom undergoes the same challenges the other slaves endure, and his worst experience is in the Legree's plantation where despite the cruelty, he holds on to his faith. Until the very end, Tom is highly dependent on God, and like Jesus, he cries out because of his present misfortune just before he dies. Upon his death, people begin to change and believe in Christianity (Williams 279). At the age of 36, Henson moved to another plantation belonging to Amos Riley, and the place offered more opportunities for him to attend more religious events. He also studied and became a preacher. He met with a Methodist who gave him the drive to buy his freedom.

The Materialistic Value in Slavery

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe critically analyses the materialistic value embedded in slavery. The slaves were more of possessions than human beings to their masters. Slaves were more like objects which were either profitable or acted as losses for their master (Stowe 98). In both books, the character's father is sold off after trying to defend their mother. Henson explains that his family members were sold off and separated when their master died. Both Tom and Henson did not accept to be treated as property. They both learned how to read. Henson became a preacher. Henson escapes to Canada with his family so that he could become free while Tom dies so that the other slaves could become free. In Canada, Henson stays with Mr. Hibbard who teaches his eldest son how to read. While he preached Tom, his eldest son would read for him. When Tom discovered that his father could not read, he resolved to teach him.

Differences Between Slavery in the North and the South

Stowe intended to show the differences between the notion of slavery in the North and in the South. It is common belief that slavery did not exist in the Northern states but existed in the Southern states. However, there were still forms of slavery in the Northern States but because of urbanization and industrialization there was little need for human labor and hence the slaves were not needed in large forces. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a vindication to humans' rights where an individual is reduced to an item for financial gain while ethics are ignored. Stowe wrote her novel before the emergence of the women's rights movement and the book played a crucial role in shaping the evolution. The female characters in the novel are very critical to the story because of their moral superiority. Some of the women play a pivotal role in convincing their husbands of the cruelty of slavery. The book is set at a time when women had no right to vote, and all the political power lay in the hands of men. It was also around the same time when the roles of women were changing so that they could have a significant impact on the future. Nonetheless, the book also illustrates male supremacy at the time. Mr. Bird who was a senator was influenced by his wife who helped a runaway slave despite the fact that he had been at the forefront of enacting a law that forbid assisting runaway slaves.

Fictionalizing Slavery

Most of the detailed scenes from Stowe's novel are factious when compared with the details narrated by Henson in his autobiography. However, her main agenda was to give the reader an accurate representation of the issues that were apparent in any slave's life at the time. In his autobiography, The narrative of the Life of Josiah Henson: former slaver then inhabitant of Canada, Henson indicates that he delivered himself to Mr. Amos Riley together with 18 other slaves in 1825 (Prior 640). He suggests that he always took every opportunity he got to improve himself. After he was deceived out of his freedom by Isaac Riley, he accompanied Amos Jr. to New Orleans. A chance to escape presented itself but instead, he stayed with Amos until he got better and returned him to his master. Henson did not get any gratitude, and so he looked for every chance to escape until he succeeded. In Stowe's novel, Tom has numerous opportunities to escape. Nonetheless, being loyal and kind as well as his strong Christian beliefs he does what is morally right and works hard so as not to displease his masters.

The Controversy Around "Uncle Tom"

The term Uncle Tom was first used by Stowe in her book Uncle Tom's Cabin. She was compassionate to the fate of slaves owing to her Christian background. Critics have often referred to her accounts of slavery as exaggerated. The notion can be attributed to the fact that she tended to fictionalize her characters as illustrated in Uncle Tom's Cabin where she fictionalizes the life of a former slave, Josiah Henson. She intended to offer a tragic reality of slavery to her readers while fictionalizing Henson's attitude where she created him with an irresponsible behavior. There is a Key in the novel which comprises of all the documents that she had used in her novel (Stowe 66). The book has its basis on facts as well as fiction. She got her material from conversations with Henson and the information she had gathered from his biography. Further, she used some of the experiences that fugitive slaves narrated as well as information from the antislavery press. Stowe had only come into contact with slavery once when she visited a plantation in the South. She also used information from slaves and mixed it up with her imagination to create Uncle Tom's cabin. The book represented a faithful slave who was the exact opposite to Josiah Henson, and the characterization was negative and irresponsible especially in the eyes of black people.

The Loyalty of Uncle Tom and Josiah Henson

Both Uncle Tom and Josiah Henson were faithful and loyal to their masters. When Henson was 15 years old, he converted to Christianity, and it played a significant role in his subservient nature. He was abused by his masters but did not react. After his father tried to help his mother, he was nailed to a post and whipped, and afterward, his ear was cut off, and then he was sold off. Later on, his brothers and sisters were also sold off. At one time, another overseer from the neighboring plantation beat him up to a point where his arms are permanently injured. While he took his fellow slaves to Kentucky, he passed through Cincinnati where there was a free territory, and he had an opportunity to run for his freedom but because of his Christian beliefs and his loyalty he went back to Maryland. Thus people tend to interpret than Josiah Henson was a loyal slave, and it is the similar perception that Stowe intends to portray in her novel. A slave did not owe their master any form of loyalty. At the end of Henson's autobiography, he runs away from his master and finds a place to start all over in Canada. In Canada, he actively fights and supports the rights of slaves in the settlement that he founds.

Christianity and Slavery

Any Christian should not tolerate slavery. However, in the 18th century, many Christian whites had slaves. Further, in churches, slaves were taught to obey their masters. In Stowe's novel, she depicts the incompatibility of Christianity and slavery. The characters that are the most religious are also in objection to slavery. The most religious person in the novel is Eva who does not fathom why black people should become slaves to white people. For the nonreligious Legree, slavery is a deliberate blasphemy. Stowe implies that Christianity can play an essential role in fighting slavery (Aiken and Howard 123). As for Henson, Christianity acted as a source of hope and guidance as he chose freedom for the salvation of all the other slaves. In one instance, the slave hunter, Tom Loker is saved by the religious Quakers who spare his life. After the counter, he changes for the better. Just as Henson refused to compromise his Christianity, while in Legree's plantation, Uncle Tom refuses to give in amidst the trials he has to undergo. Uncle Tom died as a Christian martyr and forgives the men who were assigned by Legree to beat him to death. However, the law also contributed significantly to fueling slavery. Slave masters were urged not to free slaves. Furthermore, the law allowed masters to sell off their slaves as indicated in both books. As per the slave code, these rules made it illegal for the kind masters to treat their slaves with decency.

Works Cited


Aiken, George L., and George C. Howard. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Vera Mattlin Jiji, Ph. D., 2010.

Henson, Josiah. Father Henson's Story of His Own Life. No. 1796. Boston: JP Jewett; Cleveland: HPB Jewett, 1858.

Prior, Moody E. "Mrs. Stowe's Uncle Tom." Critical Inquiry 5.4 (1979): 635-650.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon which the Story is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. Boston: JP Jewett, 1853.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's cabin. Vol. 23. Oxford University Press, USA, 1852.

Williams, Daniel G. "Uncle Tom and Ewythr Robert: Anti-Slavery and Ethnic Reconstruction in Victorian Wales." Slavery & Abolition 33.2 (2012): 275-286.

May 17, 2023


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