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date: 21 October 2021

Florence (Akeiso) Hallfree

(ca. 1790–ca. 1830), memoirist,

Florence (Akeiso) Hallfree

(ca. 1790–ca. 1830), memoirist,
  • Randy M. Browne
  •  and John Wood Sweet

was born in what is now southeastern Nigeria and originally named Akeiso, endured the Middle Passage to Jamaica around 1800 and related her life story about twenty years later. Out of millions of survivors of the transatlantic slave trade, she is one of only a small number who left behind life stories—and one of an even smaller number of women who did so. The “Memoirs of Florence Hall” is a powerful glimpse of the ordeal of a young woman’s captivity in Africa, experience of the Middle Passage, and enslavement in early nineteenth-century Jamaica. Hall’s story is a moving, emotional account of the physical and psychological trauma of enslavement and captivity, of disorientation, dislocation, and the loss of direct connections to her homeland—as well as a testament to her determination to endure and remember.

“Africa is my Country,” her “Memoirs” begin. My people lived in the “Country of the Eboe,” she continues. “The manner of my life before I was taken, and sold to the white people, I can scarcely remember beyond that I was still unclothed, sometimes employed in attending our people, while engaged in Fishing, and at other times guarding the fowls and chicken from Hawks, or more frequently at play with other children.” The reference to herself as “unclothed” suggests that, at the time, she prepubescent—a girl of twelve or younger. While at play one evening she and her friends ventured away from their homes and were ambushed by “a party of the enemy,” who encircled them, drove them into “an enclosed place,” and tied their hands. “In vain our cries and screams were raised,” she continues, but their distress went either “unheard” or unheeded. For two weeks the captives were marched toward the coast, moving at night and lying hidden during the day. Seared into her memory was her “distress,” “hunger, weariness, and grief.” At the end of the fifteenth night, they arrived at the “Great sea.” This was probably at Bonny, where slave traders from Bristol predominated, and which was the most active slave-trading entrepôt along the Bight of Biafra from the late-eighteenth century until the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. There, as she put it, “The enemies of our Country seized and sold us to the White people, for the love of drink, and from the quarrels of their Chiefs.”

From shore, she could see the ship on which they were subsequently embarked, leaving behind “our Country, and our freedom, and consigned to foreigners and Slavery.” Her account of the Middle Passage is one of trauma, disorientation, death. The “white people…stripped us of all our beads, and shells” and then “the men and women were chained and kept in darkness below” while she and the other “naked children were permitted to walk about the ship.” Conditions were grim: “Our food was sparing, and ever bad. Our punishment was frequent and severe.” Young women like Akeiso also faced rape and sexual violence from crew members and officers, although her “Memoirs” do not address this issue. “Death,” she wrote, “became so frequent an occurrence” that the captives became inured to it. Mortality was ever present on slave ships, but the Middle Passage from the Bight of Biafra exposed captives to some of the highest mortality rates in the history of the transatlantic slave trade. Eventually, she recalled, death would approach “without fear” on the part of the dying, and without “grief” on the part of those “left behind.” She explained: “we believed that those who died, were restored to their people and Country”—a common belief among West Africans and especially the Igbo.

After a “long voyage”—two months would have been typical—the ship arrived in Jamaica. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, captives embarked at Bonny were the largest group of people arriving in Jamaica, accounting for almost half of all new arrivals. The “Memoirs” tell us little about her experience on the island; the manuscript is fragmentary and cuts off abruptly after her arrival. But what she does say speaks to the horror and loss experienced by so many. Akeiso’s sense of dislocation was coupled with brutal violence: “a strange language” and “a new master,” she writes, “confused my mind, while the ignorance of each, made my labor more troublesome, yet the dread of punishment compelled me to work.” Moreover, she was profoundly affected by the assault to her identity represented by her renaming. “My Eboe name was Akeiso,” she wrote, “the loss of which soon put an end to all recollections of my people.” Thus, her account points to one of the most profound consequences of the transatlantic slave trade: the disruption of her connection to her homeland, her past, her kin, and, even, her identity.

Years later, having established a new sense of herself as Florence Hall, she told her story—an act of remembering, an act of resisting such loss. The only version of her account that survives is a four-page fragment of a manuscript preserved in papers of Jamaican planter Robert Johnston at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Unsigned, undated, and only about four hundred words long, it provides few clues about her origins, identity, and experiences. We do not know how old she was when she arrived in Jamaica, what her experience of enslavement there was like, or when she died. It does, however, seem clear that she told her story some years later, as an adult, which suggests that she survived the “seasoning” process and lived for some time in the brutal world of Jamaican slave society. Most likely, she arrived before the British transatlantic slave trade was banned in 1807 and told her story sometime in the 1820s, at which point she would have probably been in her twenties or thirties. What we do know is that the surviving portion of her memoirs is written in the handwriting of Robert Johnston, who used blank portions of the same folded sheet as scratch paper. Johnston owned at least two plantations on the island’s northern coast; he was likely Hall’s amanuensis; and he may have enslaved her. Still, we do not know what prompted Hall to share her memories with him, or the extent to which the account he recorded and preserved matched her story as she wanted it to be remembered.

Bibliography

  • Aljoe, Nicole N. Creole Testimonies: Slave Narratives From the British West Indies, 1709–1838. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  • Aljoe, Nicole N. “Memoir of the Life of Florence Hall (c.1810): A Scholarly Introduction.” The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Boston: Northeastern University Digital Repository Service, 2016.
  • Browne, Randy M., and John Wood Sweet. “Florence Hall’s ‘Memoirs’: Finding African Women in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.” Slavery & Abolition 37, no. 1 (2015): 206–221. Note: All quotations above are taken from this edition.
  • Ernest, John, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Handler, Jerome S. “Survivors of the Middle Passage: Life Histories of Enslaved Africans in British America.” Slavery & Abolition 23, no. 1 (2002): 25–56.
  • “Memoirs of the Life of Florence Hall.” Powel Family Papers, collection 1582, box 46, folder 9, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.