On the second day of their journey, on 28 July 1830, a group of fifteen slaves and their companion escaped from the Bank of Boston in Boston. They had been living under inhumane conditions for years as house slaves to William Washington Hammond, known as “Big Bill” Hammond, a founding father of the United States, and to Nathaniel Hudson, the South’s most prominent slaveholder.
By the time they landed in France, the group had given birth to their first children. According to Gen. Benjamin Banneker, Jr., who was charged with keeping track of slaves and freeing them, Hudson and Hammond had created a “slave stockade,” which, for nine months of the year, prohibited them from leaving the property. The fourteen slaves were determined to escape and prove to themselves that they deserved freedom.
The group travelled through the little island country, a former British colony situated off the coast of Greenland. The tiny land had long been occupied by France, and French diplomats in Boston had helped expedite the slaves’ journey.
The freed men and women spent a year sailing across the Pacific to the French outpost of Antartique, or “The Far North” as it was known back then. They faced harsh treatment upon arrival – French soldiers had targeted the group, and harassed them for the first few months of their stay. On 1 July 1832, after a month of physical labor and two long nights sailing, they reached the small Quebec island of Aubertine. The island was surrounded by townships in both England and France and was dominated by French Catholic and Protestant landowners.
The freed slaves were forced to work on one of the largest sugar and molasses plantations in the world: Justin Couture de Beaumont’s Thérèse Island Sugar Works. On the island, they were forbidden from leaving their room or even speaking French. They were fed heavily and forced to work almost twenty hours a day, but also received some equal treatment, since all workers on the plantation wore green uniforms instead of French military uniforms.
Upon returning to the United States, the 14 freed slaves began a newly formed trade association, the African American’s Department of Commerce. They lobbied politicians on behalf of their community and black immigrants who had moved to America to escape slavery. They raised an abolitionist army on the Island, though many of their fellow Americans held diametrically opposed views.