The Fugitive Slave
by James Watkins

From Poems: Original and Selected by James Watkins,
A Fugitive Slave.

     The following poem was written by an escaped slave in 1859. Notice that he addresses the description of his escape to freemen. What was work like for Watkins while he was a slave? What is the North Star and what did it mean to slaves who were trying to escape? Why does Watkins want to flee to Canada?

Now! Freemen listen to my hymn,
     A story I’ll relate
That happened in the valley of the old Carolina state,
     They marched me to the cotton field
At early break of day,
     And worked me there till late sunset
Without a cent of pay.
     They worked me all the day, without a cent of pay.
     So I took my flight, in the middle of the night,
     When the sun was gone away.

Massa gave me holiday
     And said he’d give me more,
I thanked him very kindly,
     And shoved my boat from shore,
I drifted down the river
     My heart was light and free; [of liberty.
I had my eye on the bright north star, and thought
          They worked me all the day, &c.

I jumped out of my good old boat
     I shoved it from the shore,
I travell’d faster in that night
     Then I’d ever done before,
I came up to a farmer’s house
     Just at the break of day,
And saw a white man standing there,
     Says he you’ve run away.
          They worked me all the day, &c.

I told him I had left the whip,
     And baying of the hounds,
To find a place where man was man,
     If such there could be found;
I heard in Canada that all mankind was free!
     That I was going there in search of liberty.
          They worked me all the day, &c.


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August 2000