A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) is one of the three autobiographies of Frederick Douglass. The two autobiographical sequels are titled, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1882).
As the title suggests, it is about the harrowing experiences of slavery that the writer had from an early age. It is a symbolic narrative that recounts the rise of Frederick Douglass from a slave to a fearless humanist, philanthropist, social reformer and spokesperson for human rights.
The first-hand experience of the writer takes the reader into the traumatic account of the writer in a brutal world of slavery. He was an example for other slaves of his time and became what others could only aspire to. The text critiques the time in which it was written and serves to add to the higher cause, which was the abolition of slavery in America.
Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, and did not know his age or the year he was born, for slaves were deprived of such information, a fact that disheartened him as white children knew their ages. He later estimated that he must have been born in the year 1818 as he overheard a comment made by his master about his age. Douglass’ mother Harriet Bailey, was the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey and was separated from Douglass at a very young age, a common practice that ensured a weak bond due to lack of affection and care between the mother and her child. Due to such a relationship, young Douglass was nonchalant when he learned about his mother’s death, comparing it to the death of a stranger. Since his mother died without ever revealing the identity of his father, Douglass didn’t know for sure but only postulates that he might be the son of the slaveholder, that his master could be his father. Impregnating slave women was a commonplace practice that created children of mixed race who became slaves themselves. It was quite profitable since the numbers kept on increasing. However, the slave owner’s white wife was unhappy by the presence of interracial children, owing to which these children either suffered incessantly or were sold off. Douglass recounts that he had two masters, first of whom was called Captain Anthony, his farms and his slaves were under the care of a cruel overseer Mr Plummer, a violent drunk who was always armed with a cow skin lash and a cudgel which he often used on the slaves. He recalls one episode which was etched into his memory when his aunt, Hester was brutally whipped by the Captain. The Captain calls for Hester one night only to find that she was not present because she went out to meet another slave named Ned. Douglass implies that the captain had a sexual interest in her owing to her beautiful appearance. The Captain brought her home, stripped her to the waist and whipped her. Douglass was terrified as he saw the brutality and hid in a closet, lest he is also punished in such a manner.
Captain Anthony had two sons named Andrew and Richard and a daughter Lucretia who was married to Captain Thomas Auld and the entire family lived in one house upon land owned by Colonel Edward Lloyd. The Captain was Colonel Lloyd’s superintendent and clerk, a kind of an ‘overseer of overseers’. Douglass narrates that it was in this place that he witnessed the whipping of his aunt and the initial impressions that slavery made on his mind. He describes that tobacco, corn and wheat were the principal products raised in great abundance on that farm. A sloop or a boat was used to carry all the products to the Baltimore market. The vessel was named in honour of the colonel’s daughter, Sally Lloyd and Captain Auld was the master. Colonel Lloyd owned about three hundred to four hundred slaves and all the slaves reported monthly for their allowance of food, and yearly for their clothing. The total sum of their yearly clothing could not have exceeded more than seven dollars. The allowance for children was given to their mothers or old guardian women, since children did not work in the fields they were given nothing but one linen shirt. Apart from that, the slaves were also given one coarse blanket but no beds. Douglass says that the slaves never noticed the lack of beds as they were exhausted from the day’s work. The overseer of Colonel’s plantation was known as Mr Severe and rightly so on account of his brutish and barbaric behaviour towards the slaves. After Mr Severe died he was replaced by Hopkins who was comparatively kinder and less harsh. The home plantation of Colonel Lloyd was called the ‘The Great House Farm’ since it resembled a country village and the slaves regarded it highly and considered it a privilege to be sent for a chore. Those who were sent for an errand would sing spontaneous bitter-sweet songs. Douglass admits that owing to his lack of comprehension in his youth, he could not understand the underlying meaning but understood them only later when he remembered them and was often moved to tears that the songs were bitter complaints about slavery.
Colonel Lloyd had cultivated a fine garden that attracted people far and wide from places such as Baltimore, Easton and Annapolis. The hungry slaves were attracted to the fruits cultivated in his garden. After several failed stratagems, devised to stave them off, the Colonel found the most successful one which was to tar the fence that surrounded the garden. Any slave that was smeared by the tar would be whipped severely by the gardener and out of fear of being whipped the slaves eventually stopped. The colonel also had an impressive and sophisticated stable which was maintained by a father-son duo, Old Barney and Young Barney. The Colonel was meticulous to a fault when it came to horses and their care. He often whipped the duo over insignificant things which were even beyond the caretaker’s control. No matter how outrageous the accusations were, the slaves were never allowed to have a say. Colonel Lloyd always insisted on submissive behaviour on part of the slaves and expected them to stay silent and receive punishment without comment. The whippings were often administered by either of his three sons or three sons-in-law. He was extremely rich and owned hundreds of slaves, so much that he had never even seen some of them. Douglass recounts an incident when the Colonel happened to meet his slave without identifying himself and asked him about his master’s treatment of him. Unbeknownst to him, the slave honestly confessed the ill-treatment. Several weeks later, the slave was chained and sold to a slave trader in Georgia as a punishment. This was not uncommon for the slaves to receive severe treatment without even being aware of their faults. The suppression of the truth was extremely common, often when slaves were asked about the treatment by their masters they always said that they were contended because of the fear of punishment. The slaves often got competitive over whose master is kinder, when this was far from the truth.
Soon Mr Hopkins was fired by Captain Anthony and was replaced by another overseer, Mr Austin Gore. Mr Gore was described as cunning, cruel and an ambitious man. He ruled with absolute domination and meted out punishment often finding an excuse to do so with a cool demeanour. Mr Gore lived on the ‘Great House Farm’ and expected all the slaves on the plantation to bow down before him as he bows to the Colonel. An incident that recounts his cool and casual barbarism was when a slave called Demby ran off to a nearby creek to soothe the pain inflicted by Mr Gore’s whipping. He gave Demby a three-count to come out of the creek. When Demby failed to do so even after the third call, he was unflinchingly shot. When questioned about his actions, Mr Gore calmly responded that Demby was setting a bad example for other slaves. He lived without any consequences and was respected as an overseer for his talent. Douglass recounts many such examples where the slave owners casually killed their slaves. People like Mr Thomas Lanman from Maryland boasted of violently killing two slaves. In that same place, the wife of a slave owner beat Douglass’s wife’s cousin to death with a stick, in which case no legal actions were taken or arrest was made. In another case, Mr Beal Bondly shot an elderly slave of Colonel Lloyd’s and it did not even attract Colonel’s complaint.
Until old enough, slave children were not allowed to work in the fields. They were given petty household chores only. Douglass was also given household chores and got a chance to spend most of his leisure time in the company of Master Daniel Lloyd who treated him quite well, got attached to him and even protected him. Douglass did not suffer from whips and punishments as much as he did from hunger and much severely from the cold due to which he developed wide cracks in the legs. Slave children were treated with as much disregard as to the adults even if the treatment was not as brutal and harsh, it was definitely inhuman. They were given corn mush to eat, like animals from a large communal tray. They devoured the mush like pigs with a few satisfied bellies. Douglass must’ve been 7-8 years old when he was sent to Baltimore to live with Mr Hugh Auld, brother to Captain Anthony’s son-in-law. Douglass was ecstatic and happily prepared himself for three days cleaning and scrubbing himself in the nearby creek. He was also rewarded with a new pair of coarse linen trousers. Despite the possibility that Baltimore could be as hard as his present plantation, he was excited to go there as Tom his cousin described it as an impressive city. Douglass had no attachment to his former plantation as he did not consider it his home. Before leaving, as the ship started to sail, Douglass took one last look at Colonel Lloyd’s plantation and hoped that it would be the last time he would have to see it. After the ship had sailed, it made a stop on the docks of Annapolis and Douglass was thoroughly impressed by it. Although in retrospect, it paled in comparison with great northern industrial cities. After the ship reaches on a Sunday morning, Douglass reaches his new home and was greeted politely by Sophia Auld, her husband Hugh Auld and their son Thomas Auld who was Douglass’s master. Douglass acknowledged this deliverance as divine providence. Had he not been removed from Colonel’s Lloyd’s Plantation he would have remained a lifelong slave. He recalls that from the earliest memory of sensing that he would not remain a slave which gave him hope in trying times.
Life at the Auld household was absolutely different from that on the Colonel’s plantation. Douglass was not used to such treatment and he was taken aback by Mrs Sophia Auld’s kind and gentle behaviour towards him. She did not appreciate his subservient behaviour and did not punish him even when he looked her in the eye, a transgression that would’ve surely invited severe punishments earlier. Initially, Mrs Auld began teaching the alphabet and a few small words to Douglass. When it came to her husband’s attention, he immediately asked her to stop as education made slaves sad and unmanageable. Having overheard this, Douglass was brought to a sudden revelation and understood what he must do to win his freedom and thanked Mr Auld for the enlightenment. In Baltimore and in many cities, slaves enjoyed comparatively greater freedom than those on the rural plantations, since urban slave-owners were careful not to appear cruel to their non-slaveholding counterparts. However, there are exceptions, like the Hamiltons, who mistreated their two young slave girls so much that they were starved and their bodies were mangled from Mrs Hamilton’s periodic beatings.
Douglass’s stay at Hugh Auld’s household was for seven years only, during which he learned to read and write all by himself. Slave-holding hardened Mrs Auld and she no longer tutored Douglass. Douglass lamented that the mentality of slavery stripped basic human sympathy from even the inherently good-natured soul like Mrs Auld and changed her into a cruel and hardened slave owner. Douglass’s path to self-education was aided by poor local boys with whom he exchanged bread for reading lessons. He was tempted to show his gratitude by acknowledging them but didn’t. He feared that if he mentions their names, they will suffer as teaching black was considered an offence. At the age of twelve, Douglass came across a book The Columbian, a philosophical dialogue that takes place between a master and his slave. In the book, the master laid down the argument in favour of slavery while the slave refuted each one of them eventually earning his freedom from his master through persuasion. The book helped Douglass to understand but it also made him hate his masters as he acutely understood the injustice meted out against him and his fellow slaves and it filled him with despair and regret. It was during this time that Douglass entered a period of suicidal despair. He also came across the word ‘abolitionist’ which means ‘antislavery’. This word had a huge impact on his psyche because prior to this, he wasn’t even aware of any such concept. One day, Douglass helped two Irish sailors at the wharf without them asking for help. They realized that he would be a slave for the rest of his life and encouraged him to run away to the North for freedom. Douglass, however, didn’t respond owing to his lack of trust in whites, as they tend to goad slaves into running away only to recapture them for a reward. But, the idea kept lingering in his head. As Douglass’s journey progressed, he also learned to write by watching ships’ carpenters write letters on lumber. He practised his writing on walls, fences and on the ground in the city. Soon, he started competing with the local poor boys to see who can write the best or can copy from the dictionary. When the Aulds would leave Douglass home alone, he would write in Thomas Auld’s discarded notebooks. So, with such painstaking efforts, he learned to write.