Jeffrey Brace was abducted from Africa in 1758 when he was 16.

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) – The last time Jeffrey Brace saw his parents was in Africa as he headed to the river for a swim with friends.

“My mother pressed me to her breast, and warned me of the dangers of the waters, for she knew no other,” Brace said.

His father placed his own formal cap on his head and told him “to return before the setting of our great father the sun.”

Brace, 16, never came back: The danger was not from the waters, but from English slave traders who came across the sea.

“Eleven out of fourteen were made captives, bound instantly,” Brace would say later. They “were hurried to their boat, and within five minutes were on board, gagged, and carried down the stream like a sluice; fastened down in the boat with cramped jaws.

“I was pressed almost to death by the weight of bodies that lay upon me; night approached and for the first time in my life, I was accompanied with gloom and horror,” he said.

So began Brace’s life as a slave in 1758, that ended many years later in freedom on a farm in Vermont.

His story, recounted in a memoir published in St. Albans in 1810, is coming back to life.

“The Blind African Slave; Or, Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace” will be published this fall by the University of Wisconsin Press.

It tells the story of Brace’s homeland, the brutal ship passage to the United States, his slave owners in Connecticut, fighting in the Revolutionary War, and his final years in Vermont, where he married and had children.

The memoir is a rare first-person account from the early years of slavery and perhaps the first book published in St. Albans, said Kari Winter, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, who researched the book and wrote an introduction to the new edition.

“I was very compelled by it. I was astonished,” said Winter, who, at the urging of a colleague, found the original book in the special collections library at the University of Vermont, where she used to teach.

“This book is really a find,” said William Andrews, a professor of African-American literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has written and edited books on slave narratives and gathered the accounts online.

“We have almost no autobiographies in the African-American tradition by people who were themselves African born,” he said. “Then when you add Brace’s striking story in America, being in the Revolutionary Army and so on, that’s almost unique.”

Winter found living descendants of Brace’s in Franklin County, where Brace died in 1827. She discovered a Civil War veteran related to Brace buried in a St. Albans cemetery.

She also went to Barbados and tracked down records of the mariner who taught the teenage Brace how to use military sign language.

All along she was astonished by Brace’s memory.

He recalled the painted clay houses of his homeland, the king’s palace, his parents and siblings, the fruits and vegetables, birds and animals in Africa, and his capture as a teenager.

“This is one of the great American stories,” said Winter. “Benjamin Franklin is often thought of having written the founding biography, which is rags to riches. Jeffry Brace’s story is far more dramatic. He was stolen from his family … separated from his language.”

He was starved, shackled and whipped. He watched others stashed below the ship die of starvation and beatings.

Bodies were thrown into the sea, “which made food for sharks, as they continually followed us being well baited by the frequent deaths on board,” he wrote.

After his capture he was enslaved on an English trade ship in Barbados and then sold to a New England ship captain. He ended up in Connecticut, where he was sold several times, the last time to widow Mary Stiles in Woodbury, Conn.

“This was a glorious era in my life, as widow Stiles was one of the finest women in the world; she possessed every christian virtue,” he said.

Stiles sent him to school and taught him to read.

He later enlisted in the Revolutionary War with her sons and fought for five years.

He was honorably discharged with a badge of merits in 1783. He soon headed to Vermont.

“My services in the American war, having emancipated me from further slavery, and from being bartered or sold My master consented that I might go where I pleased and seek my fortune,” he said. “Hearing flattering accounts of the new state of Vermont; I left Woodbury. … I enjoyed the pleasures of a freeman; my food was sweet, my labor pleasure: and one bright gleam of life seemed to shine upon me.”

He worked for a time in Poultney and then for a tavern keeper in Dorset. There he met Susannah Dublin, a widow and former slave, who shared many of his same experiences. They married and moved back to Poultney.

But Brace worried that people may indenture his children, which was not against the law, so he moved the family to Sheldon.

“After arriving with my family in Sheldon, a new town, almost destitute of provisions, I underwent many difficulties for the want of the remainder: being among strangers who felt but little kindness for people of my color,” he said.

Life in Vermont was a constant struggle, Winter said.

“Although he was met by considerable racism, he was also was met with great acts of friendship and solidarity,” she said.

When Congress passed a law to award needy veterans of the Revolutionary War a pension, Brace applied but forgot he had enlisted under his master’s name.

A probate judge became his impassioned advocate, Winter said. “He wrote to the war department pleading the case of Jeffrey Brace,” she said.

After three years he was awarded the pension with payments dating back to his application, she said.

He eventually moved to Georgia, Vt., where he bought 60 acres with his son-in-law.

“Here I settled down in the peaseful sunshine of anticipated delight,” he wrote.

His story made it into print with the help of others.

Brace was blind, but Benjamin Prentiss, a white abolitionist lawyer in Milton, wrote down Brace’s memoirs, with his own research and passages from scripture Brace had chosen. Harry Whitney, a Saint Albans newspaper publisher, printed the book in 1810.

There are just a few fragile copies left.

Republishing it will shed light on American history and slavery in New England, “something we’ve been hesitant to examine,” Winter said.

“I hope that he will become an acknowledged part of cultural history,” she said. “That he can in a sense become a Vermont icon.”



On the Net: “The Blind African Slave; Or, Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace:” http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brinch/menu.html

AP-ES-05-16-04 1301EDT



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