Natasha Lightfoot

The Fugitive Slave John Ross and Atlantic Currents of Freedom

In 1855, John Ross, a 30 year old fugitive slave born on a plantation in Maysville, Kentucky self-emancipated and intended to flee to Canada, rather than face the dread of an impending sale. But John Ross’s typical flight narrative took an unexpected turn when he eventually chose to board a ship bound for Jamaica. He posed as a free man, and procured employment as the ship’s cook, and knowing Jamaica to have been a free territory, plan to claim his liberation upon arrival. But the ship was rerouted to British colonial Antigua instead, a place with which Ross was unfamiliar. He thus was unsure of its status as he ventured onto shore. Ross’s maneuvers to discover Antigua’s status regarding slavery and to secure his own freedom began with the help of local black Antiguans, but ultimately involved a number of officials, including the Antiguan chief of police and the governor. Ross’s case had implications far beyond his immediate attempts at freedom, as it also unleashed a standoff between the British Colonial Secretary of State and the US Consul over the slippery classification of Ross and his situation and the legality of an abolitionist nation (Britain) harboring fugitives from a slaveholding nation (United States).

While the John Ross case created legal and diplomatic controversy, more importantly, his story also raises a number of questions informed by the African Diasporic experience across time and space, but especially during the transition from slavery to freedom. What ideas did Ross harbor about the common experiences of slavery across birders? What expectations of racial bonds did he maintain upon his arrival in Antigua? What freedom did he expect to achieve in a society that was, unlike Canada West with its large pockets of free and self-emancipated African Americans, populated by an utterly foreign community? Did his sense of what freedom would be align with the freedom that was well underway in Antigua at the time? How did the British and US authorities’ involvement in his case change his expectations? How did his Antiguan counterparts view Ross and his story? Were they suspicious of him? Did they too see a common bond and cause in his attempt to free himself? Did they translate their experiences of freedom’s shortcomings with him? Indeed many more questions than answers can be raised about this rare and unlikely moment in Atlantic history. But it offers a critical window to understanding how African-descended people conceived of liberation and power in the context of community and the state.

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