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Harriet Tubman: Warrior woman

FIREBRANDS: Harriet Tubman in her war garb, left, and Ashanti soldier Yaa Asantewaa

THE NAME Harriet Tubman may sound familiar, but ask yourself this: how much do you actually know about this American icon?

The good news is that 2016 is on track to be the year her legacy is finally given the platform it deserves, revealing fully how she earned the moniker, “The Moses of her People”.

Enter award-winning actress Viola Davis who is taking on the challenge to bring the historical figure to life for a HBO movie.

Through the power of the medium, the film will bring Harriet Tubman to a new generation of viewers who might easily file the freedom seeker, abolitionist, warrior and entrepreneur to a long list of legends who are seen but seldom heard.

Born into slavery circa 1822, Araminta ‘Minty’ Ross – she later changed her name to Harriet – was to all appearances unremarkable; just another young woman trying to survive the toxic conditions of the day.

A near-death experience while a teenager would alter the course of her life.

One day while she was working on the plantation where she lived, Harriet was told by the cook she was required to accompany her to the store.

Mortified by the current state of her “bushy, greasy hair full of flax seeds”, she grabbed a shawl and wrapped it round her head.

Tubman credits the last-minute impulse as the act that would save her life.

In town, Minty – as she was then known – was caught in a violent exchange between a runaway slave and an overseer who had hurled a weight so forcefully that it slammed into Tubman’s head, driving pieces of the shawl right into her skull. The teenager was carried back to her master’s home and laid out flat.

“A day later – with no medical treatment or anything – she was back in the fields working with blood and sweat coming down her face until she passed out again,” said historian Kate Larsson, an expert on Harriet Tubman.

She was returned to her mother who spent months nursing her back to health, but Tubman would never be the same again.

As a result of her injuries, she suffered seizures for the rest of her life.

This medical condition makes it all the more remarkable that over a period of 10 years she was able to smuggle more than 70 enslaved men, women and children to freedom.

Immediately following her accident, Tubman was sent by her owner Edward Broadess to work for John Steward in Madison, Dorchester County, close to where he father, Ben Ross, was working.

“It was an incredibly good moment in time for Tubman in the context of slavery because she could be near her father and the community she had been born into,” explained Larson, the author of Bound for the Promised Land – Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero.

“Tubman hated domestic work because it was an endless day for enslaved women. They were on call constantly and vulnerable to the attention of white men so they did not like that work.”

Standing at barely five foot, Tubman who could not read nor write, was a pocket powerhouse, physically strong and naturally intelligent with a rebellious spirit.

In an interview she revealed how she would make the luxurious feather beds in her master’s house, then jump in and take some time for herself.

Eventually she was able to work outdoors which she preferred. Her head hurt less and she toiled on the docks, lifting barrels and loading boats.

It was also here where she met numerous black maritime workers who would become part of the powerful network she built that would help her in her life’s mission.

The Stewards were incredibly rich merchants who owned large swathes of forest. They made their fortune sending timber to places such as Baltimore and New England.

Tubman worked with her father who taught her how to survive in the woods.


CROSSING PATHS: An elderly Tubman and Viola Davis who will play her in a film, right

“This is another crucial thing,” said Larsson. “Not every enslaved person could survive in the wod. She developed these great skills that gave her indepence. She was also a skilled negiator. She later convinced Edward Broadess to let her pay him $60 a year to hire herself out to another white person and whatever she made on top of that $60 she could keep for herself.”

She married John Tubman who was born free of free-born parents. The pair were making money but in 1849, Broadess died and left his wife Eliza and eight children in tremendous debt.

As a result, the family was at risk of being sold and tearing the family apart.

News that Tubman’s niece Kessiah was due to be sold in September of 1849 prompted her and her brothers to flee.

Larsson continued: “They took off on their own. They didn’t know where they were going. They were frightened. The slave catchers were after them and Eliza Broadess was offering $300 for their capture, so they decided to come back. Tubman was tremendously disappointed. It was difficult to leave family behind, but being sold to the Deep South was a more terrible fate where the average life span was seven years because conditions were so brutal.”

Undeterred, Tubman took off on her own with the help of a Quaker woman, but found her newfound freedom hollow knowing her family were still enslaved. She resolved then and there to bring as many of them to safety as safely as she could.

Over the next decade, Tubman made 13 perilous trips across water, swamps and thick forest dodging slave catchers, tracker dogs chaperoning people to the North and to Canada where they could live free lives.

Each mission cost between $30 and $100 which Tubman worked to cover with the help of abolitionist friends.

She rescued her niece Kessiah and her children including James Alfred who was six at the time and remembered everything. He wrote a letter documenting his account.

This rich piece of history will eventually go on display at a visitors centre to be built over the next few years.

Alfred lived with Tubman in Philadelphia where she worked extra long hours to pay his room and board and for him to get an education which she saw as key.

Larsson explained: “There were certainly other freedom seekers who would go back to rescue their loved ones, but to go back many times was extremely rare yet Tubman took on that risk.

“She had an incredible confidence, she was courageous but she was also filled with fear. She did not do stupid things. She listened all the time and could sense danger.”

So much of Tubman’s life is known because of written accounts of her contemporaries with references to her as ‘General’ and ‘Captain’.

Larsson added: “She incredibly singular in the annals of the underground railroad. Men and women were stunned by her bravery, her cleverness, her passion was unstoppable. She was viewed as a genius such was the power of her character and the way she developed relationships and lifelong friendships with abolitionists.”

There was only one person Tubman failed to rescue – her sister Rachel.

In a depressing turn of events, she fell short of the $30 needed for bribes. By the time she returned in December 1860, Rachel had died.

Tubman was also the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. An image of her in her army gear and carrying an air rifle, conjures up images of another great warrior woman, Yaa Asantewaa.

It seems almost fitting that Tubman, whose maternal grandmother arrived in the US from Africa, was told as a child she was from the same Ashanti lineage.

Rachel’s death devastated Tubman. Her children were sold and it is not known what became of them.

It was the last journey Tubman made.

She died an old woman, aged 91, on her own property in Auburn, New York, where she had given refuge to relatives and scores of freedom seekers.

Tubman also founded a home for the elderly on the land where she spent her last years.

For more information about the Harriet Tubman House, visit www.harriethouse.org

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