Fredrika Bremer – Notes from a Slave Auction

imageSwedish author and feminist Fredrika Bremer was born in 1801, and sometimes she has been called the “Swedish miss Austen”. As a very young woman, she dreamed of becoming an author. In an early letter to her private tutor she wrote:

“I would like to become an author to whose works everyone who is sad, depressed, and troubled (and especially everyone of my own sex who is suffering) could go, assured of finding in them a word of redress, of comfort, or encouragement.”

One of her most famous novels, Hertha, was published in 1856, in which she depicts a woman freed from of traditional female role expectations.

In 1849-51 Fredrika Bremer travelled to the United States to study culture and the position of women. During this trip she became aquainted with such American writers as Catherine Sedgwick, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Washington Irving. She also met with Native Americans, Quakers, slaveowners and slaves.In her diary she described a slave auction in detail and this moved her to tears. She found herself trying to understand the issues around slavery and developed a strong anti-slavery position. Her letters and diary notes from her trip to the United States was published in Homes in the New World in 1853. Bremer also became the first woman to observe the US Congress in session from the public gallery of the Capitol. In the 1850’s she also became involved in an international peace movement, and in pressing for civic democracy in Sweden.

Here is an excerpt from Fredrika’s impressions from a slave auction in Louisiana.

“On 31 December [1850] I walked arm in arm through the heavy rain with my good friend Dr D to visit a slave auction that took place not far away from my quarters. Dr D. and I entered a fairly large and dirty building, where a number of people had gathered. About twenty gentlemen stood in a half circle around a high wooden stool. On the side along the wall stood some black men and women waiting in silence and with worried facial expressions. It seemed like a heavy, grey cloud rested over the scene. The gentlemen looked at me with distrust and they probably wanted to send me to the North Pole.”

After describing the arrival of the auctioneer, Fredrika described the sale of a woman.

“He [the auctioneer] gave a sign to a woman among the blacks to come forward and climb up on the wooden stool. She was a tall, well built woman of mixed race with a beautiful, but very sad looking face. In her arms she carried a small, sleeping child. She wore a grey dress with high neck and a brown piece of cloth was tied around her head. The auctioneer praised this woman, her character, good mind, loyalty and her ability to take care of a household. The child she carried would be included in the sale, which would fetch a higher value for this woman.”

The auctioneer started the bidding with $500, and after a while the woman and her baby sold for $700. Fredrika wrote:

“The auctioneer’s club fell heavy. The woman and her child was sold for $700 to one of the dark, silent figures infront of her. Who was he? Was he good, mean, would he take her to live in unbearable slavery? To which part of the world would he take her? Where was the father to her child? The sold woman and mother had no answering to these questions, and I had no answers to give either.”

Fredrika witnessed the sale of several more slaves, and she was utterly shocked. She had never visited a slave auction before and could therefore not even imagine what it would be like. At the end of the letter she took a stand for humanity and against slavery.

“No preeching, no anti-slavery speech could speak so strongly against the institution of slavery as this slave auction! The slaves former master had been good and kind, the servants loyal and faithful, but still they were sold! To anyone who would like to buy them, they were sold like soul less creatures!”

Fredrika Bremer travelled frequently to study different cultures and societies, focusing on the situation for women. She wrote several books that depicted her travels and women rights, but nothing touches her so much as the visit to the slave auction in Louisiana. After a short period of illness, Fredrika died in her home at Arsta Castle outside Stockholm.

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