Waters to Freedom

The geographic location of the Chesapeake Bay offered numerous opportunities for bold or fortunate slaves to seize their freedom. The Underground Railroad thrived in seaports such as Norfolk and Baltimore. If runaway slaves reached Philadelphia, they could be guided further north where sympathetic citizens and favorable laws offered some protection from continued enslavement. Some slaves were able to purchase their freedom through maritime work. With the blessing of local authorities, other slaves and free blacks sailed from the Chesapeake Bay to settle in Haiti and Liberia in search of a better life.

Olaudah Equiano authored one of the best-known slave narratives. In the 1750s, he spent his boyhood working on a Chesapeake plantation. Fatefully, Michael H. Pascal, master of the Industrious Bee, purchased Equiano as a present for friends in England. Pascal renamed the young slave Gustavus Vassa. On board the Bee, the slave learned the sailor's trade. Through personal enterprise, Equiano earned enough money to purchase his own freedom. After decades at sea, he settled in England. Before his death in 1797, his autobiography was reprinted in eight separate editions.

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