Henry “Box” Brown was a Virginia slave who mailed himself to freedom in 1849. Afterwards he made a living lecturing on slavery. His tours occurred in America and later England using a moving panorama* on slavery.
While residing in England, Brown placed advertisements in papers to promote his lectures and panorama on slavery. One of the places where his panorama was presented was at the Corn Exchange in Wolverhampton, a city, metropolitan borough, and administrative center in the West Midlands of England. Unfortunately, the editor of the Wolverhampton Herald and Staffordshire Herald described Brown’s presentation in “contemptuous terms” stating that it was filled with exaggerations and misrepresentations.
The editor’s critique was published in two articles. The first publication appeared on 17 March 1852 and stated verbatim:
“In consequence of an advertisement in our columns we looked in at the Corn Exchange on Monday evening to see Mr. Henry Box Brown’s panorama, which, like his oral representation of slavery is a gross and palpable exaggeration. If the best and most authentic descriptions of American slavery are to be credited; if the pictorial illustrations of the Southern States, given us by Banvard, Risley, Smith, and other artists; if the evidence of travellers in the slave States is to be relied upon; and lastly, if the statements of every former slaves themselves are to be accepted and credited — then is Mr. Box Brown’s panorama without a feature of resemblance, and so-called ‘eloquent and poetical address’ a jumbled mass of contradictions and absurdities, assertions without proof, geography without boundary, and horrors without parallel. The representation, to our thinking, instead of benefiting the cause of abolition, is likely, from its want of vraisemblance and decency, to degenerate disgust at the foppery, conceit, vanity, and egotistical stupidity of the Box Brown school. To paint the devil blacker than he is, certes, a work of supererogation ― and to make the slave states a series of inquisitorial chambers of horrors ― a sort of Bluebeard or Giant Despair den, for the destruction, burning, branding lacerations, starving, and working of negroes; and the owners of slaves a class of demi-friends, made of double-distilled brimstone ― is about as reasonable as giving his Satanic Majesty a coat of black paint to increase his hideousness. How clergymen and other respectable individuals, and even portions of the press could lend themselves to such a juggle we do not know, but testimonials from such men (who doubtless received Box Brown’s description as unmingled gospel) are read before the audience, and they are full for fulsome compliment to the bejewelled ‘darkey,’ whose portly figure and overdressed appearance bespeaks the gullibility of our most credulous age and nation. We had an intelligent American gentleman who has won a name throughout the civilized world, by our side at this exhibition, and who has visited the slaves states often, and seen the development of slavery in every phrase, and he declared to us that both the description pictorial and description oral were as characteristic and resemblant of the original sources and of slavery as a young cabbage of a full-blown rose. We therefore caution those who may attend to expect only amusement, as the horrors, related in the richest nigger style, are as good as a pantomime, and to be chary in giving credence to the astounding and horrified details with which Box Brown overwhelms his wide-mouthed and word-gaping audiences. As gentleman present asked Mr. Box Brown what part of Virginia ‘Thos Dismal Swamp’ was in. ‘Well, he daint sactly know ― taint somewhere in the middle of de State.’ ‘But,’ continued the interrogator, ‘is it not on the borders of North and South Carolina?’ ‘Well he daint know; you might put it in Carolina, but he taut it was in Virginny.’ Much laughter followed this confab, but after that section of the exhibition was over, the proprietor said, ‘There was a swamp in Virginia, but not the Dismal Swamp,’ a fact we presume, which may be predicated of every State in the Union. Such is the character of the panorama, and we deeply regret that the public should be gulled by that which can only give them a very partial unfair, and decidedly false view of American slavery. The bondage of slavery is very bad, and the principle wicked enough, without evoking from the bottomless pit shades dark and gloom, and auxiliary horrors to dress up and horrify with this foul blot on the star spangled banner.”
The editor’s critique of Brown’s panorama on slavery was followed by second one a week later. It appeared on the 24 March and was called “The Nigger Panorama.” It stated verbatim:
“It is gratifying to hear that the good sense and discrimination of the inhabitants of Wolverhamptom have led them to bestow such amount of patronage on this vile caricature of American scenery as its inherent worthlessness and disgusting exaggeration so absolutely deserved. We learn from our reporters, from we have not returned a second time to witness so foul a calumny in colours on the slaveholders of the Southern States, that the nightly attendance has been meagre in the extreme, and that ‘a beggarly account of empty boxes,’ has contrasted strangely with that in which the celebrated Box Brown played, with ludicrous and semi-baboonish agility, his nocturnal antics, to the delight and merriment of the juvenile ragamuffins, who for the most part make up the ‘darkey’s’ audiences. As we may be thought to strain a point against the bejewelled and oil negro, whose obese and comfortable figure and easy nonchalance remind one of various good things and sumptuous living at the expense of those whose marvel-loving developments has been called into ‘lively exercise’ by the terrible wonders of this sea-serpent-surpassing and fire-and-brimstone-smacking exhibition, we will give an extract of two from Mr. Brown’s lecture, and leave our readers to judge of ‘its eloquence, poetry, and truth.’ Speaking of slaveholders, Mr. Brown says that a part of them give their slaves money to buy rum to get drunk on the Sunday, in order to prevent them from attending a place of worship; that others preach to them on a Sunday, like his own master did every Sunday morning as follows: ― ‘My dear brederen, the white man was made by Gor Amity whitish white, delekit hands that he saw at once he was not fit nor able to work, and he therefore made the blackman to work for dem, but the blackman were so idle he no work, and Gor Amity give him a whip to make him work, cos he was such a nasty idle nigger he no work. But he could no work with his hands, and in answer to the prayer of the white man, Gor Amity sent a shovel and a hoe, and I shall sing a song about it gemmen and ladies, dat is ladies and gemmen, at de close ― a shovel and a hoe in a bag, so dat de damn’d idle nigger should hab no seuze for not working.’ ‘Now den, dere’s a pretty master for you. Dere be oders at dis moment who put de slaves on de treadwheel, and keep dem at work 14 hours a day, only allowing of them one minute in every hour to rest, and if dey grow faint or tired, and leab off or fall off de wheel, den dey break deir ankles. Den dare is de buring of slaves to death for stealing, and den beating dem with hard wood bored troo wide holes, which dey put into bilin hot water, and slap de buttocks of de female slaves till dey are one mass of bery great big blisters as big as fingers and tums. Den dere is de whippin with de lash till the blood bathes the ground, and dey swim in it, and den the brine in which they cure de bacon of dere back. Like an old-fashioned beefsteak is de parson’s face when he preaches to de slaves, and like it will dey be roasted in the fire, and done infernally brown.’ Such is a verbatim specimen of the lecture, whose unadorned eloquence and poetry melt all eyes to rivulets, whose truth and pathos make a Niobe of every schooless daughter of the slums and alleys. The fact is that, had as slavery is, the condition of the American slave generally is infinitely superior to many of our agricultural and even our bettomied slaves, and all reliable testimony corroborates it; but that the principle of slavery is bad, vile, and abominable enough in itself, there can be no question. Supernumerary horrors are not wanted to add to its inhumanity and unchristian character; and, as a reverend friend of ours says in speaking of this subject, ‘all exaggeration in depicting the evils of slavery should be avoided; they are bad enough in themselves, without attempting to make them worse than they really are. To caricature the devil is the surest way to destroy all faith in his existence.’ It would be difficult to make any sensible man believe that slaveholders would destroy their valuable property in the barbarous and devilish way depicted by the self-styled ‘American Kossuth,’ Box Brown, simply for the indulgence of a vicious propension or contemptible and inhumane tyranny.”
Brown was incensed by the allegations and filed a libel suit against the proprietor of the Wolverhampton Herald and Staffordshire Herald. The case was known as Brown v Smith. Brown’s defense argued that the newspaper’s goal was to drive him from Wolverhampton, which happened. Furthermore, he stated that after the first article appeared his profits fell precipitously as he had been receiving from 50l. to 70l. a week prior to the article.
At trial it was demonstrated that Brown was not the type of uneducated person the editor alleged. When Brown testified it was also reported that “though his dress was rather fine, and he displayed some jewellery about his person, his manner of giving his evidence was quiet and credible.” Moreover, one witness, a Wolverhampton schoolmaster, who had attended Brown’s lecture and panorama on slavery, stated that Brown did not speak in the manner attributed to him by the Wolverhampton editor.
To determine the outcome of Brown v Smith, the judge tasked the jury with deciding if the editor’s two publications were reasonable and fair or if they were injurious to Brown. The jury also had to determine if Henry Box Brown’s character had been wrongly attacked by the editor. Ultimately, the jury found in Brown’s favor, and he was awarded 100l. in damages.
* A moving panorama was an innovation on the panoramic paintings of the mid-nineteenth century that became a new visual element to theatre and helped incorporate a more realistic quality. Not only was it a special effect on stage, but it also served as an ancestor and platform to early cinema. In addition, it was among the most popular forms of entertainment in the world and often seen in melodramatic plays.