Slavery and captivity are terms that are well-known in the history of America. People were held against their will, bought in slave auctions and were thought of as less than human for hundreds of years. During the American Colonial Period, Mary White Rowlandson wrote about her time in captivity in her autobiography The Sovereignty and Goodness of God.
Over a hundred years later, during the 19th Century, Frederick Douglass also wrote an autobiography about his time spent in slavery called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Both Douglass and Rowlandson, regardless of the time period, were more alike than different and faced at least five similar situations during their time spent in captivity/slavery. Although both authors shared many similar experiences, there are a few differences in their time spent in captivity and slavery.
One difference would be the time periods the authors lived and experienced their time in captivity and slavery. In the American Colonial Period, Rowlandson was captured during King Philip’s war by Native Americans (Barker, 3). Douglass, however, was born into slavery during the 19th Century (Douglass, 208). Both time periods were a part of American history when slavery and being taken captive was not a new concept to people of a variety of races.
The reason they were being held against their will was also different. Rowlandson was taken captive, along with her children, and held for ransom after the Native Americans raided Lancaster in the February of 1675 (Rowlandson, 7); however, Douglass was born into slavery and was even unaware of his birthday because of that (Douglass, 208). Slavery was the only thing Douglass knew during the beginning of his life and desired freedom, just like other slaves; however, Rowlandson was taken away from her life and placed into a new, unfamiliar setting of captivity.
During slavery and captivity, Douglass and Rowlandson endured and witnessed different treatments. An example of what Douglass witnessed would be in Chapter I of his autobiography when he witnessed his “cruel” slaveholder whip his Aunt Hester (Douglass, 210). He stated that he had “often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heartrending shrieks of an own aunt of [his], whom [the slaveholder] used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood” (Douglass, 210).
However, Rowlandson did not witness or experience such horrid and abusive treatment. She was fortunate enough to witness the kinder side of her captors at times. An example of this kindness would be when an Indian, who returned from a fight, gave her a Bible (Rowlandson, 12). Some physical abuse that Rowlandson documented in her autobiography was that she received “a slap to the face” and was “struck at” with a “stick big enough to kill” but was not actually hit (Rowlandson, 15 -17). By examining these examples, it is clear that Douglass experienced/witnessed more aggressive abuse than Rowlandson did during their time in captivity/slavery.
Douglass and Rowlandson’s race and gender played a role in their time spent in slavery and captivity. Douglass was an African-American male who was a slave and was owned by a white male. Because of his race, he was less valued than white males and was viewed as less than human. If Douglass would have been a female slave, treatments would have been much different, like sexual abuse or beatings like his aunt endured. On the other hand, Rowlandson was a colonial American woman who was being held for ransom and her captors valued her more because of that.
Shuo Cao, author of ‘Conflict between Self-Discovery and Salvation in Mary Rowlandson’s the Sovereignty and Goodness of God’, says that, “She witnessed more violence and hardship than she experienced, because Indians knew her values and were relatively kind to her”. She was worth more to her captors because if anything had happened to her that caused her to die, her ransom would not be paid. Another difference between the two authors would be the length of time they spent in slavery and captivity. Rowlandson spent eleven weeks and five days in captivity (Rowlandson, 24); however, Douglass spent around 20 years in slavery.
In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass says in Chapter I says that he heard his master say that “some time during 1835, [he] was about seventeen years old” (Douglass, 208). Then later in Chapter XI when he talks about his escape, he mentions the year 1838; therefore, making him around 20 years old when he escaped. Regardless of these differences, Douglass and Rowlandson shared more similarities in the time spent in slavery/captivity. One similarity is that they were both taken against their will.
Neither author had a choice in the situation they were placed in. Wolfgang Meider is a professor at the University of Vermont and in his article “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, he says that, “In 1826, at the age of eight, [Douglass] was sent to Baltimore to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld and serve as a companion to their two-year-old son Tommy”. Douglass had no voice in the matter because he was a slave. Rowlandson also had no choice but to go with her captors because everything happened so quickly. Cao, says that, “She was removed from all that was familiar and forced to redefine herself in the absence of everything that had at one time comprised her life”.
Cao uses the words “removed” and “forced” which emphasizes that she was taken against her will. Along with being taken against their will, Douglass and Rowlandson were taken by people of different races than their own. Douglass had two masters who were both white males, the first was called “Captain Anthony” and his overseer was Mr. Plummer (Douglass, 209). Douglass referred to Mr. Plummer as a “savage monster” (Douglass, 209). Rowlandson was taken captive by Native Americans who were seen as “God’s instruments to scourge the colony for its sins” at the time (Cao, 300). Another similarity between Douglass and Rowlandson is that they both experienced instability during their time spent in slavery and captivity.
Douglass experienced instability through the different abusive situations that he witnessed throughout his time in slavery. An example would be the situation that Meider discussed in his article which was, “at the age of eight, [Douglass] was sent to Baltimore to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld and serve as a companion to their two-year-old son Tommy”. Even at the age of eight, Douglass experienced instability from being removed from the familiar into a new life with the Auld’s. Day-to-day events in Douglass’ life would also contribute to the instability that he experienced because he never knew when abuse would take place, like the abuse his aunt endured (Douglass, 210). The instability that Rowlandson experienced was the actions and attitudes from her captors. Rowlandson’s captors would go back and forth between being stern and kind.
An example of this would be when one of the captors asks for some tobacco that Rowlandson had already given away, and she says, “I told him when my husband came I would give him some: Hang him Rogue (says he) I will knock out his brains, if he comes here. And then again, in the same breath they would say, that if there should come an hundred without Guns, they would do them no hurt. So unstable and like madmen they were” (Rowlandson, 20). David Mitchell and Melissa Hearn, the authors of “Colonial Savages and Heroic Tricksters: Native Americans in the American Tradition”, recognize this behavior of her captors and state, “For Rowlandson, the ‘instability’ that characterized her Indian captors and allowed them to shift without notice from treachery to kindness reestablishes this quintessential behavioral polarity”.
Rowlandson experienced this throughout her time spent in captivity. Faith and religion was another similarity that Douglass and Rowlandson shared. Meider described Douglass “as a deeply religious person” who “relied heavily on biblical proverbs to strengthen the social and moral statements in his debates, lectures, and writings”. Meider also states that, “Morality and religion were one and the same thing for Frederick Douglass, and it should come as no surprise that the so-called Golden Rule of Christianity in the form of the proverb ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Matthew 7:12) would become the perfect embodiment of human equality for him”.
Like Douglass, Rowlandson was a religious person and her faith was a large part of who she was as a person. Cao states that, “Mary Rowlandson relied on her faith in the providence of God to sustain herself during her period of captivity”. It isn’t surprising to see her include her faith in The Sovereignty and Goodness of God because it did mean so much to her. Lastly, Douglass and Rowlandson both longed for freedom and at some point they were able to experience it. Douglass fought for his freedom and it wasn’t easy.
Winifred Morgan is the author of “Gender-Related Difference in the Slave Narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass”, and she states that, “Literacy gave Douglass the power to assert his existence as well as his freedom from those who would keep him ignorant and a slave”. He was able to figure out what would help him gain power over his situation and that led him to freedom. Regarding Douglass’ freedom, Meider states, “Son of a slave and an unidentified White man, Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 after learning on his own how to read and write”. Douglass was determined to be free and literacy was the way to accomplish that.
Rowlandson also desired to be free and eventually was able to experience it. She experienced freedom because her ransom was paid and she was able to return to her family, but she had a more difficult time after her release. Cao discusses about the aftermath and states that she experienced “intense guilt and unsolved grief at having survived when other people did not”. Rowlandson had to live with the fact that Sarah, her child, died before they were released (Rowlandson, 11).
Both Douglass and Rowlandson fought for their survival and freedom and won the battle. Through each autobiography Rowlandson and Douglass were able to express their emotions and experiences with great detail, allowing others during that time and thereafter to understand the extent of what they went through. Rowlandson also used her autobiography, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, to allow others, not only the opportunity to read about her experience in captivity but how it impacted her afterward.
Similarly, Douglass used his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, to express exactly what slaves endured during their time in slavery. Even though Douglass and Rowlandson existed in different time periods, they were actually more alike than different and experienced at least five similar situations during their time spent in captivity and slavery. Both of these authors allow these works to provide others with an inside look at the toughest time of their lives.