Monday, 20 June 2011

Sailing changes your life: Sarah Moore Grimké

As I read about women passengers in all sorts of situations from war to cruises, it’s clear that being at sea – or indeed in transit – seems to enable serendipitous encounters that can change lives.

Some people appear to be in metaphysical state of mind on a voyage, where they reflect about all the possibilities of life and the direction they want to be taking. When they land, they act on their new insights.

Such a world-changing encounter on ship is revealed, in a post today about one of the US’s most famous slavery abolitionists,Sarah Moore Grimké(1792-1873).

The post was made by blogger Steve Farrell, using information from John Blundell’s forthcoming book, Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History (Algora). (Of course Gerda Lerner wrote the best-known biography of Sarah and her sister Angela.)

In spring 1819 Sarah left Charleston with her poorly father, Judge Grimké, who upheld both slave-ownership and the subordination of women. They were sailing to see his specialist in Philadelphia. Following the doctor’s instructions that he take the sea air and bathe at Long Branch, New Jersey, they travelled there - were he died.

On the voyage back home, bereaved and alone, Sarah was befriended by the Morrises, a wealthy Quaker family. The Quaker literature they gave her inspired her.

After her return she corresponded with Israel Morris,and worked on learning about the Quaker movement, including its outright opposition to slavery. It became increasingly hard for her to tolerate life on the plantation, where her brother opposed her interest in law.

‘In 1821 she relocated to Philadelphia to live alternately with Israel’s family in the country and his sister Catherine Morris in the city’ says Farrell. She eventually became a full member of the Friends, although her attacks on slavery were later seen as too radical for them.

Her sister Angela was similarly attracted to the cause and joined Sarah in 1929.In February 1836 they attended the Quaker Convention in Providence, Rhode Island.

There they found abolitionists with whom they were more in sympathy. So began their career as the US’s best-known women anti-slavery campaigners.

To be sure, Sarah was not influenced solely by that on-board encounter. The Philadelphia Friends she’d met before and after her father’s death influenced her, as did witnessing the mistreatment of slaves around her childhood home, and being part of a family interested in jurisprudence.

But there seems to be something about a voyage that leads some people to step into a new and inspired way of living.

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