Cornelius Sinclair's Odyssey: Freedom, Slavery, and Freedom Again in the Old South
65 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2014 Last revised: 23 Feb 2016
Date Written: July 28, 2014
In August 1825 several free, young black people were enticed onto a ship in the Delaware River along the Philadelphia waterfront. Thus began their descent to the heart of the old South. They were kidnapped and held aboard a ship destined for a stop somewhere near Cape Henlopen, Delaware. Some days later they were carried by wagon to Maryland’s eastern shore and another ship took them further south. They walked across Georgia and into Alabama. One young man, Cornelius Sinclair, was sold in Tuscaloosa. He was a free person converted into a slave. But that was not the end.
Those who survived were then taken to Mississippi, where a slave-owner realized that they were probably free. The slave-owner contacted the Mayor of Philadelphia to verify the story of kidnapping and eventually most of those held in Mississippi were sent back to Philadelphia. Then the mayor set about rescuing Sinclair, too. In Tuscaloosa, a local minister helped Sinclair by filing a lawsuit to ask for his freedom. A judge, who would later, as governor of Alabama, seek to imprison abolitionists for spreading antislavery literature, presided over the trial that freed Sinclair. The newly freed Sinclair made a trip even further south, to New Orleans, and eventually back to Philadelphia where he faced down the men who had kidnapped him.
Sinclair's story is one of epic proportions. It is a nineteenth century version of the Odyssey. And while Cornelius' journey home took fewer years than Odysseus' journey, Sinclair traveled farther. Some of the other kidnapped people made it home as well; one died along the way. Others never returned. But this story is one of the dark evil in human hearts and also of the triumph, even if in greatly circumscribed fashion, of the rule of law. It is a story of a most unexpected turn in a legal system dedicated to the maintenance of the system of slavery.
While there has been some previous discussion of Sinclair’s case, that story has been told only briefly and exclusively from the perspective of the anti-slavery press and the records in Philadelphia. This is the first time that the Tuscaloosa part of the story has been told. And in this case study one can see the difficulty that southern jurists, slave-owners, and litigants had in dealing with the central tendency of the slave law in contrast with considerations of humanity and justice.
Keywords: slavery, emancipation, kidnapping, African American history, American Colonization Society, 12 Years a Slave
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