“Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it, just to stand one minute on God’s airth [sic] a free woman, I would.”—Elizabeth Freeman, aka, Mum Bett.
The exact date of Elizabeth Freeman’s birth is unknown. It was the case with most blacks in the 17th century as they were slaves, brought to the United States from Africa as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. No one cared when they were born or what their birth name was. They were all slaves and their skin colour was their only identity. Elizabeth was born into slavery, somewhere around the 1740s, at a farm in Claverack, New York. Her ‘master’ was Pieter Hogeboom who gave a few-month-old Elizabeth her slave name, Bett.
When Elizabeth was seven years old, Hogeboom sold her to his newly-wed daughter Hannah and his son-in-law John Ashley. It was more like a tradition for a father to pass a slave to the children at their weddings. Blacks were merely a ‘property’ to White families who considered slavery a system ordained by God. Every Black was destined for a life of hard labour.
Slaves during Transatlantic Slave Trade
The lives of slave children were hard. Just like Elizabeth, most of the children were separated from their parents at an early age and were forced to work 15 to 20 hours a day. Those who toiled in huge cotton fields in the deep south suffered much more than those who worked in the house. Elizabeth, in that sense, was fortunate to work as a servant and not a labourer, but her life was far from easy.
Raised in a stern Dutch family, Hannah had a short temper and was insensitive to the slaves. At her residence in Sheffield, Massachusetts, Elizabeth did all kinds of chores, from cleaning and washing to cooking and nursing children. There was no room for error; there was no mercy when a slave made a mistake. No rest and no days off either. Each day was a battle to make it to the next. But despite the tyranny and inhumane treatment, Elizabeth was undaunted in her spirit.
In 1780, when Elizabeth was around 36, she saved a young girl named, Lizzy, from Hannah’s wrath. Some accounts say Lizzy was her sister, others say she was her daughter. Irrespective of her personal relationship with Lizzy, Elizabeth was the kind who would stand up for anyone from her slave community, even if it meant going against Hannah.
One day Hannah found that Lizzy had baked a cake for herself from the scraps of a “great oaken bowl in which the family batch had been kneaded”. To her, it was blasphemy. Boiling with rage, Hannah swung a heated shovel at Lizzy, but Elizabeth came in between to take the blow. It was the first time that Elizabeth defied her mistress, and it wasn’t the last.