« “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” » – Doudou Aichatou


The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself is an autobiography by Josiah Henson, a former slave who escaped to Canada in 1830 after learning that he might be sold to another master. Henson’s popularity would be later promoted through the popular novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin for which he might be the basis of the title character.[1] Published in 1849, this autobiography was the author’s first work dictated to the former Boston mayor Samuel A. Eliot because Henson at the time could not read nor write. The book sold about 6 000 copies the next three years after its publication. It obviously received little public attention until 1854 when the sale greatly increased to over 100 000 copies, after it was known that the narrative was the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.



1. Cover of the Book.

   In this book, Henson describes how he grew up as a slave from one plantation to another. He was born on 15th June 1789 in Charles County, Maryland in Mr Francis N’s farm, and later on joined his mother in Dr. McP’s plantation where he learned about God from his Christian mother who often recited her prayer to the Lord. From his tender age, Henson witnessed the ill-treatment of his parents by slave owners. He writes about his memory of his father’s ear been cut after receiving a serious beating for having tried to preserve his wife’s integrity.

Henson grew up to become a smart, obedient, healthy, strong, energetic young man full of religious awareness. His faith was considerably nourished by an important text that he learned during sermons which states that “he, by the grace of God, should taste of death for every man.” This quotation had marked Henson’s life and beliefs, making him to become aware and impressed by the fact that Jesus cares for every man no matter whether he is a slave or a free man. Henson then started to reflect and think critically, decentralising the white master whom he now believes is equal to him (a slave) in God’s face. Learning that Jesus died for the salvation of the whole world – even the poor, the blacks, the slaves – made him realise that he is important even though he is a slave. Henson looks back to the days he learned about the love of Jesus for mankind and remembers them to be the days he was “awakening to a new life”.

As Henson gained the trust of his master, he was promoted to the post of overseer in the plantation, a position he would occupy throughout the rest of his time in the plantation. He ensured that the slaves working with him received better treatment as well as had better food. His master was also very proud as he made huge profits thanks to Henson’s skills and intelligence.

In 1825, Mr. R fell into economic hardship and requested for Henson’s help. This represented a great opportunity for Henson to escape from freedom together with his fellow slaves. Surprisingly, he refused to take this opportunity claiming that he would honestly gain his freedom by buying himself from his master. Between 1825 and 1828, he studied hard and was made a preacher by the Episcopal church. He found ways to raise funds to purchase his freedom with the agreement of his master. After the agreement was made and Henson succeeded to raise enough funds to buy his freedom, his master played a trick on him and increased the fee to become $1000. Henson was really disappointed and narrated that this trick made him to become a “savage, morose, dangerous slave. He later on got an opportunity to kill his master but his Christian faith could not allow him to commit murder. Instead, he nursed his master when the latter fell sick and almost died.

Back in Kentucky, Henson started to make a plan to escape with his family and find freedom in Canada. His plan was successful as many anti-slave whites helped him in his quest for freedom. He eventually reached Canada where he started a new life with his family as free citizens. A few years later, he went into the creation of a black colony where the black community would live in freedom and harmony.


   For her major character who would become an important black American figure very long after the abolition of slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe drew her inspiration from several sources. The best known of these sources was Josiah Henson. Henson was enslaved at birth and became a Christian at the age of eight. He became a staunch Christian with high moral values which guided him to preaching, just like Stowe’s Uncle Tom. In varied situations of trial, he showed patience and tolerance, always putting forth his Christian morals. For instance, Henson had a number of opportunities to escape from slavery, but his faith and his honesty guided him to stay and rather purchase his freedom, even though he would be duped by his master who increased the price initially fixed at $450 to $1,000. Despite the harsh treatment inflicted on him, Henson, like Uncle Tom, proved to be trustworthy. He always acted in the right way and eased the harsh conditions faced by his fellow slaves.

After the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, two revised editions of Henson’s autobiography were published in which we read:

“I was in the vicinity of Andover, Mass., in the year 1849, where Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe resided. She sent for me and my travelling companion, Mr. George Clark, a white gentleman, who had a fine voice for singing, and usually sang at my meetings to add to their interest. We went to Mrs. Stowe’s house, and she was deeply interested in the story of my life and misfortunes, and had me narrate its details to her. She said she was glad it had been published, and hoped it would be of great service, and would open the eyes of the people to the enormity of the crime of holding men in bondage. She manifested so much interest in me, that I told her about the peculiarities of many slaveholders, and the slaves in the region where I had lived for forty-two years. My experiences had been more varied than those of the majority of slaves…”[2]


   The experiences of Uncle Tom as a fictional character strikingly resemble those of Henson’s real life even though, unlike Uncle Tom, he does not die as a martyr. He escaped North with his family and settled in Canada where he became a civil leader. Stowe, who had read the first edition of Henson’s autobiography, confirmed that she incorporated certain elements of the narrative in her novel[3]. Many similarities between these two texts can be brought out, amongst which the setting, and other elements of the story. The title of the novel, which is a “metaphor for love and loyalty”, was lent from Henson’s home, which has become a museum— Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site.

Other characters, like Elisa and her husband George Harris, were also inspired from Henson’s Friends as he reveals in his biography:

The white slaves, George Harris, and his wife Eliza, were my particular friends. George Harris, whose real name is Lewis Clark, is about three parts white. He has travelled and lectured with me in the New England States. He is a very ingenious and intelligent man, as Mrs. Stowe represented him.[4]

As we read here, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is largely based on the life of Josiah Henson, but not only. Other sources for Stowe’s masterpiece can be enumerated, like John Andrew Jackson, who reported in his narrative The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina: “she took me in and fed me, and gave me some clothes and five dollars. She also inspected my back, which is covered with scars which I shall carry with me to the grave. She listened with great interest to my story”. According to Susanna Ashton it is 99.9 percent sure that A. Jackson was the fugitive slave hidden by Stowe in Brunswick Maine. She thinks that his pain touched Stowe and pushed her to act. According to her, Stowe did not mention Jackson in her later writings because it would mean for her to admit that she violated the Fugitive Slave Act.

As Stowe writes in her A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the fruit of her encounters, her experiences, and readings. One thing is certain, Uncle Tom’s Cabin served as a strong vehicle for change in the United states and in the world.

Doudou Aichatou, Master 2 Anglais



[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1853, p. 42.

[2] Winks, Robin W. Autobiography of Josiah Henson: An Inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, 2003.

[3] Stowe, Harriet Beecher. A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story Is Founded. Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. Poland: Amazon Fulfilment, 2011. Chapter VI.

[4] Winks, Robin W. Autobiography of Josiah Henson.



Henson, Josiah. The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Boston; Arthur D. Phelps, 1849.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon Which the Story Is Founded. Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. Poland: Amazon Fulfilment, 2011.

——. Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. Germany: Amazon Distribution, 2014.

Winks, Robin, W.. Autobiography of Josiah Henson: An Inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom. Courier Dover Publications, 2003.



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