Robert (1770-1832), a Black American Hermit
The narrative of Robert, a former slave become hermit, is an intriguing story highlighting one man's experience of the historical treatment of black people in the United States, The narrative also points to commonly ascribed motives of people who become hermits or recluses: disappointment, tragedy, and sorrow. There is a particular poignancy in the story of Robert, for whom tragedy seemed inescapable in life. The author and printer of the story, which takes the form of a first-person narrative, concludes his story with a diatribe against slavery and its lasting effects on the psyche of former slaves and its consummate offense to morality.
According to the 36-page pamphlet printed by Henry Trumbull in Providence, Rhode Island in 1829, Robert Voorhis was probably born in 1770 in Princeton, New Jersey, in bondage through his mother of African descent. His father was known only to be a prominent white Englishman. Robert was given to his master's oldest daughter on her marriage to a John Voorhis (hence the surname), at which time the couple and Robert moved to the District of Columbia.
Robert grew up on a Maryland plantation, learning to read and acquiring useful skills. He married and fathered children, all in an atmosphere he narrates as relatively benign. After his marriage and fatherhood, Robert entrusted a white acquaintance to intercede with Robert's master and pay the master a sum Robert had saved for the family's emancipation. However, Robert found himself betrayed. The acquaintance kept his money. Robert was seized, torn from his family, and transported to South Carolina by ship. He escaped, stowing himself safely on a ship for Massachusetts and safety.
But soon afterwards, Robert was lured back into slavery, which he was force to tolerate some years before escaping again with the assistance of a Quaker ship captain.
Later, from the safety of New England, Robert undertook a voyage to India as a sailor in order to better his material circumstances. On returning to the port of Salem, Massachusetts, he sought out the status of his wife and children without conclusion. Robert then married and settled a while before undertaking a series of voyages to further improve his lot and that of his new family. But on his return he discovered his wife and mother-in-law hostile towards him, and Robert went away.
This time Robert took ship back for Baltimore and the District of Columbia to pursue the whereabouts of his first wife and children, despite the passage of fifteen years. The narrative notes that Robert's original love was not displaced by his second marriage, and that his long seaman's absence clearly accounts for the end of the latter relationship. But in the District of Columbia, Robert learned first-hand that his first wife and their children had fallen destitute after his kidnapping and were probably long dead. The news of this was devastating for him.
This was enough! yea more than enough, to fill to the brim the cup of my afflictions! -- afflictions which had more [or] less attended me through life! -- I then felt but little desire to live as there was nothing then remaining to attach me to this world -- it was at that moment that I formed the determination to retire from it -- to become a recluse, and mingle thereafter as little as possible with human society.
Robert returned to Rhode Island. He built himself a hut on a point of land about a mile south of the Providence bridge. Here he lived in reclusion. After several years he secured the permission of the landowner to improve the spot -- in a thick pine grove with a nearby spring -- and remained in peaceful solitude there. And there the first-person narrative ends and a summary by the author begins.
Trumbull describes Robert as
remarkably abstemious and otherwise correct in his habits ... civil and agreeable in his manners, polite and condescending to all who visit him ...
Here is a description of his cave -- apparently not a hut as the narrative first states.
The walls of his cave or cell, are constructed principally of round stones, of incredible size rudely thrown together ... They form a square of thirty or forty feet in circumference, yet are so thick and massy, as to enclose only a single apartment of not sufficient size to contain more than two or three persons at a time, and so low as not to admit of their standing erect ...
But a periodical source Trumbull quotes describes the cell as "scarcely capable of accommodating himself alone."
In the center of the cave is a fireplace and flue. Robert slept at the extreme end of a bunk of rags and straw. A piece of oak cask served as seat and table; inverted, as a mortar for pounding grains. Robert's utensils consist of the remnants of an iron pot and a piece of iron for a knife, some found pottery, and an old bucket for spring water.
The cave had a few holes through which light entered but these Robert plugged with seaweed during the winter, when the door closed and he remained within. In summer Robert cultivated a plot of "7 or 8 rods square," but the poor soil only yielded a few bushels of potatoes, pecks of corn, and a few quarts of beans. Still, Robert "is apparently better satisfied and more thankful than many" for this yield, much of which he gives to nearby cattle.
Trumbull quotes his periodical source in summarizing Robert's quarters as "gloomy, as darkness as solitude can make it, and appears to be admirably fitted for a misanthrope and a recluse."
Content with his situation and at peace with all, he [Robert] quietly looks forward for the arrival of that day when he shall "bid the walking world good night," and find in countries unexplored, that happiness which life has denied him.
Moses died in 1832 in Seekonk, Massachusetts, still living in reclusion.
The complete title page of the pamphlet is: "Life and Adventures of Robert, the Hermit of Massachusetts, Who has Lived 14 Years in a Cave, Secluded from Human Society: Comprising, an Account of his Birth, Parentage, Sufferings, and Providential Escape from Unjust and Cruel Bondage in Early Life, and His Reasons for Becoming a Recluse. Taken from his own mouth, and published for his benefit. PROVIDENCE: Printed for H. TRUMBULL-- 1829 Price 12 1-2 Cents." The electronic edition of the pamphlet was created in 1999 by the Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for its Documenting the American South series. Available at: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/robert/robert.html.