Bett’s escape was published in the Quebec Gazette on March 6, 1787. She was approximately 18 years old and belonged to the merchants Johnston & Purss. Both of Scottish origin, the men specialized in the sale of furs, seal oil and wheat and were also distillers. Some 16 years earlier, they had owned another slave named Pompey, who escaped in 1771.
A $20 reward was offered for finding Bett.
Pregnancy in slavery
There are two things that are striking in this announcement. The first is that she was described as "big with child, and within a few days of her time." We have no idea of what drove her to escape in March 1797, but it must have been done in haste. As in many cases in slavery, it’s very likely that she didn’t want her child to be born under such circumstances. Bett was even suspected of killing her child after she lost her baby two months later.
There is a parallel to be made elsewhere in the Americas, with Solitude in Guadeloupe. She was pregnant when she joined Louis Delgrès’ rebellion against the restoration of slavery under Napoléon Bonaparte in 1802. Solitude was apprehended and jailed and was executed the day after she gave birth.
Bett’s suspected infanticide may also remind us of the case of another fugitive: Margaret Garner in Ohio in 1856. About to be caught by the authorities, she preferred to kill her two-year-old daughter rather than see the child returned to slavery. This story would inspire Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved in 1987.
Talking many languages
Another thing that strikes us as unusual in the wanted notice for Bett is the reference to language. She could speak English, French and German. However, it wasn’t uncommon for slaves to be multilingual given the variety of masters they served, in addition, of course, to their mother tongues if they were born in Africa or had African parents. This was also the case for other runaways: Joe and Jack, who spoke English as well as their mother tongues, Nemo and Cash spoke English and French, Ishmael spoke English, French and Dutch. And Andrew spoke English, French, Dutch and Erse.
The following July, Johnston & Purss published an announcement for the sale of a robust, healthy and active woman of approximately 18 years of age. She was described as having had smallpox, as knowing how to cook, wash and iron, as being very good with children, and she spoke English, French and German. Clearly, it was Bett they were trying to sell off.