By Nora M.
Boyrereau Brinch, nicknamed Jeffrey Brace, was an African slave, born in the Kingdom of Bow-woo. He was captured when he was 16 and was sold several times, eventually to a woman named Mary Stiles. With her death, his ownership passed to her eldest son, Benjamin.
In 1777, Brinch joined the Continental Army, and he served until 1783. After the war, Brinch’s enslaver legally manumitted him, and he then moved to Vermont. He applied for a veteran’s pension, which he eventually received in 1821 before dying soon after in 1827. Because Brinch went blind later in life, this is an oral history transcribed by an abolitionist lawyer named Benjamin F. Prentiss. They published Brinch’s story in hopes that it would push people towards empathy and abolition.
Prentiss’s political goals as well as Brinch’s memory undoubtedly shaped the narrative, raising questions about reliability and exaggeration. To a modern audience, Brinch’s narrative offers a detailed account of the life of an enslaved person fighting for the Continental Army. His story shows why the Revolution mattered to the enslaved population in particular and why enslaved soldiers felt that fighting for the colonists was the best way to gain their emancipation. Because he went blind and permanently injured his hand during the Revolution, Brinch’s life story is also a piece of Black disability history. His disabilities shaped both his life experiences and the way that this account was produced.
From [former enslaver Peter] Pridon I was bartered away for some old horses to one Gibbs… With this man I stayed about three months, and to describe the particular management of his family would only mortify those who live in the same way at the present time. I have thought he took a peculiar delight in whipping me, as I uniformly received about four whippings per day… Next I was sold to Phineas Baldwin, of the town of Old Milford. I continued with him until summer… when I was sold to Jones Green, of the same place. Green did not whip me but about twice in a week, except now and then a kicking. From [Jones] Green I was transferred to one Murrier, a tanner, where I remained until September, at which time the widow Mary Stiles, of Woodbury, Connecticut, bought me [in the 1760s]. This was a glorious era in my life, as widow Stiles was one of the finest women in the world; she possessed every Christian virtue… This good lady learned me to read…
Accordingly she with intentions as good and pure as virtue itself, taught me to read and speak the English language. She was indefatacable [indefatigable] until I could read in the bible and expound the scriptures, in the mean time she taught me the prayer usually communicated to children, and some general principles of the Christian religion. Both day and night she most kindly taught me, by which I am enabled to enjoy the light of the gospel.
When [Mary Stiles] died I descended like real estate, in fee simple to her son Benjamin Stiles, Esq. About four years after her death [in 1777], her two sons, Benjamin and David, were drafted to fight in the revolution. I also entered the banners of freedom [with the hope of gaining emancipation]. Alas! Poor African Slave, to liberate freemen, my tyrants. I had contemplated going to Barbadoes [which was the first place that Brinch arrived at in the Americas (Brinch & Prentiss 90)] to avenge myself and my country, in which I justified myself by Sampson’s prayer, when he prayed God to give him strength that he might avenge himself upon the Philistines, and God gave him the strength he prayed for.
I went into Captain Granger’s company, from hence I was drafted into Captain Borker’s company of light infantry, as they wanted six feet men. I then wanted but a quarter of an inch of being 6 feet 3 inches… [The company went from Frog Plain Island, Connecticut to West Point in New York.]
[On the journey to Hackensack, Brinch was ambushed by British soldiers. Upon seeing the British,] I mounted immediately, and that instant discovered four men on horseback approaching me from different directions. I fled, passed one man, just before I came to a stone wall. Both of our horses were upon the full run he fired and missed me… I drove my horse as fast as possible, stabbed him with my sword and gun, kicked my heals in his side, but having no spurs, and not being so good a horseman they gained upon me…
I made no halt until I arrived within our Camp. When I dismounted [and] tied my horse and went to set up my gun, I found I could not open my hand which was the first time that I discovered that I was wounded. As slight fear and precipitation had turned me almost as white as my fellow soldiers. In consequence of my wounds, I was unfit for duty again for almost three months…
[He reenlists because his master, Benjamin Stiles, still insists that he is a slave, despite his service, so he joins Captain Baker’s company.] From thence we went to Horseneck–where we remained until winter; frequently searching about the adjacent country. Finally I was in the battle at Cambridge, White plains, Monmouth, Princeton, Newark, Froggs-point, [and] Horseneck where I had a ball pass through my knapsack. All which battels the reader can obtain a more perfect account of in history, than I can give. At last we returned to West Point and were discharged; as the war was over. Thus was I, a slave for five years fighting for liberty. [Brinch receives legal manumission as a result of his service.]
After we were disbanded, I returned to my old master at Woodbury, with whom I lived one year; my services in the American war, having emancipated me from further slavery, and from being bartered or sold. [Stiles initially refuses to free Brinch, but eventually he has no choice because Brinch was legally manumitted and Connecticut passed an act calling for gradual emancipation in 1784 (Winter 56).] My master consented that I might go where I pleased and seek my fortune. Hearing flattering accounts of the new state of Vermont [which had abolished slavery]; I left Woodbury…
- What elements of Brinch’s account of the Revolution demonstrate the experience of enslaved people serving in the Continental Army generally? What elements do you think are likely unique to him?
- This was written by Prentiss and Brinch to be an abolitionist text, but its influence was limited because Brinch was enslaved in the North rather than the South. Would this account have worked as an abolitionist text? Does it fulfill its goal of making the audience empathize with enslaved people through the story of Brinch’s life? Why or why not?
- Brinch speaks highly of his enslaver, Mary Stiles, because she taught him to read and speak English. How did this experience shape the rest of his life, especially in shaping his Christian faith? How does his relationship with Stiles differ from his relationship with his other enslavers, including Stiles’s son, Benjamin?
Brinch, Boyrereau and Benjamin F. Prentiss. Transcript of The Blind African Slave or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace, 1810. North American Slave Narrative. Documenting the American South, University North Carolina. Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Lead On Admin. “Black #Disability History: Boyrereau Brinch, Revolutionary War Black
Soldier.” Lead On Network. Lead On Network, 4 Feb. 2016. http://leadonnetwork.org/wordpress/2016/02/04/
Winter, Kari. “Introduction.” In The Blind African Slave: Or, Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace, 3-84. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.