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Radical Mainers: Robert Benjamin Lewis

Maine’s Afro-Indigenous Liberation Pioneer

A lithograph of Robert Benjamin Lewis, by Benjamin F. Nutting, circa 1830. The inscription below it (not pictured) reads: “Indian, Ethiopain & European”

In the early 1820s, a young man named Robert Benjamin Lewis, of Hallowell, Maine, set out on his lifelong mission to uncover the hidden history of his people. Born in 1802, Lewis was a proud and intelligent man of African and Indigenous descent. According to one source, members of the Congregational church in Hallowell paid for his education with the idea that he would become a missionary in Africa. Instead, Lewis used his Biblical knowledge to write the first history of Black and Indigenous people from a Black and Indigenous perspective.

Lewis knew the prominent American and European intellectuals of his day were not delivering the full picture of the ancient world and the origins of civilization. Leading 19th-century intellectuals were generally tainted by white supremacist ideology that either erased Black and Indigenous people or used racist pseudoscience to justify the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. 

After meticulously combing through the Bible and secular ancient-history texts, Lewis believed he had discovered a lost history of his ancestors. But unlike his white counterparts, he did not have the privilege to pursue his passion full-time. He was a working man who eked out a living doing odd jobs in rural Maine, where there were few people who looked like him and racial discrimination was common. 

According to Daniel Murray, who interviewed Lewis’ eldest daughter, Mary Augusta Lewis Johnson, Lewis painted and papered houses, covered and mended umbrellas and cleaned carpets, while his wife and some of his 11 children helped make baskets and caned chairs. He was also an inventor and entrepreneur who patented numerous products, including Lewis’ Arabian Hair Oil and a device for unraveling rope that was commonly used in Maine shipyards. When the regular workday was over, he did his research in the evenings by candlelight.      

Finally, in 1836, 14 years into his “quest of light and truth,” Lewis published his findings as Light and Truth: Collected from the Bible and Ancient and Modern History, Containing the Universal History of the Colored and the Indian Race, from the Creation of the World to the Present Time. It was a radical rewriting of history that not only centered Black and Indigenous people in the development of the great civilizations of antiquity, but also in God’s creation of the universe. His goal, he wrote, was to spread the “correct knowledge” of both “Colored and Indian people,” so “oppressors shall not consider it an indispensable duty to trample upon the weak and defenseless.”

Following the publication of Light and Truth, Lewis embarked on annual lecture tours throughout the Northeast to promote the book. During the 1840s and ’50s he spent time in Boston with many of the city’s prominent Black businessmen and intellectuals, some of whom were among the “Committee of Colored Gentlemen” that published an expanded version of the book in 1844. Light and Truth was fairly widely read — it ultimately went through three editions.

 

A Legacy of Resistance

In 1873, several years after Lewis’ death, the Bath Daily Times remembered him as an erudite man who was fond of quoting the Greek Christian historian Eusebius in conversation. The white reporter thought Lewis “firmly believed that black was the original color of the race, and that white men were interlopers, who had no rights that colored men were bound to respect.” His “affection of ancient lore showed itself in the names of his children,” the reporter added, “such as Euphrasia, Artemesia, Hypatia and the like.” He married his wife, Mary Heuston, of East Brunswick, in 1834, and lived for many years in Hallowell before moving to Bath, where he built a small cottage next to the Sagadahoc County Courthouse, on Lincoln Street. 

Lewis was born of a legacy of resistance against white oppressors. His grandfather, Isaac “Hazard” Stockbridge, was an African man kidnapped and enslaved by Dr. Sylvester Gardiner, a Massachusetts physician, businessman and land developer who founded a colony in 1754 that included 100,000 acres of forested land on the Kennebec River, where the towns of Gardiner, Pittston and Hallowell are today. After Hazard married a free Black woman named Cooper Loring in Massachusetts, he was forced to move with the Gardiner family to Maine, in 1766, to work on the slavemaster’s estates in Gardinerston (present-day Hallowell and Gardiner).

But Hazard refused to be enslaved. He resorted to sabotage, arson, and even attempted murder to secure his freedom. On different occasions, he killed one of Dr. Gardiner’s favorite horses by hanging it, set fire to the physician’s house, and attempted to poison his enslaver’s family, according to Sylvester Gardiner’s grandson, Robert Gardiner. His plot to poison the family was only discovered after Lewis warned a guest named Mrs. Hallowell not to drink the coffee one morning. 

After that incident, Dr. Gardiner decided that in order to protect himself and his family from Hazard’s wrath, he would give him tools and a plot of land in a remote section of his property to build a farm. From then on, Hazard was free from the shackles of slavery and kept the earnings from his labor. But his life was cut short when he accidentally drowned at “Hazard’s Rips,” near the falls on Cabassa Stream, in 1780. In the local white community he was remembered by the nickname “Bad Hazard.”

Despite the fact slavery was legally abolished in Maine three years after Hazard’s death, his legal status as a formerly enslaved person continued to haunt his descendants. According to Bowdoin College professor Randolph Stakeman, Hallowell sued the town of Gardiner in 1820 to recover the expense of providing public assistance to Hazard’s granddaughter, Harriett Stockbridge. Hallowell officials argued that the town should not have to support Harriett, because she was descended from someone who had been enslaved. Even though Harriett’s mother was never enslaved, the court ruled that her mother had not obtained citizenship, on grounds that she had been a minor and her father was a slave. Forty years after slavery was abolished in Maine, Harriet was still denied her rights due to its past practice. 

As Stakeman wrote, slavery in Maine left a legacy of discrimination, segregation and “black codes” that lasted for centuries:

Blacks would be associated with menial jobs which merely transferred some of their slave roles into wage labor and made some of the duties of domestic servants available to the community at large. Churches would remain segregated; marriages between blacks and whites were still illegal, and in towns with large enough black communities segregated schools were set up for blacks. Slavery was therefore not an aberration in Maine’s history, but a prologue which set a tone for relations between whites and blacks which would continue through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

 

Light and Truth

The treatment Lewis’ family received under this system of racial oppression likely helped fuel his passion to prove his people deserved dignity and respect. As University of Pennsylvania historian Mia Bay points out, Lewis echoed the earlier writings of John Brown Russwurm (whom we will discuss in next month’s column), another Black Mainer who often glorified the ancestry and past achievements of Africans. Both men claimed Egyptians had descended from Black Ethiopians and were the children of Ham, a child of Noah. But Lewis took it even further, arguing that the Garden of Eden was in Ethiopia, and that God had created Adam from “the rich and black soil.” In fact, Lewis contended, the great civilizations of antiquity were all descended from Ethiopians, and famous figures such as Moses, Solomon, Plato, Hannibal and Julius Caesar were all men of color.

“Ethiopia … was black, and the first people were Ethiopians, or blacks,” Lewis wrote, later adding that Jesus Christ and God himself were “colored also.”

Borrowing from the Book of Mormon, in a chapter titled “The True Christians in The Land Are Indians,” Lewis repeated an old legend that Indigenous Americans were actually the “descendents of Israel.” “Surely, then, the natives of the deserts of America must have been a people who once knew God of Israel!” Lewis wrote. “They maintained for more than two millenaries, the tradition of him, in many respects correct. What possible account can be given of this, but they were descendents of Israel, and that God has had his merciful eye upon them, with a view in his own time to bring them to light, and effect their restoration?”

Other sections of his book provide biographical sketches of more contemporary Black luminaries, like the writer Phillis Wheatley and various Black abolitionists. But both Black and white scholars have dismissed Light and Truth for its unsubstantiated claims. 

Martin Delaney, one of Lewis’ contemporaries and an early proponent of Black nationalism, wrote that the one redeeming quality of Light and Truth was that it offset “the pitiable literary blunders” of white Egyptologist George Gliddon, “who makes all ancient black men, white: and asserts Egyptians and Ethiopians to have been of the Caucasian or white race!” Delany added: “Gliddon’s idle nonsense had found a capital match in the production of Mr. Lewis’ ‘Light and Truth’ and both should be sold together.”

Bay, the UPenn historian, called the book an example of “how easily African-American efforts to rebut racial doctrine could shade into black chauvinism that mirrored the very racist logic it opposed.”

Still, Light and Truth is a fascinating example of how 19th-century Black writers tried to create a counter-history to the dominant white narrative in which, according to University of Delaware professor John Ernest, the spiritual, the historical and the political are inextricably connected. In this way, Ernest sees Light and Truth as “a study in the theological grounds of Black nationalism, and an early example of Black Liberation theology,” which emphasizes the role of Christians in the struggle to liberate poor and oppressed people.  

University of Massachusetts professor Britt Rusert considers Lewis’ work a direct response to prominent white scholars who used bigoted pseudoscience to try to prove the biological inferiority of people of color and justify stripping them of their dignity and humanity. She notes that, in response, Black and Afro-Native writers and intellectuals “waged a war on the American school of ethnology” by creating a body of ethnological writing that told a different story about the origins of Black and Indigenous people.

“In Light and Truth, ethnology is transformed from a science of subjugation to a science of Afro-Native alliance,” Rusert wrote. “In opposition to the various scientific ‘proofs’ of Black and Indian inferiority that populated dominant ethnological discourses, Lewis uses ethnology to imagine new forms of solidarity and to forge models of mixed-race identity in America.”

Despite his flawed research, Lewis clearly knew that historical narratives could be powerful tools to shape public consciousness and inform political movements. Neo-Confederate historians would later deploy historical narratives as weapons, in what the Black scholar W.E.B. DuBois called the “propaganda of history,” to create the pseudo-historical “lost cause” mythology that valorized Confederate soldiers and obscured the fact they fought to continue the enslavement of human beings. As the recent battles over Confederate monuments show, it’s a myth that’s still very influential today.

Lewis devoted the rest of his life to spreading his message. In May of 1853 he ran an ad in Frederick Douglass’ Paper seeking subscribers for his “new history, one of the most valuable works that was ever written for Schools and Families, and intended to remove the prejudices from whites against the Colored and Indian people in the United States.” This ambitious, 1,600-page history would contain four volumes, including two on geography and two “Historical Readers,” with an “atlas of maps and charts of all the different nations, the Earth, Sun, Moon and Planets.” Lewis claimed the manuscript was already finished and implored readers to contribute the money needed to print it for “the oppressed people of Israel — proved to be the Indian races.”

Unfortunately, Lewis never lived to see his second book in print and no manuscript has been discovered. It’s not clear whether Lewis was still trying to get the work published up until his death or if he had given up on the project. He died in February of 1858 of yellow fever while working as a cook on the brig the Philip Larrabee in Port Au Prince, Haiti, hoping to secure “a position” for his eldest child, Mrs. Johnson, that child, later recalled.  She remembered her father as a “loving kind of parent” and said the “whole city [of Bath] as well as the family mourned his loss.”

“He had a large funeral in Porto Prince,” Johnson wrote in a letter to Daniel Murray. “He was so well known or thought [of] in the little time he was there. They also heard of his books.”

 

Will Chapman is the Librarian and Archivist at Museums of the Bethel Historical Society. Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO. You can reach them at will@maineworkingclasshistory.com and andy@maineworkingclasshistory.com. 

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