Bayley’s narrative and comments about the meaning of slavery and freedom is an early form of protest literature. He wrote to expose the evils of slavery, to demonstrate the humanity of people of African ancestry, and to strike a blow for abolition. The book, published in Great Britain in 1825, also revealed the horrors of slavery to the British people and helped spur the 1833 abolition of human bondage in the British Isles.
In his narrative, Bayley provides a rare glimpse into the life of an escaped slave. He reveals the fear, anxiety, and numerous obstacles that confronted runaways in the late eighteenth century. He also reveals the primary importance of the black family, Christianity, and the triumph of the spirit at a time when some southerners argued that black slaves were little more than animals with all the feelings of unthinking creatures.
Bayley, a Methodist minister, further shows his deep commitment to Christianity in his writing. Typical of African American accounts of spiritual conversion, Bayley’s personal relationship with God is transformed into the possibility of liberating an entire community. In this respect, his writing reflects the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century, when some religious leaders began to argue that individuals had control over their own salvation.
Bayley ultimately responded to slavery and the racism inherent in the antebellum United States by joining the colonization movement. He and his wife left the United States in 1827 for Liberia, a fledgling colony in West Africa. Chiefly a farmer and preacher, Bayley lived near Monrovia. In 1833 he published A Brief Account of the Colony of Liberia, which discussed the agricultural and commercial progress of the colony as well as the relationship between its settlers and native Africans.
All the writings by African Americans, beginning with Phillis Wheatley in the eighteenth century, demonstrated that black people were the intellectual equals of white people. Slave narratives further demonstrated the inhumanity of treating slaves as if they were no better than livestock. Accordingly, Bayley’s writings helped advance the cause of abolition in the United States and Great Britain.
In the slave narrative, American writers contributed a new form of literature to the world. These autobiographies were calculated to exert a very wide influence on public opinion. As abolitionists later noted, slavery from the side of the master was well known, but slavery from the side of the victim was not. The justifications advanced for the continuation of slavery were challenged by Bayley’s narrative. He did not benefit from slavery, and he desperately sought freedom for himself and his family. Many slave narratives were published, but Bayley’s was one of the earliest, placing him alongside Wheatley, David Walker, and Olaudah Equianao as part of the first generation of African American writers.