‘Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution’

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Author Claire Bellerjeau. Photo by Francis George, 2020.

The East Hampton Library’s Long Island Collection will present a live Zoom discussion with author Claire Bellerjeau about her book “Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth,” on Thursday, May 20, at 7 p.m. The book tells the story of Robert Townsend, a key member of the Culper Spy Ring, and his extraordinary efforts to rescue Elizabeth, an enslaved woman who had run away from his family and was re-enslaved. Documents from the Long Island Collection played a key role in telling this story.

Claire Bellerjeau’s book “Espionage and Enslavement in the Revolution: The True Story of Robert Townsend and Elizabeth.”

In January 1785, a young African American woman named Elizabeth was put on board the Lucretia in New York Harbor, bound for Charleston, South Carolina, where she would be sold to her fifth master in just 22 years. Leaving behind a small child she had little hope of ever seeing again, Elizabeth was faced with the stark reality of being sold south to a life quite different from any she had known before. She had no idea that Robert Townsend, a son of the family she was enslaved by, would locate her, safeguard her child, and return her to New York — nor how her story would help turn one of America’s first spies into an abolitionist.

Robert Townsend is best known as one of George Washington’s most trusted spies, but few know about how he worked to end slavery. As Robert and Elizabeth’s story unfolds, prominent figures from history cross their path, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Benedict Arnold, John André and John Adams, as well as participants in the Boston Massacre, the Sons of Liberty, the Battle of Long Island, Franklin’s Paris negotiations, and the Benedict Arnold treason plot.

Claire Bellerjeau currently serves as historian and director of education at Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, and she has been researching the Townsend family and their slaves for over 16 years, including curating a yearlong exhibit on the Townsend “Slave Bible” in 2005. She has spoken internationally and published several articles in scholarly journals about life and artifacts of colonial New York.

Her library talk is free, but advanced registration is required at Eventbrite.com. Visit easthamptonlibrary.org for details.

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