Episode 33 – Boudica versus Harriet Tubman

From the Rebels, Rogues and Scholars bracket we have the first battle between two brave, incredible women, one, the leader of the British Celtic Iceni tribe against Roman rule in Britannia, Boudica, against an abolitionist and member of the Underground Railroad from the slave era of the American, pre-Civil War, Harriet Tubman. 


For our first contestant, Boudica, we have no date of birth or actual place of birth except that it was within the region known as Iceni, now a coastal part of mid-eastern England. Adding to the confusion are the numerous spellings and pronunciations of this rebel leader. I’ve seen her called Boudicca with two c’s, Boadicea, Buddug, Voadicia, or even Bunduca. I’m going with Boudica with one c for no other reason than it’s easiest. As a side note, many scholars claim that her Latinized name would be Victoria, which is why she had a renaissance as a figure in British history during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th century. 

Much of what we know about her was from the Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio. Of course, whenever you get much of your material from the enemies of your subject, you need to take much of what they write with a grain of salt. 

Tacitus though would be the best source as his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, served in Britain during the early years of Roman occupation. 

What we do know is that Boudica was considered of royal blood by her people and that her husband Prasutagus was the king of the Iceni. When, under Emperor Claudius, the Roman military began its invasion and capture of parts of what is now England, the Iceni decided to become allies of the newcomers in their battles with other tribes on the island in 43 CE. When the Roman governor, Publius Ostorius Scapula, ordered that the Iceni give up their arms in 47, they revolted against the decision. 

We have real gaps in the historical ledger here as we know that the Iceni remained independent of Roman rule, but they were likely to have cooperated with them. We also don’t know when Prasutagus began his reign as the head of his peoples. What we do know is that the Roman’s started to increase the pressure on the peoples of the British Isles to bend to their authority. It was here that the ancient historian Tacitus tells us, “”The Icenian king Prasutagus, celebrated for his long prosperity, had named the emperor his heir, together with his two daughters; an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury. The result was contrary — so much so that his kingdom was pillaged by centurions, his household by slaves; as though they had been prizes of war.” Prasutagus was willing to work with the Romans, but it actually had the opposite effect. Prasutagus was killed or as some have suggested, just died from some unknown cause sometime before 60-61 CE. This caused the Romans to seize his lands as well as many others.

Again, we have to look at what the ancient historians give us about what happened next to understand why the people of the British island decided to rise up in open rebellion, and why Boudica was the one to lead them. According to historical writings, Boudica was beaten, likely whipped, and her two daughters raped. Many of the elite of the Iceni had their property confiscated, and any who protested were put to the sword.

Two tribes decided to throw off the Roman yoke, the Iceni and the Trinovantes. It was here that they chose Boudica to lead their armies against the Romans. Tacitus would have us believe that they felt empowered by the success of one of our former contestants, Arminius in his destruction of three Roman Legions in 9 CE. This seems possible, but I have a lot of doubt as to the veracity of the claim. What is more likely is that the main Roman forces led by the new governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, had taken a large contingent of the occupying troops away from their area to deal with rebellions in Wales, a stronghold of the Druids. Seeing an opening, Boudica and the soldiers of her people, decided to take down their oppressors.

Beginning with the town of Camulodunum, modern-day Colchester which was inhabited by many retired Roman soldiers the growing rebellion set upon the people and ravaged the place. Hoping to relive the beleaguered town, Quintus Petillius Cerialis, at the head of the Legio IX Hispana, instead were routed, with only Cerialis and part of his cavalry escaping the slaughter. 

Paulinus decided that he needed to rush back towards the town of Londinium, modern-day London, now a bustling trade center to stop the forward progress of the rebels but decided that his forces were too small to affect a successful defense of the city. 

Tacitus and Cassius Dio, present similar portraits of the slaughter of the Romans and their allies in the face of the rebellion. People were impaled, burned, or otherwise tortured to death. The claims by the ancient historians is that somewhere around 70,000 people were killed in the fight, but there is no way in knowing whether this is even reasonably a valid number. 

Boudica led her army with growing assuredness, believing that they were too much for the Romans. Her call to her people was that it would be better to die for the cause of freedom than to live as slaves to the Roman occupiers. What she hadn’t realized, was that Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was gathering his forces, up to ten thousand men, to face Boudica. Cassius Dio again leaves us with a claim that is somewhat hard to believe when he estimates the rebel army at 230,000 to 300,000 strong. 

As you can see, it becomes genuinely unbelievable that an army outnumbered by 20 or 30 to one has any chance of victory, but as we know, that is precisely what was to happen. In the ensuing battle, Tacitus claims that 80,000 Britons died on the field of battle with only 400 Roman casualties. To say that this is a stretch of the imagination is, to put it mildly. What we are pretty sure of based on archaeological findings is that that the Romans were indeed outnumbered, but their better discipline outdid the bravery and leadership of Boudica and her army. 

Where the actual battle occurred has been debated for over a thousand years with everyone coming up with evidence to back their claim. We really have no idea where the rebellions end came, but what we do know is that it inspired the people of the British isle until this day. 

Now for our putting it into perspective segment. 

During the years around Boudica’s rebellion, the First Epistle of Peter is written, Lucan writes a work about the fight between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, the Great Fire of Rome during Emperor Nero’s time occurs, and in China, the first reference to Buddhism is made.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, our second contestant, was born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland to Harriet Green and Ben Ross. Her birth name was Araminta Ross. We do not really know what day or month, much less year she was born. Some say, 1820, 1815, 1822, or even as late as 1825. Tubman had eight siblings, three of her sisters were sold early in her life, splitting up the family which may explain Harriet’s future hatred for slavery.

When a young child of five or six, Tubman was loaned out by her owner to a woman to serve as a nursemaid for a young infant. When the child cried, Harriet would be beaten. The physical and mental scars would last her whole life. There was another incident which was to cause even more health problems for her. There are conflicting accounts with one being her intervening with the beating of a young black man and one where she was accidentally hit in the head with a 2-pound weight in the head in both cases, causing her to begin to have seizures. These seizures were to plague her to the day she died. 

In 1844, she married a free black man named John Tubman. It is said that it was not a legal marriage, and there is no real evidence of documentation, but it was here that Araminta Ross changed her name to Harriet Tubman. Five years later, in 1849, with her health in decline, her owner Edward Brodress attempted to sell her without success. Tubman claims that she prayed, “First of March I began to pray, ‘Oh Lord, if you ain’t never gonna change that man’s heart, kill him Lord, and take him out of the way.” One week later, Brodress was dead. 

When September of 1849 rolled around, Harriet and three of her brothers decided to escape from their bondage. Her brothers got cold feet and returned to their plantation, forcing Tubman to go back with them. She didn’t stay long as she fled her captures through what is known as the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a system of routes and safe houses set up by abolitionists, both black and white, who ferried escaping slaves from the south to the slave free north. Many went up through Maryland, into Delaware then into Pennsylvania. In 1850, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law which the U.S. Congress passed to force the return of slaves to their owners, even in slave free states, things got really dangerous. Many decided to leave the United States and head on to Ontario, Canada, where, being part of the British Empire, was slave free.

Making it to Pennsylvania, Harriet Tubman decided to become what was known as a conductor, someone who helps slaves make their way to freedom. There was a myth that I found in doing my research that Tubman was one of the founders of the Underground Railroad, but that is simply not the truth. It was already in place when she escaped with a large number of the anti-slavery abolitionists being white Quakers. The fact of the matter was that helping black slaves who were trying to flee their captivity was a very, very dangerous job. Harriet Tubman didn’t care, she was bound and determined to help her people, regardless of the risk.

She was so good at the deceptions needed to get the slaves north, that Tubman never lost one person in the thirteen missions she went on. There is another myth surrounding Harriet, and that is the size of the bounty put on her head. The figure of $40,000 has been bandied about, but as some historians have noted, not only is their no written evidence to that fact but that it is an outrageously high number as the assassin of President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, just had a price of $25,000 put on his. An alternative theory is that the $40,000 is an accumulation of all of the bounties that Tubman had placed on her. 

For eleven years, Harriet Tubman went back and forth between the north and the south rescuing an estimated 70 people from slavery. The estimates of the total of the number of black people who moved through the Underground Railroad go from about 5,000 to a 30,000, to some claiming over 100,000. While this seems to diminish Tubman’s role, it cannot take away the risks that she took. She even rescued her aging parents in 1855, taking them all the way up to St. Catherine’s Ontario where three of her brothers made their way to. 

In 1859, U.S. Senator William Seward, a noted abolitionist, sold a small patch of land to Tubman in Auburn, NY, which became a haven for many blacks in the north. In 1860, Harriet was to make one more trip, to try to free one of her sisters along with her nieces. Tubman’s sister Rachel had died before she got there, and Harriet was unable to get to the kids. Still, she found another group of fleeing slaves out of the south, arriving in Auburn, New York on December 28, 1860.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, her role changed from being a conductor on the Underground Railroad to a nurse, and aide to the Northern Army but her other roles as a scout and a spy were critical to the north. At first, Harriet was not as enthusiastic as you would think. The reason was President Lincoln’s unwillingness to order the freeing of all slaves. When he finally did in 1863, with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Harriet Tubman went all in. 

On June 2, 1863, she even led an armed assault on a series of plantations alongside Union troops, freeing countless slaves in South Carolina near the Combahee River. Tubman would go on numerous raids freeing hundreds, maybe even over a thousand men, women, and children from slaveholders. During a return to her home in Auburn, she had her arm broken by a conductor of a train.

Harriet Tubman served her country bravely during the civil war without compensation despite being a hero in the newspapers throughout the north. It wasn’t until 1899 that the US government decided to award her a pension. That pension, granted to her by Congress and President McKinley was a mere $20 a month.

As Harriet became older, her health continued to deteriorate, especially her seizure activity. This next story about her is incredible as she had brain surgery done on her to help alleviate her epilepsy, refusing anesthesia, instead biting down on a bullet. By 1911, Harriet Tubman went into a retirement home that she had donated to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The Harriet Tubman Home for the aged is where she would die of pneumonia in 1913. 

Now is the time to determine which of these two amazing women will move on to the second round.

The first fifteen points are given out to the length of time that each of the contestants was a rebel. This one is a slam dunk for Tubman as she busy with her work from about 1849 until 1897 with her work for the women’s suffrage movement for a total of 48 years. With Boudica, we only have evidence for one, maybe two years as a rebel. Harriet gets 15, the Iceni rebel leader, 2.

Next up is the 20 points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. Boudica’s rebellion pointed out to the Roman’s that they needed to beware of the potential of resistance in lands they held lest they come up with a group that is not as easy to defeat. Tubman, on the other hand, helped popularize the abolitionist movement in the United States alone, although there is evidence that people around the world heard about her work. By the slimmest of margins, I give 20 points to Boudica and 18 to Tubman.

Next up is their lasting effect on world history. Boudica’s impact is mostly the telling of her story to countless generations that a woman can stand up as a leader against oppression. In Tubman’s case, we see the same thing. Both have shown a long-lasting effect, although somewhat differently. For this reason, I’m giving both women the full 25 points.

Last up is the big prize of 40 points for how they affected their country for the better. In my opinion, I have to give Harriet Tubman a considerable edge. Her affect was positive and carried on for generations. Boudica, even though she gained a number of victories against her Roman oppressors, she was eventually unsuccessful. For these reasons, I’m giving Tubman, 40 points and Boudica 25.

In the end, Harriet Tubman received the 98 points with Boudica getting 72. The former slave and freedom fighter moves on to the next round to face, Omar Mukhtar, the Lion of the Desert versus, and this is somewhat ironic, the head of the Army of the North Virginia, General in the Confederate Army during the US Civil War, Robert E. Lee.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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