Frances Anne Kemble.

Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 online

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slave condition, which certainly exercises my fortitude not a
little, - the swarms of fleas that cohabit with these sable dependants of
ours are - well - incredible; moreover they are by no means the only or
most objectionable companions one borrows from them, and I never go to
the infirmary, where I not unfrequently am requested to look at very
dirty limbs and bodies in very dirty draperies, without coming away with
a strong inclination to throw myself into the water, and my clothes into
the fire, which last would be expensive. I do not suppose that these
hateful consequences of dirt and disorder are worse here than among the
poor and neglected human creatures who swarm in the lower parts of
European cities; but my call to visit them has never been such as that
which constrains me to go daily among these poor people, and although on
one or two occasions I have penetrated into fearfully foul and filthy
abodes of misery in London, I have never rendered the same personal
services to their inhabitants that I do to Mr. - - 's slaves, and so
have not incurred the same amount of entomological inconvenience.

After leaving the mill, I prolonged my walk, and came, for the first time,
upon one of the 'gangs,' as they are called, in full field work. Upon my
appearance and approach there was a momentary suspension of labour, and
the usual chorus of screams and ejaculations of welcome, affection, and
infinite desires for infinite small indulgences. I was afraid to stop
their work, not feeling at all sure that urging a conversation with me
would be accepted as any excuse for an uncompleted task, or avert the
fatal infliction of the usual award of stripes; so I hurried off and left
them to their hoeing.

On my way home I was encountered by London, our Methodist preacher, who
accosted me with a request for a prayer-book and Bible, and expressed his
regret at hearing that we were so soon going to St. Simon's. I promised
him his holy books, and asked him how he had learned to read, but found it
impossible to get him to tell me. I wonder if he thought he should be
putting his teacher, whoever he was, in danger of the penalty of the law
against instructing the slaves, if he told me who he was; it was
impossible to make him do so, so that, besides his other good qualities,
he appears to have that most unusual one of all in an uneducated
person - discretion. He certainly is a most remarkable man.

After parting with him, I was assailed by a small gang of children,
clamouring for the indulgence of some meat, which they besought me to
give them. Animal food is only allowed to certain of the harder working
men, hedgers and ditchers, and to them only occasionally, and in very
moderate rations. My small cannibals clamoured round me for flesh, as if I
had had a butcher's cart in my pocket, till I began to laugh and then to
run, and away they came, like a pack of little black wolves, at my heels,
shrieking, 'Missis, you gib me piece meat, missis, you gib me meat,' till
I got home. At the door I found another petitioner, a young woman named
Maria, who brought a fine child in her arms, and demanded a present of a
piece of flannel. Upon my asking her who her husband was, she replied,
without much hesitation, that she did not possess any such appendage. I
gave another look at her bonny baby, and went into the house to get the
flannel for her. I afterwards heard from Mr. - - that she and two other
girls of her age, about seventeen, were the only instances on the island
of women with illegitimate children.

After I had been in the house a little while, I was summoned out again to
receive the petition of certain poor women in the family-way to have their
work lightened. I was, of course, obliged to tell them that I could not
interfere in the matter, that their master was away, and that, when he
came back, they must present their request to him: they said they had
already begged 'massa,' and he had refused, and they thought, perhaps, if
'missis' begged 'massa' for them, he would lighten their task. Poor
'missis,' poor 'massa,' poor woman, that I am to have such prayers
addressed to me! I had to tell them, that if they had already spoken to
their master, I was afraid my doing so would be of no use, but that when
he came back I would try; so, choking with crying, I turned away from
them, and re-entered the house, to the chorus of 'Oh, thank you, missis!
God bless you, missis!' E - - , I think an improvement might be made upon
that caricature published a short time ago, called the 'Chivalry of the
South.' I think an elegant young Carolinian, or Georgian gentleman, whip
in hand, driving a gang of 'lusty women,' as they are called here, would
be a pretty version of the 'Chivalry of the South' - a little coarse, I am
afraid you will say. Oh! quite horribly coarse, but then so true - a great
matter in works of art, which, now-a-days, appear to be thought excellent
only in proportion to their lack of ideal elevation. That would be a
subject, and a treatment of it, which could not be accused of imaginative
exaggeration, at any rate.

In the evening I mentioned the petitions of these poor women to Mr. O - - ,
thinking that perhaps he had the power to lessen their tasks. He seemed
evidently annoyed at their having appealed to me; said that their work was
not a bit too much for them, and that constantly they were _shamming_
themselves in the family-way, in order to obtain a diminution of their
labour. Poor creatures! I suppose some of them do; but again, it must be
a hard matter for those who do not, not to obtain the mitigation of their
toil which their condition requires; for their assertion and their
evidence are never received - they can't be believed, even if they were
upon oath, say their white taskmasters; why? because they have never been
taught the obligations of an oath, to whom made, or wherefore binding; and
they are punished both directly and indirectly for their moral ignorance,
as if it were a natural and incorrigible element of their character,
instead of the inevitable result of their miserable position. The oath of
any and every scoundrelly fellow with a white skin is received, but not
that of such a man as Frank, Ned, old Jacob, or Cooper London.

* * * * *

Dearest E - - . I think it right to begin this letter with an account of a
most prosperous fishing expedition Jack and I achieved the other morning.
It is true we still occasionally drew up huge cat-fish, with their
detestable beards and spikes, but we also captivated some magnificent
perch, and the Altamaha perch are worth one's while both to catch and to
eat. On a visit I had to make on the mainland, the same day, I saw a tiny
strip of garden ground, rescued from the sandy road, called the street,
perfectly filled with hyacinths, double jonquils, and snowdrops, a
charming nosegay for February 11. After leaving the boat on my return
home, I encountered a curious creature walking all sideways, a small cross
between a lobster and a crab. One of the negroes to whom I applied for its
denomination informed me that it was a land crab, with which general
description of this very peculiar multipede you must be satisfied, for I
can tell you no more. I went a little further, as the nursery rhyme says,
and met with a snake, and not being able to determine, at ignorant first
sight, whether it was a malignant serpent or not, I ingloriously took to
my heels, and came home on the full run. It is the first of these
exceedingly displeasing animals I have encountered here; but Jack, for my
consolation, tells me that they abound on St. Simon's, whither we are
going - 'rattlesnakes, and all kinds,' says he, with an affluence of
promise in his tone that is quite agreeable. Rattlesnakes will be quite
enough of a treat, without the vague horrors that may be comprised in the
additional 'all kinds.' Jack's account of the game on St. Simon's is
really quite tantalising to me, who cannot carry a gun any more than if I
were a slave. He says that partridges, woodcocks, snipe, and wild duck
abound, so that, at any rate, our table ought to be well supplied. His
account of the bears that are still to be found in the woods of the
mainland, is not so pleasant, though he says they do no harm to the
people, if they are not meddled with, but that they steal the corn from
the fields when it is ripe, and actually swim the river to commit their
depredations on the islands. It seems difficult to believe this, looking
at this wide and heavy stream - though, to be sure, I did once see a young
horse swim across the St. Lawrence, between Montreal and Quebec; a feat of
natation which much enlarged my belief in what quadrupeds may accomplish
when they have no choice between swimming and sinking.

You cannot imagine how great a triumph the virtue next to godliness is
making under my auspices and a judicious system of small bribery. I can
hardly stir now without being assailed with cries of 'Missis, missis me
mind chile, me bery clean,' or the additional gratifying fact, 'and chile
too, him bery clean.' This virtue, however, if painful to the practisers,
as no doubt it is, is expensive, too, to me, and I shall have to try some
moral influence equivalent in value to a cent current coin of the realm.
What a poor chance, indeed, the poor abstract idea runs! however, it is
really a comfort to see the poor little woolly heads, now in most
instances stripped of their additional filthy artificial envelopes.

In my afternoon's row to-day I passed a huge dead alligator, lying half in
and half out of the muddy slime of the river bank - a most hideous object
it was, and I was glad to turn my eyes to the beautiful surface of the mid
stream, all burnished with sunset glories, and broken with the vivacious
gambols of a school of porpoises. It is curious, I think, that these
creatures should come fifteen miles from the sea to enliven the waters
round our little rice swamp.

While rowing this evening, I was led by my conversation with Jack to some
of those reflections with which my mind is naturally incessantly filled
here, but which I am obliged to be very careful not to give any utterance
to. The testimony of no negro is received in a southern court of law, and
the reason commonly adduced for this is, that the state of ignorance in
which the negroes are necessarily kept, renders them incapable of
comprehending the obligations of an oath, and yet with an inconsistency
which might be said to border on effrontery, these same people are
admitted to the most holy sacrament of the Church, and are certainly
thereby supposed to be capable of assuming the highest Christian
obligations, and the entire fulfilment of God's commandments - including,
of course, the duty of speaking the truth at all times.

As we were proceeding down the river, we met the flat, as it is called,
a huge sort of clumsy boat, more like a raft than any other species
of craft, coming up from St. Simon's with its usual swarthy freight
of Mr. - - 's dependants from that place. I made Jack turn our canoe,
because the universal outcries and exclamations very distinctly intimated
that I should be expected to be at home to receive the homage of this
cargo of 'massa's people.' No sooner, indeed, had I disembarked and
reached the house, than a dark cloud of black life filled the piazza
and swarmed up the steps, and I had to shake hands, like a popular
president, till my arm ached at the shoulder-joint.

When this tribe had dispersed itself, a very old woman with a remarkably
intelligent, nice-looking young girl, came forward and claimed my
attention. The old woman, who must, I think, by her appearance, have been
near seventy, had been one of the house servants on St. Simon's Island in
Major - - 's time, and retained a certain dignified courtesy and
respectfulness of manner which is by no means an uncommon attribute of the
better class of slaves, whose intercourse with their masters, while
tending to expand their intelligence, cultivates, at the same time, the
natural turn for good manners which is, I think, a distinctive peculiarity
of negroes, if not in the kingdom of Dahomey, certainly in the United
States of America. If it can be for a moment attributed to the beneficent
influence of slavery on their natures (and I think slaveowners are quite
likely to imagine so), it is curious enough that there is hardly any alloy
whatever of cringing servility, or even humility, in the good manners of
the blacks, but a rather courtly and affable condescension which, combined
with their affection for, and misapplication of, long words, produces an
exceedingly comical effect. Old-house Molly, after congratulating herself,
with many thanks to heaven, for having spared her to see 'massa's' wife
and children, drew forward her young companion, and informed me she was
one of her numerous grandchildren. The damsel, ycleped Louisa, made rather
a shame-faced obeisance, and her old grandmother went on to inform me that
she had only lately been forgiven by the overseer for an attempt to run
away from the plantation. I enquired the cause of her desire to do so - a
'thrashing' she had got for an unfinished task - 'but lor, missis,'
explained the old woman, 'taint no use - what use nigger run away? - de
swamp all round; dey get in dar, an dey starve to def, or de snakes eat em
up - massa's nigger, dey don't neber run away;' and if the good lady's
account of their prospects in doing so is correct (which, substituting
biting for eating, on the part of the snakes, it undoubtedly is), one does
not see exactly what particular merit the institution of slavery as
practised on Mr. - - 's plantation derives from the fact that his 'nigger
don't neber run away.'

After dismissing Molly and her grand-daughter, I was about to re-enter the
house, when I was stopped by Betty, head-man Frank's wife, who came with a
petition that she might be baptised. As usual with all requests involving
anything more than an immediate physical indulgence, I promised to refer
the matter to Mr. - - , but expressed some surprise that Betty, now by no
means a young woman, should have postponed a ceremony which the religious
among the slaves are apt to attach much importance to. She told me she
had more than once applied for this permission to Massa K - - (the former
overseer), but had never been able to obtain it, but that now she thought
she would ask 'de missis.'[2]

[Footnote 2: Of this woman's life on the plantation, I subsequently
learned the following circumstances: - She was the wife of head-man Frank,
the most intelligent and trustworthy of Mr. - - 's slaves; the head
driver - second in command to the overseer, and indeed second to none
during the pestilential season, when the rice swamps cannot with impunity
be inhabited by any white man, and when, therefore, the whole force
employed in its cultivation on the island remains entirely under his
authority and control. His wife - a tidy, trim, intelligent woman, with a
pretty figure, but a decidedly negro face - was taken from him by the
overseer left in charge of the plantation by the Messrs. - - , the
all-efficient and all-satisfactory Mr. K - - , and she had a son by him,
whose straight features and diluted colour, no less than his troublesome,
discontented and insubmissive disposition, bear witness to his Yankee
descent. I do not know how long Mr. K - - 's occupation of Frank's wife
continued, or how the latter endured the wrong done to him. When I visited
the island, Betty was again living with her husband - a grave, sad,
thoughtful-looking man, whose admirable moral and mental qualities were
extolled to me by no worse a judge of such matters than Mr. K - - himself,
during the few days he spent with Mr. - - , while we were on the
plantation. This outrage upon this man's rights was perfectly notorious
among all the slaves; and his hopeful offspring, Renty, alluding very
unmistakably to his superior birth on one occasion when he applied for
permission to have a gun, observed that, though the people in general on
the plantation were not allowed firearms, he thought he might, _on
account of his colour_, and added that he thought Mr. K - - might have
left him his. This precious sample of the mode in which the vices of the
whites procure the intellectual progress of the blacks to their own
endangerment, was, as you will easily believe, a significant chapter to me
in the black history of oppression which is laid before my eyes in this

Yesterday afternoon I received a visit from the wife of our neighbour Dr.
T - - . As usual, she exclaimed at my good fortune in having a white woman
with my children when she saw M - - , and, as usual, went on to expatiate
on the utter impossibility of finding a trustworthy nurse anywhere in the
South, to whom your children could be safely confided for a day or even an
hour; as usual too, the causes of this unworthiness or incapacity for a
confidential servant's occupation were ignored, and the fact laid to the
natural defects of the negro race. I am sick and weary of this cruel and
ignorant folly. This afternoon I went out to refresh myself with a row on
the broad Altamaha and the conversation of my slave Jack, which is, I
assure you, by no means devoid of interest of various kinds, pathetic and
humorous. I do not know that Jack's scientific information is the most
valuable in the world, and I sometimes marvel with perhaps unjust
incredulity at the facts in natural history which he imparts to me; for
instance, to-day he told me as we rowed past certain mud islands, very
like children's mud puddings on a rather larger scale than usual, that
they were inaccessible, and that it would be quite impossible to land on
one of them even for the shortest time. Not understanding why people who
did not mind being up to their knees in mud should not land there if they
pleased, I demurred to his assertion, when he followed it up by assuring
me that there were what he called sand-sinks under the mud, and that
whatever was placed on the surface would not only sink through the mud,
but also into a mysterious quicksand of unknown depth and extent below it.
This may be true, but sounds very strange, although I remember that the
frequent occurrence of large patches of quicksand was found to be one of
the principal impediments in the way of the canal speculators at
Brunswick. I did not, however, hear that these sinks, as Jack called them,
were found below a thick stratum of heavy mud.

In remonstrating with him upon the want of decent cleanliness generally
among the people, and citing to him one among the many evils resulting
from it, the intolerable quantity of fleas in all the houses, he met me
full with another fact in natural history which, if it be fact and not
fiction, certainly gave him the best of the argument: he declared, with
the utmost vehemence, that the sand of the pine woods on the mainland
across the river literally swarmed with fleas - that in the uninhabited
places the sand itself was full of them, and that so far from being a
result of human habitation, they were found in less numbers round the
negro huts on the mainland than in the lonely woods around them.

The ploughing is at length fairly inaugurated, and there is a regular
jubilee among the negroes thereat. After discoursing fluently on the
improvements likely to result from the measure, Jack wound up by saying he
had been afraid it would not be tried on account of the greater scarcity,
and consequently greater value, of horses over men in these parts - a
modest and slave-like conclusion.

* * * * *

Dearest E - - . I walked up to-day, _February 14th_, to see that land of
promise the ploughed field: it did not look to me anything like as heavy
soil as the cold wet sour stiff clay I have seen turned up in some of the
swampy fields round Lenox; and as for the cypress roots which were urged
as so serious an impediment, they are not much more frequent, and
certainly not as resisting, as the granite knees and elbows that stick out
through the scanty covering of the said clay, which mother earth allows
herself as sole garment for her old bones in many a Berkshire patch of
corn. After my survey, as I walked home, I came upon a gang of lusty
women, as the phrase is here for women in the family-way; they were
engaged in burning stubble, and I was nearly choked while receiving the
multitudinous complaints and compliments with which they overwhelmed me.
After leaving them, I wandered along the river side on the dyke homeward,
rejoicing in the buds and green things putting forth their tender shoots
on every spray, in the early bees and even the less amiable wasps busy in
the sunshine with flowers - (weeds I suppose they should be called),
already opening their sweet temptations to them, and giving the earth a
spring aspect, such as it does not wear with you in Massachusetts till
late in May.

In the afternoon I took my accustomed row: there had been a tremendous ebb
tide, the consequence of which was to lay bare portions of the banks which
I had not seen before. The cypress roots form a most extraordinary mass of
intertwined wood-work, so closely matted and joined together, that the
separate roots, in spite of their individual peculiarities, appeared only
like divisions of a continuous body; they presented the appearance in
several places of jagged pieces of splintered rock, with their huge teeth
pointing downward into the water. Their decay is so slow that the
protection they afford the soft spongy banks against the action of the
water, is likely to be prolonged until the gathering and deposit of
successive layers of alluvium will remove them from the margin of which
they are now most useful supports. On my return home, I was met by a child
(as she seemed to me) carrying a baby, in whose behalf she begged me for
some clothes. On making some enquiry, I was amazed to find that the child
was her own: she said she was married and fourteen years old, she looked
much younger even than that, poor creature. Her mother, who came up while
I was talking to her, said she did not herself know the girl's age; - how
horridly brutish it all did seem, to be sure.

The spring is already here with her hands full of flowers. I do not know
who planted some straggling pyrus japonica near the house, but it is
blessing my eyes with a hundred little flame-like buds, which will
presently burst into a blaze; there are clumps of narcissus roots sending
up sheaves of ivory blossoms, and I actually found a monthly rose in bloom
on the sunny side of one of the dykes; what a delight they are in the
slovenly desolation of this abode of mine! what a garden one might have on
the banks of these dykes, with the least amount of trouble and care!

In the afternoon I rowed over to Darien, and there procuring the most
miserable vehicle calling itself a carriage that I had ever seen (the
dirtiest and shabbiest London hackney-coach were a chariot of splendour
and ease to it), we drove some distance into the sandy wilderness that
surrounds the little town, to pay a visit to some of the resident gentry
who had called upon us. The road was a deep wearisome sandy track,
stretching wearisomely into the wearisome pine forest - a species of
wilderness more oppressive a thousand times to the senses and imagination
than any extent of monotonous prairie, barren steppe, or boundless desert
can be; for the horizon there at least invites and detains the eye,
suggesting beyond its limit possible change; the lights and shadows and
enchanting colours of the sky afford some variety in their movement and
change, and the reflections of their tints; while in this hideous and
apparently boundless pine barren, you are deprived alike of horizon before
you and heaven above you: nor sun nor star appears through the thick
covert, which, in the shabby dinginess of its dark blue-green expanse,
looks like a gigantic cotton umbrella stretched immeasurably over you. It
is true that over that sandy soil a dark green cotton umbrella is a very
welcome protection from the sun, and when the wind makes music in the tall
pine-tops and refreshment in the air beneath them. The comparison may seem
ungrateful enough: to-day, however, there was neither sound above nor
motion below, and the heat was perfectly stifling, as we ploughed our way
through the resinous-smelling sand solitudes.

From time to time a thicket of exquisite evergreen shrubs broke the
monotonous lines of the countless pine shafts rising round us, and still
more welcome were the golden garlands of the exquisite wild jasmine,
hanging, drooping, trailing, clinging, climbing through the dreary forest,

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Online LibraryFrances Anne KembleJournal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 → online text (page 11 of 26)