Frances Anne Kemble.

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

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joining to the warm aromatic smell of the fir trees a delicious fragrance
as of acres of heliotrope in bloom. I wonder if this delightful creature
is very difficult of cultivation out of its natural region; I never
remember to have seen it, at least not in blossom, in any collection of
plants in the Northern States or in Europe, where it certainly deserves an
honourable place for its grace, beauty, and fragrance.

On our drive we passed occasionally a tattered man or woman, whose yellow
mud complexion, straight features, and singularly sinister countenance
bespoke an entirely different race from the negro population in the midst
of which they lived. These are the so-called pine-landers of Georgia, I
suppose the most degraded race of human beings claiming an Anglo-Saxon
origin that can be found on the face of the earth, - filthy, lazy,
ignorant, brutal, proud, penniless savages, without one of the nobler
attributes which have been found occasionally allied to the vices of
savage nature. They own no slaves, for they are almost without exception
abjectly poor; they will not work, for that, as they conceive, would
reduce them to an equality with the abhorred negroes; they squat, and
steal, and starve, on the outskirts of this lowest of all civilised
societies, and their countenances bear witness to the squalor of their
condition and the utter degradation of their natures. To the crime of
slavery, though they have no profitable part or lot in it, they are
fiercely accessory, because it is the barrier that divides the black and
white races, at the foot of which they lie wallowing in unspeakable
degradation, but immensely proud of the base freedom which still separates
them from the lash-driven tillers of the soil.[3]

[Footnote 3: Of such is the white family so wonderfully described in Mrs.
Stowe's 'Dred' - whose only slave brings up the orphaned children of his
masters with such exquisitely grotesque and pathetic tenderness. From such
the conscription which has fed the Southern army in the deplorable civil
conflict now raging in America has drawn its rank and file. Better 'food
for powder' the world could scarcely supply. Fierce and idle, with hardly
one of the necessities or amenities that belong to civilised existence,
they are hardy endurers of hardship, and reckless to a savage degree of
the value of life, whether their own or others. The soldier's pay,
received or promised, exceeds in amount per month anything they ever
earned before per year, and the war they wage is one that enlists all
their proud and ferocious instincts. It is against the Yankees - the
northern sons of free soil, free toil and intelligence, the hated
abolitionists whose success would sweep away slavery and reduce the
southern white men to work - no wonder they are ready to fight to the death
against this detestable alternative, especially as they look to victory as
the certain promotion of the refuse of the 'poor white' population of the
South, of which they are one and all members, to the coveted dignity of
slaveholders.]

The house at which our call was paid was set down in the midst of the Pine
Barren with half-obliterated roads and paths round it, suggesting that it
might be visited and was inhabited. It was large and not unhandsome,
though curiously dilapidated considering that people were actually living
in it; certain remnants of carving on the cornices and paint on the panels
bore witness to some former stage of existence less neglected and
deteriorated than the present. The old lady mistress of this most forlorn
abode amiably enquired if so much exercise did not fatigue me; at first I
thought she imagined I must have walked through the pine forest all the
way from Darien, but she explained that she considered the drive quite an
effort; and it is by no means uncommon to hear people in America talk of
being dragged over bad roads in uneasy carriages as exercise, showing how
very little they know the meaning of the word, and how completely they
identify it with the idea of mere painful fatigue, instead of pleasurable
exertion.

Returning home, my reflections ran much on the possible future destiny of
these vast tracts of sandy soil. It seems to me that the ground capable of
supporting the evergreen growth, the luxuriant gardenia bushes, the bay
myrtle, the beautiful magnolia grandiflora, and the powerful and gnarled
live oaks, that find their sustenance in this earth and under this same
sky as the fir trees, must be convertible into a prosperous habitation for
other valuable vegetable growth that would add immensely to the wealth of
the Southern States. The orange thrives and bears profusely along this
part of the sea-board of Georgia; and I cannot conceive that the olive,
the mulberry, and the vine might not be acclimated and successfully and
profitably cultivated throughout the whole of this region, the swampy
lower lands alone remaining as rice plantations. The produce of these
already exceeds in value that of the once gold-growing cotton-fields, and
I cannot help believing that silk and wine and oil may, and will,
hereafter, become, with the present solitary cotton crop, joint possessors
of all this now but half-reclaimed wilderness. The soil all round Sorrento
is very nearly as light and dry and sandy as this, and vineyards and olive
orchards and cocooneries are part of the agricultural wealth there. Our
neighbour Mr. C - - has successfully cultivated the date-palm in his
garden on the edge of the sea, at St. Simon's, and certainly the ilex,
orange, and myrtle abounding here suggest natural affinities between the
Italian soil and climate and this.

I must tell you something funny which occurred yesterday at dinner, which
will give you some idea of the strange mode in which we live. We have now
not unfrequently had mutton at table, the flavour of which is quite
excellent, as indeed it well may be, for it is raised under all the
conditions of the famous _Pré salé_ that the French gourmands especially
prize, and which are reproduced on our side of the channel in the peculiar
qualities of our best South Down. The mutton we have here grazes on the
short sweet grass at St. Simon's within sea-salt influence, and is some of
the very best I have ever tasted, but it is invariably brought to table in
lumps or chunks of no particular shape or size, and in which it is utterly
impossible to recognise any part of the quadruped creature sheep with
which my eyes have hitherto become acquainted. Eat it, one may and does
thankfully; name it, one could not by any possibility. Having submitted to
this for some time, I at length enquired why a decent usual Christian
joint of mutton - leg, shoulder, or saddle - was never brought to table: the
reply was that the _carpenter_ always cut up the meat, and that he did not
know how to do it otherwise than by dividing it into so many thick square
pieces, and proceeding to chop it up on that principle; and the
consequence of this is that _four lumps_ or _chunks_ are all that a whole
sheep ever furnishes to our table by this artistic and economical process.

This morning I have been to the hospital to see a poor woman who has just
enriched Mr. - - by _borning_ him another slave. The poor little
piccaninny, as they called it, was not one bit uglier than white babies
under similarly novel circumstances, except in one particular, that it had
a head of hair like a trunk, in spite of which I had all the pains in the
world in persuading its mother not to put a cap upon it. I bribed her
finally, by the promise of a pair of socks instead, with which I undertook
to endow her child, and, moreover, actually prevailed upon her to forego
the usual swaddling and swathing process, and let her poor baby be dressed
at its first entrance into life as I assured her both mine had been.

On leaving the hospital I visited the huts all along the street,
confiscating sundry refractory baby caps among shrieks and outcries,
partly of laughter and partly of real ignorant alarm for the consequence.
I think if this infatuation for hot head-dresses continues, I shall make
shaving the children's heads the only condition upon which they shall be
allowed to wear caps.

On Sunday morning I went over to Darien to church. Our people's church was
closed, the minister having gone to officiate elsewhere. With laudable
liberality I walked into the opposite church of a different, not to say
opposite sect: here I heard a sermon, the opening of which will,
probably, edify you as it did me, viz., that if a man was _just in all his
dealings_ he was apt to think he did all that could be required of
him, - and no wide mistake either one might suppose. But is it not
wonderful how such words can be spoken here, with the most absolute
unconsciousness of their tremendous bearing upon the existence of every
slaveholder who hears them? Certainly the use that is second nature has
made the awful injustice in the daily practice of which these people live,
a thing of which they are as little aware as you or I of the atmospheric
air that we inhale each time we breathe. The bulk of the congregation in
this church was white. The negroes are, of course, not allowed to mix with
their masters in the house of God, and there is no special place set apart
for them. Occasionally one or two are to be seen in the corners of the
singing gallery, but any more open pollution by them of their owners'
church could not be tolerated. Mr. - - 's people have petitioned very
vehemently that he would build a church for them on the island. I doubt,
however, his allowing them such a luxury as a place of worship all to
themselves. Such a privilege might not be well thought of by the
neighbouring planters; indeed, it is almost what one might call a
whity-brown idea, dangerous, demoralising, inflammatory, incendiary. I
should not wonder if I should be suspected of being the chief corner-stone
of it, and yet I am not: it is an old hope and entreaty of these poor
people, which am afraid they are not destined to see fulfilled.

* * * * *


Dearest E - - . Passing the rice-mill this morning in my walk, I went in to
look at the machinery, the large steam mortars which shell the rice, and
which work under the intelligent and reliable supervision of Engineer Ned.
I was much surprised, in the course of conversation with him this morning,
to find how much older a man he was than he appeared. Indeed his youthful
appearance had hitherto puzzled me much in accounting for his very
superior intelligence and the important duties confided to him. He is,
however, a man upwards of forty years old, although he looks ten years
younger. He attributed his own uncommonly youthful appearance to the fact
of his never having done what he called field work, or been exposed, as
the common gang negroes are, to the hardships of their all but brutish
existence. He said his former master had brought him up very kindly, and
he had learnt to tend the engines, and had never been put to any other
work, but he said this was not the case with his poor wife. He wished she
was as well off as he was, but she had to work in the rice-fields and was
'most broke in two' with labour and exposure and hard work while with
child, and hard work just directly after child-bearing; he said she could
hardly crawl, and he urged me very much to speak a kind word for her to
massa. She was almost all the time in hospital, and he thought she could
not live long.

Now, E - - , here is another instance of the horrible injustice of this
system of slavery. In my country or in yours, a man endowed with
sufficient knowledge and capacity to be an engineer would, of course, be
in the receipt of considerable wages; his wife would, together with
himself, reap the advantages of his ability, and share the well-being his
labour earned; he would be able to procure for her comfort in sickness or
in health, and beyond the necessary household work, which the wives of
most artisans are inured to, she would have no labour to encounter; in
case of sickness even these would be alleviated by the assistance of some
stout girl of all work, or kindly neighbour, and the tidy parlour or snug
bed-room would be her retreat if unequal to the daily duties of her own
kitchen. Think of such a lot compared with that of the head engineer of
Mr. - - 's plantation, whose sole wages are his coarse food and raiment
and miserable hovel, and whose wife, covered with one filthy garment of
ragged texture and dingy colour, bare-footed and bare-headed, is daily
driven a-field to labour with aching pain-racked joints, under the lash of
a driver, or lies languishing on the earthen floor of the dismal
plantation hospital in a condition of utter physical destitution and
degradation such as the most miserable dwelling of the poorest inhabitant
of your free Northern villages never beheld the like of. Think of the
rows of tidy tiny houses in the long suburbs of Boston and Philadelphia,
inhabited by artisans of just the same grade as this poor Ned, with their
white doors and steps, their hydrants of inexhaustible fresh flowing
water, the innumerable appliances for decent comfort of their cheerful
rooms, the gay wardrobe of the wife, her cotton prints for daily use, her
silk for Sunday church-going; the careful comfort of the children's
clothing, the books and newspapers in the little parlour, the daily
district school, the weekly parish church: imagine if you can - but you are
happy that you cannot - the contrast between such an existence and that of
the best mechanic on a Southern plantation.

Did you ever read (but I am sure you never did, and no more did I), an
epic poem on fresh-water fish? Well, such a one was once written, I have
forgotten by whom, but assuredly the heroine of it ought to have been the
Altamaha shad - a delicate creature, so superior to the animal you
northerners devour with greedy thankfulness when the spring sends back
their finny drove to your colder waters, that one would not suppose these
were of the same family, instead of being, as they really are, precisely
the same fish. Certainly the mud of the Altamaha must have some most
peculiar virtues; and, by the by, I have never anywhere tasted such
delicious tea as that which we make with this same turbid stream, the
water of which duly filtered, of course, has some peculiar softness which
affects the tea (and it is the same we always use) in a most curious and
agreeable manner.

On my return to the house I found a terrible disturbance in consequence of
the disappearance from under cook John's safe keeping, of a ham Mr. - - -
had committed to his charge. There was no doubt whatever that the
unfortunate culinary slave had made away in some inscrutable manner with
the joint intended for our table: the very lies he told about it were so
curiously shallow, child-like, and transparent, that while they confirmed
the fact of his theft quite as much if not more than an absolute
confession would have done, they provoked at once my pity and my
irrepressible mirth to a most painful degree. Mr. - - was in a state of
towering anger and indignation, and besides a flogging sentenced the
unhappy cook to degradation from his high and dignified position (and,
alas! all its sweets of comparatively easy labour and good living from the
remains of our table) to the hard toil, coarse scanty fare, and despised
position of a common field hand. I suppose some punishment was inevitably
necessary in such a plain case of deliberate theft as this, but,
nevertheless, my whole soul revolts at the injustice of visiting upon
these poor wretches a moral darkness which all possible means are taken to
increase and perpetuate.

In speaking of this and the whole circumstance of John's trespass to
Mr. - - in the evening, I observed that the ignorance of these poor
people ought to screen them from punishment. He replied, that they knew
well enough what was right and wrong. I asked how they could be expected
to know it? He replied, by the means of Cooper London, and the religious
instruction he gave them. So that, after all, the appeal is to be made
against themselves to that moral and religious instruction which is
withheld from them, and which, if they obtain it at all, is the result of
their own unaided and unencouraged exertion. The more I hear, and see,
and learn, and ponder the whole of this system of slavery, the more
impossible I find it to conceive how its practisers and upholders are to
justify their deeds before the tribunal of their own conscience or God's
law. It is too dreadful to have those whom we love accomplices to this
wickedness; it is too intolerable to find myself an involuntary
accomplice to it.

I had a conversation the next morning with Abraham, cook John's brother,
upon the subject of his brother's theft; and only think of the _slave_
saying that 'this action had brought disgrace upon the family.' Does not
that sound very like the very best sort of free pride, the pride of
character, the honourable pride of honesty, integrity, and fidelity? But
this was not all, for this same Abraham, a clever carpenter and much
valued _hand_ on the estate, went on, in answer to my questions, to tell
me such a story that I declare to you I felt as if I could have howled
with helpless indignation and grief when he departed and went to resume
his work. His grandfather had been an old slave in Darien, extremely
clever as a carpenter, and so highly valued for his skill and good
character that his master allowed him to purchase his liberty by money
which he earned by working for himself at odd times, when his task work
was over. I asked Abraham what sum his grandfather paid for his freedom:
he said he did not know, but he supposed a large one, because of his being
a 'skilled carpenter,' and so a peculiarly valuable chattel. I presume,
from what I remember Major M - - and Dr. H - - saying on the subject of
the market value of negroes in Charleston and Savannah, that such a man in
the prime of life would have been worth from 1,500 to 2,000 dollars.
However, whatever the man paid for his ransom, by his grandson's account,
fourteen years after he became free, when he died, he had again amassed
money to the amount of 700 dollars, which he left among his wife and
children, the former being a slave on Major - - 's estate, where the
latter remained by virtue of that fact slaves also. So this man not only
bought his own freedom at a cost of _at least_ 1,000 dollars, but left a
little fortune of 700 more at his death: and then we are told of the
universal idleness, thriftlessness, incorrigible sloth, and brutish
incapacity of this inferior race of creatures, whose only fitting and
Heaven-appointed condition is that of beasts of burthen to the whites. I
do not believe the whole low white population of the state of Georgia
could furnish such an instance of energy, industry, and thrift, as the
amassing of this laborious little fortune by this poor slave, who left,
nevertheless, his children and grandchildren to the lot from which he had
so heroically ransomed himself: and yet the white men with whom I live and
talk tell me, day after day, that there is neither cruelty nor injustice
in this accursed system.

About half-past five I went to walk on the dykes, and met a gang of the
field-hands going to the tide-mill, as the water served them for working
then. I believe I have told you that besides the great steam mill there is
this, which is dependent on the rise and fall of the tide in the river,
and where the people are therefore obliged to work by day or night at
whatever time the water serves to impel the wheel. They greeted me with
their usual profusion of exclamations, petitions, and benedictions, and I
parted from them to come and oversee my slave Jack, for whom I had bought
a spade, and to whom I had entrusted the task of turning up some ground
for me, in which I wanted to establish some of the Narcissus and other
flowers I had remarked about the ground and the house. Jack, however, was
a worse digger than Adam could have been when first he turned his hand to
it, after his expulsion from Paradise. I think I could have managed a
spade with infinitely more efficiency, or rather less incapacity, than he
displayed. Upon my expressing my amazement at his performance, he said
the people here never used spades, but performed all their agricultural
operations with the hoe. Their soil must be very light and their
agriculture very superficial, I should think. However, I was obliged to
terminate Jack's spooning process and abandon, for the present, my hopes
of a flower-bed created by his industry, being called into the house to
receive the return visit of old Mrs. S - - . As usual, the appearance,
health, vigour, and good management of the children were the theme of
wondering admiration; as usual, my possession of a white nurse the theme
of envious congratulation; as usual, I had to hear the habitual senseless
complaints of the inefficiency of coloured nurses. If you are half as
tired of the sameness and stupidity of the conversation of my southern
female neighbours as I am, I pity you; but not as much as I pity them for
the stupid sameness of their most vapid existence, which would deaden any
amount of intelligence, obliterate any amount of instruction, and render
torpid and stagnant any amount of natural energy and vivacity. I would
rather die - rather a thousand times - than live the lives of these Georgia
planters' wives and daughters.

Mrs. S - - had brought me some of the delicious wild jasmine that festoons
her dreary pine-wood drive, and most grateful I was for the presence of
the sweet wild nosegay in my highly unornamental residence. When my
visitors had left me, I took the refreshment of a row over to Darien; and
as we had the tide against us coming back, the process was not so
refreshing for the rowers. The evening was so extremely beautiful, and the
rising of the moon so exquisite, that instead of retreating to the house
when I reached the island, I got into the Dolphin, my special canoe, and
made Jack paddle me down the great river to meet the Lily, which was
coming back from St. Simon's with Mr. - - who has been preparing all
things for our advent thither.

My letter has been interrupted, dear E - - , by the breaking up of our
residence on the rice plantation, and our arrival at St. Simon's, whence I
now address you. We came down yesterday afternoon, and I was thankful
enough of the fifteen miles' row to rest in, from the labour of
leave-taking, with which the whole morning was taken up, and which,
combined with packing and preparing all our own personalities and those of
the children, was no sinecure. At every moment one or other of the poor
people rushed in upon me to bid me good-bye; many of their farewells were
grotesque enough, some were pathetic, and all of them made me very sad.
Poor people! how little I have done, how little I can do for them. I had a
long talk with that interesting and excellent man, Cooper London, who made
an earnest petition that I would send him from the North a lot of Bibles
and Prayer Books; certainly the science of reading must be much more
common among the negroes than I supposed, or London must look to a
marvellously increased spread of the same hereafter. There is, however,
considerable reticence upon this point, or else the poor slaves must
consider the mere possession of the holy books as good for salvation and
as effectual for spiritual assistance to those who cannot as to those who
can comprehend them. Since the news of our departure has spread, I have
had repeated eager entreaties for presents of Bibles and Prayer Books, and
to my demurrer of 'But you can't read; can you?' have generally received
for answer a reluctant acknowledgement of ignorance, which, however, did
not always convince me of the fact. In my farewell conversation with
London I found it impossible to get him to tell me how he had learned to
read: the penalties for teaching them are very severe, heavy fines,
increasing in amount for the first and second offence, and imprisonment
for the third.[4] Such a man as London is certainly aware that to teach
the slaves to read is an illegal act, and he may have been unwilling to
betray whoever had been his preceptor even to my knowledge; at any rate, I
got no answers from him but 'Well, missis, me learn; well, missis, me
try,' and finally, 'Well, missis, me 'spose Heaven help me;' to which I
could only reply, that I knew Heaven was helpful, but very hardly to the
tune of teaching folks their letters. I got no satisfaction. Old Jacob,
the father of Abraham, cook John, and poor Psyche's husband, took a most


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Online LibraryFrances Anne KembleJournal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 → online text (page 12 of 26)