John Benwell.

An Englishman's Travels in America His Observations of Life and Manners in the Free and Slave States online

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His Observations Of Life and Manners in the Free and Slave States.




Personal narrative and adventure has, of late years, become so
interesting a subject in the mind of the British public, that the author
feels he is not called upon to apologize for the production of the
following pages.

It was his almost unremitting practice, during the four years he resided
on the North American continent, to keep a record of what he considered
of interest around him; not with a view to publishing the matter thus
collected, for this was far from his thoughts at the time, but through a
long contracted habit of dotting down transpiring events, for the
future amusement, combined, perhaps, with instruction, of himself and
friends. It therefore became necessary, to fit it for publication, to
collate the accumulated memoranda, and select such portions only as
might be supposed to prove interesting to the general reader. In doing
this he has been careful to preserve the phraseology as much as
possible, with a view to give, as far as he could, something like a
literal transcript of the sentiments that gave rise to the original
minutes, and avoid undue addition or interpolation.

It was the wish and intention of the writer, before leaving England, to
extend his travels by visiting some of the islands in the Caribbean Sea,
a course which he regrets not having been able to follow, from
unforeseen circumstances, which are partially related in the following
pages. He laments this the more, as it would have added considerably to
the interest of the work, and enabled him to enlarge upon that fertile
subject, the relative position at the time of the negro race in those
islands, and the demoralized condition of their fellow-countrymen, under
the iniquitous system of slavery, as authorized by statute law, in the
southern states of America. As it was, he was enabled to travel through
the most populous parts of the states of New York and Ohio, proceeding,
_vi√Ґ_ Cincinnati, to the Missouri country; after a brief stay at St.
Louis, taking the direct southern route down the Missouri and
Mississippi rivers, to New Orleans in Louisiana, passing Natchez on the
way. The whole tour comprising upwards of three thousand miles.

From New Orleans he crossed an arm of the Gulf of Mexico to the
Floridas, and after remaining in that territory for a considerable time,
and taking part under a sense of duty in a campaign (more to scatter
than annihilate), against the Seminole and Cherokee tribes of Indians,
who, in conjunction with numberless fugitive slaves, from the districts
a hundred miles round, were devastating the settlements, and
indiscriminately butchering the inhabitants, he returned to Tallahassee,
taking stage at that town to Macon in the state of Georgia, and from
thence by the Greensborough Railway to Charleston in South Carolina,
sailing after rather a prolonged stay, from that port to England.

Some of the incidents related in the following pages will be found to
bear upon, and tend forcibly to corroborate, the miseries so patiently
endured by the African race, in a vaunted land of freedom and
enlightenment, whose inhabitants assert, with ridiculous tenacity, that
their government and laws are based upon the principle, "That all men in
the sight of God are equal," and the wrongs of whose victims have of
late been so touchingly and truthfully illustrated by that eminent
philanthropist, Mrs. Stowe, to the eternal shame of the upholders of the
system, and the fearful incubus of guilt and culpability that will
render for ever infamous, if the policy is persisted in, the nationality
of America.

Well may the benevolent Doctor Percival in his day have said, when
writing on the iniquitous system of slave holding and traffic, that
"Life and liberty with the powers of enjoyment dependent on them are the
common and inalienable gifts of bounteous heaven. To seize them by force
is rapine; to exchange for them the wares of Manchester or Birminghan is
improbity, for it is to barter without reciprocal gain, to give the
stones of the brook for the gold of Ophir."



"Adieu, adieu! my native shore
Fades o'er the waters blue,
The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar,
And shrieks the wild sea-mew.
Yon sun that sets upon the sea
We follow in his flight;
Farewell awhile to him and thee,
My native Land - Good night!" - BYRON.

Late in the fall of the year 18 - , I embarked on board the ship _Cosmo_,
bound from the port of Bristol to that of New York. The season was
unpropitious, the lingering effects of the autumnal equinox rendering it
more than probable that the passage would be tempestuous. The result
soon proved the correctness of this surmise, for soon after the vessel
departed from Kingroad, and before she got clear of the English coast,
we experienced boisterous weather, which was followed by a succession
of gales, that rendered our situation perilous. But a partial
destruction of the rigging, the loss of some sheep on the deck of the
vessel, and a slight indication of leakage, which was soon remedied by
the carpenter of the ship and his assistants, were happily the only
detrimental consequences arising from the weather.

Our progress on the whole was satisfactory, although, when we arrived
between 48 and 52 degrees north latitude, we narrowly escaped coming in
contact with an enormous iceberg, two of which were descried at daybreak
by the "look-out," floundering majestically a little on the ship's
larboard quarter, not far distant, the alarm being raised by an uproar
on deck that filled my mind with dire apprehension, the lee bulwarks of
the vessel were in five minutes thronged with half-naked passengers, who
had been roused unexpectedly from their slumbers, staring in terror at
the frigid masses which we momentarily feared would overwhelm the ship.
The helm being put up, we were soon out of the threatened danger of a
collision, which would have consigned us to a grave in the wide wide
waters, without the remotest chance of escape. This consideration was,
to all on board, a matter of deep thankfulness to the mighty Author of
such stupendous wonders, who had so miraculously preserved our lives.
Had the adventure occurred in the night, our destruction must have been
inevitable, as the ship was sailing under heavy canvas, within a single
point of the wake of one of the icebergs, which was drifting before a
stiff breeze.

Although this encounter proved harmless, we shortly after had another to
dread of a fearful nature. The number of fishing-boats off the coast of
Newfoundland, makes the navigation perilous at almost any time to
vessels approaching too near the banks, and after night-fall, the vessel
going at the rate of ten knots an hour with a smacking breeze, we passed
many of these at anchor, or rather, I suppose, riding on the waves; they
displayed lights, or serious consequences might have ensued. Some of the
skiffs were so near to us, that as I leaned over the ship's
quarter-rail, dreading, and every moment expecting, that we should run
one down, I could distinctly hear the crews hailing us to shorten sail
and keep off. By adopting this course our vessel cleared the danger, and
after slightly touching the banks, which caused the vessel to heel, and
created a momentary panic on board amongst the passengers, she was
steered more out to sea, and by the following morning nothing was to be
seen but a boundless waste of waters, extending as far as the eye could

After these temporary alarms, with the exception of baffling winds,
which impeded the progress of the ship, and lengthened the duration of
our confinement ten days or a fortnight, our voyage was prosperous,
little occurring to break the monotony of confinement on ship-board that
is experienced in sea-passages in general; the only excitement being a
fracas between the captain and cook, owing to complaints made by the
middle-cabin and steerage passengers, which nearly ended fatally to the
former, who would have been stabbed to a certainty, but for a by-stander
wresting the knife from the hand of the enraged subordinate, who had
been supplied too liberally with spirits by the passengers; a
predominating evil on board all emigrant ships, from the drawback of
duty allowed on spirits shipped as stores, and which are retailed on the
voyage to the passengers. The culprit was confined below during the
remainder of the voyage, and when we arrived at New York presented a
pitiable sight, having been rigidly debarred by the captain's orders of
many of the commonest necessaries, I believe, the whole time. Here he
was released and discharged from the ship, glad enough to escape further
punishment, "prosecution" having been, since the occurrence, held _in
terrorem_ over him.

It was late in the afternoon of an intensely cold day, which caused the
spray to congeal as it dashed against the bulwarks and cordage of the
vessel, that we descried with great pleasure looming indistinctly in the
distance, the shores of Sandy Hook, a desolate-looking island, near the
coast of New Jersey, about seven miles south of Long Island Sound. This
the captain informed me was formerly a peninsula, but the isthmus was
broken through by the sea in 1767, the year after the declaration of
American independence, an occurrence which was at the time deemed
ominous of the severance of the colonies from the mother country, and
which proved in reality to be the precursor of that event.

The sight of _terra firma_, though at a distance and but gloomy in
aspect, put all on board in buoyant spirits; but these were but
transitory, our enthusiasm being soon damped by a dense fog, resembling
those the Londoners are so accustomed to see in the winter, and which in
an incredibly short space of time, in this instance, obscured everything
around. Our proximity to the shore rendered the circumstance hazardous
to us, and it appeared necessary that the vessel's head should be again
put seaward; but this the captain was evidently anxious to avoid, as it
involved the risk of protracting the voyage. A general rummage for
ammunition was therefore ordered, and a supply of this necessary having
been obtained, the ship's carronade was after considerable delay put in
order, and minute guns were fired. After discharging some thirty rounds
or more, we were relieved from the state of anxiety we were in by a
pilot hailing the ship, and in a minute after he was on deck issuing
orders with great pertinacity.

It is impossible for any one unaccustomed to sea voyages to form a just
conception of the relief afforded by the presence of that important
functionary, a pilot. Perhaps a captain's greatest anxiety is, when his
vessel, having braved a thousand perils on the deep, is about to enter
on the termination of its voyage. On the broad expanse of ocean, or, in
nautical phrase, with plenty of sea-room, if his bark is in good
condition, he fears little or nothing, but when his vessel approaches
its goal, visions of disaster arise before him, and he becomes anxious,
thoughtful, and taciturn.

The pilot informed us that he had kept our vessel in chase for a
considerable time, and had burnt a number of newspapers on the deck of
his cutter to attract attention, but all his efforts proved unavailing,
when just as he was about to abandon the pursuit, he descried and hailed
the ship. This being the first specimen of an American whom many of the
passengers had seen in his native climate, their curiosity was aroused,
and they crowded round him, regarding every word and movement with the
greatest attention and interest. The pilot was evidently displeased with
being made "a lion" of, and gave vent to his feelings rather freely,
while there was a curl of hauteur on his lip, that indicated a species
of contempt for the company he was in. This disposition did not convey a
very favourable idea of his countrymen, and was, to say the least of it,
an ill-judged display before strangers; coming, however, as it did, from
an illiterate man, belonging, as I knew from previous inquiry, to rather
an exceptional class of individuals in America, I did not suffer my mind
to be biassed, although I could see that many of the passengers were not
disposed to view the matter in the same light. He was a brusque and
uncouth man, of swaggering gait, about forty years of age, above the
middle stature, and soon let the captain and crew know, by his
authoritative manner and volubility of tongue, that he was chief in
command on the occasion. No one seemed, however, to dispute this, for
the passengers looked on him as a sort of divinity sent to their rescue;
the ship's hands were implicitly obedient, and the captain very soon
after his arrival retired into the cabin, glad to be relieved from a
heavy responsibility.

The following morning, the haze having cleared off, we could again see
the Jersey shore. The sea in every direction was now darkened with
millions of black gulls, wild ducks, and other aquatic birds; we shot
many of these from the ship's deck, but were, much to our mortification,
obliged to see them drift away, the pilot, seconded by our austere
captain, strenuously objecting to a boat being lowered; this was very
discouraging, as such a change in our diet would, after a rather
prolonged voyage, have been acceptable.

A favourable breeze soon carried our good ship to the quarantine ground,
where we dropped anchor, in no little anxiety lest we should be
detained. The medical officers from the college, or rather sanatory
establishment, on shore, almost immediately came on board. All hands
were mustered on deck, and ranged like soldiers on parade ground by
these important functionaries, who, I may remark by the way, appeared
like our pilot to be possessed of considerable notions of power and
authority. After taking a rather cursory inspection they left the
vessel, and we, to our great joy (a case of small pox having occurred
during the passage), were allowed to proceed towards New York, which we
did under easy sail, the breeze rendering a steam-tug unnecessary.

The scenery as we passed up the river was calculated to give a good
impression of the country, the zest being, however, without doubt,
greatly heightened by the monotonous dreariness of a tempestuous voyage.
The highlands and valleys, as we sailed up, had a verdant woody
appearance, and were interspersed with rural and chateau scenery; herds
of cattle remarkable for length of horn, and snow-white sheep, were
grazing placidly in the lowlands. The country, as far as I could judge,
seemed in a high state of culture, and the farms, to use an expression
of the celebrated Washington Irving's, when describing, I think, a
farm-yard view in England, appeared "redolent of pigs, poultry, and
sundry other good things appertaining to rural life."

On arriving at the approach to the entrance or mouth of the river
Hudson, which is formed by an arm of the estuary, we turned the
promontory, leaving Jersey on the left, the battery as we entered the
harbour being in the foreground. The guns-bristled from this fortress
with menacing aspect, and the sentinels, in light blue uniforms and
Kosciusko caps, silently paced the ramparts with automatic regularity.
This fortification, though formidable in appearance, and certainly in a
commanding position, I was subsequently informed is little more than a
mimic fort; this arises from the want of attention paid to defences of
the kind in America, the little existing chance of invasion, perhaps,
causing the indifference to the subject. If, however, the spirit of
aggressive conquest shown by the federal government, of late years, of
which the invasion of Mexico is a fair specimen, should continue to
develop itself, it is not difficult to foresee that it will be necessary
policy to pay greater attention to the subject, and to keep in a more
effective state the seaboard defences of the country, as well as their
army, which is at present miserably deficient. This has heretofore been
so far neglected, as regards the marine, that not long before I arrived
the commander of a French ship of war was much chagrined, on firing a
salute as he passed the battery at New York, to find that his courtesy
was not returned in the customary way. He complained of the omission as
either a mark of disrespect to himself, or an insult to his nation, when
it came out in explanation that the garrison was in such a defective
state that there were not the appliances at hand to observe this
national etiquette.

The city of New York is built almost close to the water's edge, with a
broad levee or wharf running round a great portion of it. Its general
appearance gives to a stranger an impression of its extent and
importance. It has been aptly and accurately described as a dense pack
of buildings, comprising every imaginable variety, and of all known
orders of modernized architecture. The tide flows close up to the
wharves which run outside of the city, and differs so little in height
at ebb or flow, that vessels of the largest class ride, I believe, at
all times as safely as in the West India docks in London, or the
imperial docks of Liverpool. Here was assembled an incalculable number
of vessels of all sizes and all nations, forming a beautiful and
picturesque view of commercial enterprise and grandeur, perhaps outvying
every other port in the world, not excepting Liverpool itself.

As our vessel could not at once be accommodated with a berth, owing to
the crowded state of the harbour, she was moored in the middle of the
stream, and being anxious to go on shore, I availed myself of the
captain's offer to take me to the landing-place in his gig. We went on
shore in an alcove, at the foot of Wall-street, and I experienced the
most delightful sensation on once more setting foot on _terra firma_,
after our dreary voyage. The day, notwithstanding it was now October,
was intensely hot (although a severe frost for two or three days before
gave indications of approaching winter), and the streets being
unmacadamized, had that arid look we read of in accounts of the plains
of Arabia, the dust being quite deep, and exceeding in quantity anything
of the kind I had ever seen in European cities: clouds of it
impregnated the air, and rendered respiration and sight difficult.

Hundreds of rudely-constructed drays were passing to and fro, heavily
laden with merchandize, many of them drawn by mules, and the remainder
by very light horses of Arabian build; the heavy English dray horse was
nowhere to be seen, the breed as I afterwards learned not being
cultivated, from a dislike to its ponderousness.

The lower part of Wall-street presented a busy mart-like appearance,
every description of goods being piled heterogeneously before the
warehouse-doors of their respective owners in the open thoroughfare,
which is at this part very wide. Auctioneers were here busily engaged in
the disposal of their merchandise, which comprised every variety of
produce and manufacture, home and foreign, from a yard of
linsey-woolsey, "hum spun" as they termed it, to a bale of Manchester
long cloth, or their own Sea-Island cotton. The auctioneer in America is
a curious specimen of the biped creation. He is usually a swaggering,
consequential sort of fellow, and drives away at his calling with
wondrous impudence and pertinacity, dispensing, all the while he is
selling, the most fulsome flattery or the grossest abuse on those who
stand around. One of these loquacious animals was holding forth to a
crowd, just below the _Courier and Inquirer_ newspaper office, where
the street widens, as a preliminary introduction to the sale of a
quantity of linen goods that had been damaged at a recent fire in the
neighbourhood. I could not help admiring the man's tact. Fixing his eyes
on an individual in a white dress, with an enormous Leghorn hat on his
head, who was apparently eagerly listening, while smoking a cigar, to
the harangue, he suddenly exclaimed, "There now is Senator Huff, from
the State of Missouri, he heerd of this vendue a thousand mile up river,
and wall knows I'm about to offer somethin woth having; look at him, he
could buy up the fust five hunderd folks hed cum across anywhar in this
city, and what's more, he's a true patriot, made o' the right kinder
stuff, I guess."

He followed up the eulogium at great length, and after liberally
dispensing "soft soap" on the listeners, declared the auction had
commenced. I stood by for some minutes, gazing around and watching the
operations, and was not long in discovering that Senator Huff kept
running up the articles by pretended bids, and was evidently in league
with him, in fact a confederate. This auctioneer was the very emblem of
buffoonery and blackguardism; the rapidity with which he repeated the
sums, supposed by the bystanders to be bid, the curt yet extravagant
praise bestowed on his wares, and his insulting and unsparing remarks if
a comment were made on the goods he offered, or if the company did not
respond in bidding, stamped him as one of the baser sort of vulgarians.

Sales of this description were going on in every direction, and the
street rang with the stentorian voices of the sellers. Many of these
were mock auctions, as an observer of any intelligence would detect, and
as I ascertained beyond doubt almost directly after leaving this man's
stand; for, stepping into an open store close at hand, of which there
are ranges on either side of the street, a sale of jewellery and watches
was going on. A case of jewellery, containing, among other things, a
gold watch and chain, apparently of exquisite workmanship, was put up
just as I entered, and was started at six cents per article. Bid after
bid succeeded, until, at last, the lot was knocked down to a southern
gentleman present at fifty cents per item. On making the purchase, he
naturally wished to know how many articles the box contained. This
information, on the plea that it would delay the sale, was withheld. The
auctioneer, however, insisted on the payment of a deposit of fifty
dollars, in compliance with the published conditions of the sale, which
sum, after a demur on the part of the purchaser, was paid. I could see,
however, that he was now sensible he had been duped, and I afterwards
learnt that some forty or fifty articles, of almost every fancy
description, many of them worthless, such as pins, knives, tweezers, and
a variety of other knick-knacks, were artfully concealed from view, by
means of a false bottom to the case; this being lifted up revealed the
truth. The man was greatly enraged on finding he had been cheated, but
was treated with the most audacious coolness, and after some altercation
left the store, as he said, to seek redress elsewhere, but I have no
doubt he went off with the intention of losing his deposit.

This occurrence put me on my guard, and made me very wary of buying
articles at such auctions during my stay in New York, although the
apparent beauty and cheapness of many of the articles I saw offered,
especially of French manufacture, were sufficient to decoy the most
wary, and I did not wonder at people being victimized at such places.
Emigrants are the chief sufferers, I was told, by such transactions,
from their want of caution, and ignorance of the arts of the
accomplished deceivers who conduct them.

Proceeding up Wall-street in the direction of Broadway, I reached that
portion of it frequented by stock and real-estate brokers. Here crowds
of gentlemanly-looking men, dressed mostly in black, and of busy mien,
crowded the thoroughfare with scrip in hand. Each appeared intensely
absorbed in business, and as I gazed on the assemblage, I could
discover unmistakable symptoms of great excitement and mental anxiety,
the proportion of rueful countenances being much greater than is usually
seen in similar places of resort in England; a sudden depression in the
market at the time might, however, account for much of this, although it
is well known that brokers and speculators on the American continent
engage in the pursuit with the avidity of professed gamblers.

Hundreds of Negroes were hurrying to and fro through the streets, these
were chiefly labourers, decently dressed, and employed either as draymen
or porters. They looked happier than labourers in England; and, being
bathed in a profuse perspiration from the heat of the weather, their
faces shone almost like black satin or patent leather.

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Online LibraryJohn BenwellAn Englishman's Travels in America His Observations of Life and Manners in the Free and Slave States → online text (page 1 of 13)