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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of benevolence, to remove the odium it so justly incurs. "Liberate your
slaves, and then I will talk to you about religion and charity," were
the emphatic words of an eminent northern divine in his correspondence
with the committee of a benevolent institution in the south, some years
ago, and the admonition speaks as forcibly now as it did then.

As you walk the streets of Charleston, rows of greedy vultures, with
sapient look, sit on the parapets of the houses, watching for offal.
These birds are great blessings in warm climates, and in Carolina a fine
of ten dollars is inflicted for wantonly destroying them. They appeared
to be quite conscious of their privileges, and sailed down from the
house-tops into the streets, where they stalked about, hardly caring to
move out of the way of the horses and carriages passing. They were of an
eagle-brown colour, and many of them appeared well conditioned, even to
obesity. At night scores of dogs collect in the streets, and yelp and
bark in the most annoying manner. This it is customary to remedy by a
gun being fired from a window at the midnight interlopers, when they
disperse in great terror. I should remark that this is a common nuisance
in warm latitudes. Some of these animals live in the wilds, and, like
jackals, steal into the towns at night to eke out a scanty subsistence.
At first my rest was greatly disturbed by their noisy yelpings, but I
soon became accustomed to the inconvenience, and thought little of it.

The warmth of the climate induces great lassitude and indisposition to
exertion, _alias_ indolence. I began to experience this soon after
arriving in the south. This, which in England would be called laziness,
is encouraged by the most trifling offices being performed by slaves.
The females in particular give way to this inertness, and active women
are seldom to be met with, the wives of men in affluent circumstances
being in general like pampered children, and suffering dreadfully from
_ennui_. On one occasion an English gentleman at Charleston, with whom I
became acquainted, and whose hospitality I shall never forget, when
conversing on the subject, addressed me thus: "Good, active wives are
seldom to be met with in this state, amongst the natives; I may say,
hardly ever; the females are nurtured in indolence, and in seeking what
they term a settlement, look more to the man's means than the likelihood
of living happily with him. There is no disguising it - the
considera - with them is a _sine quâ non_. Few girls would refuse a man
who possessed a goodly number of slaves, though they were sure his
affections would be shared by some of the best-looking of the females
amongst them, and his conduct towards the remainder that of a very
demon." These sentiments I very soon ascertained to be in no way
libellous. A southern wife, if she is prodigally furnished with dollars
to "go shopping," apparently considers it no drawback to her happiness
if some brilliant mulatto or quadroon woman ensnares her husband. Of
course there are exceptions, but the patriarchal usage is so engrafted
in society there, that it elicits little notice or comment. Nor, from
what I gleaned, are the ladies themselves immaculate, as may be inferred
from the occasional quadroon aspect of their progeny.

The Jews are a very numerous and influential body in Charleston, and
monopolize many of its corporate honours. They were described as very
haughty and captious; this, however, is saying no more of the stock of
Israel than is observable all over the world, hen they are in prosperous
circumstances, although, when this is not the case, perhaps none of the
human family are so abject and servile, not excepting slaves themselves.
In process of time, these people bid fair to concentrate in themselves
most of the wealth and influence of Charleston. If their perseverance
(which is here indomitable) should attain this result, they will be in
pretty much the same position there that Pharaoh occupied over their
race in Egypt in olden time, and, if reports speak true, will wield the
sceptre of authority over their captives in a somewhat similar style.
Avarice is the besetting sin of the Israelite, and here his slaves are
taxed beyond endurance. To exact the utmost from his labour is the
constant aim, and I was informed that many of the slaves belonging to
Jews were sent out, and compelled on the Saturday night to bring in a
much larger sum than it was reasonably possible the poor creatures could
earn, and if not successful, they were subjected to the most cruel

Not long after my arrival in Charleston, I several times met a young
coloured man, who was of so prepossessing an appearance, that I felt
desirous to become acquainted with him, and, as I was at a loss to find
my way to the residence of the mayor, a good opportunity one day
offered, and I addressed him. He very courteously took me to the street
in which the house was situated, and we talked on general topics as we
went - in the course of which he stated, he was saving money for his
ransom, and in two years intended to proceed to Montreal, in Canada. I
could see, however, that the free manner in which we conversed attracted
the attention of three or four individuals as we passed them - these
would stop as if to satisfy their curiosity, some even took the trouble
to watch us out of sight; looking back, I several times saw one more
impertinent-looking than some others eyeing us intently, and once I
fancied I saw him turn as if to overtake us. This curiosity I had often
perceived before, but, as disagreeable results might follow, I
invariably made a practice to take no notice of it when in the company
of a coloured individual. A smile played upon the features of my dusky
companion, as I turned to observe the inquisitive fellows I have
referred to; perhaps I was taken for a negro-stealer, but, as I treated
my companion with equality, I was most likely set down as one of those
dangerous personages, who, through zeal in the cause of emancipation,
sometimes penetrate, into the slave districts, and are accused (with
what degree of justice I cannot tell) of infusing into the minds of the
slaves discontented notions and agrarian principles.

As I met, on the occasion I have just referred to, an individual who
knew I had felt an interest in endeavouring to establish the school for
the education of negro children, the result of which I have already
mentioned, I was apprehensive that the _contretemps_ would have exposed
me to the unpleasantness of at least being shunned afterwards as a man
entertaining principles inimical to southern interests - and, however
resolute I felt to pursue an independent course while I remained in
Charleston, I could not shake off a fear I vaguely entertained of a
public recognition by a deeply prejudiced and ignorant populace, who,
once set on, do not hesitate to proceed to disagreeable extremes. This
fear was enhanced in no little degree by the operation I had witnessed,
of the tarring and feathering process practised by enraged citizens in
the Missouri country, which I have before described.

The most degrading phrase that can be applied in the south to those
white individuals who sympathize in the wrongs inflicted on the African
race, I soon found to be, that "he associates with niggers." Thus a
kind-hearted individual at once "loses caste" among his fellow citizens
and, invidious though it certainly is, many slave-owners are deterred
by this consideration, blended with a politic regard for their own
safety, from exercising that benevolence towards their dependents which
they sincerely feel; placed, as it were, under a sort of social ban,
such men artfully conceal their sentiments from the public, and, by a
more lenient treatment of their own hands, quiet their consciences;
while, at the same time, they blunt their sense of what is honest,
upright, just, and manly. Instances have occasionally occurred where men
of correct principles have so far succumbed to this sense of duty, as to
liberate their slaves. These are, however, rare occurrences, and, when
they do happen, are usually confined to men of sterling religious
principles, who, like that great exception, the respectable class of
people called Quakers, in America, refuse, from a conviction of the
enormity of the evil, to recognize as members those who hold or traffic
in slaves.

It is through the influence of such men that the iniquities of the
system become exposed to public view, and remedies are sometimes, in
flagrant cases of cruelty, applied. The legislatures of the several
slave states, however, have given such absolute dominion, by a rigorous
code of laws, to the owner, that the greatest enormities may be
committed almost with impunity, or at least with but a remote chance of
justice having its legitimate sway.

The mass of slave-owners are interested in concealing enormities
committed by their fellows, and are backed by a venal press, which,
whether bribed or not (and there is every reason to suspect that this is
often the case), puts such a construction on _outrage_, by garbled
_reports_, as to turn the tide of sympathy from the victim to the
perpetrator. No editor, possessing the least leaven of anti-slavery
principles, would be patronized; and it not infrequently happens that
such men are mobbed and driven perforce to leave the slave, for the more
northern or free, states. Here they stand a better chance, but, in many
instances, the prejudice, it is said, follows their course, and southern
influence occasions their bankruptcy or non-success.

The practice, so common in the slave states, of the citizens
congregating at the bars of hotels or cafés in the towns and cities to
while away the time, renders attendance at such places the readiest
means of ascertaining the state of the public mind on any engrossing
subject, opinions being here freely discussed, not, however, without
bias and anger; on the contrary, the practice is most sectarian, and
frequently involves deadly feuds and personal encounters, these latter
being of every-day occurrence. Ever since I had been in the southern
states, my attention had been attracted to the swarms of well-dressed
loungers at cafés and hotels. At first, like many other travellers, I
was deluded by the notion that these idlers were men of independent
means, but my mind was soon disabused of this fallacy. I ascertained
that the greater portion of these belong to that numerous class in
America known as sporting gentlemen; in plainer terms, gamblers. Some of
these men had belonged to the higher walks of life; these were the more
"retiring few" who (probably through a sense of shame not quite
extinguished) felt rather disposed to shrink from than to attract
attention. The majority of these idlers were impudent-looking braggarts,
who, with jaunty air and coxcombical show of superiority, endeavoured to
enforce their own opinions, and to silence those of every one else.

There was also another class of frequenters at such places; this
consisted of tradesmen who pass much of their time hanging about at such
resorts, to the great detriment of their individual affairs; and,
lastly, such travellers as might be stopping in the town, who, through
_ennui_ and inveterate habit, had left their hotels, and sauntered "up
town" (as they call gadding about), to hear the news of the day.

Soon ascertaining that such places were the best, and, excepting the
public prints, the only resort to ascertain the latest intelligence, and
to collect information respecting the movements of the black
population, and the company, however exceptionable, being termed there
respectable, I adopted the plan, on several successive evenings, of
quietly smoking a cigar and listening to passing observations and
remarks. Some of these were disgusting enough; so much so, that I will
not offend my readers by repeating them. Suffice it to say, that any
individual possessing the slightest pretensions to the name of
gentleman, in any hotel I had visited in England, on indulging in the
indecorous language I heard at these places, would, by a very summary
process, have met with ejectment, without ceremony. Here, however, a
laxity of moral feeling prevails, that stifles all sense of propriety;
and scurrility, obscene language, and filthy jests, of which the
coloured population are, I suppose, per force of habit, the principal
butts, form the chief attractions of such places of resort to their
vitiated frequenters.

In the course of these visits I was present at some angry altercations;
one of these referred to the recent visit of an individual who was
termed by the disputants an "incendiary abolitionist," and who, it
appeared, had been detected in the act of distributing tracts, which had
been published at Salem, in Massachusetts, exposing the disabilities the
African race were labouring under. Extracts from one of these tracts
were read, and appeared very much to increase the violence of the
contending parties, one of whom insisted that the publication contained
nothing but what might be read by every slave in the sacred Scriptures,
and that, therefore, it could not be classed as dangerous, although he
admitted that it contained notions of "human rights" that were
calculated to imbue the mind of the "niggers" with unbecoming ideas.
These sentiments did not at all accord with those of the company, and
several expressions of doubt as to the soundness of the speaker's own
pro-slavery principles, together with the increasing excitement, caused
him to withdraw from the contest. His immediate antagonist, who was
evidently the leading man on the occasion, enlarged on the danger
attending the sufferance of such men at large in the slave states, and
proceeded, with great volubility, to quote various passages from the
Black Code to show that the Legislature had contemplated the intrusion
of such pestilent fellows, and had, in fact, given full power to remedy
the evil, if the citizens chose to exercise it; and went on to observe,
that the rights of southern people were now-a-days invaded on every
hand, and it behoved them to stand in their own defence, his advice, he
said, was, if the municipal authorities let the fellow go, to form a
committee of justice to adjudicate on the case, and if it was
considered conducive to the public weal, to administer salutary
punishment. This proposal was uproariously applauded, and four of the
citizens present, with the last speaker for chairman, were named on the
spot to watch the case. "And now," added this gentleman, "we'll have a
gin sling round for success." I heard the day following that the
individual who was the subject of the foregoing proceedings, was accused
before the mayor, who dismissed the case with a caution, advising him to
leave the city with all dispatch, to avoid disagreeable consequences.
This the man, by the aid of a constable, managed to do, that
functionary, no doubt for a consideration, taking him to the city
prison, and locking him up until nightfall, when he was assisted to
leave the place, disguised as a soldier. This, I was informed by a
friend, to whom I afterwards related it, was one of those commotions
that occur almost daily in southern towns and cities.

Such lawless frequenters of hotels, taverns, and cafés, form a kind of
social police, and scarcely a stranger visits the place without his
motives for the visit being canvassed, and his business often exposed,
much to his great annoyance and inconvenience.

So accustomed do American travellers in the south appear, to this system
of internal surveillance, that I several times noticed strangers at the
hotel or café counters openly explaining the object of their visits, and
if there is nothing to conceal, however annoying the alternative
appears, I am convinced the policy is not had, a host of suspicions
being silenced by such a course.

In my travels on the whole route from New York to Charleston, I
discovered a most unjustifiable and impertinent disposition to pry into
the business of others. If I was questioned once, I am sure I was at
least fifty times, by my fellow - travellers from time to time as to my
motive for visiting America, and my intended proceedings. I found,
however', that a certain reserve was an efficient remedy. Captain
Waterton, of South American celebrity, as an ornithologist, and who
visited North America in his travels, mentions that if you confide your
affairs and intentions when questioned, the Americans reciprocate that
confidence by relating their own. My own experience, however, did not
corroborate this view of the case, for, though loquacious in the
extreme, and gifted, so that to use a Yankee phrase, they would "talk a
dog's hind-leg off," they are in general cautious not to divulge their
secrets. To say the least of it, the habit of prying into the business
of others, is one totally unbecoming a well-ordered state of society,
which the American, speaking generally, is decidedly not. It is
extremely annoying, from the unpleasant feeling it excites, that you are
suspected if not watched (this applies forcibly to the slave districts);
and it is a habit that has arisen purely from the incongruity of society
at large on the American continent, and a want of that subdivision of
class that exists in Europe.

During my visits to the various hotels while I remained in Charleston,
for the purpose of collecting information, I was several times
interrogated in a barefaced manner by the visitors who frequent those
places, as to my politics, and especially as to my principles in regard
to the institution of slavery; now, as I was not unaware that my
intimacy with the gentleman of colour, which I have already referred to,
had got abroad, I was obliged to be extremely guarded in my replies on
such occasions. It was on one of these that I felt myself in great
hazard, for two individuals in the company were discussing with much
energy, the question of amalgamation (that is, marriage, contracted
between black and white men and women), and I was listening intently to
their altercation, when suddenly one of them, eyeing me with malicious
gaze, no doubt having noticed my attention to the colloquy, said,

"Your opinion, stranger, on this subject; I guess you understand it
torrably well, as you seem to be pretty hard on B - - 's eldest
daughter." This unexpected sally rather alarmed me, for the name he
mentioned was that of my coloured friend I have before alluded to, and
whose daughter I had only met once, and that at her father's house.

I scarcely knew what to reply, but thought it best to put on a bold
face, so facing the man, I thanked him with much irony for the inuendo,
and said, it was a piece of impudence I thought very much like him from
what I had overheard.

This was said in a resolute tone, and the fellow quailed before it, his
reply being, "Now stranger, don't get angry, I saw you the other day at
B - - 's house, and could not tell what to make of it, but I hope you
don't think that I was in arnest."

I replied to this, that I knew best what business I had at B - - 's
house, and that his plan was to mind his own business. I then left him,
apparently highly indignant, but in fact glad to make my escape. Like
bullies all the world over, the southern ones are cowards; there is,
however, great danger here in embroiling yourself with such characters,
the pistol and bowie knife being instantly resorted to if the quarrel
becomes serious. I saw this braggart on several occasions afterwards,
but he evidently kept aloof, and was disinclined to venture in the part
of the room I occupied. I ascertained that he kept a dry goods store in
King-street, and was a boisterous fellow, often involved in quarrels.

The discussion on amalgamation, which is a very vexed one, was again
introduced on a subsequent occasion; a planter from the north of the
state having (as is sometimes the case) sold off everything he
possessed, and removed to the State of Maine, taking with him a young
quadroon woman, with the intention of making her his lawful wife, and
living there retired. After the expression of a variety of opinions as
to what this man deserved, some being of opinion that the subject ought
to be mooted in the legislature at Washington - others, that his whole
effects ought to be escheated, for the benefit of the public
treasury - and by far the greater number that he ought to be summarily
dealt with at the hands of the so-considered outraged citizens, which,
in other language, meant "lynched," - it was stated, by a very loquacious
Yankee-looking fellow present, who made himself prominent in the
discussion, that it was the opinion of the company, that any man
marrying a woman with negro blood in her veins, should be hanged, as a
traitor to southern interests and a bad citizen. This sentiment was
loudly applauded, and, had the unfortunate subject of it been in
Charleston or near it, he would, in all probability, have been called
to account. To me it appeared remarkable, that men, who are always
boasting of the well-ordered institutions of their country (slavery
being a very important one, be it remembered), should be ever ready to
set aside all law, and, as it were, by _ex parte_ evidence alone,
inflict summary vengeance on the offender; I was, however, always of
opinion, when amongst them, that four-fifths of the men would rejoice if
all law were abrogated, and the passions of the people allowed to govern
the country, thus constituting themselves judges in their own case, and
trampling under foot every semblance of justice, equity, and common
propriety. As it is, in many parts of the Union, the judges and
magistrates are notoriously awed by the people, and the most perfidious
wretches are suffered to escape the hands of justice. A full
confirmation of this is to be found in the frequent outrages against law
and order reported in the newspapers, and which there elicit little

Walking for a stroll, a day or two after, in the vicinity of the
Marine-promenade, I saw a strange-looking cavalcade approaching. Two
armed overseers were escorting five negroes, recently captured, to the
city gaol. The poor creatures were so heavily shackled, that they could
walk but slowly, and their brutal conductors kept urging them on,
chiefly by coarse language and oaths, now and then accompanied by a
severe stroke with a slave-whip carried by one of them. The recovered
fugitives looked very dejected, and were, no doubt, brooding over the
consequences of their conduct. The elder of the party, a stout fellow of
about forty-five years old, of very sullen look, had a distinct brand on
his forehead of the initials S.T.R. I afterwards inquired what these
brand-marks signified, supposing, naturally, that they were the initials
of the name of his present or former owner. My informant, who was a
by-stander, stated that he was, no doubt, an incorrigibly bad fellow,
and that the initials S.T.R. were often used in such cases. I inquired
their signification, when, to my astonishment, he replied it might be,
"Stop the rascal," and added that private signals were in constant use
among the inland planters, as he called them, who, he said, suffered so
much by their hands running away, that it was absolutely necessary to
adopt a plan of the kind for security. He further stated, that such
incorrigibles, when caught, were never allowed to leave the plantations,
so that if they ventured abroad, they carried the warrant for their
immediate arrest with them. "But," he went on, "people are beginning to
dislike such severity, and a new code of regulations, backed by the
Legislature, is much talked of by the innovators, as we call them, to
prevent such practices." I have no doubt this man owned slaves himself.

I said I thought myself that the policy of kindness would answer better
than such severities, and it would be well if slave-holders generally
were to try it.

"Ah, stranger," he replied, "I see you don't understand things here,
down south. Don't you know that people who are over kind get imposed on?
This is specially the case with slaves; treat them well, and you'll soon
find them running off, or complaining. The only way to manage niggers is
to keep them down, then you can control them, but not else."

It has been urged a thousand times in defence of the upholders of
slavery in its various ramifications, that they are in reality, as a
body, opposed to the system, and would readily conform to any change
that would be sufficiently comprehensive to indemnify them from present
and future loss. From conversations heard in South Carolina, and other

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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 12 of 13)