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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slave districts, I am quite satisfied that this is a misrepresentation,
and that the generality of proprietors regard any change as a dangerous
innovation, and that, far from reluctantly following the occupation of
traders in flesh and blood, it is quite congenial to the vitiated tastes
of the greater portion of southern citizens, whose perverted notions of
justice and propriety are clamorously expressed on the most trivial
occasions. In whatever sphere of society amongst them you go, you find
the subject of "protecting their rights" urged with impetuosity; the
same rancorous feeling towards men of abolitionist sentiments, and the
same deprecation of the slave race. To decry the negroes in public
opinion is one of their constant rules of action, and if an individual
attempts to assert their equal rights with mankind at large, he is
considered as disaffected towards southern interests, and, if not openly
threatened, as I have before observed in this work, is unceremoniously
talked down.' It is thus often dangerous to broach the subject, and if
an individual, more daring than people generally are when in the
plague-infected latitudes of slavery, attempts to repudiate the views so
unhesitatingly expressed by the pro-slavery advocates, that the negro
race is but the connecting link between man and the brute creation, he
is looked upon with disgust, and his society contemned. This overbearing
conduct is so ingrained, that it shows itself on the most trifling
occasions, in their intercourse with their fellow-citizens.

Argumentative facts might be produced _ad infinitum_ to prove that the
legal enactments for the government of the slave states of America have
been framed so as to vest in the proprietor as much control over the
lives and persons of those they hold in servitude as any animal in the
category of plantation stock. This in my tour through that region of
moral darkness and despair, the state of Louisiana, I had numberless
opportunities of observing, which would not fail to convince the most
sceptical; and if I have passed over many of these in the foregoing
pages, it is because the incidents themselves (though proving that the
slightest approach to independent action, or opposition to the depraved
wills of their tyrannical superiors, is at once visited with
consequences that make me shudder to reflect upon) were of too trivial a
nature to interest the general reader. I will, however, copy here an
extract from a paper published in Virginia, the _Richmond Times_ for
August, 1852, which must, I think, tend to remove any doubts, if they
exist in the mind of the reader, that the conclusions I have come to
from personal observation are correct, and sufficient to prove that the
despotic Nicholas of Russia himself does not exercise more absolute
control over the lives and liberties of the degraded serfs he rules,
than the slave-appropriators of America do over their victims.

The newspaper in question is a highly popular one with the
aristocratical slave-owners of Virginia, and the editor one of those
champions of the unjust and iniquitous system who invariably meet with
extensive patronage in every part of the southern states.

"A FIELD-HAND SHOT. - A gentleman named Ball, overseer to Mr. Edward T.
Taylor, finding it necessary to chastise a field-hand, attempted to do
so in the field. The negro resisted, and made fight, and, being the
stronger of the two, gave the overseer a beating, and then betook
himself to the woods. Mr. Ball, as soon as he could do so, mounted his
horse, and, proceeding to Mr. Taylor's residence, informed him of what
had occurred. Taylor, in company with Ball, repaired to the corn-field,
to which the negro had returned, and demanded to know the cause of his
conduct. The negro replied that Ball attempted to flog him, and he would
not submit to it. Taylor said he should, and ordered him to cross his
hands, at the same time directing Ball to seize him. Ball did so, but
perceiving the negro had attempted to draw a knife, told Mr. Taylor of
it, who immediately sprang from his horse, and, drawing a pistol, shot
the negro dead at his feet."

The _Richmond Reporter_, a contemporary of the _Times_, commented on
this impious affair as follows: - "Mr. Taylor did what every man who has
the management of negroes ought to do; enforce obedience, or kill them."

It is the practice of the inhabitants of Charleston, in common, I
believe, with all owners of slaves in towns or cities in the slave
states, who have not employment sufficient for them at home, or when the
slave is a cripple, to send them out to seek their own maintenance. In
such cases the slave is compelled to give an account of what he has
earned during the week, at his owner's house, where he attends on
Saturday evenings for the purpose. A fixed sum is generally demanded, in
proportion to the average value of such labour at the time. I was
informed that it frequently happens, that the master exacts the utmost
the slave can earn, so that the miserable pittance left is scarcely
sufficient to sustain nature; this, no doubt, accounts for the haggard,
care-worn appearance of such labourers, for, with few exceptions, I
found hands thus sent out, more miserably clad and less hale than the
common run of slaves. On the other hand, if a slave is a good
handicraftsman, he is able to earn more than his master demands; such
instances are, however, rare. These are the men who, by dint of hard
work and thrifty habits, accumulate sufficient eventually to obtain
manumission. There is, in most cases, a strict eye kept on such hands,
and if the boon is attained, it is in general by stealthy means.

At my boarding-house in Charleston, I often saw negro laundresses who
called for linen; one of these in particular, I noticed, seemed to be in
habitual low spirits; on one occasion she appeared to be in unusual
distress, in consequence of one of the boarders leaving the house in her
debt. She said that her owner would certainly punish her if she did not
make up the required sum, and where to procure it she could not tell. I
was touched by her tale, and immediately opened a subscription amongst
the boarders in the house, and succeeded in collecting a trifle over the
amount she had lost; this I handed her, and she went on her way

I was told by a Carolinian who lodged at this house, that the practice
of sending out slaves to earn money in the way I have described, has
been in vogue from time immemorial, and that it was such a profitable
mode of realizing by slave labour, that it was followed more extensively
in that state now than formerly.

I will conclude this part of my narration, by quoting the words of a
powerful writer on the subject of slavery as I have witnessed its
operation in America.

"Amongst the afflicting ills which the wickedness of man has established
upon earth, the greatest beyond compare is slavery. Indeed, its
consequences are so dreadful, the sins which it engenders are of such
gigantic proportions, and all its accompaniments are so loathsome and
hideous, that the minds of benevolent persons revolt from contemplating
it, as offering a spectacle of crime and cruelty, too deep for a remedy,
and too vast for sympathy. Slavery is an infinite evil, the calculations
of its murders, its rapine, its barbarities, its deeds of lust and
licentiousness, though authenticated by the most unquestionable
authorities, would produce a total of horrors too great to be believed;
and to narrate the history of these cruelties which have been
perpetrated by American slave-masters within the last five years alone,
would be to tell idle fables in the opinions of those who have not
deeply studied the tragical subject. If we take the United States of
America, where the outcry against slavery is greater than in any other
country under heaven, and where we hear more of religion and revivalism,
more of bustle and machinery of piety, a country setting itself up as a
beacon of freedom; then does slavery amongst such a people appear
transcendently wicked; a sin, which, in addition to its usual cruelty
and selfishness, is in them loaded with hypocrisy and ingratitude. With
hypocrisy, as it relates to their pretensions to liberty, and with
ingratitude, as it relates to that God who gave them to be free. This,
indeed, makes all the institutions of America, civil and religious,
little better than a solemn mockery, a tragical jest for the passers-by
of other nations, who, seeing two millions and a half of slaves held in
fetters by vaunting freemen and ostentatious patriots, wag the head at
the disgusting sight, and cry out deridingly to degraded America, 'The
worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee.'"

My original intention of settling in America having been frustrated by
ill health and other causes, I embarked on board a fine barque bound for
Liverpool, where, after a favourable run of three weeks, we arrived in
safety. Nothing worth noting occurred on the passage, except a fracas
between the captain and the first mate, whom the former had discovered
to be ignorant of the art of navigation, and who had, it appeared, been
engaged in a hurry on the eve of the vessel's departure from Charleston.

One day, comparing the result of a solar observation with the mate, and
finding him out in his calculations, the captain accused him, in great
anger, of imposition, in offering his services as an efficient person to
navigate the ship. On my endeavouring to pacify him, he turned to me, in
a violent passion, and exclaimed, "This man, sir, is 400 miles out in
his reckoning - and where would you and the ship be, do you think, if I
were washed overboard!" this argument was too cogent to be combated, and
so I interfered no more. He ordered the mate to go to the forecastle,
and refused to admit him to the cabin during the remainder of the
passage. The mate was much irritated at this treatment, and, after a
violent altercation, one day rushed to his chest and brought up two
pistols, one of which he presented in the face of the captain, daring
him at the same time to utter another word. The captain, highly
incensed, instantly descended the companion-way to the cabin, and
shortly after appeared with a blunderbuss, which he proceeded to prime.
I was in a terrible state of mind at this juncture, and fully expected a
fearful tragedy; this, however, was averted by the interference of
another passenger, who stood between the parties.

A violent storm overtook us in doubling Cape Hatteras soon after we
sailed, which, besides damaging the bulwarks of the vessel, tore some of
the sails to shivers; our ship stood it, however, gallantly, and, after
that occurrence, we had favourable weather the remainder of the voyage.

I was awaked early in the morning of the twenty-first day we had been at
sea, by a cry from the man at the helm, of "Great Ormes Head," and,
hurrying on my clothes, I gained the deck. The high hills could be
indistinctly seen through the morning haze, and the sight was
accompanied with joyful feelings to all on board. This enthusiasm was
even communicated to the captain himself, who, since the affair with the
mate, had been very much disposed to be sullen and unfriendly.

I never could form a correct estimate of this man's character, but it
was very evident he wished to pass for a pious man. He was a native of
the eastern state of Massachusetts, and told me he had a family there.
As to religion, I believe he had none, though he was a Methodist by
profession. I could often hear him praying audibly in his state-room on
board, with much apparent feeling - but so little did these devotional
fits aid him in curbing his wicked temper, that, even when engaged in
this manner, he would, if anything extraordinary occurred on deck to
disturb him, rush up the companion-way, and rate and swear at the
sailors awfully.

Soon after making Ormes Head, a pilot came on board, and, with a fair
wind, we proceeded towards the river Mersey.

After my wanderings in the slave-stricken regions of the south, and my
escapes in Florida, the sight of the hospitable shores of my native
country did more, I think, to renovate my injured health, than all the
drastics of the most eminent physicians in the world; certain it is,
that, from this time, I gradually recovered, and, by the blessing of
the Great Giver of all good, have been fully restored to that greatest
of sublunary benefits - vigorous health; a consummation I at one time
almost despaired of.


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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 13 of 13)