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Chambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) online

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coast, and there, amidst the tears of the latter parent, he was for-
mally consigned to the care of the British trader, who pledged him-
self to return his tender charge, some years afterwards, endowed
with as much learning as he might be found capable of receiving.
The lad was accordingly conveyed on ship-board, where the fancy
of the master conferred upon him the name of Thomas Jenkins.

Swanstone brought his prote'ge' to Hawick, and was about to take
the proper means for fulfilling his bargain, when, unfortunately, he
was cut off from this life. No provision having been made for such
a. contingency, Tom was thrown upon the wide world, not only with-
out the means of obtaining a Christian education, but destitute of
everything that was necessary to supply still more pressing wants.
Mr Swanstone died in a room in the Tower Inn at Hawick, where
Tom very faithfully attended him, though almost starved by the cold
of a Scottish winter. After his guardian had expired, he was in a
state of the greatest distress from cold, till the worthy landlady, Mrs
Brown, brought him down to her huge kitchen fire, where alone, of
all parts of the house, could he find a climate agreeable to his nerves.
Tom was ever after very grateful to Mrs Brown for her kindness.
After he had remained for some time at the inn, a farmer in Teviot-
head, who was the nearest surviving relation of his guardian, agreed
to take charge of him, and accordingly he was removed to the house
of that individual, where he soon made himself useful in rocking the
cradle, looking after the pigs and poultry, and other such humble
duties. When he left the inn, he understood hardly a word of


English ; but here he speedily acquired the common dialect of the
district, with all its peculiarities of accent and intonation. He lived

in Mr L 's family for several years, in the course of which he

was successively advanced to the offices of cow-herd and driver of
peats to Hawick for sale on his master's account, which latter duty
he discharged very satisfactorily. After he had become a stout boy,
Mr Laidlaw of Falnash, a gentleman of great respectability and
intelligence, took a fancy for him, and readily prevailed upon his
former protector to yield him into his charge. ' Black Tom,' as he
was called, became at Falnash a sort of Jack-of-all-trades. He acted
as cow-herd at one time, and stable-boy at another : in short, he
could turn his hand to any sort of job. It was his especial duty to
go upon all errands to Hawick, for which a retentive memory well
qualified him. He afterwards became a regular farm-servant to Mr
Laidlaw, and it was while acting in this capacity that he first dis-
covered a taste for learning. How Tom acquired his first instructions
is not known. The boy probably cherished a notion of duty upon this
subject, and was anxious to fulfil, as far as his unfortunate circum-
stances would permit, the designs of his parent. He probably
picked up a few crumbs of elementary literature at the table of Mr
Laidlaw's children, or interested the servants to give him what
knowledge they could.

In the course of a brief space, Mrs Laidlaw was surprised to find
that Tom began to have a strange liking for candle-ends. Not one
about the farmhouse could escape him. Every scrap of wick and
tallow that he fell in with was secreted and taken away to his loft
above the stable, and very dismal suspicions began to be entertained
respecting the use he put them to. Curiosity soon incited the people
about the farm to watch his proceedings after he had retired to his
den ; and it was then discovered, to the astonishment of all, that the
poor lad was engaged, with a book and a slate, in drawing rude
imitations of the letters of the alphabet. It was found that he also
kept an old fiddle beside him, which cost the poor horses below
many a sleepless night. On the discovery of his literary taste, Mr
Laidlaw put him to an evening school, kept by a neighbouring
rustic, at which he made rapid progress such, indeed, as to
excite astonishment all over the country, for no one had ever
dreamt that there was so much as a possibility of his becoming a

By and by, though daily occupied with his drudgery as a farm-
servant, he began to instruct himself in Latin and Greek. A boy-
friend, who in advanced life communicated to us most of the facts
we are narrating, lent him several books necessary in these studies ;
and Mr and Mrs Laidlaw did all in their power to favour his wishes,
though the distance of a classical academy was a sufficient bar, if
there had been no other, to prevent their giving him the means or
opportunity of regular instruction. In speaking of the kind treat-



merit which he had received from these worthy individuals, his heart
"has often been observed to swell, and the tear to start into his
honest dark eye. Besides acquainting himself tolerably well with
Latin and Greek, he initiated himself in the study of mathematics.

A great era in Tom's life was his possessing himself of a Greek
dictionary. Having learned that there was to be a sale of books
at Hawick, he proceeded thither, in company with our informant.
Tom possessed twelve shillings, saved out of his wages, and his
companion vowed that if more should be required for the purchase
of any particular book, he should not fail to back him in the com-
petition so far as eighteenpence would warrant, that being the
amount of his own little stock. Tom at once pitched upon the
lexicon as the grand necessary of his education, and accordingly he
began to bid for it. All present stared with wonder when they saw
a negro, clad in the gray cast-off surtout of a private soldier, and the
number ' XCVI.' still glaring in white oil-paint on his back, compet-
ing for a book which could only be useful to a student at a consider-
ably advanced stage. A gentleman of the name of Moncrieff, who
knew Tom's companion, beckoned him forward, and inquired with
eager curiosity into the seeming mystery. When it was explained,
and Mr Moncrieff learned that thirteen and sixpence was the utmost
extent of their joint stocks, he told his young friend to bid as far
beyond that sum as he chose, and he would be answerable for the
.deficiency. Tom had now bidden as far as he could go, and he was
turning away in despair, when his young friend, in the very nick of
-time, threw himself into the competition. 'What, what do you
mean ?' said the poor negro in great agitation ; ' you know we cannot
pay both that and the duty.' His friend, however, did not regard
his remonstrances, and immediately he had the satisfaction of placing
the precious volume in the hands which were so eager to possess it
only a shilling or so being required from Mr Moncrieff. Tom
carried off his prize in triumph, and, it is needless to say, made the
best use of it.

It may now be asked what was the personal character of this
extraordinary specimen of African intellect ? We answer at once
the best possible. Tom was a mild, unassuming creature, free from
every kind of vice, and possessing a kindliness of manner which
made him the favourite of all who knew him. In fact, he was one
of the most popular characters in the whole district of Upper Teviot-
dale. His employers respected him for the faithful and zealous
manner in which he discharged his humble duties, and everybody
was interested in his singular efforts to obtain knowledge. Having
retained no trace of his native language, he resembled, in every
respect except his skin, an ordinary peasant of the south of Scotland :
only he was much more learned than the most of them, and spent
his time somewhat more abstractedly. His mind was deeply
impressed with the truths of the Christian faith, and he was a regular


attender upon every kind of religious ordinances. Altogether, Torre
was a person of the most worthy and respectable properties, and,
even without considering his meritorious struggles for knowledge,
would have been beloved and esteemed wherever he was known.

When Tom was about twenty years of age, a vacancy occurred in
the school of Teviot-head, which was an appendage to the parish
school, for the use of the scattered inhabitants of a very wild pastoral
territory. A committee of the presbytery of Jedburgh was appointed
to sit on a particular day at Hawick, in order to examine the candi-
dates for this humble charge, and report the result to their constitu-
ents. Among three or four competitors appeared the black farm-
servant of Falnash, with a heap of books under his arm, and the
everlasting soldier's greatcoat, with the staring ' XCVI.' upon his
back. The committee was surprised ; but they could not refuse to
read his testimonials of character, and put him through the usual
forms of examination. More than this, his exhibition was so
decidedly superior to the rest, that they could not avoid reporting,
him as the best fitted for the situation. Tom retired triumphant
from the field, enjoying the delightful reflection, that now he would
be placed in a situation much more agreeable to him than any other
he had ever known, and where he would enjoy infinitely better oppor-
tunities of acquiring instruction.

For a time this prospect was dashed. On the report coming before
the presbytery, a majority of the members were alarmed at tha
strange idea of placing a negro and born pagan in such a situation,
and poor Tom was accordingly voted out of all the benefits of the
competition. The poor fellow appeared to suffer dreadfully from
this sentence, which made him feel keenly the misfortune of his
skin, and the awkwardness of his situation in the world. But
fortunately, the people most interested in the matter felt as indignant
at the treatment which he had received, as he could possibly feel
depressed. The heritors, among whom the late Duke of Buccleuch
was the chief, took up the case so warmly, that it was immediately
resolved to set up Tom in opposition to the teacher appointed by
the presbyter}', and to give him an exact duplicate of the salary
which they already paid to that person. An old smiddy (blacksmith's
shop) was hastily fitted up for his reception, and Tom was imme-
diately installed in office, with the universal approbation of both
parents and children. It followed, as a matter of course, that the
other school was completely deserted ; and Tom, who had come to
this country to learn, soon found himself fully engaged in teaching,
and in the receipt of an income more than adequate to his wants.

To the gratification of all his friends, and some little confusion
of face to the presbytery, he turned out an excellent teacher. He
had a way of communicating knowledge that proved in the highest
degree successful, and as he contrived to carry on the usual exercises
without the use of any severities, he was as much beloved by his



pupils as he was respected by those who employed him. Five days
every week he spent in the school. On the Saturdays, he was
accustomed to walk to Hawick (eight miles distant), in order to make
an exhibition of what he had himself acquired during the week, to
the master of the academy there ; thus keeping up, it will be observed,
his own gradual advance in knowledge. It further shews his untiring
zeal for religious instruction, that he always returned to Hawick
next day of course an equal extent of travel in order to attend the

After he had conducted the school for one or two years, finding
himself in possession of about twenty pounds, he bethought him of
spending a winter at college. The esteem in which he was held
rendered it an easy matter to demit his duties to an assistant for the
winter ; and this matter being settled, he waited upon his good
friend, Mr Moncrieff (the gentleman who had enabled him to get the
lexicon, and who had since done him many other good offices), in
order to consult about other matters concerning the step he was
about to take. Mr Moncrieff, though accustomed to regard Tom as
a wonder, was nevertheless truly surprised at this new project. He
asked, above all things, the amount of his stock of cash. On being
told that twenty pounds was all, and, furthermore, that Tom contem-
plated attending the Latin, Greek, and mathematical classes, he
informed him that this would never do : the money would hardly pay
his fees. Tom was much disconcerted at this ; but his generous
friend soon relieved him, by placing in his hands an order upon a
merchant in Edinburgh for whatever might be further required to
support him for a winter at college.

Tom now pursued his way to Edinburgh with his twenty pounds.
On applying to the Professor of Humanity (Latin) for a ticket to his
class, that gentleman looked at him for a moment in silent wonder,
and asked if he had acquired any rudimental knowledge of the
language. Mr Jenkins, as he ought now to be called, said modestly
that he had studied Latin for a considerable time, and was anxious

to complete his acquaintance with it. Mr P , finding that he

only spoke the truth, presented the applicant with a ticket, for which
he generously refused to take the usual fee. Of the other two pro-
fessors to whom he applied, both stared as much as the former, and
only one took the fee. He was thus enabled to spend the winter in
a most valuable course of instruction, without requiring to trench
much upon Mr Moncrieff's generous order ; and next spring he
returned to Teviot-head, and resumed his professional duties.

The end of this strange history is hardly such as could have been
wished. It is obvious, we think, that Mr Jenkins should have been
returned by some benevolent society to his native country, where he
might have been expected to do wonders in civilising and instructing
his father's, or his own subjects. Unfortunately, about thirty years ago,
a gentleman of the neighbourhood, animated by the best intentions,



recommended him to the Christian Knowledge Society, as a proper
person to be a missionary among the colonial slaves ; and he was
induced to go out as a teacher to the Mauritius a scene entirely
unworthy of his exertions. There he attained great eminence as
a teacher.


In the year 1761, Mrs John Wheatley, of Boston, in North
America, went to the slave-market, to select, from the crowd of
unfortunates there offered for sale, a negro girl, whom she might
train, by gentle usage, to serve as an affectionate attendant during
her old age. Amongst a group of more robust and healthy children,
the lady observed one, slenderly formed, and suffering apparently
from change of climate and the miseries of the voyage. The
interesting countenance and humble modesty of the poor little
stranger induced Mrs Wheatley to overlook the disadvantage of a
weak state of health, and Phillis, as the young slave was subsequently
named, was purchased in preference to her healthier companions,
and taken home to the abode of her mistress. The child was in a
state almost of perfect nakedness, her only covering being a strip of
dirty carpet. These things were soon remedied by the attention of
the kind lady into whose hands the young African had been thrown,
and in a short time, the effects of comfortable clothing and food were
visible in her returning health. Phillis was, at the time of her
purchase, between seven and eight years old, and the intention of
Mrs Wheatley was to train her up to the common occupations of
a menial servant. But the marks of extraordinary intelligence which
Phillis soon evinced, induced her mistress's daughter to teach her to
read ; and such was the rapidity with which this was effected, that,
in sixteen months from the time of her arrival in the family, the
African child had so mastered the English language, to which she
was an utter stranger before, as to read with ease the most difficult
parts of sacred writ. This uncommon docility altered the intentions
of the family regarding Phillis, and in future she was kept constantly
about the person of her mistress, whose affections she entirely won
by her amiable disposition and propriety of demeanour.

At this period, neither in the mother-country nor in the colonies
was much attention bestowed on the education of the labouring-
classes of the whites themselves, and much less, it may be supposed,
was expended on the mental cultivation of the slave population.
Hence, when little Phillis, to her acquirements in reading, added, by
her own exertions and industry, the power of writing, she became
an object of very general attention. It is scarcely possible to sup-
pose that any care should have been expended on her young mind
before her abduction from her native land, and indeed her tender
years almost precluded the possibility even of such culture as Africa


Could afford. Of her infancy, spent in that unhappy land, Phillis
had but one solitary recollection, but that is an interesting one. She
remembered that, every morning, her mother poured out -water
before the rising sun a religious rite, doubtless, of the district from
which the child was carried away. Thus every morning, when the
day broke over the land and the home which fate had bestowed
on her, was Phillis reminded of the tender mother who had watched
over her infancy, but had been unable to protect her from the hand
of the merciless breakers-up of all domestic and social ties. The
young negro girl, however, regarded her abduction with no feelings
of regret, but with thankfulness, as having been the means of bring-
ing her to a land where a light, unknown in her far-off home, shone
as a guide to the feet and a lamp to the path.

As Phillis grew up to womanhood, her progress and attainments
did not belie the promise of her earlier years. She attracted the
notice of the literary characters of the day and the place, who sup-
plied her with books, and encouraged by their approbation the
ripening of her intellectual powers. This was greatly assisted by
the kind conduct of her mistress, who treated her in every respect
like a child of the family admitted her to her own table and intro-
duced her as an equal into the best society of Boston. Notwith-
standing these honours, Phillis never for a moment departed from
the humble and unassuming deportment which distinguished her
when she stood, a little trembling alien, to be sold, like a beast of
the field, in the slave-market. Never did she presume upon the
indulgence of those benevolent friends who regarded only her worth
and her genius, and overlooked in her favour all the disadvantages
of caste and of colour. So far was Phillis from repining at, or
resenting the prejudices which the long usages of society had
implanted, too deeply to be easily eradicated, in the minds even ot
the most humane of a more favoured race, that she uniformly
respected them, and, on being invited to the tables of the great and
the wealthy, chose always a place apart for herself, that none might
be offended at a thing so unusual as sitting at the same board with
a woman of colour a child of a long-degraded race.

Such was the modest and amiable disposition of Phillis Wheatley :
her literary talents and acquirements accorded well with the intrinsic
worth of her character. At the early age of fourteen, she appears
first to have attempted literary composition ; and between this
period and the age of nineteen, the whole of her poems which were
given to the world seem to have been written. Her favourite author
was Pope, and her favourite work the translation of the Iliad. It
is not of course surprising that her pieces should present many
features of resemblance to those of her cherished author and model.
She began also the study of the Latin tongue, and if we may judge
from a translation of one of Ovid's tales, appears to have made no
inconsiderable progress in it.


A great number of Phillis Wheatley's pieces were written to com-
memorate the deaths of the friends who had been kind to her. The
following little piece is on the death of a young gentleman of great
promise :

' Who taught thee conflict with the powers of night,
To vanquish Satan in the fields of fight ?
Who strung thy feeble arms with might unknown?
How great thy conquest, and how bright thy crown !
War with each princedom, throne, and power is o'er ;
The scene is ended, to return no more.
Oh, could my muse thy seat on high behold,
How decked with laurel, and enriched with gold !
Oh, could she hear what praise thy harp employs,
How sweet thine anthems, how divine thy joys,
What heavenly grandeur should exalt her strain !
What holy raptures in her numbers reign !
To soothe the troubles of the mind to peace,
To still the tumult of life's tossing seas,
To ease the anguish of the parent's heart,
What shall my sympathising verse impart ?
Where is the balm to heal so deep a wound ?
Where shall a sovereign remedy be found ?
Look, gracious Spirit ! from thy heavenly bower,
And thy full joys into their bosoms pour:
The raging tempest of their griefs control,
And spread the dawn of glory through the soul,
To eye the path the saint departed trod,
And trace him to the bosom of his God.'

The following passage on sleep, from a poem of some length, On
the Providence of God, shews a very considerable reach of thought,
and no mean powers of expression :

' As reason's powers by day our God disclose,
So may we trace Him in the night's repose.
Say, what is sleep ? and dreams, how passing strange !
When action ceases and ideas range
Licentious and unbounded o'er the plains,
Where fancy's queen in giddy triumph reigns.
Hear in soft strains the dreaming lover sigh
To a kind fair, and rave in jealousy ;
On pleasure now, and now on vengeance bent,
The labouring passions struggle for a vent.
What power, O man ! thy reason then restores,
So long suspended in nocturnal hours ?
What secret hand returns* the mental train,
And gives improved thine active powers again ?
From thee, O man ! what gratitude should rise !

* Returns, a common colloquial error for restores.

59 9


And when from balmy sleep thou op'st thine eyes,
Let thy first thoughts be praises to the skies.
How merciful our God, who thus imparts
O'erflowing tides of joy to human hearts,
When wants and woes might be our righteous lot,
Our God forgetting, by our God forgot !'

We have no hesitation in stating our opinion, and we believe that
many will concur in it, that these lines, written by an African slave-
girl at the age of fifteen or sixteen, are quite equal to a great number
of the verses that appear in all standard collections of English
poetry, under the names of Halifax, Dorset, and others of ' the mob
of gentlemen who wrote with ease.' Phillis Wheatley's lines are, if
anything, superior in harmony, and are not inferior in depth of
thought ; the faults are those which characterise the models she
copied from ; for it must be recollected that, sixty years ago, the
older authors of England were almost unknown ; and till the return
to nature and truth in the works of Cowper, the only popular writers
were those who followed the artificial, though polished style intro-
duced with the second Charles from the continent of Europe. This
accounts fully for the elaborate versification of the negro girl's
poetry ; since it required minds such as those of Cowper and
Wordsworth to throw off the trammels of this artificial style, and to
revive the native vigour and simplicity of their country's earlier

Phillis Wheatley felt a deep interest in everything affecting the
liberty of her fellow-creatures, of whatever condition, race, or colour.
She expresses herself with much feeling in an address to the Earl of
Dartmouth, secretary of state for North America, on the occasion of
some relaxation of the system of haughty severity which the home
government then pursued towards the colonies, and which ultimately
caused their separation and independence.

' Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of freedom sprung ;
Whence flow those wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate,
Was snatched from Afric's fancied happy seat.
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parents' breast !
Steeled was that soul, and by no misery moved,
That from a father seized his babe beloved ;
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?'

A slight and rather curious defect of Phillis's intellectual powers
might, under ordinary circumstances, have prevented her composi-

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 37 of 58)