Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter I.: SUNRISE BRINGS SORROW IN DEMERARA. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter I.: SUNRISE BRINGS SORROW IN DEMERARA. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 2.
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SUNRISE BRINGS SORROW IN DEMERARA.
The winter of the tropics is the most delicious of all seasons of any climate to inhabitants of the temperate zone. The autumnal deluge is over: there is no further apprehension of hurricanes for many months: the storms of hail are driven far south wards by the steady north winds, which spread coolness and refreshment among the groves and over the plains. The sea, whose rough and heavy swell seemed but lately to threaten to swallow up the island and desolate the coasts, now spreads as blue as the heavens themselves, and kisses the silent shore. Inland, the woods are as leafy as in an English June; for there, buds, blossoms, and fruits abound throughout the year. The groves of cedar and mahogany, of tile wild cotton-tree and the fig, form an assemblage of majestic columns, roofed by a canopy of foliage which the sun never penetrates, while the winds pass through, and come and go as they list. In the richest regions of this department of the globe, the cane-fields look flourishing at this season, and coffee-plantations clothe the sides of the hills. All inanimate things look bright; and birds of gay plumage, and animals of strange forms and habits add to the interest and beauty of the scene in the eve of a stranger.
The brightest beauty, the deepest interest, however, is not for strangers, but for those who return to a region like this after years of absence, like two travellers who were hastening, one fine January day, to reach their long-left home.—a plantation in Demerara. Alfred Bruce and his sister Mary had been sent to England for their education when they were, the one seven, the other six years of age, They had spent fourteen years without seeing their parents, except that their father paid one short visit to England about the middle of the time. Of him, they had, of course, a very vivid recollection, as they believed they had of their mother, of their nurse, of the localities of the plantation, and the general appearance of the country. They now, however, found themselves so much mistaken in the last particular, that they began to doubt the accuracy of their memories about the rest.
On landing, they had been full of delight at the contrast between an English and a Guiana winter. When they had gone on board, in the Thames, a thick fog had hung over London, and concealed every object from them but the houses on the banks, which looked all the more dingy for the snow which lay upon their roofs. When they landed, their native shores reposed in the serene beauty of an evening sunshine. By as bright a sunshine they were lighted on the next day; and it still shone upon them as they approached their father's estate; but it no longer seemed to gladden them, for they became more and more silent, only now and then uttering an exclamation.
“How altered every place looks!” said Mary. “The birds seem the only living things.”
A servant, who had come to meet the travellers with the carriage, reminded her that it was now the time of dinner, and that in an hour or so the slaves would be seen in the fields again.
“It is not only that we see no people,” said Alfred; “but the country, cultivated as it is, looks uninhabited. No villages, no farm-houses! Only a mansion here and there, seemingly going to decay, with a crowd of hovels near it. I remembered nothing of this. Did you, Mary?”
No. Mary thought the face of the country must have changed very considerably; but the old servant said it was much the same as it had always been in his time.
“Something must have befallen the cattle, surely?” observed Mary. “I never saw such wretched, starved-looking cows in England.”
The servant, who had never beheld any better, smiled at his young mistress's prejudices, and only answered that these were her father's cattle, and that yonder mansion was his house.
In a few minutes more, the long-anticipated meeting had taken place. Alfred, sitting beside his mother's couch, place with his beautiful little sister Louisa on his knee; and Mary, with her father's arm about her waist, forgot all their expectations, all their confused recollections, in present happiness. Their only anxiety was for Mrs. Bruce, who looked as if recovering from an illness. They would not believe her when she declared, with a languid smile, that she was as well as usual; but her husband added his testimony that she had never been better. Mrs. Bruce would have been as much surprised at her daughter's fresh colour and robust appearance, if she had not been more in the habit of intercourse with Europeans than her daughter with West Indians.
These young people were far happier this first day—far more exempt from disappointment— than many who return to the home of their childhood after years of absence. Their father was full of joy,—their mother, of tenderness. Louisa was as spirited, and clever, and captivating a little girl as they had ever seen; and her perfect frankness and ease of manner showed them how much liberty of speech and action was allowed her by her parents, and how entirely they might therefore reckon on the freedom which is so precious to young people when they reach what appears to them the age of discretion. Alfred was as much surprised as pleased to observe this spirit of independence in other members of the family. The white servants, as well those whom he had never seen before as the companions of his childhood, met him with an outstretched hand and a hearty welcome; and he observed that they addressed his father more as if they were his equals than his domestics. Alfred immediately concluded that his most sanguine hopes were justified, and that his father was indeed no tyrant, no arbitrary disposer of the fortunes of his inferiors, but a just and kind employer of their industry.
Mary, meanwhile, could not help observing the strangeness of the domestic management she witnessed. The black servants whom she met about the house were only half-clothed, and many of them without shoes and stockings; while her mother was as splendidly dressed as if she had been going to a ball. The rich sideboard of plate, and the whole arrangement of the table, answered to her dim but grand remembrances of the magnificence in which her parents lived; but the house was in as bad repair, and every apartment as unfinished, as if the mansion was going to decay before it was half completed. Having been told, however, before she left England, that she must not look for English comfort in another climate, she presently reconciled herself to whatever displeased her eye or her taste.
Before Louisa went to bed, her brother asked her if she would take a walk with him and Mary in the cool of the morning: they remembered the sound of the conch of old, and they wished to see the people go forth to their work. Louisa laughed heartily, supposing her brother to be in jest; and Mrs. Bruce explained that nobody in the house was up for many hours after the conch sounded; but when it appeared that Alfred was serious, Louisa, liking the idea of a frolic, promised to be ready. There was no occasion, as there would have been in England, to make any proviso about the weather being fine.
It was a delicious morning, bright and balmy, when the young people went forth. The sun was just peeping above the horizon, and the families of slaves appearing from their dwellings. They came with a lagging step, as if they did not hear the impatient call of the white man who acted as superintendent, or the crack of the driver's whip. Their names were called over, and very few were missing. The driver pointed with his whip to the sun, and observed that there was no excuse for sluggards on so bright a morning.
“Do you find the weather make much difference?” inquired Alfred.
“All the difference, sir. On a chill, foggy morning, such as we sometimes have at this season, it is impossible to collect the half of them before breakfast; and those that come do little or no work. They like the whip better than a fog, for they are made to live in sunshine.”
“Does my father insist on their working in raw weather?” asked Alfred. “I should not have thought it could answer to either party.”
“They are so lazy,” replied the overseer, “that it does not do to admit any excuse whatever, except in particular cases. If we once let them off on such a plea, we should soon hear of more just as good.”
“True enough,” thought Alfred, who, earnestly as he had endeavoured to keep his mind free from prejudice respecting the institution of slavery, yet entertained a deep dislike of the system.
More than a third of tile slaves assembled were men and women of the ages most fitted for hard labour, and of the greatest strength of frame that negroes attain ill slavery. These brought with them their hoes and knives, and each a portion of provision for breakfast. Having delivered their vegetables to the women who were to cook their messes, they were marched off to their labour in the coffee-walks. The second gang consisted of young boys and girls, women who were not strong enough for severe toil, and invalids who were sufficiently recovered to do light work: these were dispersed in the plantations, weeding between the rows of young plants. Little children, with an old woman near to take care of them, were set to collect greens for the pigs, or to weed the garden, or to fetch and carry what was wanted. These formed the third gang; and they showed far more alacrity, and were found to do much more in proportion to their strength, than the stoutest man of the first company. They alone showed any interest in the presence of the strangers. They looked back at Mary from time to time as the old woman sent them before her to the garden, and were seen to peep from the gates as long as Alfred and his sisters remained in sight. The other gangs did not appear to observe that any one was by; and such of them as were spoken to scarcely looked at their young master as they made their reply.
The young people took a turn through the walks, where the slaves were setting coffee-plants. There could not be better materials to work upon, a finer climate to live in, a richer promise of a due reward for labour, than Alfred saw before him; but never had he beheld employment so listlessly pursued, and such a waste of time. When he observed how the walks were sheltered from the north winds, how thriving the young plants appeared, how fit a soil the warm gravelly mould formed for their growth, he almost longed to be a labourer himself, at least during the cool morning hours. But the people before him did not seem to share his taste. At a little distance he could scarcely perceive that any of them moved; and when they did, it was in a more slow and indolent manner than he could have conceived. He had seen labourers in an English plantation marking out the ground, and digging the holes, and spreading the roots, and covering them with so much despatch, that the business of the superintendent was to watch that they did not get over their ground too fast; while here it took eight minutes to measure eight feet from stem to stem; and as for laying the roots, one would have thought each fibre weighed a stone by the difficulty there seemed to be in the work. He reminded Mary how, at this hour of the morning, an English ploughman leads forth his team in the chill of a February mist, and whistles, while eye and hand are busy marking out his furrows; while, in this bright and fragrant season, the black labourers before them seemed to heed neither their employment on the one hand nor the sunshine on the other. Quite out of patience, at last, at seeing a strong man throw down his hoe, when the hole he was preparing was all but cleared, Alfred snatched up the tool, finished the business, and went on to another and another, till he had done more in half an hour than any slave near him since sunrise. Louisa looked on in horror; for she had never seen a white man, much less a gentleman, at work in a plantation; but when she perceived that her sister looked more disposed to help than to find fault, she ran away laughing to tell the overseer what Alfred was doing.
“You look well pleased to have your work done for you,” said Alfred to the slave; “but I hope you will now bestir yourself as briskly for your master as I have done for you.”
When Alfred looked at the man for an answer, he fancied that he knew his face.
“What is your name?”
“What, old Mark's son, Willy?”
“Yes, old Mark is my father.”
“Why, Willy, have you forgotten me as I had nearly forgotten you? Don't you remember master Alfred?”
“O yes, very well.”
“Is this Willy who used to carry you on his shoulders?” asked Mary, “and who used to draw my little chaise round the garden? He was a high-spirited, merry boy, at——what age was he then?”
“Twelve when we went away. But, Willy, why did not you come and speak to me as soon as you saw me? You might have been sure that I should remember you when you told me your name.”
Willy made no answer, so Alfred went on—
“I find your father is alive still, and I mean to go and see him to-day; for I hear he keeps at home now on account of his great age. Can you show me his cottage?”
Willy pointed out a cottage of rather a superior appearance to some about it, and said his father was always within or in the provision-ground beside it. His mother was dead, but his two sisters, Becky and Nell, were at hand; one was now in the field yonder, and the other was one of the cooks, whom he would see preparing breakfast under the tree.
There was time to see the slaves at breakfast before the same meal would be ready at home. They assembled in the shade at the sound of the conch, and each had his mess served out to him. The young people did not wish to interfere with this short period of rest, and therefore, after speaking kindly to two or three whom they remembered, they walked away. As they were going, they met a few of the sluggards who had not put in their appearance at the proper hour, and who sauntered along, unwilling (as they well might be) to meet the driver.
“What will be done to them?” asked Mary.
“They will only be whipped a little,” said Louisa. Her sister stared to hear her speak so lightly of being whipped.
“O, I do not mean flogged so that they cannot work; but just a stroke or two, this way.”
And she switched her brother with the cane she snatched from his hand. Seeing that both looked still dissatisfied, she went on—
“What better can they do in England when people are late at their work? for I suppose people sleep too long there sometimes, as they do here.”
Her brother told her, to her great surprise, that lazy people are punished in England by having their work taken from them; there being plenty of industrious labourers who are glad to get it. She said there was nothing her papa's slaves would like so much as not to have to work; but she had never heard of such a thing being allowed, except on Sundays and holidays.
In their way home they looked in on old Mark, whom they found eating his breakfast, attended upon by his daughter Becky, who had come in from the field for that purpose. Mark had been an industrious man in his day—in his own provision-ground at least; and, in consequence, he was better off than most of his neighbours. His cottage consisted of three rooms, and had a boarded floor. He had a chest for his clothes, and at holiday times he was more gaily dressed than any of his younger neighbours. A few orange-trees and bananas shaded the cottage, and gave the outside a somewhat picturesque appearance, but the inside looked anything but agreeable, Mary thought. The walls were merely wattled and smeared with plaster; and the roof, thatched with cocoa–nut leaves, had holes in it to let out the smoke of the nightly fire, which is necessary to keep negroes warm enough to sleep. In the day-time they cook out of doors.
Mark had never been very bright in his intellects during his best days; and now the little light he had was clouded with age. He was easily made to understand, however, who his guests were. He told some anecdotes of Alfred's childhood; and when once set talking, went on as if he would never have done. He appeared excessively conceited; for the tendency of all he said was to prove his own merits. He related how he had told the truth on one occasion, and been brave on another; and how the overseer had been heard to say that he made the most of his provision-ground, and how the estimate of his value had been raised from time to time. Even when he gave instances of his master's kindness to him, it appeared that he only did so as proving his own merit. What was yet more strange, Becky had exactly the same taste in conversation. She not only listened with much deference to all her father had to say, but took up the strain when he let it fall. The young people soon grew tired of this, and cut short the rambling narratives of the compliments which Becky had received from white people in her time. The conceit only took a new form, however; at every word of kindness which either Alfred or Mary spoke, both the slaves looked prouder and prouder.
“What odd, disagreeable people!” exclaimed Mary, as she turned away from the door; “I always thought we should find slaves too humble, servile; I hardly know how to treat them when they are proud.”
“Our slaves are particularly proud, because papa has treated them kindly,” observed Louisa. “Mr. Mitchelson laughs at us when we are tired of hearing them praise themselves, and says that if we used them properly they would never tease us in that way; and I have heard that Mrs. Mitchelson says to her daughter, ‘My dear, do not look so conceited, or I shall think you have been talking with Mr. Bruce's slaves.’”
Louisa could not satisfy her brother as to why slaves were made disagreeable by being kindly treated. All she knew was, that slaves were either silent and obstinate, like Willy, or talkative and conceited like his father and sisters. Alfred pondered the matter as he went home. “My loves!” said their mother, in her usual feeble voice, as the young folks entered the breakfast-room, “how weary you must be with all you have done! I would have bad breakfast an hour earlier than usual if you had been in; for I am sure you must all be tired to death. Louisa, love, rest yourself on my couch.”
Louisa did so; and her brother and sister were not believed when they declared they were untired.
“When you know our climate a little better,” said Mr. Bruce, “you will no more dream of such long walks than the English of staying at home all a fine summer's day; which I suppose they seldom do. But if you really are not tired, Alfred, we will ride over to Paradise by and by. I promised to take you to see your old friends, the Mitchelsons, as soon as you arrived; and they are in a hurry to welcome you.”