Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter III.: PROSPERITY IMPOVERISHES IN DEMERARA. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter III.: PROSPERITY IMPOVERISHES 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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PROSPERITY IMPOVERISHES IN DEMERARA.
Alfred was not at all disposed to gainsay what his father protested about Mr. Mitchelson's native kindliness of disposition. He remembered time days when it was a common indulgence to be carried about the grounds in Mr. Mitchelson's arms, or to sit on his knee, and listen to stories of that England to which he was to go, some time or other. He ascribed this gentleman's treatment of his slaves, not to any love of tyranny for its own sake, but to the grand error of regarding human beings as property, operating upon pecuniary interest. Though, therefore, it was impossible to regard him with the same esteem as if he had known how to respect the rights of his fellow-men, Alfred was not disposed to visit the sins of a system upon an individual who had always treated him with kindness; and he therefore met his old friend's cordial greeting with frank good-humour.
The ladies were not at home; but they would be in long before it would be necessary for the Bruces in to be turning homewards. Would they step indoors and rest, or prolong their ride to a once favourite seat of Alfred's, where the pavilion peeped out from among the trees? The gentlemen were for proceeding, Alfred with the hope of making some observations by the way, and obtaining a distant view of the sea from the verandah of the pavilion.
The gangs of slaves were at work in the cane-fields through which they passed; but the apathy with which they pursued their employment was even more striking than on Mr. Bruce's estate. Alfred thought within himself how poor is the purchase of a man. It is the mind that makes the value of the man. It is the mind which gives sight to the eye, and hearing to the ear, and strength to the limbs; and the mind cannot be purchased,—only that small portion of it which can be brought under the dread of the whip and the stocks. Where the man is allowed the possession of himself, the purchaser of his labour is benefited by the vigour of his mind through the service of his limbs: where man is made the possession of another, the possessor loses at once and for ever, all that is most valuable in that for which he has paid the price of crime. He becomes the owner of that which only differs from an idiot in being less easily drilled into habits, and more capable of effectual revenge.
Alfred lingered to watch the scene before him, though the sun shed down a flood of rays that would have been thought intolerable in England, and though the doves were cooing in the shade which his companions had already reached, and humming-birds were flitting among the stems like flying blossoms from some paradise that better deserved the name than this. The overseer was finding fault with one of the slaves, a middle-aged man, of robust make and a more intelligent countenance than most of his companions. Alfred asked what was the matter.
“He is lazy, sir, as usual: and as usual, he says that he is a very bad labourer and never was worth much to his master; but he can work hard enough in his provision-ground. Nobody brings so many vegetables and pigs to market as Cassius.”
“How is this, Cassius?” said Alfred.
Cassius only repeated what he bad said about the impossibility that he should do much work, as he had always been a bad slave for labour.
At this moment the gong sounded the hour of dinner. The overseer went away. Cassius slowly walked off, as it happened, in the same direction that Alfred was going. When he had reached the shade, the slave looked behind him to see that the overseer was not observing him, and then quickened his pace almost to a run. Alfred tied his horse to a tree, followed him, and reached his provision-ground a very few minutes after him. Cassius was already at work, digging as if he were toiling for wages.
Alfred laughed good-humouredly as lie asked Cassius what he said now about the impossibility of his working like other people.
Cassius put on a sullen look while he answered,
“You may ask my master, and he will tell you that he has always had trouble with me. When I was a youth, I never liked work, and I have done less and less ever since. I am worth very little to him. I have been whipped five times since last crop, and I got into the stocks many times last year. I eat more than my work pays for.”
“Then I wonder your master keeps you. Don't you?”
“I wonder he puts such a high ransom upon me. It is too high for such an one as I.”
“And are you working out your ransom, Cassius?”
“I am trying, sir. But I shall have eaten more than it is worth before I get money to pay it.”
“Now,” thought Alfred, “I understand the meaning of this extraordinary humility, and of old Mark's and Becky's conceit, too,” he added, as he remembered what had passed in the morning “they wish to enhance their own value, from a suspicion that they will change masters one of these days; and Cassius depreciates his, because he hopes to get off with a lower ransom. Dreadful! that human beings should rate their own value according to the depth of another man's purse! They seem, too, to have no idea of natural disinterested kindness; for Mark and Becky took all the merit of my father's little indulgences to themselves. They seemed to think they must be much better than their neighbour Harry, because my father roofed their cottage after the storm, while Harry was obliged to wait till he could repair his himself. How this world is turned upside down when slaves are in it!”
“Come, Cassius,” he said aloud, “I am not your master, and I am not going to speak to your master about you.”
“You do not want to buy me?” inquired Cassius, looking inquisitively.
“Not I. I have no estate, and am not likely ever to want any slaves.”
“What did you follow me for then?”
“Because I was curious to see how you manage your provision-ground, if you really cannot work. But do not attempt to deceive me any more. I see you are afraid of having your ransom raised. But you need not fear. I should be too much pleased to see you obtain your freedom to put any hinderance in your way. Make me your friend, Cassius; and tell me how much money you have earned, and how much more you want; and where you mean to go if you get your liberty.”
This was going too straight to the point. Cassius had never had a friend since he was parted from his father in his youth; and not remembering much of the comfort of having one, he was not ready with his confidence. He looked suspiciously at Alfred, put on a lazy, stupid look, and said nothing but a few words without meaning.
Alfred's next question, as it showed ignorance of what everybody in the West Indies knows, did more towards establishing a right understanding than anything else he could have said. It proved to the slave that the gentleman was not practising upon him.
“This is very fine soil,” was Alfred's remark, as he turned up a spade-full of earth; “and yet I see nothing but plantains, and yams, and potatoes, unless that patch of corn-ground is yours too. Why do not you grow a few canes or coffee-plants? or cotton, at least, would answer your purpose better, I should think.”
Cassius grinned with some feeling deeper than mirth, while he told the young ignoramus that no slaves were allowed to grow any of the articles their masters sell. This was clearly to guard against theft; but it seemed hard that the labour by which a ransom could alone be raised, must be employed on productions which can never become very valuable. Cassius laughed so long at the idea of a slave growing canes or coffee, that Alfred began to regret the joke, for it did not seem a very merry one to him. He could and would have laughed m England to see a cottager growing pine-apples on a quarter of a rood of ground, because it would have been ridiculous, and it would not be against any law. Here the case was reversed; it was not ridiculous, and it was against the law; and Alfred was not disposed to laugh.
“How much time do you spend at work here, Cassius? Two hours a-day?”
Cassius laughed again, and said—
“I have not more than two hours for eating, and day-sleep, and my ground, altogether.”
“Indeed! you go to work at six and leave off at eight for half an hour. You come home again to dinner, and you have two hours then, have not you?”
“No; one and a half: and sometimes I must sleep, when I have worked at night, and when it is very hot. We blacks grow cross if we do not sleep in the day.”
“Well, then, there is the evening. You leave work at six, and there is time for much digging before dark.”
“Not when we have the cattle-feed to gather. Sometimes we are at that till the night comes on. It is so cold,” he continued, shivering at the thought of it. “When our bundles of grass are made up, we have to carry them far, and they gather the dew, and it trickles down our backs, while we wait to give them in. I had rather work two hours more in the field by star-light than gather grass when the ground is damp, and be always scolded because the bundle is not bigger.”
“Why,” thought Alfred, “should cattle be fed by human labour? Or, if grass must be gathered, why not by people whose regular business it shall be to do it by day-light, instead of exposing those to the damp who are relaxed by the heat of the day? I will see how my father manages this.”
During the whole time of conversation, as well as in each pause, Cassius went on with his work as if he had not a moment to lose. The hope of ransom was the spring that animated him. Every thing about him testified to his eagerness for saving. His bed of planks, with its single mat and blanket, was his only furniture, except a few eating utensils; he had but one wooden trencher and two calabashes. Handsome as he was, Cassius did not seem to have the personal vanity of a negro, and on festival days was the least gaily dressed of the group. He never took a farthing from his hoard, and added to it on every possible occasion.
“Where do you mean to go when you have paid your ransom?” asked Alfred, “or will you buy land and remain? or be a free labourer for your master?”
“I go, sir, but my mind is not settled where. I hear there is a place over the sea, in my own country, where we may live in the same way that the whites live here; where we may grow sugar and coffee, and trade as we like, and be rich, and even be governors—such as are most fit to be so. One of our people got ransomed and went, but we have never heard if he found such a place.”
“You mean Liberia?”
“Yes, sir. Have you been there?”
“No; but I have been where I heard a great deal about the place. If I were you, I would go to Liberia as soon as I could—-that is, if you can labour. No man can prosper at Liberia, or anywhere else, unless lie exerts himself.”
Cassius stood erect, and pointed with a smile to his grove of plantains, to his patch of maize, to his plots of vegetables, flourishing in a clean soil.
“I see, Cassius,” said Alfred, “what you mean. I see that there was deceit in your way of speaking of yourself before the overseer. Cease to be a slave as soon as you can; but while you are here, be faithful to your master.”
“Faithful!” exclaimed Cassius, looking full at him. “I have never stolen his sugar — I have never murdered his children—I have never even listened to those who talked of burning his canes or poisoning his cattle.”
“God forbid! but if you are not industrious —if you do not speak the truth—you are not faithful.”
“I should be unfaithful if I had ever promised either; but J never did. Why should I be industrious for him? And as for telling the truth, I will do it when it helps me to get my ransom; but if telling the truth hinders my being free, I lie to myself when I tell the truth to my master, for I have said to myself that I will be free.”
Alfred had nothing to reply, for his principles of morality had all a reference to a state of freedom, and he had not learned yet to apply them in circumstances which they did not suit. He would have said beforehand, that there could be no lack of arguments and sanctions for truth and fidelity, the two most clearly necessary bonds of society; but, at the moment, it appeared to him that not one would apply. He inquired whether there was no religions teacher on the estate, and whether he did not bid them be faithful and truthful?
“There was one some time ago, and he taught us a great deal. He told us what it was to be Christians, and he made us Christians, and said that our master and all his family were Christians too. But he could not teach us long, and he went away in a little while.”
“What prevented his teaching you?”
“He could not make his stories seem true; and whenever he read the Gospel, there was something either to make us laugh, or to make the overseer or our master angry. At last, he preached one day about all men being brothers, and about all being equal when they were born, and that they should be equal again when they were dead. He was disgraced and sent away after that; and so he ought to be for preaching what was false; for our master says, the blacks never were and never will be equal with the whites; and we know that our master and the overseer are not at all like our brothers.”
“And yet,” said Alfred, speaking his own thoughts, rather than thinking of the prudence of what he was saying, “there were men once who sold a brother as a slave into Egypt.”
“But he was not like us,” said Cassius; “for God made him a great lord over his brothers that sold him, and lie let them go home again. I am sure,” he continued, grinning as lie spoke, “if God made us lords over the white men, we should not let them go.”
“I am sorry,” said Alfred, “that your teacher is gone, for it seems as if teaching like his was very much wanted. When you get to Liberia, however, you will learn these things faster and better.”
He then asked for water; and while Cassius took down a calabash and disappeared to fetch some, Alfred went on digging.
“Ah! ha!” said the slave when he returned, “if I had a white gentleman to dig for me whenever I am away, I should soon go to Liberia: but I did not know that white gentlemen could dig.”
“I cannot help you much in that way, Cassius; but here is what will do as well;” and he put some money into his hand. Cassius leaped high into the air, into and was apparently going to sing; but checked himself in a moment when lie saw the face of an old negro, a neighbour of his, peeping through the fence.
“I must be going,” said Alfred; “but I shall never find my way to the pavilion. Will this old man go with me?”
“Yes, sir; and Robert is merry and will talk all the way.” So a ludicrous introduction took place between the gentleman and the roguish-looking old slave.
They had not far to go; but Robert found time to tell all his affairs to Alfred by the way. He told him that he had a cottage and provision-ground close by Cassius's, and that he had a wife as old as himself, and that they were too tired to dig and plant when they had done work, so that their ground produced but little; but that their neighbour took care that they had enough, and either gave them food or worked in their ground on a Sunday, and that he piled their fire for them every night. In answer to Alfred's remark, that Cassius was generous end kind in doing all this, old Robert said in a careless way, that Cassius was young and he and his wife old. This reminded Alfred of the fact, that respect for the aged is one of the characteristies of negroes.
He was far from feeling any of this respect in the present instance. Old Robert could not be got to answer a question straightforward, or to tell anything without contradicting himself twenty times. He told fibs about his master and Cassius and himself; had a story for every question that was asked, the object of the story being to find out how tim gentleman would like to have the question answered; and praised everything and everybody that he supposed would be acceptable to a white. Alfred soon grew tired of this, and bade him mind where he was going and leave off talking: whereupon the old man began to sing, —not, as Alfred would have liked, one of the songs of his own land, in consideration of which the cracked voice and antic action would have been forgiven,—but an English hymn, which he shouted through the wood, shaking his head, clasping his hands and turning up his eyes, which, however, never failed to warn him of the boughs which straggled across the path, and which he held aside that they might not incommode his companion. When they came within hearing of the pavilion, the chaunt they became doubly devout. Mitchelson shouted to him, with an oath, to hold his tongue, to which he answered with a flippant “Very well, sir,” and took his way back again, muttering to himself as he hobbled along.
Alfred was surprised to find that Mrs. Mitchelson and her two daughters had joined the party in the pavilion. Fruit and wine were on the table; the ladies reposed on couches and the gentlemen lolled in their chairs, as English people are wont to do in a hot climate. Alfred took his seat by a window, where the spicy winds breathed softly in, and whence he could look over cane-fields glaring in the sun with coffee-walks interspersed, over groves of the cotton-tree, of the fig, the plantain and the orange, cotto where the sea sparkled on the horizon, with here and there a white sail gliding before the breeze.
“What luxury!” he exclaimed, “to sit in this very seat once more, to look again on this landscape; to be regaled with such fragrance as I have only dreamed of since my childhood, and to feast on such fruit,” helping himself to an orange, “as the English at home have little more idea of than the Laplanders.”
“Dear me!” said Miss Grace Mitchelson, “I thought the English ate oranges. I am sure there was something about oranges in what papa read out of the newspaper about the theatre.”
“Yes,” said her sister Rosa, “did not they throw orange-peel on the stage, papa?”
Alfred explained that the oranges which are thought a great treat in England, are such as would be thrown away as only half-ripe at Demerara. It is father looked pleased as he praised one after another of the things in which a tropical climate excels a temperate one. Mr. Mitchelson stopped him, however, in the midst of his observations on the fertility of the soils which stretched from the height on which they sat to the distant ocean.
“Fertile indeed they have been,” said he, “and fertile many of them still are; but richness of soil is not a lasting advantage like a fine climate. It wears out fast, very fast, as I can tell to my cost. If you had seen what yonder cane-field produced when it first came into my hands, and could compare it with last year's crop, you would be surprised at the change.”
“Do soils become exhausted faster at Demerara than elsewhere?” asked Mr. Bruce. “If not, there is a poor prospect before our whole race. One would fear they must starve in time. What do they say in England. son?”
“They say, sir, that soils used to be exhausted there, and that, as a matter of course, they were suffered to lie fallow from time to time; but I believe sugar-planters do not like fallows.”
“We cannot afford them,” said Mitchelson. “We must have crops year by year to answer our expenses; and when we have short leases, we must make the most of them, whatever becomes of the land when we have done with it.”
“Enghsh farmers are so far of your opinion, that the best of them say they cannot afford fallows; but neither do they exhaust their soils.”
“How in the name of wonder do they manage then?”
“They practise convertible husbandry to a greater extent than we planters ever dream of. Wheat and barley exhaust the land like canes; but by growing green crops in turn with grain, and changing corn land into pasture, they renew the powers of tile soil, and may go on for ever, for aught I see, till fallows are banished from the land, and every rood is fertile in its due proportion.”
“That is all very well,” said Mitchelson; “but it is no example for us. Sugar is our staple, sugar we must grow. We have little use for green crops, and less for pasture.”
“In present state of things, certainly,” replied Alfred. “The question is, whether it might not answer to find a use for both? I have seen a calculation, and I mean to verify it as I have opportunity, of the expenses and profits of the management of such an estate as this by methods of convertible husbandry. Such a system involves many changes; but they seem to me likely to be all advantageous; and I long to see them tried.”
“He who made the calculation had better try, son.”
“He means to do so, and I shall go over to Barbadoes, some day, and see the result. He will begin by making his slaves more like English labourers——”
“There is a foolish English fancy to begin with,” observed Mitchelson.
“Employing them,” continued Alfred, “in a greater variety of ways than is common here and doing much of their work with cattle. In stead of buying provisions, importing bricks, and a hundred other things that might be procured at hand, while the soil is all the time growing barren as fast as it can, he will vary his crops, thus raising food for man and beast; he will enlarge his stock of cattle, thus providing manure for his land, and butcher's meat for his people; his horses will graze for themselves instead of the slaves doing it for them, and they, meanwhile, will be making bricks and doing other things worthy of men, while the work of cattle will be done by cattle.”
“Very fine, indeed! and what becomes of his sugar all this time?”
“A certain proportion of this estate will thus, he expects, be always kept in good heart for the production of the staple on which his profits depend. The profits of this portion and the savings consequent on his management, will amount to at least as much, at the end of ten years, as the profits of growing sugar only; while his land will be in as good condition as ever, the number of his slaves increased, the quality of his stock improved, and all in good train for going on to a state of further prosperity.”
“Your friend is a proprietor, I suppose, Mr. Alfred?”
“He is; but he would follow the same plan if he held a lease.”
“Not he; at least if he once knew what slaves are.”
“He sees, sir, that whatever slaves may be, they can do many things that cattle cannot do, while cattle do the hardest part of slaves' work better than slaves.”
“To say the truth,” said Mr. Bruce, “I have often wished for ploughs and oxen, if I could but have fed the cattle and employed my lazy slaves. It did seem strange, when I came back from England, to contrast the fine farm-yards and dairies I saw there, with our paddocks, where our half-starved beasts are fed with grass ready cut.”
“It reminds me,” observed Alfred, “of a child's story-book I saw in England, with pictures of the world turned topsy-turvy. There was one of a mare perched in a gig, with her master in harness. We might make a fellow to it of a man cutting grass for the ox, after having done the work of the plough.”
Alfred had not forgotten that ladies were present all this time, and was still further from supposing that the conversation could be interesting to them; but he was relieved from all consideration for them, by having seen them long before drop asleep, or shut their eves so as to prohibit conversation as much as if they were. When the gentleman rose, however, to return to the mansion, tile fair ones roused themselves and took each an arm to be conducted through the wood. What was the subject of their conversation is not recorded; but it was probably not convertible husbandry, as the ladies of Demerara hear quite enough in the gross of the troubles of a plantation, to be excusable for wishing to avoid the details of grievances which they are told can be remedied by no other power than the English government.