Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter IX.: CALAMITY WELCOME IN DEMERARA. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter IX.: CALAMITY WELCOME 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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CALAMITY WELCOME IN DEMERARA.
There was every promise of a fine crop this season in Mr. Bruce's plantation. The coffee walks had been refreshed by frequent showers, and were screened from the chill north winds; and the fruit looked so well that, as the owner surveyed his groves the day before the gathering began, he flattered himself with the hopes of a crop so much above the average as might clear off some of the above debts which began to press heavily upon him.
His daughters remained at his side during the whole of this cheerful season; for Mary had but a faint remembrance, which she wished to revive, of its customs and festivities. The time of crop its less remarkable and less joyous in a coffee than a sugar plantation; but there is much in both to engage the eye and interest the heart. The sugar crop had been got in three months before, and Mary had then visited the Mitchelsons, and seen how marvellously the appearance of the working population, both man and beast, had improved in a very short time. Horses, oxen, mules, and even pigs, had fattened upon the green tops of the cane and upon the scum from the boiling-house; while the meagre and sickly among the slaves recovered their looks rapidly while they had free access to the nourishing juice which oozed from the mill. The abundance of food more than made up for the increase of labour; and the slaves, while more hardly worked than ever, seemed to mind it less, and to wear a look of cheerfulness sufficiently rare at other seasons.
There was less apparent enjoyment to all parties at the time of gathering in the coffee, though it was a sight not to be missed by a stranger. The slaves could not grow fat upon the fruit of the coffee-tree as upon the juice of the cane; but as there was an extra allowance of food in consideration of the extra labour, the slaves went through it with some degree of willingness. The weather was oppressively hot, too; but Mary found it as tolerable in the shade of the walks as in the house. She sat there for hours, under a large umbrella, watching the slaves, as each slowly filled the canvass-bag hung round his neck, and kept open by a hoop. She followed them with her eyes when they sauntered from the trees to the baskets to empty their pouches, and then back again to the trees; and listened to the rebukes of the overseer when he found unripe fruit among the ripe.
“I am sure,” said she to her father one day, “I should come in for many a scolding if I had to pick coffee to-day. If the heat makes us faint as we lie in the shade, what must it be to those who stand in the sun from morning till night! I could not lift a hand, or see the difference between one berry and another.”
“Blacks bear the heat better than we do,” observed Mr. Bruce. “However, it is really dreadfully sultry to day. I have seldom felt it so much myself, and I believe the slaves will be as glad as we when night comes.”
“The little puffs of air that leave a dead calm,” said Mary, “only provoke one to remember the steady breeze we did not know how to value when we had it. I should not care for a thunderstorm if it would but bring coolness.”
“Would not you? You little know what thunderstorms are here.”
“You forget how many we had in the spring.”
“Those were no more like what we shall have soon, than a June night-breeze in England is like a January frost-wind. You may soon know, however, what a Demerara thunderstorm is like.”
Mary looked about her as her father pointed. and saw that the face of nature was indeed changed. She had mentioned a thunderstorm because she had heard the overseer predict the approach of one.
There was a mass of clouds towering in a distant quarter of the heavens, not like a pile of snowy peaks, but now rent apart and now tumbled together, and bathed in a dull, red light. The sun, too, looked large and red, while distant objects wore a bluish cast, and looked larger and nearer than usual. There was a dead calm. The pigeon had ceased her cooing: no parrots were showing off their gaudy plumage in the sunlight, and not even the hum of the enamelled beetle was heard.
“What is the moon's age?” asked Mr. Bruce of the overseer.
“She is full to-night, sir, and a stormy night it will be I fear.” He held up his finger and listened.
“Hark!” said Mary, “there is the thunder already.”
“It is not thunder, my dear.”
“It is the sea,” said Louisa. “I never heard it here but once before; but I am sure it is the same sound.”
“The sea at this distance!” cried Mary.
Her father shook his head, muttering, “God help all who are in harbour, and give them a breeze to carry them out far enough! The shore will be strewed with wrecks by the morning. Come, my dears, let us go home before yonder clouds climb higher.”
The whites have not yet become as weather-wise, between the tropics, as the negroes; and both fall short of the foresight which might be attained, and which was actually possessed by the original inhabitants of these countries. A negro cannot, like them, predict a storm twelve days beforehand; but he is generally aware of its approach some hours sooner than his master. It depends upon the terms he happens to be on with the whites, whether or not he gives them the advantage of his observations.
Old Mark sent his daughter Becky to Mr. Bruce's house to deliver his opinion on the subject; but all were prepared. No such friendly warning was given to the Mitchelsons, who, overcome with the heat, were, from the eldest to the youngest, lying on couches, too languid to lift up their beads or think of what might be passing out of doors. Cassius, meanwhile, was leaning over the gate of his provision-ground watching the moon as she rose, crimson as blood, behind his little plantain grove. Every star looked crimson too, and had its halo like the moon. It was as if a bloody steam had gone up from the earth. Not a breath of air could yet be felt; yet here and there a cedar, taller than the rest, stooped and shivered; and the clouds, now rushing, now poised motionless, indicated a capricious commotion in the upper air. Cassius was watching with much interest these signs of an approaching tempest, when he felt himself pulled by the jacket.
“May I stay with you?” asked poor Hester. “My master and mistress dare not keep at home because our roof is almost off already, and they think the wind will carry it quite away tonight.”
“Where are they gone?”
“To find somebody to take them in; but they say there will be no room tbr me.”
“Stay with me then; but nobody will be safe under a roof to-night, I think.”
“Where shall we stay then?”
“Here, unless God calls us away. Many may be called before morning.”
The little girl stood trembling, afraid of she scarcely knew what, till a tremendous clap of thunder burst near, and then she clung to Cassius, and hid her face. In a few moments the gong was heard, sounding in the hurried irregular manner which betokens an alarm.
“Aha!” cried Cassius. “The white man's house shakes and he is afraid.”
“What does he call us for?” said the terrified child. “We can do him no good.”
“No; but his house is stronger than ours; and if his shakes, ours may tumble down, and then he would lose his slaves and their houses too. So let us go into the field where we are called, and then we shall see how pale white men can look.”
All the way as they went, Hester held one hand before her eyes, for the lightning flashes came thick and fast. Still there was neither wind nor rain; but the roar of the distant sea rose louder in the intervals of the thunder.
Cassius suddenly stopt short, and pulled the little girl's hand from before her face, crying, “Look, look, there is a sight!”
Hester shrieked when she saw a whole field of sugar-canes whirled in the air. Before they had time to fall, the loftiest trees of the forest were carried up in like manner. The mill disappeared, a hundred huts were levelled; there was a stunning roar, a rumbling beneath, a rushing above. The hurricane was upon them in all its fury.
Cassius clasped the child round the waist, and carried rather than led her at his utmost speed beyond the verge of the groves, lest they also should be borne down and crush all beneath them. When he had arrived with his charge in the field whither the gong had summoned him, slaves were arriving from all parts of the plantation to seek safety in an open place. Their black forms flitting in the mixed light,—now in the glare of the lightning, and now in the rapid gleams which the full moon cast as the clouds were swept away tbr a moment, might have seemed to a stranger like imps of the storm, collecting to give tidings of its ravages. Like such imps they spoke and acted.
“The mill is down!” cried one.
“No crop next year, for the canes are blown away!” shouted another.
“The hills are bare as a rock,—no coffee, no spice, no cotton! Hurra!”
“But our huts are gone: our plantation-grounds are buried,” cried the wailing voice of a woman.
“Hurra! for tim white man's are gone too!” answered many mingled tones. Just then a burst of moonlight showed to each the exulting countenances of the rest, and there went up a shout louder than the thunder,— “Hurra! hurra! how ugly is the land!”
The sound was hushed, and the warring lights were quenched for a time by the deluge which poured down from tbe clouds. The slaves crouched together in the middle of the field, supporting one another as well as they could against the fury of the gusts which still blew, and of the tropical rains. An inquiry now went round,—where was Homer? It was his duty to be in the field as soon as the gong had sounded, but no one had seen him. There was a stem hope in every heart that his roof had fallen in and buried him and his whip together. It was not so, however.
After a while, the roaring of water was heard very. near, and some of the blacks separated from the rest to see in what direction the irregular torrents which usually attend a hurricane were taking their course. There was a strip of low ground between the sloping field where the negroes were collected and the opposite hill, and through the middle of this ground a river rushed along where a river had never been seen before. A tree was still standing here and there in the midst of the foaming waters, and what had, a few minutes ago, been a hillock with a few shrubs growing out of it, was now an island. The negroes thought they heard a shout from this island, and then supposed it must be fancy; but when the cloudy rack was swept away and allowed the moon to look down for a moment, they saw that some one was certainly there, clinging to the shrubs, and in imminent peril of being carried away if the stream should continue to rise. It was Horner, who was making his way to the field when the waters overtook him in the low ground, and drove him to the hillock to seek a safety which was likely to be short enough. The waters rose every moment: and though the distance was not above thirty feet from the hillock to the sloping bank on which the negroes had now ranged themselves to watch his fate, the waves dashed through in so furious a current that he did not dare to commit himself to them. He called, he shouted, he screamed for help, his agony growing more intense, as inch after inch, foot after foot, of his little shore disappeared. The negroes answered his shouts very punctually; but whether the impatience of peril prompted the thought, or an evil conscience, or whether it were really so, the shouts seemed to him to have more of triumph than sympathy in them; and cruel as would have been his situation had all the world been looking on with a desire to help, it was dreadfully aggravated by the belief that the wretches whom he had so utterly despised were watching his struggles, and standing with folded arms to see how he would help himself when there was none to help him. He turned and looked to the other shore; but it was far too distant to be reached. If he was to be saved, it must be by crossing the narrower gulley; and, at last, a means of doing so seemed to offer. Several trees had been carried past by the current; but they were all borne on headlong, and he had no means of arresting their course: but one came at length a trunk of the largest growth, and therefore making its way more slowly than the rest. It tilted from time to time against the bank, and when it reached the island, fairly stuck at the very point where the stream was narrowest. With intense gratitude,—gratitude which two hours before he would have denied could ever be felt towards slaves,—Horner saw the negroes cluster about the root of the tree to hold it firm in its position. Its branchy head seemed to him to be secure, and the only question now was, whether he could keep his hold on this bridge, while the torrent rose over it, as if in fury at having its course delayed. He could but try, for it was his only chance. The beginning of his adventure would be the most perilous, on account of the boughs over and through which he must make his way. Slowly, fearfully, but firmly he accomplished this, and the next glimpse of moonlight showed him astride on the bare trunk, clinging with knees and arms, and creeping forward as he battled with the spray. The slaves were no less intent. Not a word was spoken, not one let go, and even the women would have a hold. A black cloud hid the moon just when Horner seemed within reach of the bank; and what happened in that dark moment,—whether it was the force of the stream, or the strength of the temptation,—no lips were ever known to utter; but the event was that the massy trunk heaved once over, the unhappy wretch lost his grasp, and was carried down at the instant he thought himself secure. Horrid yells once more arose, from the perishing man, and from the blacks now dispersed along the bank to see the last of him.
“He is not gone yet,” was the cry of one; “he climbed yon tree as if he had been a water-rat.”
“There let him sit if the wind will let him,” cried another. “That he should have been carried straight to a tree after all!”
“Stand fast! here comes the gale again!” shouted a third.
The gale came. The tree in which Horner had found refuge bowed, cracked,—but before it fell, the wretch was blown from it like a flake of foam, and swallowed up finally in the surge beneath. This was clearly seen by a passing gleam.
“Hurra! hurra!” was the cry once more. “God sent the wind. It was God that murdered him, not we.”
When the planters were sufficiently recovered to exchange letters of condolence, Mr. Mitchelson wrote thus to Mr. Bruce. “You have probably heard that my overseer, poor Horner, was lost from the waters being out when he was making his way to the field where his duty called him. We all lament him much; but your son will be glad to hear (pray tell him when you write) that my slaves are conducting themselves as well as if still under the charge of him we have lost. I am persuaded they would have risked their own lives to save his, if it had been possible. But, as they say, it was God's will that he should perish!”