Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter X.: PROTECTION IS OPPRESSION IN DEMERARA. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 2
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Chapter X.: PROTECTION IS OPPRESSION 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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PROTECTION IS OPPRESSION IN DEMERARA.
The external devastation which attends a hurricane is by no means the only evil it brings. Where there is any difficulty in the management of affairs, public or private, it is sure to be increased or made insurmountable by any general excuse for aggression or rebellion. Many an insurrection has taken place during or immediately after a hurricane. Many a half-ruined planter has found his embarrassments brought to a crisis by the crowd of demands which are hastened instead of deferred by disaster. This was now Mr. Bruce's case.
As soon as this gentleman had seen the destruction of all the hopes he had built on his coffee-crop, he began to fear a seizure of his slaves by his creditors. He assembled them within an inclosure as fast as possible, and erected his fences, and had them guarded with the utmost care, that he might at all events exempt his human property from a legal seizure. But his precautions were vain. Some gap was found, or pretended to be found, through which the officers entered in the night, and levied slaves for the benefit of his creditors. This was sad news for the breakfast-table; and as Mr. Bruce was really a kind-hearted man, it added to his concern that, in the confusion of the seizure and in the darkness of midnight, the slaves had been carried off without the usual care being taken not to separate families: for some regard is paid to this consideration in the absence of temptation to overlook it. Old Mark's household, among others, had been divided. Becky was this morning sitting in grief beside her aged father, while Willy and Nell (whose lover had been left behind) were marching, in sullen despair, with drivers at their backs, they knew not whither, to become the property of they knew not whom.
It would have been hard to say among what class of persons the deepest distress prevailed in consequence of this hurricane, which the revengeful impulses of the blacks had made them for a moment hail as a friend. The slaves who were levied for their master's debts mourned as if they were carried anew into a strange land: their friends at home wept for them more bitterly than if they had been dead; for they were gone to renew their mortal sorrows instead of finding peace and freedom in the better land beyond the grave. Cassius's heart was burning within him because the prospect of freedom, of late so hopeful though not very near, was now removed for ever, or to so great a distance as to leave him in despair. He was to be sold; and it would be long before the value of slaves, now considerably raised by the event which had happened, would be so lowered as to admit of a hope of obtaining ransom. Cassius's earnings being found to be greater than was expected, his price was considerably raised, and he was placed first in the lot of marketable slaves on Mitchelson's estate.
The master, meanwhile, was lamenting the loss of his factotum, Homer, and indolently dreading the difficulties of making new arrangements, and doing some things himself which he had been accustomed to leave to his overseer. But his distress was nothing compared with his friend, Mr. Bruce's. In perpetual fear of arrest, he dared not go out of doors to see what had happened and what must be done. He delayed from day to day looking into his affairs, suspecting that he should find total ruin at the bottom. He resisted, partly through shame, and partly through tenderness for Alfred, every entreaty to send for his son and to bring his affairs to a certain issue. He wrote, “do not think of coming” in every letter; but it chanced one day that Mary found an opportunity of putting in a postscript to this effect: “Notwithstanding what my father says about your remaining where you are, I think, and so does my mother, that it would do him a world of good to see you. He grows more anxious every day, and there is nobody here who can help to comfort him as you could.” Upon this hint Alfred appeared. He little thought how the other suffering parties we have mentioned had cast a longing look towards him, as the friend most likely to aid them, or to sorrow with them if he could not assist.
“Our young master would have Willy and Nell brought back if he was here,” observed Becky to her father.
“Mr. Alfred would not let my ransom be raised, or may be he would buy me himself, now he has an estate,” sighed Cassius.
“I would persuade Alfred to train my new overseer, and advise me what to do, if I could get at him,” observed Mitehelson. “He did wonders at that mill-dam, and I am sure he would do no less now.”
So when Alfred appeared, a gleam of pleasure passed over many a heavy countenance.
“My dear son!” exclaimed Mr. Bruce. “We are always glad to see you. Who is not? But you have come at the very best moment. There is to be a meeting of planters to-morrow. You cannot think how I dread appearing; and now you will go instead of me. It is necessary that this estate should be represented; and you may truly say that I am too ill to appear in person.”
Alfred was ready to be useful in any way; but urged the necessity of his being fully informed respecting his father's affairs before he could act as his proxy. He begged that this day might be devoted to an inspection of the accounts. Mr. Bruce groaned; but on this point his son was firm. The two gentlemen and the agent whom Mr. Bruce's indolence had induced him to employ, were closeted for the rest of the day with their books and papers.
Mrs. Bruce lay sighing and weeping the whole day, offering a passive resistance to all the comfort her daughter endeavoured to bestow. In the evening, Mary left her for a few minutes, to seek the refreshment of the cool air of the garden. She remained within sight of the room where the inquiry was going forward on which so much depended; looking up to the windows every moment as if she could learn anything by that means of the probable fate of the family. At last she saw somebody moving within: it was Alfred who came to the window, saw her, made a sign to her to remain where she was, and presently was drawing her arm within his own, and leading her where they could not be overheard.
Alfred explained that his father was indeed deep in debt, but that his incumbrances might be cleared off by good management, as they had only been brought on by indolence and waste. If his father would dismiss his agent, and conduct his affairs himself; if he would introduce a better division of labour, and a greater economy of the resources of the estate, all might be redeemed within a few years.
“Can I do nothing to assist?” Mary anxiously inquired. “I know I can introduce economy into our household arrangements, for my mother leaves them more and more to me: but can I help my father as well?”
“You may, by taking an interest in what ought to be his business, Go with him sometimes when he superintends in the field, and show him that you. understand accounts, and keep an eye upon the books. You know as much of accounts as I do, and let him see that lie may trust you.”
“I may thank Mrs. H——for teaching me this part of a woman's business,” said Mary. “She managed the fortunes of her five children from the day of her husband's death till their majority, and I am thankful that she taught me what may now be so useful. I may learn the values of coffee in time; and in the meanwhile I will make use of what I know of that of pounds, shillings, and pence.”
“It is no mean knowledge, sister, since, in your case, the happiness of some hundreds of human beings is affected by it. The fate of our slaves depends on the state of my father's affairs. I commend their comfort to you. Soften their hardships as much as your influence allows, and then my father will soon find that their happiness and his prosperity go together.”
“O, Alfred! have I any power,—any responsibility of this kind? It makes me tremble to think of it.”
“If ladies have been frequently cited to answer the complaints of slaves, (which you know to be the case,) it is clear that they have influence over the fate of these unhappy dependants. If the wife of a planter has been imprisoued for torturing a slave, why should not the daughter of a planter use her influence to save her father's slaves from punishment, or, better still, keep them from deserving it?”
“I have been with old Mark to-day,” said Mary, “and I have been trying all means I could think of to get Becky to complain to my father, instead of the Protector, about Sunday labour: but she is so fierce, I can make nothing of her. She never said a word about it while she had her brother with her, but she declares she must make her complaints for herself now lie is gone. I dread the exposure, and she might get redress from my father, I am sure.”
Alfred had heard with grief that Willy and Nell were among the levied slaves. What his sister now said determined him to seek out old Mark and his daughter without delay; and the brother and sister were soon at the door of the hut.
Mark was sitting in the only chair the hut contained, talking as if to people round him, though he was alone. Alfred immediately saw that the little light of intellect which old age had left was quenched. The cause of this was evident from his taking every man who came near him for Willy, and every woman for Nell.
“How much did you sell the pig for?” he asked Alfred. “He brought a good price, for your clothes are as fine as a white's.—But,” suddenly recollecting himself, “how did you get back? O, you will be flogged for a runaway.”
“This is Mr. Alfred. You remember your young master, Mr. Alfred?”
“Ah! Mr. Alfred is come to your wedding, Nell. Why, my wife did not look as pretty as you on her wedding-day. And who married you, and why did not you let me go to your wedding? Becky said you could not be married because they had carried you away, but now you are back again, had I will sing you a song I made for you and Harry.”
Presently the old man broke off singing in a great passion.
“Willy, you are a dog to bring me no water when I am so thirsty;” and he shook a stick at his young master.
Alfred humoured him and took down a calabash, and was filling it with water when Becky came home.
“See, Becky, what it is to be married!” cried the old man. Becky, “When will you be as fine as Nelly?”
Becky made no answer, but snatched the calabash from Alfred's hand, and served her father herself.
“You would not believe that I could save you from Sunday labour, Becky,” said Mary. “Here is my brother: yon had better make your complaint to him.”
Becky was so far from being reserved, as she had been in the morning, about this complaint, that she poured out her grievances as fast as she could speak, and far faster than Alfred could understand her. The fact was, she had applied to the Protector of slaves, and he had dismissed her complaint as frivolous and vexatious, because she owned that she had frequently gone through an equal portion of Sunday labour without complaint. She was now furious against all parties, and would scarcely hold her tongue long enough to hear Alfred say that he thought her's a hard case, and only blamed her for not having complained long before.
It appeared that the overseer was in the habit of appointing a heavier task on Saturdays than other days, and of compelling the completion of it on the Sunday. It was evident that, if he chose to appoint a double task on the Saturday, the negroes might be deprived altogether of the benefit of the Sunday: and the young people thought that one such attempt to evade the law on the part of the overseer was enough to warrant his immediate dismissal, if it could be proved against him; and that the Protector of slaves could be little fit for his office, if he made the frequent repetition of a grievance the reason for not redressing it. Becky smiled incredulously when Alfred promised that he would come, next Sunday morning, and see whether she was at work or at leisure; and if the former, on what pretence.
He had some hope of being able by that time to make some arrangement for the return of the brother and sister, as he was to meet their present owner at the assembly of planters on the Wednesday; but the event disappointed him. Everything went wrong at the meeting. He dissented entirely from the prayer of the petition to government which had been agreed on; he disapproved of the tone of indignant complaint assumed by the planters, and failed in his endeavour to convince some of them that the remedy for their grievances rested with themselves. He had laid his accounts for being treated as a visionary, and for his own plans being laughed at as absurd; but he was not prepared for being put down because his father's affairs were known to be in a bad state; or for the insulting mirth with which all humane suggestions were received, even while the name of Providence was on every tongue. But nothing disgusted him so much as the apathy with which ins father's principal creditor turned from the offer of a negociation about the restoration of Willy and Nell. There seemed no hope of effecting their return; and the only prospect he could hold out to Becky was that of joining them whenever the death of her father should release her from her attendance upon him; and this could be done only by sacrificing her lover, as her sister had been compelled to do by force.