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RESTLESS SLAVES. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 2 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 2.
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The traveler in America hears, on every hand, of the foundness of slaves for slavery. If he points to the little picture of a runaway prefixed to advertisements of fugitives, and repeated down whole columns of the first newspaper that comes to hand, he is met with anecdotes of slaves who have been offered their freedom, and prefer remaining in bondage. Both aspects of the question are true; and yet more may be said on both sides. The traveler finds, as he proceeds, that suicides are very frequent among slaves; and that there is a race of Africans who will not endure bondage at all, and who, when smuggled from Africa into Louisiana, are avoided in the market by purchasers, thought they have great bodily strength and comeliness. When one of this race is accidentally purchased and taken home, he is generally missed, before twenty-four hours are over, and found hanging behind a door, or drowned in the nearest pond. The Cuba slave-holders have volumes of stories to tell of his race proving their incapacity for slavery. On the other hand, the traveler may meet with a few negroes who have returned into slave-land from a state of freedom, and besought their masters to take them back.
These seeming contradictions admit of an easy explanation. Slaves are more or less degraded by slavery in proportion to their orginal strength of character, or educational discipline of mind. The most degraded are satisfied, the least degraded are dissatisfied with slavery. The lowest order prefer release from duties and cares to the enjoyment of rights and the possession of themselves; and the highest order have a directly opposite taste. The mistake lies in not perceiving that slavery is emphatically condemned by the conduct of both.
The stories on the one side of the question are all alike. The master offers freedom,—of course to the worst of his slaves,—to those who are more plague than profit. Perhaps he sends the fellow he wants to get rid of an some errand into a free State, hoping that he will not return. The man comes back; and if questioned as to why he did not stay where he might have been free, he replies that he knows better than to work hard for a precarious living when he can be fed by his master without anxiety of his own, as long as he lives, As for those who return after having been free, they are usually the weak-minded, who have been persuaded into remaining in a free State where they have been carried in attendance on their masters families, and who want courage to sustain their unprotected freedom. I do not remember ever hearing of the return of a slave who, having long nourished the idea and purpose of liberty, had absconded with danger and difficulty. The prosecution of such a purpose argues a strength of mind worthy of freedom.
The stories on this side of the question are as various as the characters and fortunes of the heroes of them. Many facts of this nature became known to me during my travels, most of which cannot be published, for fear of involving in difficulty either the escaped heroes, or those who assisted them in regaining their liberty. But a few may be safely related, which will show, as well as any greater number, the kind of restlessness which is the torment of the lives of “persons held to labour,”—the constitutional description of the slave-class of the constituents of government.
Slavery is nowhere more hopeless and helpless than in Alabama. The richness of the soil and the paucity of inhabitants make the labourer a most valuable possession: while his distance from any free State,—the extent of country overspread with enemies which the fugitive has to traverse,—makes the attempt to escape desperate. All coloured persons traveling in the Slave States without a pass,—a certificate of freedom or of leave,—are liable to be arrested and advertised, and if unclaimed at the end of a certain time, sold in the market. Yet slaves do continue to escape from the farthest corners of Alabama or Mississippi. Two slaves in Alabama, who had from their early manhood cherished the idea of freedom, planned their escape in concert, and laboured for many years at their scheme. They were allowed the profits of their labour at over-hours: and by strenuous toil and self-denial, saved and hid a large sum of money. Last year, they found they had enough, and that the time was come for the execution of their purpose. They engaged the services of “a mean white:”—one of the extremely degraded class who are driven by loss of character to labour in the slave States, where, labour by whites being disgraceful, they are looked down upon by the slaves, no less than the slaves are by the superior whites. These two slaves hired a “mean white man” to personate a gentleman; bought him a suit of good clothes, a portmanteau, a carriage and houses, and proper costume for themselves. One night the three set off in style, as master, coachman and footman, and travelled rapidly through the whole country, without the slightet hindereance, to Buffalo. There the slaves sold their carriage, horses, and finery, paid off their white man, and escaped into Canada, where they now are in safety.
They found in Canada a society of their own colour prepared to welcome and aid them. In Upper Canada there are upwards of 10,000 people of colour, chiefly fugitive slaves, who prosper in the country which they have chosen for a refuge. Scarcely an instance is known of any of them having received alms, and they are as respectable for their intelligence as for their morals. One peculiarity in them is the extravagance of their loyalty. They exert themselves vehemently in defence of all the acts of the Executive, whatever they may be. The reason for this is obvious:—they exceedingly dread the barest mention of the annexation of Canada to the United States.
It is astonishing that, in the face of fact of daily occurrence, like that of the escape of these men, it can be pleaded in behalf of slavery, that negroes cannot take care of themselves, and that they prefer beign held as property. A lady of a New York favoured me with some of her recollections of slavery in that State. She told me of a favourite servant who had been her father's property for five-and-twenty years. I believe the woman was the family nurse. She was treated with all possible indulgence, and was the object of the attachment of the whole household. The woman was never happy. During all these dreary years she was haunted with the longing for freedom, and at last fell ill. Apparently from anxiety of mind. From her sickbed she implored her master so movingly to make her free and her medical attendant was so convinced that her life depended on her request being granted, that her master made the desired promise.—very unwillingly, as he thought freedom would be more of a care than a blessing to her. She immediately recovered and in spite of all entreaty, pecuniary inducement, and appeals to her gratitude, left the family. She shed many tears, mourned over parting with the children, and thanked the family for all the favour with which she had been treated but declared that she could not remain. Every thing savoured too strongly of the bondage she had been unable to endure. She took a service not far off, deposited her earnings with her old master, and frequently visited the family, but, to the last, shrank from all mention of returning to them.
While I was in the United States, a New York friend of mine was counsel for a native African who sued his mistress for his earnings of many years. This man had been landed in the South after the year 1808, the date fixed by the Constitution for the cessation of the importation of negroes. He was purchased by a lady to whom he proved very profitable, his services being of a superior kind. She let him out and he paid over to her all the money he earned. After many years, she visited New York, bringing this man with her, not anticipation that, in that free city, he would gain new lights as to his relation to her. He refused to return, and brought his mistress into court to answer his demand for the repayment of all the money he had earned abroad, with interest, and compensation for his services at home, during his illegal bondage. As a knowledge of the law was necessarily supposed on both sides, the counsel for the slave made compulsion his plea. This was not allowed. The slave's maintenance was decided to be a sufficient compensation for his services at home; and he was decreed to receive only the earnings of his hired labour, without interest. His counsel had, however, the pleasure of seeing him in the strength of his manhood, free, and in possession of a large sum of money to begin life with, on his own account.
A woman once lived in Massachusetts, whose name ought to be preserved in all histories of the State, as one of its honours, though she was a slave, Some anecdotes of her were related in a Lyecum lecture delivered at Stockbridge in 1831. Others were told me by the Sedgwicks, who had the honour of knowing her best, by means of rendering her the greatest services. Mum Bett. Whose real name was Elizabeth Freeman, was born, it is supposed, about 1742. Her parents were native Africans, and she was a slave for about thirty years. At an early age she was purchased, with her sister, from the family into which she was born, in the States of New York, by Colonel Ashley, of Sheffield, Massachusetts. The lady of the mansion, in a fit of passion, one day struck at Mum Bett's sister with a heated kitchen shovel. Mum Bett interposed her arm, and received the blow, the scar of which she bore to the day of her death. “She resented the insult and outrage as a white person would have done.” Leaving the house, and refusing to return. Colonel Ashley appealed to the law for the recovery of his slave. Mum Bett called on Mr. Sedgwick, and asked him if she could not claim her liberty under the law. He inquired what could put such an idea into her head. She replied that the “Bill o Rights” said that all were born free and equal, and that as she was not a dumb heast, she was certainly one of the nation. When afterwards asked how she learned the doctrine and facts on which she proceeded, she replied. “By keepin' still and mindin' things.” It was a favourits doctrine of hers, that people might learn by keeping still and minding things. But what did she mean, she was asked, by keeping still and minding things, Why, for instance, when she was waiting at table, she heard gentlemen talking over the Bill of Rights and the new constitution of Massachusetts; and in all they said she never heard but that all people were born free and equal, and she thought long about it, and resolved she would try whether she did not come in among them.
Mr. Sedgwick undertook her cause, which was tried at Great Barrington. Mum Bett obtained her freedom, and compensation for her services from twenty-one years of age. “What shall I do with all this money of yours?” said Mr. Sedgwick, “Fee the lawyers handsomely,—pay 'em well,” said she, “and keep the rest till I want it.” She was offered every inducement to return to Colonel Ashley's: but she recoiled from all that reminded her of slavery. She begged the Sedgwicks to take her into their family, which they did; and with them she spent twenty years of great, comfort. Her example was followed by many slaves; and from the day of her emancipation, in 1772. more and more claimants were decreed free under the Bill of Rights, till slavery was abolished in Massachusetts.
Her services to the Sedgwick family are gratefully remembered by them. She is believed to have saved her master's life by following her own judgment in his treatment when she was nursing him in a dangerous fever. When her master was in Boston, and the rural districts were liable to nightly visitations from marauders after Shay's war (as an insurrection in Massachusetts was called). the village of Stockbridge. in the absence of the gentlemen. depended on Mum Bett for its safety; so general was the confidence in her wisdom and courage. The practice of the marauders was to enter and plunder gentlemen's houses in the night. on pretence of searching for ammunition and prisoners. Mum Bett declared that she could have no cowards in the village: as many as were afraid had better go up the hills to sleep. Several children and a few women went up the hills in the evening to farmhouses, which were safe from intrusion. All brought their valuables of small bulk to Mum Bett for security. Every body's watches, gold chains, rings, and other trinkets were deposited in an iron chest in the garret where Mum Bett slept.
The marauders arrived one night when Mrs. Sedgwick was very ill: and Mum Bett was unwilling to admit them. She quietly told her mistress that her pistols were loaded, and that, a low shots from the windows would probably send the wretches away, as they could not be sure but that there were gentlemen in the house. Her mistress, however, positively ordered her to let the people in. without delay. Mum Bett obeyed the order with much unwillingness. She appeared at the door with a large kitchen shovel in one hand, and a light in the other. and assured the strangers that they would find nothing of what they asked for, — neither Judge Sedgwick. nor ammunition and prisoners. They chose to search the he use, however, as she had exported. Her great fear was that they would drink themselves intoxicated in the cellar, and become unmanageable; and she had prepared for this by putting rows of porter bottles in front of the wine and spirits, having drawn the corks to let the porter get that, and put them in again. The intruders offered to take the light from her hand, but she held it back, saying that no one should carry the light but herself. Here was the way to the cellars, and there was the way to the chambers: she would light the gentlemen wherever they chose to go: but she would not let the house he set on fire over her sick mistress's head. “The gentlemen” went down to the cellar first. One of the party broke the neck of a bottle of porter, for which she rebuked him, saying that if they wished to drink, she would fetch the corkscrew, and draw the cork, and they might drink like gentlemen: but that if any one broke the neck of another bottle, she would lay him low with her shovel. The flat porter was not to the taste of the visitors, who made wry faces, said, if gentlemen liked such cursed bitter stuff, they might keep it. and praised spirits in comparison; upon which Mum Bett coolly observed, that they were “sort of gentlemen that lived here that did not drink spirits.”
At the foot of the cellar stairs stood a barrel of pickled pork, out of which the intruders began helping themselves. In a tone of utter scorn, Mum Bett exclaimed. “Ammunition and prisoners, indeed! You come for ammunition and prisoners, raid take up with pickled pork!” They were fairly ashamed, and threw back the pork into the barrel. They went through all the chambers, poking with their bayonets under the beds, lest Judge Sedgwick should be there. At last, to Mum Bett's sorrow, they decided to search the garrets. In hers, the iron chest came into view. She hoped in vain that they would pass it over. One of the party observed that it looked as if it held something. Mum Bett put down the light, kneeled on the chest, and brandished her weapon, saying, “This is my chest, and let any man touch it at his peril.” The men considered the matter not worth contesting, and went down stairs. They were actually departing without having met with a single article of value enough to carry away, when a young lady, a niece of Judge Sedgwick's. wishing to be civil to the wretches, asked them, at the hall door, whether they would like to see the stables. They were glad of the hint, and stole one horse (if I remember right) and ruined another with hard riding. Mum Bett's expression of wrath was, “If I had thought the pesky fool would have done such a thing. I would have turned the horses loose over night in the meadow: they would have come back at my call in the morning.”
She was considered as connected with Judge Sedgwick's family after she had left their house for a home of her own. By her great industry and frugality she supported a large family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There was nothing remarkable about her husband: and her descendants do not appear to have inherited her genius. Mum Bett lies in the Stockbridge graveyard,—in the corner where the people of colour lieapart. Her epitaph, written by a son of Judge Sedgwick. is as follows:—
As far as energy and talent are concerned. I should hesitate to say that in her own sphere Mum Bett “had no superior nor equal:” and the same may be said about the quality of fidelity. I know of a slave in Louisiana who picked up a parcel containing 10,000 dollars, and returned it. with much trouble, to its owner. I know of a slave in South Carolina, belonging to a physician, who drives his master's gig, and has made a wonderful use of what he sees in the course of his morning's duty. While waiting for his master at the doors of patients, this slave occupied himself with copying in the sandy soil the letters he saw on signs. When he believed he had caught the method, he begged a slate, or paper and pencil, and brought home his copies, coaxing the boys of the family to tell him the names of the letters. He then put them together, and thus learned to read and write,—without any further help whatever. Having once discovered his own power of doing and learning, he went on in the only direction which seemed open to him. He turned his attention to mechanism, and makes miniature violins and pianos of surprising completeness, but no use. Here he will most likely stop: for there is no probability of his ever ceasing to be a slave, or having opportunity to turn to practical account a degree of energy, patience, and skill which, in happier circumstances, might have been the instruments of great deeds.
The energies of slaves sometimes take a direction which their masters contrive to render profitable,— when they take to religion as a pursuit. The universal, unquenchable reverence for religion in the human mind is taken advantage of, when the imagination of the slave has been turned into the channel of superstition. It is a fact, that in the newspapers of New Orleans may be seen an advertisement, now and then, of a lot of “pious negroes.” Such “pious negroes” are convenient on a plantation where the treatment is not particularly mild; as they consider non-resistance a Christian duty, and are able to inspire a wonderful degree of patience into their fellow-sufferers.
The vigour which negroes show when their destiny is fairly placed in their own hands, is an answer to all arguments about their helplessness drawn from their dullness in a state of bondage. A highly satisfactory experiment upon the will, judgment, and talents of a large body of slaves was made, a few years ago, by a relative of Chief-Justice Marshall. This gentleman and his family had attached their negroes to them by a long course of judicious kindness. At length, an estate at some distance was left to the gentleman, and he saw, with much regret, that it was his duty to leave the plantation on which he was living. He could not bear the idea of turning over his people to the tender mercies or unproved judgment of a stranger overseer. He called his negroes together, told them the case, and asked whether they thought they could manage the estate themselves. If they were willing to undertake the task, they must choose an overseer from among themselves, provide comfortably for their own wants, and remit him the surplus of the profits. The negroes were full of grief at losing the family, but willing to try what they could do. They had an election for overseer, and chose the man their master would have pointed out; decidedly the strongest head on the estate. All being; arranged, the master left them, with a parting charge to keep their festivals, and take their appointed holidays, as if he were present. Alter some time, he rode over to see how all went on, choosing a festival day, that he might meet them in their holiday gaiety. He was surprised, on approaching, to hear no merriment; and on entering his fields, he found his “force” all hard at work. As they flocked round him, he inquired why they were not making holiday. They told him that the crop would suffer in its present state by the loss of a day; and that they had therefore put off their holiday, which, however, they meant to take by-and-by. Not many days after, an express arrived to inform the proprietor that there was an insurrection, on his estate. He would not believe it; declared it impossible, as there was nobody to rise against; but the messenger, who had been sent by the neighbouring gentlemen, was so confident of the facts, that the master galloped, with the utmost speed, to his plantation, arriving as night was coming on. As he rode in, a cry of joy arose from his negroes, who pressed round to shake hands with him. They were in their holiday clothes, and had been singing and dancing. They were only enjoying the deferred festival. The neighbours, hearing the noise on a quiet working day, had jumped to the conclusion that it was an insurrection.
There is no catastrophe yet to this story. When the proprietor related it, he said that no trouble had arisen; and that for some seasons, ever since this estate had been wholly in the hands of his negroes, it had been more productive than it ever was while he managed it himself.
The finest harvest field of romance perhaps in the world is the frontier between the United States and Canada. The vowed student of human nature could not do better than take up his abode there, and hear what fugitives and their friends have to tell. There have been no exhibitions of the forces of human character in any political revolution, or religious reformation, more wonderful and more interesting than may almost daily be witnessed there. The impression on even careless minds on the spot is very strong. I remember observing to a friend in the ferry-boat, when we were crossing the Niagara, from Lewiston to Queenston, that it seemed very absurd, on looking at the opposite banks of the river, to think that while the one belonged to the people who lived on it, the other was called the property of a nation three thousand miles off,—the shores looking so much alike as they do. My friend replied, with a smile, “Runaway slaves see a great difference.” “That they do!” cried the ferryman, in a tone of the deepest earnestness. He said that the leap ashore of an escaped slave is a sight unlike any other that can be seen.
On other parts of the frontier, I heard tales which I grieve that it is not in my power to tell,— so honourable are they to individuals of both races, —friends of the slaves. The time may come when no one will be injured by their being made public. Meantime, I will give one which happened many years ago, and which relates to a different part of the country.
A., now an elderly man, was accustomed in his youth to go up and down the Mississippi, on trading expeditions; and both in these, and in subsequent wanderings of many years,—to Hayti among other places,—he has had opportunity to study the character of the negro race; and he is decidedly of opinion that there is in them only a superinduced inferiority to the whites. In relating his experiences among the coloured people, he told the following story:—
When he was a young man, he was going down the Mississippi in a boat, with a cargo of salt; when he stopped at a small place on the Kentucky shore, called Unity, opposite to a part of Arkansas. While he was there, a slave-trader came up with his company of upwards of two hundred slaves, whom he was conveying to the New Orleans market. Among these, A. remarked a gigantic mulatto,—handsome in countenance, and proud in bearing,—who was nearly naked, and fettered. He had an iron band round his waist, and round each wrist, and these bands were connected by chains. The trader observed to A. that tins man was the most valuable slave lie had ever had on sale. I think he said that he would not take two thousand dollars for him: he added that he was obliged to chain him, as he was bent on getting away. When the trader's back was turned, the mulatto looked at A. as if wishing to talk with him.
“Why are you chained in this way?” asked A.
“Because my master is afraid of losing me. He knows that I am the most valuable slave he has; and that I mean to get away.”
“Have you told him so?”
“And how do you mean to get away?”
“I don't know: but I mean it.”
After a pause, he said in a low voice to A.,
“Could not you give me a file?”
“No,” said A., decidedly. “Do you think I don't know the law? Do you think I am going to help you away, and get punished for it? No; I can't give you a file.”
As A. went back to his boat he saw the slave looking wist fully after him, and his heart smote him for what he had said. He bethought himself that if he could manage to put an instrument of deliverance in the man's way without touching it, he might keep within the letter of the law; and he acted upon this notion. He looked about his boat, and found a strong three-sided file, which he put between his coat and waistcoat, so that it would be sure to drop out when the coat was unbuttoned. He sauntered back on shore, and the mulatto, who watched all his movements, came up to him, eagerly whispering,
“Have you got a file? Are you going to give me a file?”
“No,” said A. “I told you that I knew better than to give you a file.”
The slave's countenance fell.
“However,” continued A., “I should not wonder if I can tell you where to get one. If you look about by yonder wood-pile, I think perhaps you may find a file. No, not now. Go back to your company now, and don't look at me; and when I am gone on board my boat you can wander off to the wood-pile.”
A. unbuttoned his coat as he appeared to be picking up the scattered wood round the pile, and presently returned to his boat, whence he saw the mulatto walk to the wood-pile, and stoop down just at the right spot. A. watched all day, and late into the night: but he saw and heard nothing more.
In the morning, the slave-trader came on board the boat; exclaiming angrily that A. had a slave of his concealed there. A. desired him to search the boat, which he did, looking behind every bag of salt. He was confident that A. must have helped the man away: chained as he was, he could not have got off without help. As for himself, he had rather have lost thousands of dollars than this man: but he always knew it would be so: the fellow always said he would get away.
Thus grumbling, the trader departed, to make search in another direction. In an hour he returned, saying that the slave must either be drowned, or have got over into Arkansas. His irons and a strong file were lying on a point of land, projecting into the river, about a mile off; and the marks were visible where the fugitive had taken the water. A. went, and long did he stay, questioning and meditating: and during all the years that have since elapsed, it has been his frequent daily and nightly speculation whether the mulatto escaped or perished. Sometimes, when he remembers the gigantic frame of the man, and the force of the impulse which urged him, A. hopes that it may have been possible for him to reach the opposite shore. At other times, when he thinks of the width of the Mississippi at that part, and of the tremendous force of the current, which would warrant the assertion that it is impossible for a swimmer to cross, he believes himself convinced that the fugitive has perished Yet still the hope returns that the strong man may be living in wild freedom in some place where the sense of safety and peace may have taught him to forgive and pity his oppressors.