Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XX.: APPRENTICESHIP LIFE. - The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882
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CHAPTER XX.: APPRENTICESHIP LIFE. - Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882 
The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882, written by himself; with an Introduction by the Right Hon. John Bright, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1882).
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Nothing lost by my attempt to run away—Comrades at home—Reasons for sending me away—Return to Baltimore—Tommy changed—Caulking in Gardiner’s ship yard—Desperate fight—Its causes—Conflict between white and black labour—Outrage—Testimony—Master Hugh—Slavery in Baltimore—My condition improves—New associations—Slaveholder’s right to the slave’s wages—How to make a discontented slave.
OUR little domestic revolution, notwithstanding the sudden snub it got by the treachery of somebody, did not, after all, end so disastrously as when in the iron cage at Easton I conceived it would. The prospect from that point did look about as dark as any that ever cast its gloom over the vision of an anxious, out-looking human spirit. “All’s well that ends well!” My affectionate friends, Henry and John Harris, were still with Mr. Freeland. Charles Roberts and Henry Bailey were safe at their homes. I had not, therefore, anything to regret on their account. Their masters had mercifully forgiven them, probably on the ground suggested in the spirited little speech of Mrs. Freeland made to me just before leaving for the gaol. My friends had nothing to regret either: for while they were watched more closely, they were doubtless treated more kindly than before, and got new assurances that they should some day be legally emancipated, provided their behaviour from that time forward should make them deserving. Not a blow did any one of them receive. As for Master Freeland, good soul, he did not believe we were intending to run away at all. Having given—as he thought—no occasion to his boys to leave him, he could not think it possible that they had entertained a design so grievous.
This, however, was not the view taken of the matter by “Mars’r Billy,” as we used to call the soft-spoken, but crafty and resolute Mr. William Hamilton. He had no doubt that the crime had been meditated, and regarding me as the instigator of it, he frankly told Master Thomas that he must remove me from that neighbourhood or he would shoot me. He would not have one so dangerous as “Frederick” tampering with his slaves. William Hamilton was not a man whose threat might be safely disregarded. I have no doubt he would have proved as good as his word, had the warning given been disregarded. He was furious at the thought of such a piece of high-handed theft as we were about to perpetrate—the stealing of our own bodies and souls. The feasibility of the plan, too, could the first steps have been taken, was marvellously plain. Besides, this was a new idea, this use of the Bay. Slaves escaping, until now, had taken to the woods; they had never dreamed of profaning or abusing the waters of the noble Chesapeake, by making them the highway from slavery to freedom. Here was a broad road leading to the destruction of slavery, which hitherto had been looked upon as a wall of security by the slaveholders. But Master Billy could not get Mr. Freeland to see matters precisely as he did, nor could he get Master Thomas, excited as he was. The latter, I must say it to his credit, showed much humane feeling, and atoned for much that had been harsh, cruel, and unreasonable in his former treatment of me and of others. My “Cousin Tom” told me that while I was in gaol Master Thomas was very unhappy, and that the night before his going up to release me he had walked the floor nearly all night, evincing great distress; that very tempting offers had been made to him by the negro-traders, but he had rejected them all, saying that money could not tempt him to sell me to the far South. I can easily believe all this, for he seemed quite reluctant to send me away at all. He told me that he only consented to do so because of the very strong prejudice against me in the neighbourhood, and that he feared for my safety if I remained there.
Thus after three years spent in the country, roughing it in the fields, and experiencing all sorts of hardships, I was again permitted to return to Baltimore, the very place of all others, short of a Free State, where I most desired to live. The three years spent in the country had made some difference in me, and in the household of Master Hugh. “Little Tommy” was no longer little Tommy; and I was not the slender lad who had left the Eastern Shore just three years before. The loving relations between Master Tommy and myself were broken up. He was no longer dependent on me for protection, but felt himself a man, with other and more suitable associates. In childhood he had considered me scarcely inferior to himself,—certainly quite as good as any other boy with whom he played—but the time had come when his friend must be his slave. So we were cold to each other, and parted. It was a sad thing to me, that loving each other as we had done, we must now take different roads. To him, a thousand avenues were open. Education had made him acquainted with all the treasures of the world, and liberty had flung open the gates thereunto; but I, who had attended him seven years, had watched over him with the care of a big brother, fighting his battles in the street, and shielding him from harm to an extent which induced his mother to say, “Oh, Tommy is always safe when he is with Freddy”—I must be confined to a single condition. He had grown and become a man; I, though grown to the stature of manhood, must all my life remain a minor—a mere boy. Thomas Auld, junior, obtained a situation on board the brig Tweed, and went to sea. I have since heard of his death. There were few persons to whom I was more sincerely attached, than to him.
Very soon after I went to Baltimore to live, Master Hugh succeeded in getting me hired to Mr. William Gardiner, an extensive ship-builder on Fell’s Point. I was placed there to learn to caulk; a trade of which I already had some knowledge, gained while in Mr. Hugh Auld’s ship-yard. Gardiner’s, however, proved a very unfavourable place for the accomplishment of the desired object. Mr. Gardiner was that season engaged in building two large man-of-war vessels, professedly for the Mexican government. These vessels were to be launched in the month of July of that year, and in failure thereof, Mr. Gardiner would forfeit a very considerable sum of money. So when I entered the ship-yard, all was hurry and driving. There were in the yard about one hundred men; of these, seventy or eighty were regular carpenters—privileged men. There was no time for a raw hand to learn anything. Every man had to do that which he knew how to do, and in entering the yard, Mr. Gardiner had directed me to do whatever the carpenters told me to do. This was placing me at the beck and call of about seventy-five men. I was to regard all these as my masters. Their word was to be my law. My situation was a trying one. I was called a dozen ways in the space of a single minute. I needed a dozen pairs of hands. Three or four voices would strike my ear at the same moment. It was “Fred, come help me to cant this timber here,”—“Fred, come carry this timber yonder,”—“Fred, bring that roller here,”—“Fred, go get a fresh can of water,”—“Fred, come help saw off the end of this timber,”—“Fred, go quick and get the crow-bar,”—“Fred, hold on the end of this fall,”—“Fred, go to the blacksmith’s shop and get a new punch,”—“Halloo, Fred! run and bring me a cold-chisel,”—“I say, Fred, bear a hand, and get up a fire under the steam-box as quick as lightning,”—“Hullo, nigger! come turn this grindstone,”—“Come, come; move, move! and bowse this timber forward,”—“I say, darkey, blast your eyes! why don’t you heat up some pitch?”—“Halloo! halloo! halloo! (three voices at the same time)”—“Come here; go there; hold on where you are. D—n you, if you move I’ll knock your brains out!” Such, my dear reader, is a glance at the school which was mine, during the first eight months of my stay at Gardiner’s ship-yard. At the end of eight months Master Hugh refused longer to allow me to remain with Gardiner. The circumstances which led to this refusal was the committing of an outrage upon me, by the white apprentices of the ship-yard. The fight was a desperate one, and I came out of it shockingly mangled. I was cut and bruised in sundry places, and my left eye was nearly knocked out of its socket. The facts which led to this brutal outrage upon me, illustrate a phase of slavery which was destined to become an important element in the overthrow of the slave system, and I may therefore state them with some minuteness. That phase was this—the conflict of slavery with the interests of white mechanics and labourers. In the country this conflict was not so apparent; but in cities, such as Baltimore, Richmond, New Orleans, Mobile, etc., it was seen pretty clearly. The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor labouring white man against the blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black slave himself. The difference between the white slave and the black slave was this: the latter belonged to one slaveholder, and the former belonged to the slaveholders collectively. The white slave had taken from him by indirection what the black slave had taken from him directly and without ceremony. Both were plundered, and by the same plunderers. The slave was robbed by his master of all his earnings, above what was required for his bare physical necessities, and the white labouring man was robbed by the slave system of the just results of his labour, because he was flung into competition with a class of labourers who worked without wages. The slave-holders blinded them to this competition by keeping alive their prejudice against the slaves as men—not against them as slaves. They appealed to their pride, often denouncing emancipation as tending to place the white working man on an equality with negroes, and by this means they succeeded in drawing off the minds of the poor whites from the real fact, that, by the rich slave-master, they were already regarded as but a single remove from equality with the slave. The impression was cunningly made, that slavery was the only power that could prevent the labouring white man from falling to the level of the slave’s poverty and degradation. To make this enmity deep and broad between the slave and the poor white man, the latter was allowed to abuse and whip the former without hindrance. But, as I have said, this state of affairs prevailed mostly in the country. In the city of Baltimore, there were not unfrequent murmurs that educating slaves to be mechanics might, in the end, give slave-masters power to dispose altogether with the services of the poor white man. But with characteristic dread of offending the slave-holders, these poor white mechanics in Mr. Gardiner’s ship-yard, instead of applying the natural, honest remedy for the apprehended evil, and objecting at once to work there by the side of slaves, made a cowardly attack upon the free coloured mechanics, saying they were eating the bread which should be eaten by American freemen, and swearing that they would not work with them. The feeling was really against having their labour brought into competition with that of the coloured freeman, and aimed to prevent him from serving himself, in the evening of life, with the trade with which he had served his master, during the more vigorous portion of his days. Had they succeeded in driving the black freemen out of the ship-yard, they would have determined also upon the removal of the black slaves. The feeling was very bitter toward all coloured people in Baltimore about this time, 1836, and they—free and slave—suffered all manner of insult and wrong.
Until a very little time before I went there, white and black carpenters worked side by side in the ship-yards of Mr. Gardiner, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Walter Price, and Mr. Robb. Nobody seemed to see any impropriety in it. Some of the blacks were first rate workmen, and were given jobs requiring the highest skill. All at once, however, the white carpenters knocked off, and swore that they would no longer work on the same stage with negroes. Taking advantage of the heavy contract resting upon Mr. Gardiner to have the vessels for Mexico ready to launch in July, and of the difficulty of getting other hands at that season of the year, they swore they would not strike another blow for him, unless he would discharge his free coloured workmen. Now, although this movement did not extend to me in form, it did reach me in fact. The spirit which it awakened was one of malice and bitterness toward coloured people generally, and I suffered with the rest, and suffered severely. My fellow-apprentices very soon began to feel it to be degrading to work with me. They began to put on high looks, and to talk contemptuously and maliciously of “the niggers,” saying that they would take the “country,” that they “ought to be killed.” Encouraged by workmen who, knowing me to be a slave, made no issue with Mr. Gardiner about my being there, these young men did their utmost to make it impossible for me to stay. They seldom called me to do anything, without coupling the call with a curse, and Edward North, the biggest in everything, rascality included, ventured to strike me, whereupon I picked him up and threw him into the dock. Whenever any of them struck me, I struck back at them, regardless of consequences. I could manage any of them singly, and so long as I could keep them from combining I got on pretty well. In the conflict which ended my stay at Mr. Gardiner’s, I was beset by four of them at once—Ned North, Ned Hays, Bill Stewart, and Tom Humphreys. Two of them were as big as myself, and they came near killing me in broad daylight. One came in front, armed with a brick; there was one at each side and one behind, and they closed up all around me. I was struck on all sides; and while I was attending to those in front, I received a blow on my head from behind, dealt with a heavy hand-spike. I was completely stunned by the blow, and fell heavily on the ground among the timbers. Taking advantage of my fall they rushed upon me and began to pound me with their fists. I let them lay on for a while after I came to myself, with a view of gaining strength. They did me little damage so far; but finally getting tired of that sport I gave a sudden surge, and despite their weight I rose to my hands and knees. Just as I did this one of their number planted a blow with his boot in my left eye, which for a time seemed to have burst my eye-ball. When they saw my eye completely closed, my face covered with blood, and I staggering under the stunning blows they had given me, they left me. As soon as I gathered strength I picked up the hand-spike and madly enough attempted to pursue them; but here the carpenters interfered, and compelled me to give up my pursuit. It was impossible to stand against so many.
Dear reader, you can hardly believe the statement, but it is true, and therefore I write it down: no fewer than fifty white men stood by and saw this brutal and shameful outrage committed, and not a man of them all interposed a single word of mercy. There were four against one, and that one’s face was beaten and battered most horribly, and no one said “that is enough;” but some cried out, “Kill him! kill him! kill the d—n nigger! knock his brains out! he struck a white person!” I mention this inhuman outcry to show the character of the men and the spirit of the times at Gardiner’s ship-yard; and, indeed, in Baltimore generally, in 1836. As I look back to the period, I am almost amazed that I was not murdered outright, so reckless was the spirit which prevailed there. On two other occasions while there I came near losing my life, on one of which I was driving bolts in the hold through the keelson with Hays. In its course the bolt bent. Hays cursed me, and said that it was my blow which bent the bolt. I denied this, and charged it upon him. In a fit of rage he seized an adze and darted towards me. I met him with a maul, and parried his blow, or I should have lost my life.
After the united attack of North, Stewart, Hays, and Humphreys, finding that the carpenters were as bitter toward me as the apprentices, and that the latter were probably set on by the former, I found my only chance for life was in flight. I succeeded in getting away without an additional blow. To strike a white man was death by lynch law, in Gardiner’s ship-yard; nor was there much of any other law toward the coloured people at that time, in any other part of Maryland.
After making my escape from the ship-yard I went straight home and related my story to Master Hugh; and to his credit I say it, that his conduct, though he was not a religious man, was every way more humane than that of his brother Thomas, when I went to him in a somewhat similar plight, from the hands of his “Brother Edward Covey.” Master Hugh listened attentively to my narration of the circumstances leading to the ruffianly assault, and gave many evidence of his strong indignation at what was done. He was a rough but manly-hearted fellow, and at this time his best nature showed itself.
The heart of my once kind mistress Sophia was again melted in pity toward me. My puffed-out eye and my scarred and blood-covered face moved the dear lady to tears. She kindly drew a chair by me, and with friendly and consoling words, she took water and washed the blood from my face. No mother’s hand could have been more tender than hers. She bound up my head and covered my wounded eye with a lean piece of fresh beef. It was almost compensation for all I had suffered, that it occasioned the manifestation once more of the originally characteristic kindness of my mistress. Her affectionate heart was not yet dead, though much hardened by time and circumstances.
As for Master Hugh he was furious, and gave expression to his feelings in the forms of speech usual in that locality. He poured curses on the whole of the ship-yard company, and swore that he would have satisfaction. His indignation was really strong and healthy; but unfortunately it resulted from the thought that his rights of property, in my person, had not been respected; more than from any sense of the outrage perpetrated upon me as a man. I had reason to think this from the fact that he could himself beat and mangle, when it suited him to do so.
Bent on having satisfaction, as he said, just as soon as I got a little the better of my bruises, Master Hugh took me to Esquire Watson’s office on Bond Street, Fell’s Point, with a view of procuring the arrest of those who had assaulted me. He related the outrage to the magistrate as I had related it to him, and seemed to expect that a warrant would at once be issued for the arrest of the lawless ruffians. Mr. Watson heard all he had to say, then coolly inquired—“Mr. Auld, who saw this assault of which you speak?” “It was done, sir, in the presence of a shipyard full of hands.” “Sir,” said Mr. Watson, “I am sorry, but I cannot move in this matter, except upon the oath of white witnesses.” “But here’s the boy; look at his head and face,” said the excited Master Hugh; “they show what has been done.” But Watson insisted that he was not authorized to do anything, unless white witnesses of the transaction would come forward and testify to what had taken place. He could issue no warrant on my word, against white persons, if I had been killed in the presence of a thousand blacks; their testimony combined would have been insufficient to condemn a single murderer. Master Hugh was compelled to say, for once, that this state of things was too bad, and he left the office of the magistrate disgusted.
Of course it was impossible to get any white man to testify against my assailants. The carpenters saw what was done; but the actors were but the agents of their malice, and did only what the carpenters sanctioned. They had cried with one accord, “Kill the nigger! kill the nigger!” Even those who may have pitied me, if any such were among them, lacked the moral courage to volunteer their evidence. The slightest show of sympathy or justice toward a person of colour was denounced as abolitionism; and the name of abolitionist subjected its hearer to frightful liabilities. “D—n abolitionists,” and “kill the niggers,” were the watch-words of the foul-mouthed ruffians of those days. Nothing was done, and probably there would not have been, had I been killed in the affray. The laws and the morals of the Christian city of Baltimore afforded no protection to the sable denizens of that city.
Master Hugh, on finding he could get no redress for the cruel wrong, withdrew me from the employment of Mr. Gardiner, and took me into his own family, Mrs. Auld kindly taking care of me and dressing my wounds until they were healed, and I was ready to go to work again.
While I was on the Eastern Shore, Master Hugh had met with reverses which overthrew his business; and he had given up shipbuilding in his own yard, on the City Block, and was now acting as foreman of Mr. Walter Price. The best he could do for me was to take me into Mr. Price’s yard, and afford me the facilities there for completing the trade which I began to learn at Gardiner’s. Here I rapidly became expert in the use of caulker’s tools, and in the course of a single year, I was able to command the highest wages paid to journeymen caulkers in Baltimore.
The reader will observe that I was now of some pecuniary value to my master. During the busy season I was bringing six or seven dollars per week. I have sometimes brought him as much as nine dollars a week, for the wages were a dollar and a half per day.
After learning to caulk, I sought my own employment, made my own contracts, and collected my own earnings—giving Master Hugh no trouble in any part of the transactions to which I was a party.
Here, then, were better days for the Eastern Shore slave. I was free from the vexatious assaults of the apprentices at Mr. Gardiner’s, and free from the perils of plantation life, and once more in favourable condition to increase my little stock of education, which had been at a dead stand since my removal from Baltimore. I had on the Eastern Shore been only a teacher, when in company with other slaves, but now there were coloured persons here who could instruct me. Many of the young caulkers could read, write, and cipher. Some of them had high notions about mental improvement, and the free ones on Fell’s Point organized what they called the “East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society.” To this society, notwithstanding it was intended that only free persons should attach themselves, I was admitted, and was several times assigned a prominent part in its debates. I owe much to the society of these young men.
The reader already knows enough of the ill effects of good treatment on a slave, to anticipate what was now the case in my improved condition. It was not long before I began to show signs of disquiet with slavery, and to look around for means to get out of it by the shortest route. I was living among freemen, and was in all respects equal to them by nature and attainments. Why should I be a slave? There was no reason why I should be the thrall of any man. Besides, I was now getting, as I have said, a dollar and fifty cents per day. I contracted for it, worked for it, collected it; it was paid to me, and it was rightfully my own; and yet upon every returning Saturday night, this money—my own hard earnings, every cent of it—was demanded of me, and taken from me, by Master Hugh. He did not earn it; he had no hand in earning it; why, then, should he have it? I owed him nothing. He had given me no schooling, and I had received from him only my food and raiment; and for these my services were supposed to pay from the first. The right to take my earnings was the right of the robber. He had the power to compel me to give him the fruits of my labour, and this power was the only right in the case. I became more and more dissatisfied with this state of things, and in so becoming, I only gave proof of the same human nature which every reader of this chapter in my life—slaveholder, or non-slaveholder—is conscious of possessing.
To make a contented slave, you must make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, annihilate his power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery. The man who takes his earnings must be able to convince him that he has a perfect right to do so. It must not depend upon mere force: the slave must know no higher law than his master’s will. The whole relationship must not only demonstrate to his mind its necessity, but its absolute rightfulness. If there be one crevice through which a single drop can fall, it will certainly rust off the slave’s chain.