header by Emerson Taymor, 2005
9. The Twenties
14. The Sixties
Fanny Kemble, "Women in Slavery," from Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839
Yesterday evening I had a visit that made me very sorrowful—if anything connected with these poor people can be called more especially sorrowful than their whole condition; but Mr. ——'s declaration that he will receive no more statements of grievances or petitions for redress through me, makes me as desirous now of shunning the vain appeals of these unfortunates as I used to be of receiving and listening to them. The imploring cry, 'Oh missis!' that greets me whichever way I turn, makes me long to stop my ears now; for what can I say or do any more for them? The poor little favours—the rice, the sugar, the flannel—that they beg for with such eagerness, and receive with such exuberant gratitude, I can, it is true, supply, and words and looks of pity and counsel of patience and such instruction in womanly habits of decency and cleanliness, as may enable them to better, in some degree, their own hard lot; but to the entreaty, 'Oh missis, you speak to massa for us! Oh missis, you beg massa for us! Oh missis, you tell massa for we, he sure do as you say!'—I cannot now answer as formerly, and I turn away choking and with eyes full of tears from the poor creatures, not even daring to promise any more the faithful transmission of their prayers.
The women who visited me yesterday evening were all in the family-way, and came to entreat of me to have the sentence (what else can I call it?) modified, which condemns them to resume their labour of hoeing in the fields three weeks after their confinement. They knew, of course, that I cannot interfere with their appointed labour, and therefore their sole entreaty was that I would use my influence with Mr. —— to obtain for them a month's respite from labour in the field after child-bearing. Their principal spokeswoman, a woman with a bright sweet face, called Mary, and a very sweet voice, which is by no means an uncommon excellence among them, appealed to my own experience; and while she spoke of my babies, and my carefully tended, delicately nursed, and tenderly watched confinement and convalescence, and implored me to have a kind of labour given to them less exhausting during the month after their confinement, I held the table before me so hard in order not to cry that I think my fingers ought to have left a mark on it. At length I told them that Mr. —— had forbidden me to bring him any more complaints from them, for that he thought the ease with which I received and believed their stories only tended to make them discontented, and that, therefore, I feared I could not promise to take their petitions to him; but that he would be coming down to 'the point' soon, and that they had better come then some time when I was with him, and say what they had just been saying to me: and with this, and various small bounties, I was forced, with a heavy heart, to dismiss them, and when they were gone, with many exclamations of, 'Oh yes, missis, you will, you will speak to massa for we; God bless you, missis, we sure you will!' I had my cry out for them, for myself, for us. All these women had had large families, and all of them had lost half their children, and several of them had lost more. How I do ponder upon the strange fate which has brought me here, from so far away, from surroundings so curiously different—how my own people in that blessed England of my birth would marvel if they could suddenly have a vision of me as I sit here, and how sorry some of them would be for me!
...Before closing this letter, I have a mind to transcribe to you the entries for to-day recorded in a sort of daybook, where I put down very succinctly the number of people who visit me, their petitions and ailments, and also such special particulars concerning them as seem to me worth recording. You will see how miserable the physical condition of many of these poor creatures is; and their physical condition, it is insisted by those who uphold this evil system, is the only part of it which is prosperous, happy, and compares well with that of northern labourers. Judge from the details I now send you; and never forget, while reading them, that the people on this plantation are well off, and consider themselves well off, in comparison with the slaves on some of the neighbouring estates.
Fanny has had six children, all dead but one. She came to beg to have her work in the field lightened.
Nanny has had three children, two of them are dead; she came to implore that the rule of sending them into the field three weeks after their confinement might be altered.
Leah, Caesar's wife, has had six children, three are dead.
Sophy, Lewis' wife, came to beg for some old linen; she is suffering fearfully, has had ten children, five of them are dead. The principal favour she asked was a piece of meat, which I gave her.
Sally, Scipio's wife, has had two miscarriages and three children born, one of whom is dead. She came complaining of incessant pain and weakness in her back. This woman was a mulatto daughter of a slave called Sophy, by a white man of the name of Walker, who visited the plantation.
Charlotte, Renty's wife, had had two miscarriages, and was with child again. She was almost crippled with rheumatism, and showed me a pair of poor swollen knees that made my heart ache. I have promised her a pair of flannel trowsers, which I must forthwith set about making.
Sarah, Stephen's wife,—this woman's case and history were, alike, deplorable, she had had four miscarriages, had brought seven children into the world, five of whom were dead, and was again with child. She complained of dreadful pains in the back, and an internal tumour which swells with the exertion of working in the fields; probably, I think, she is ruptured. She told me she had once been mad and ran into the woods, where she contrived to elude discovery for some time, but was at last tracked and brought back, when she was tied up by the arms and heavy logs fastened to her feet, and was severely flogged. After this she contrived to escape again, and lived for some time skulking in the woods, and she supposes mad, for when she was taken again she was entirely naked. She subsequently recovered from this derangement, and seems now just like all the other poor creatures who come to me for help and pity. I suppose her constant child-bearing and hard labour in the fields at the same time may have produced the temporary insanity.
Sukey, Bush's wife, only came to pay her respects. She had had four miscarriages, had brought eleven children into the world, five of whom are dead.
Molly, Quambo's wife, also only came to see me; hers was the best account I have yet received; she had had nine children, and six of them were still alive.
This is only the entry for to-day, in my diary, of the people's complaints and visits. Can you conceive a more wretched picture than that which it exhibits of the conditions under which these women live? Their cases are in no respect singular, and though they come with pitiful entreaties that I will help them with some alleviation of their pressing physical distresses, it seems to me marvellous with what desperate patience (I write it advisedly, patience of utter despair) they endure their sorrow-laden existence. Even the poor wretch who told that miserable story of insanity and lonely hiding in the swamps and scourging when she was found, and of her renewed madness and flight, did so in a sort of low, plaintive, monotonous murmur of misery, as if such sufferings were all 'in the day's work.'
I ask these questions about their children because I think the number they bear as compared with the number they rear a fair gauge of the effect of the system on their own health and that of their offspring. There was hardly one of these women, as you will see by the details I have noted of their ailments, who might not have been a candidate for a bed in an hospital, and they had come to me after working all day in the fields.