Saturday, October 1, 2016

Diary of William Howard Russell: June 3, 1861

At five o'clock this morning, having been awakened an hour earlier by a wonderful chorus of riotous mocking-birds, my old negro attendant brought in my bath of Mississippi water, which, Nile-like, casts down a strong deposit, and becomes as clear, if not so sweet, after standing. “Le seigneur vous attend;” and already I saw, outside my window, the Governor mounted on a stout cob, and a nice chestnut horse waiting, led by a slave. Early as it was, the sun felt excessively hot, and I envied the Governor his slouched hat as we rode through the fields, crisp with dew. In a few minutes our horses were traversing narrow alleys between the tall fields of maize, which rose far above our heads. This corn, as it is called, is the principal food of the negroes; and every planter lays down a sufficient quantity to afford him, on an average, a supply all the year round. Outside this spread vast fields, hedgeless, wall-less, and unfenced, where the green cane was just learning to wave its long shoots in the wind — a lake of bright green sugar-sprouts, along the margin of which, in the distance, rose an unbroken boundary of forest, two miles in depth, up to the swampy morass, all to be cleared and turned into arable land in process of time. From the river front to this forest, the fields of rich loam, unfathomable, and yielding from one to one and a half hogsheads of sugar per acre under cultivation, extend for a mile and a half in depth. In the midst of this expanse white dots were visible like Sowers seen on the early march in Indian fields, many a time and oft. Those are the gangs of hands at work — we will see what they are at presently. This little reminiscence of Indian life was further heightened by the negroes who ran beside us to whisk flies from the horses, and to open the gates in the plantation boundary. When the Indian corn is not good, peas are sowed, alternately, between the stalks, and are considered to be of much benefit; and when the cane is bad, corn is sowed with it, for the same object. Before we came up to the gangs we passed a cart on the road containing a large cask, a bucket full of molasses, a pail of hominy, or boiled Indian corn, and a quantity of tin pannikins. The cask contained water for the negroes, and the other vessels held the materials for their breakfast; in addition to which, they generally have each a dried fish. The food was ample, and looked wholesome; such as any laboring man would be well content with. Passing along through maize on one side, and cane at another, we arrived at last at a patch of ground where thirty-six men and women were hoeing.

Three gangs of negroes were at work: one gang of men, with twenty mules and ploughs, was engaged in running through the furrows between the canes, cutting up the weeds, and clearing away the grass, which is the enemy of the growing shoot. The mules are of a fine, large, good-tempered kind, and understand their work almost as well as the drivers, who are usually the more intelligent hands on the plantation. The overseer, a sharp-looking creole, on a lanky pony, whip in hand, superintended their labors, and, after a salutation to the Governor, to whom he made some remarks on the condition of the crops, rode off to another part of the farm. With the exception of crying to their mules, the negroes kept silence at their work.

Another gang consisted of forty men, who were hoeing out the grass in Indian corn. The third gang, of thirty-six women, were engaged in hoeing out cane. Their clothing seemed heavy for the climate; their shoes, ponderous and ill-made, had worn away the feet of their thick stockings, which hung in fringes over the upper leathers. Coarse straw hats and bright cotton handkerchiefs protected their heads from the sun. The silence which I have already alluded to, prevailed among these gangs also — not a sound could be heard but the blows of the hoe on the heavy clods. In the rear of each gang stood a black overseer, with a heavy-thonged whip over his shoulder. If “Alcíbíades” or  “Pompée” were called out, he came with outstretched hand to ask “How do you do,” and then returned to his labor; but the ladies were coy, and scarcely looked up from under their flapping chapeaux de paille at their visitors.

Those who are mothers leave their children in the charge of certain old women, unfit for anything else, and “suckers,” as they are called, are permitted to go home, at appointed periods in the day, to give the infants the breast. The overseers have power to give ten lashes; but heavier punishment ought to be reported to the Governor; however, it is not likely a good overseer would be checked, in any way, by his master. The anxieties attending the cultivation of sugar are great, and so much depends upon the judicious employment of labor, it is scarcely possible to exaggerate the importance of experience in directing it, and of power to insist on its application. When the frost comes, the cane is rendered worthless — one touch destroys the sugar. But if frost is the enemy of the white planter, the sun is scarcely the friend of the black man. The sun condemns him to slavery, because it is the heat which is the barrier to the white man's labor. The Governor told me that, in August, when the crops are close, thick-set, and high, and the vertical sun beats down on the laborers, nothing but a black skin and head covered with wool can enable a man to walk out in the open field and live.

We returned to the house in time for breakfast, for which our early cup of coffee and biscuit and the ride had been good preparation. Here was old France again. One might imagine a lord of the seventeenth century in his hall, but for the black faces of the servitors and the strange dishes of tropical origin. There was the old French abundance, the numerous dishes and efflorescence of napkins, and the long-necked bottles of Bordeaux, with a steady current of pleasant small talk. I saw some numbers of a paper called "La Misachibée? which was the primitive Indian name of the grand river, not improved by the addition of sibilant Anglo-Saxon syllables.

The Americans, not unmindful of the aid to which, at the end of the War of Independence, their efforts were merely auxiliary, delight, even in the North, to exalt France above her ancient rival: but, as if to show the innate dissimilarity of the two races, the French Creoles exhibit towards the New Englanders and the North an animosity, mingled with contempt, which argues badly for a future amalgamation or reunion. As the South Carolinians declare, they would rather return to their allegiance under the English monarchy, so the Louisianians, although they have no sentiment in common with the people of republican and imperial France, assert they would far sooner seek a connection with the old country than submit to the yoke of the Yankees.

After breakfast, the Governor drove out by the ever-silent levee for some miles, passing estate after estate, where grove nodded to grove, each alley saw its brother. One could form no idea, from the small limited frontage of these plantations, that the proprietors were men of many thousands a year, because the estates extend on an average for three or four miles back to the forest. The absence of human beings on the road was a feature which impressed one more and more. But for the tall chimneys of the factories and the sugar-houses, one might believe that these villas had been erected by some pleasure-loving people who had all fled from the river banks for fear of pestilence. The gangs of negroes at work were hidden in the deep corn, and their quarters were silent and deserted. We met but one planter, in his gig, until we arrived at the estate of Monsieur Potier, the Governor's brother-in-law. The proprietor was at home, and received us very kindly, though suffering from the effects of a recent domestic calamity. He is a grave, earnest man with a face like Jerome Bonaparte, and a most devout Catholic; and any man more unfit to live in any sort of community with New England Puritans one cannot well conceive; for equal intensity of purpose and sincerity of conviction on their part could only lead them to mortal strife. His house was like a French chateau erected under tropical influences, and he led us through a handsome garden laid out with hot-houses, conservatories, orange-trees, and date-palms, and ponds full of the magnificent Victoria Regia in flower. We visited his refining factories and mills, but the heat from the boilers, which seemed too much even for the all-but-naked negroes who were at work, did not tempt us to make a very long sojourn inside. The ebony faces and polished black backs of the slaves were streaming with perspiration as they toiled over boilers, vat, and centrifugal driers. The good refiner was not gaining much money at present, for sugar has been rapidly falling in New Orleans, and the 300,000 barrels produced annually in the South will fall short in the yield of profits, which on an average may be taken at £11 a hogshead, without counting the molasses for the planter. With a most perfect faith in States' Rights, he seemed to combine either indifference or ignorance in respect to the power and determination of the North to resist secession to the last. All the planters hereabouts have sowed an unusual quantity of Indian corn, to have food for the negroes if the war lasts, without any distress from inland or sea blockade. The absurdity of supposing that a blockade can injure them in the way of supply is a favorite theme to descant upon. They may find out, however, that it is no contemptible means of warfare.

At night, there are regular patrols and watchmen, who look after the levee and the negroes. A number of dogs are also loosed, but I am assured that the creatures do not tear the negroes; they are taught “merely” to catch and mumble them, to treat them as a well-broken retriever uses a wounded wild duck.

At six, A. M., Morse came to ask me if I should like a glass of absinthe, or anything stomachic. At breakfast was Doctor Laporte, formerly a member of the Legislative Assembly of France, who was exiled by Louis Napoleon ; in other words, he was ordered to give in his adhesion to the new régime, or to take a passport for abroad. He preferred the latter course, and now, true Frenchman, finding the Emperor has aggrandized France and added to her military reputation, he admires the man on whom but a few years ago he lavished the bitterest hate.

The carriage is ready, and the word farewell is spoken at last. M. Alfred Roman, my companion, has travelled in Europe, and learned philosophy; is not so orthodox as many of the gentlemen I have met who indulge in ingenious hypotheses to comfort the consciences of the anthropo-proprietors. The negro skull won't hold as many ounces of shot as the white man's. Potent proof that the white man has a right to sell and to own the creature! He is plantigrade, and curved as to the tibia! Cogent demonstration that he was made expressly to work for the arch-footed, straight-tibiaed Caucasian. He has a rete mucosum and a colored pigment! Surely he cannot have a soul of the same color as that of an Italian or a Spaniard, far less of a flaxen-haired Saxon! See these peculiarities in the frontal sinus — in sinciput or occiput! Can you doubt that the being with a head of that shape was made only to till, hoe, and dig for another race? Besides, the Bible says that he is a son of Ham, and prophecy must be carried out in the rice-swamps, sugar-canes, and maize-fields of the Southern Confederation. It is flat blasphemy to set yourself against it. Our Saviour sanctions slavery because he does not say a word against it, and it is very likely that St. Paul was a slave-owner. Had cotton and sugar been known, the apostle might have been a planter! Furthermore, the negro is civilized by being carried away from Africa and set to work, instead of idling in native inutility. What hope is there of Christianizing the African races, except by the agency of the apostles from New Orleans, Mobile, or Charleston, who sing the sweet songs of Zion with such vehemence, and clamor so fervently for baptism in the waters of the “Jawdam”?

If these high physical, metaphysical, moral and religious reasonings do not satisfy you, and you are bold enough to venture still to be unconvinced and to say so, then I advise you not to come within reach of a mass meeting of our citizens, who may be able to find a rope and a tree in the neighborhood.

As we jog along in an easy rolling carriage drawn by a pair of stout horses, a number of white people meet us coming from the Catholic chapel of the parish, where they had been attending the service for the repose of the soul of a lady much beloved in the neighborhood. The black people must be supposed to have very happy souls, or to be as utterly lost as Mr. Shandy's homunculus was under certain circumstances, for I have failed to find that any such services are ever considered necessary in their case, although they may have been very good — or, where the service would be most desirable — very bad Catholics. The dead, leaden uniformity of the scenery forced one to converse, in order to escape profound melancholy: the levee on the right hand, above which nothing was visible but the sky; on the left plantations with cypress fences, whitewashed and pointed wooden gates leading to the planters' houses, and rugged gardens surrounded with shrubs, through which could be seen the slave quarters. Men making eighty or ninety hogsheads of sugar in a year lived in most wretched tumble-down wooden houses not much larger than ox sheds.

As we drove on, the storm gathered overhead, and the rain fell in torrents — the Mississippi flowed lifelessly by — not a boat on its broad surface.

At last we reached Governor Manning's place, and went to the house of the overseer, a large heavy-eyed old man.

“This rain will do good to the corn,” said the overseer. “The niggers has had sceerce nothin' to do leetly, as they 'eve cleaned out the fields pretty well.”

At the ferry-house I was attended by one stout young slave, who was to row me over. Two flat-bottomed skiffs lay on the bank. The negro groped under the shed, and pulled out a piece of wood like a large spatula, some four feet long, and a small round pole a little longer. “What are those?” quoth I. “Dem's oars, Massa,” was my sable ferryman's brisk reply. “I'm very sure they are not; if they were spliced they might make an oar between them.” “Golly, and dat's the trute, Massa.” “Then go and get oars, will you?” While he was hunting about we entered the shed at the ferry for shelter from the rain. We found “a solitary woman sitting smoking a pipe by the ashes on the hearth, blear-eyed, low-browed and morose — young as she was. She never said a word nor moved as we came in, sat and smoked, and looked through her gummy eyes at chicked about the size of sparrows, and at a cat not larger than a rat which ran about on the dirty floor. A little girl, some four years of age, not overdressed — indeed, half-naked, “not to put too fine a point upon it” — crawled out from under the bed, where she had hid on our approach. As she seemed incapable of appreciating the use of a small piece of silver presented to her — having no precise ideas in coinage or toffy — her parent took the obolus in charge, with unmistakable decision; but still the lady would not stir a step to aid our guide, who now insisted on the “key ov de oar-house.” The little thing sidled off and hunted it out from the top of the bedstead, and when it was found, and the boat was ready, I was not sorry to quit the company of the silent woman in black. The boatman pushed his skiff, in shape a snuffer-dish, some ten feet long and a foot deep, into the water — there was a good deal of rain in it. I got in too, and the conscious waters immediately began vigorously spurting through the cotton wadding wherewith the craft was calked. Had we gone out into the stream we should have had a swim for it, and they do say that the Mississippi is the most dangerous river in the known world, for that healthful exercise. “Why! deuce take you” (I said at least that, in my wrath), “don't you see the boat is leaky?” “See it now for true, Massa. Nobody able to tell dat till Massa get in though.” Another skiff proved to be more stanch. I bade good-by to my friend Roman, and sat down in my boat, which was forced by the negro against the stream close to the bank, in order to get a good start across to the other side. The view from my lonely position was curious, but not at all picturesque. The world was bounded on both sides by a high bank, which constricted the broad river, just as if one were sailing down an open sewer of enormous length and breadth. Above the bank rose the tops of tall trees and the chimneys of sugarhouses, and that was all to be seen save the sky.

A quarter of an hour brought us to the levee on the other side. I ascended the bank, and across the road, directly in front appeared a carriage gateway and wickets of wood, painted white, in a line of park palings of the same material, which extended up and down the road far as the eye could see, and guarded wide-spread fields of maize and sugar-cane. An avenue lined with trees, with branches close set, drooping and overarching a walk paved with red brick, led to the house, the porch of which was visible at the extremity of the lawn, with clustering flowers, rose, jasmine, and Creepers, clinging to the pillars supporting the veranda. The view from the belvedere on the roof was one of the most striking of its kind in the world.

If an English agriculturist could see six thousand acres of the finest land in one field, unbroken by hedge or boundary, and covered with the most magnificent crops of tasselling Indian corn and sprouting sugar-cane, as level as a billiard-table, he would surely doubt his senses. But here is literally such a sight — six thousand acres, better tilled than the finest patch in all the Lothians, green as Meath pastures, which can be turned up for a hundred years to come without requiring manure, of depth practically unlimited, and yielding an average profit on what is sold off it of at least £20 an acre, at the old prices and usual yield of sugar. Rising up in the midst of the verdure are the white lines of the negro cottages and the plantation offices and sugarhouses, which look like large public edifices in the distance. My host was not ostentatiously proud in telling me that, in the year 1857, he had purchased this estate for £300,000 and an adjacent property, of 8000 acres, for £150,000, and that he had left Belfast in early youth, poor and unfriended, to seek his fortune, and indeed scarcely knowing what fortune meant, in the New World. In fact, he had invested in these purchases the geater part, but not all, of the profits arising from the business in New Orleans, which he inherited from his master; of which there still remained a solid nucleus in the shape of a great woollen magazine and country house. He is not yet fifty years of age, and his confidence in the great future of sugar induced him to embark this enormous fortune in an estate which the blockade has stricken with paralysis.

I cannot doubt, however, that he regrets he did not invest his money in a certain great estate in the North of Ireland, which he had nearly decided on buying; and, had he done so, he would now be in the position to which his unaffected good sense, modesty, kindliness, and benevolence, always adding the rental, entitle him. Six thousand acres on this one estate all covered with sugar-cane, and 16,000 acres more of Indian corn, to feed the slaves; — these were great possessions, but not less than 18,000 acres still remained, covered with brake and forest and swampy, to be reclaimed and turned into gold. As easy to persuade the owner of such wealth that slavery is indefensible as to have convinced the Norman baron that the Saxon churl who tilled his lands ought to be his equal.

I found Mr. Ward and a few merchants from New Orleans in possession of the bachelor's house. The service was performed by slaves, and the order and regularity of the attendants were worthy of a well-regulated English mansion. In Southern houses along the coast, as the Mississippi above New Orleans is termed, beef and mutton are rarely met with, and the more seldom the better. Fish, also, is scarce, but turkeys, geese, poultry, and preparations of pig, excellent vegetables, and wrine of the best quality, render the absence of the accustomed dishes little to be regretted.

The silence which struck me at Governor Roman's is not broken at Mr. Burnside's; and when the last thrill of the mocking-bird's song has died out through the grove, a stillness of Avernian profundity settles on hut, field, and river.

SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, p. 261-9

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