Saturday, October 15, 2016

Diary of William Howard Russell: June 6, 1861

My chattel Joe, “adscriptus mihi domino awoke me to a bath of Mississippi water with huge lumps of ice in it, to which he recommended a mint-julep as an adjunct. It was not here that I was first exposed to an ordeal of mint-julep, for in the early morning a stranger in a Southern planter's house may expect the offer of a glassful of brandy, sugar, and peppermint beneath an island of ice — an obligatory panacea for all the evils of climate. After it has been disposed of, Pompey may come up again with glass number two: “Massa say fever very bad this morning —much dew.” It is possible that the degenerate Anglo-Saxon stomach has not the fine tone and temper of that of an Hibernian friend of mine, who considered the finest thing to counteract the effects of a little excess was a tumbler of hot whiskey and water the moment the sufferer opened his eyes in the morning. Therefore, the kindly offering may be rejected. But on one occasion before breakfast the negro brought up mint-julep number three, the acceptance of which he enforced by the emphatic declaration, “Massa says, sir, you had better take this, because it'll be the last he make before breakfast.”

Breakfast is served: there is on the table a profusion of dishes — grilled fowl, prawns, eggs and ham, fish from New Orleans, potted salmon from England, preserved meats from France, claret, iced water, coffee and tea, varieties of hominy, mush, and African vegetable preparations. Then come the newspapers, which are perused eagerly with ejaculations, “Do you hear what they are doing now — infernal villains! that Lincoln must be mad!” and the like. At one o'clock, in spite of the sun, I rode out with Mr. Lee, along the road by the Mississippi, to Mr. Burnside's plantation, called Orange Grove, from a few trees which still remain in front of the overseer's house. We visited an old negro, called “Boatswain,” who lives with his old wife in a wooden hut close by the margin of the Mississippi. His business is to go to Donaldsonville for letters, or meat, or ice for the house — a tough row for the withered old man. He is an African born, and he just remembers being carried on board ship and taken to some big city before he came upon the plantation.

“Do you remember nothing of the country you came from, Boatswain?” “Yes, sir. Jist remember trees and sweet things my mother gave me, and much hot sand I put my feet in, and big leaves that we play with — all us little children — and plenty to eat, and big birds and shells.” “Would you like to go back, Boatswain?” “What for, sir? no one know old Boatswain there. My old missus Sally inside.” “Are you quite happy, Boatswain?” “I'm getting very old, massa. Massa Burnside very good to Boatswain, but who care for such dam old nigger? Golla Mighty gave me fourteen children, but he took them all away again from Sally and me. No budy care much for dam old nigger like me.”

Further on Mr. Seal salutes us from the veranda of his house, but we are bound for overseer Gibbs, who meets us, mounted, by the roadside — a man grim in beard and eye, and silent withal, with a big whip in his hand and a large knife stuck in his belt. He leads us through a magnificent area of cane and maize, the latter towering far above our heads; but I was most anxious to see the forest primeval which borders the clear land at the back of the estate, and spreads away over alligator-haunted swamps into distant bayous. It was not, however, possible to gratify one's Curiosity very extensively beyond the borders of the cleared land, for rising round the roots of the cypress, swamp-pine, and live-oak, there was a barrier of undergrowth and bush twined round the cane-brake which stands some sixteen feet high, so stiff that the united force of man and horse could not make way against the rigid fibres; and indeed, as Mr. Gibbs told us, “When the niggers take to the cane-brake they can beat man or dog, and nothing beats them but snakes and starvation.”

He pointed out some sheds around which were broken bottles where the last Irish gang had been working, under one “John Loghlin,” of Donaldsonville, a great contractor, who, he says, made plenty of money out of his countrymen, whose bones are lying up and down the Mississippi. “They duer work like fire,” he said. “Loghlin does not give them half the rations we give our negroes, but he can always manage them with whiskey; and when he wants them to do a job he gives them plenty of forty-rod,’ and they have their fight out — reglar free fight, I can tell you, while it lasts. Next morning they will sign anything and go anywhere with him.”

On the Orange Grove Plantation, although the crops were so fine, the negroes unquestionably seemed less comfortable than those in the quarters of Houmas, separated from them by a mere nominal division. Then, again, there were more children with fair complexions to be seen peeping out of the huts; some of these were attributed to the former overseer, one Johnson by name, but Mr. Gibbs, as if to vindicate his memory, told me confidentially he had paid a large sum of money to the former proprietor of the estate for one of his children, and had carried it away with him when he left. “You could not expect him, you know,” said Gibbs, “to buy them all at the prices that were then going in ’56. All the children on the estate,” added he, “are healthy, and I can show my lot against Seal's over there, though I hear tell he had a great show of them out to you yesterday.”

The bank of the river below the large plantation was occupied by a set of small Creole planters, whose poor houses were close together, indicating very limited farms, which had been subdivided from time to time, according to the French fashion; so that the owners have at last approached pauperism; but they are tenacious of their rights, and will not yield to the tempting price offered by the large planters. They cling to the soil without enterprise and without care. The Spanish settlers along the river are open to the same reproach, and prefer their own ease to the extension of their race in other lands, or to the aggrandizement of their posterity; and an Epicurean would aver, they were truer philosophers than the restless creatures who wear out their lives in toil and labor to found empires for the future.

It is among these men that, at times, slavery assumes its harshest aspect, and that the negroes are exposed to the severest labor; but it is also true that the slaves have closer relations with the families of their owners, and live in more intimate connection with them than they do under the strict police of the large plantations. These people sometimes get forty bushels of corn to the acre, and a hogshead and a half of sugar. We saw their children going to school, whilst the heads of the houses sat in the veranda smoking, and their mothers were busy with household duties; and the signs of life, the voices of women and children, and the activity visible on the little farms, contrasted not unpleasantly with the desert-like stillness of the larger settlements. Rode back in a thunder-storm.

At dinner in the evening Mr. Burnside entertained a number of planters in the neighborhood, — M. Bringier, M. Coulon (French Creoles), Mr. Duncan Kenner, a medical gentleman named Cotmann,. and others; the last - named gentleman is an Unionist, and does not hesitate to defend his opinions; but he has, during a visit to Russia, formed high ideas of the necessity and virtues of an absolute and centralized government.

SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, p. 276-9

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