"Negro Slavery Described by a Negro: Being the Narrative of Ashton Warner, a Native of St. Vincent's. With an Appendix Containing the Testimony of Four Christian Ministers, Recently Returned from the Colonies, on the System of Slavery as It Now Exists" by Ashton Warner and Susanna Moodie (pseud. S. Strickland) is in the Public Domain
Negro Slavery Described by a Negro
Being the Narrative of Ashton Warner, a Native of St. Vincent's
by S. Strickland
IT seems difficult to account for the indifference manifested by a very numerous class of well-educated persons, in regard to the system of slavery existing in our colonies, on any other principle than their almost total and, I may add, criminal ignorance of the real facts of the case. Prejudice and misinformation on this subject have been, for a long series of years, fostered with unremitting assiduity by those interested in maintaining the West India system; a party whose corrupt influence over a large majority of the lighter vehicles of popular information has enabled them to gain possession of the public ear, and to abuse public credulity, to an extent no generally appreciated, I imagine, by the friends of negro emancipation. I speak with the less hesitation on this topic, because I was myself, until only a few months ago, one of the apathetical and deluded class I am now animadverting upon. The truth is, I had drawn the little knowledge I then possessed on this subject chiefly from literary periodicals on the side of the planters, such as the Quarterly Review, Blackwood's Magazine, and other publications of the same class; works certainly but little calculated to excite the feelings or alarm the conscience on this momentous question. I had, consequently, never given the subject much serious thought, still less imagined that I was a sharer in a great national crime; and when I occasionally heard, through other channels, statements of the cruelty and oppression which prevail in our slave colonies, I was predisposed to regard such statements, generally, as very greatly exaggerated at the least, if not in some cases absolutely fabricated for political purposes. Such tales appeared far too shocking to be true; and, without troubling myself to examine carefully into the real facts, I condemned the whole as matters of party agitation. The result was a strong indisposition to consider the question impartially, on its real merits; and thus, for a long time, the arguments of some friends of emancipation, whom I had the fortune occasionally to meet, were insufficient to remove my prejudices, or to satisfy me that the appeal of the abolitionists to the British government, in behalf of the slaves, was really called forth by the high and hallowed motives of Christian benevolence, and by a deep sense of the gross injustice and awful criminality of a free nation suffering such an abomination as negro slavery to exist in her dominions.
In common with most of the defenders and apologists of the colonial system, I was willing, it is true, to admit that slavery, considered in the abstract, is a great evil and a gross injustice, which, though sanctioned by the usage of centuries, could not be defended upon Christian principles, being contrary to the rights of nature and the spirit of the gospel. But beyond this general admission I refused to advance; alleging that it would be an act of glaring injustice to the planters to deprive them of a property which had been secured to them by the concurrence of the legislature, if not by the law of the land. I did not pause to ask myself such questions as the following:--Who gave this nation that right? Can any enactments of human legislators lawfully make one man the property of another?--especially when the beings thus bartered are the inhabitants of a country over which we possess no claim but such as lawless force can confer? Is a robbery thus sanctioned the less an infringement of the eighth clause of the Scripture decalogue? Or, if our fathers have lived in the commission of iniquity, can an act of parliament (supposing such to exist), passed in a less enlightened age, render it lawful through a thousand generations? Has God poured the tide of life through the African's breast, and animated it with a portion of his own divine spirit, and at the same time deprived him of all natural affections, that he alone is to be struck off the list of rational beings, and placed on a level with the brutes? Is his flesh marble and his sinews iron, or his immortal spirit of a class condemned, without hope, to penal suffering, that he is called upon to endure incessant toil, and to be subjected to degradation, bodily and mental, such as no other family of Adam's race have ever been destined to endure without the vengeance of heaven being signally displayed upon the oppressors? Does the African mother feel less love to her offspring than the white woman?--or the African husband regard with less tenderness the wife of his bosom? Is his heart dead to the ties of kindred--his nature so brutalised that the sacred associations of home and country awaken no emotions in his breast?--Let the history of Hayti, since the abrogated rights of humanity were there re-conquered by the African race, render a practical reply to such questions--and unanswerably demonstrate that the negro does feel, keenly feel, the wrongs inflicted upon him by his unrighteous enslavers, and that his mind, barren as it has been rendered by hard usage, and desolated with misery, is not unwatered by the pure and gentle streams of natural affection. And, once convinced of this, can we longer remain unmoved by his sad condition, or contemplate with indifference his bodily and mental sufferings, and still dare to postpone to an indefinite period the termination of his oppression and of our own guilt?
The entire change in my own ideas, in regard to slavery, was chiefly effected by the frequent opportunities which Providence recently and unexpectedly threw in my way of conversing with several negroes, both male and female, who had been British colonial slaves, and who had borne in their own persons the marks of the brand and the whip, and had drank the bitter cup to its dregs. To their simple and affecting narratives I could not listen unmoved. The voice of truth and nature prevailed over my former prejudices. I beheld slavery unfolded in all its revolting details; and, having been thus irresistibly led to peruse the authentic accounts of the real character and effects of the system, I resolved no longer to be an accomplice in its criminality, though it were only by keeping silence regarding it. Thinking that the same means which had operated so effectually upon my own mind might produce a favourable result in other persons who had been accustomed to view the case in the same careless and prejudiced manner, it occurred to me that I might publish, with some small advantage to the cause, the following little history, taken down from the narration of a young negro, who had recently made his escape from slavery in the West Indies, and had come over to England on purpose to establish his claims to freedom.
The narrator is Ashton Warner, a native of the island of St. Vincent's. He is about twenty-four years of age, and possesses very prepossessing manners and appearance. His amiable disposition and natural intelligence are striking proofs of what the African is capable, were his mental powers suffered to expand under the genial influences of civilization and Christianity. Claimed as a slave under peculiar circumstances, Ashton has enjoyed the unwonted privilege of not having been subjected in his own person (at least not habitually, like the unhappy field negroes,) to the cruel and degrading punishments which form a prominent and characteristic feature in the discipline of a West India sugar-plantation. But his statements are the more valuable on this account, since they are neither dictated by revenge nor by an egotistical desire to recount his own sorrows; but by a sincere wish to benefit those whose severe sufferings he had witnessed, and whose severe labours, in part only, he had shared. Having once tasted the sweets of liberty, he is the more capable of discriminating between the advantages conferred by it and the evils arising from its deprivation. We find him regarding a state of freedom as the greatest of all earthly blessings, and asserting his independence with the resolution and spirit which a sense of justice and a love of liberty alone can give. The slave grovels in the dust, and passively yields up his body to the degrading lash; resistance, he feels, is useless and only increases the miseries of his condition. Animated by no hope, and bound to his employer by no ties of reciprocal interest, he drags on from day to day his brutalised existence, and looks forward to death as the only termination of his woes. He sinks into a living machine whose actions are guided and enforced by the will of another, and his words and looks correspond with his mental and bodily abasement. But in Ashton the inextinguishable spark of liberty, once kindled, repels all the threats of managers and overseers to degrade him to a slave. He feels his importance in the scale of humanity, and we find him, while but a boy, asserting his natural rights as a man.
The character of his aunt, Daphne Crosbie, is singularly interesting. Though born a slave, and consequently labouring under every disadvantage of colour and education, she possesses a spirit of disinterested benevolence that might do honour to any nation and to any rank. We find this affectionate and generous woman devoting all her little property to the emancipation of her former companions in bondage; first procuring the freedom of her aged parents and kindred, and then labouring with Christian love to redeem others who had shared with her the sorrows and the shames of servitude.
In writing Ashton's narrative, I have adhered strictly to the simple facts, adopting, wherever it could conveniently be done, his own language, which, for a person in his condition, is remarkably expressive and appropriate. Had I been inclined to give a recital of revolting cruelty, I should have chosen another case; and for such, unhappily, I had not far to seek. But those who wish to read such mournful narratives of human depravity will find enough for their information (far too many for the honour of human nature!) recorded in the publications of the Anti-Slavery Society.
The profits arising from the sale of this tract will be appropriated to the benefit of Ashton, who has been for the last three months in England, endeavouring to establish his claims to freedom; and who is at present suffering under severe illness, without any adequate means of subsistence.
With a view to render this Sketch of Colonial Slavery more complete, and to enable the reader to compare the details given by Ashton with those recorded by intelligent and conscientious eye-witnesses from England, I have subjoined, as an Appendix, the very important testimonies on this subject of three highly respectable clergymen of the established Church, and of an excellent Wesleyan Missionary--testimonies as yet but partially known to the public, and which comprise a mass of information equally recent and interesting.
Should this little tract assist, however feebly, in the diffusion of correct information in regard to the general condition and the feelings of the slaves, and thus tend to promote the great and good cause of justice and mercy, the writer's object will be fully accomplished. Like the widow's mite cast into the sacred treasury, those who love the truth will not deem it unworthy because its value is but humble.
London, February 19, 1831.
I was born in the Island of St. Vincent's, and baptized by the name of Ashton Warner, in the parish church, by the Rev. Mr. Gildon. My father and mother, at the time of my birth, were slaves on Cane Grove estate, in Bucumar Valley, then the property of Mr. Ottley. I was an infant at the breast when Mr. Ottley died; and shortly after the estate was put to sale, that the property might be divided among his family. Before Cane Grove was sold, my aunt, Daphne Crosbie, took the opportunity of buying my mother and me of Mr. Ottley's trustees. My aunt had been a slave, but a favoured one. She had money left her by a coloured gentleman of the name of Crosbie, with whom she lived, and whose name she took. After his death she went to reside at Kingston. Finding it a good thing to be free, aunt Daphne wished to make all her friends free also, particularly the slaves on the estate where she was born, and with whom she had shared, in her early days, all the sorrows of negro servitude. She had a large heart, and felt great kindness for her own people; but her means were not equal to her good wishes. She bought her old parents of Mr. Jackson, Mr. Ottley's executor; and, as it was her earnest desire to make us all happy, she would have bought my uncle John Baptiste (my mother's brother) too; but Mr. Wilson, the gentleman who purchased the estate, would not sell him, His reason for refusing my aunt never knew, for my uncle was an old man then, and nearly past work. Mr. Wilson sent him away to the Island of St. Lucia, and it was some years before aunt Daphne heard any tidings of him. At last some persons, coming from St. Lucia to St. Vincent's, told her that he lay very sick on Mr. Grant's estate. My aunt was glad to find that he was still living, and she went herself to make him free. She had never crossed the water, or been on the great sea, but she overcame her fears, and hired a small boat, and went directly to St. Lucia. She found my poor uncle in a very miserable state, and in this condition she bought him of his master, and brought him back to St. Vincent's. He was ill a long, long time; it was many long weary months before he could even take up a broom to sweep the house. He was very grateful to aunt Daphne for all that she had done for him; and so were we all. She was a very good, kind woman, and a Christian, though a black woman; and we (her relations) all loved her very, very much. We had no one else to love--she was all the world to us.
Whilst I lived with my aunt at Kingston I was very happy. I had no heavy tasks to do; and she was as careful over me as if she had been my own mother, and used to keep me with her in the house, that I might not be playing about in the streets with bad companions. My mother made sausages and souse1 and I used to help her to carry them to gentlemen's houses for sale. This was light labour to her, for she had been a field slave, kept at hard work, and driven to it by the whip. I am sure our best days were spent with my dear aunt; nor did she make us alone happy; all the money she could save went to purchase the freedom of slaves who had formerly been her companions in bondage at Cane Grove, or to make their condition better. There was not a person upon the island who did not speak well of Daphne Crosbie; black or white it was all the same. She bore a good character until the day she died.
I lived with my aunt until I was ten years old, when I was claimed as a slave belonging to the Cane Grove estate, by Mr. Wilson. This was a hard and unjust claim; but Mr. Wilson said, that though my mother was sold I was not--that the best slaves had been sold off the estate--that I was his property, and he would claim me wherever I was to be found. Now, he was wrong in all this, and I can prove to you, in two short minutes, that I did not belong to him. When my aunt manumitted my mother and me, Mr. Wilson had not-yet bought the estate; and in the Island of St. Vincent's it has always been a customary rule that the young child at the breast is sold as one with its mother, and does not become separate property till it is five or six years old; so that Mr. Wilson's claim was very unjust and oppressive2.
When my aunt found Mr. Wilson bent on taking me away by force, she went to Mr. Jackson, the gentleman from whom she had purchased my mother, and told him the state of the case, and he gave her a written paper to take to the Chief Justice of the island, to prove that I belonged to Daphne Crosbie, should Mr. Wilson continue to claim me. My aunt went to the Governor and showed him this paper, and also the manumission paper she had received from Mr. Jackson. The Governor, after looking at it, said that Mr. Wilson had no legal right to claim me upon the estate, and he promised my aunt that he would write to him to that effect. But we never knew whether he did or not, for we never got an answer from him. It is of no use trusting to what the white people in the West Indies say; they always forget their promises to slaves. Before this happened, my aunt had bound me apprentice to a cooper, to learn his trade. I was bound for seven years, and had signed the indenture myself, as a free black, by making a cross for my name.
My master's name was Pierre Wynn. He was a kind good master, and I never ceased to lament the cause which parted me from him. I had been with him between two and three months, and was busy one morning at work in the cooper's yard, helping the journeyman to truss a molasses-cask, when Mr. Wilson's manager, Mr. Donald, with two coloured men, and a white named Newman, came into the yard. This man, Newman, had informed Mr. Wilson where I was, and he sent his people to take me away by force. When the manager came into the yard, he said, "Which is Ashton?" I answered, quite innocently, not suspecting any mischief, "I am Ashton." Directly I said so the manager caught hold of me by the back of my neck. I did not know why he held me. I did not know what to think--I could not get my breath to speak--I was dreadfully frightened, and trembled all over. The other men got hold of me, and held me fast. They then led me away to Mr. Dalzell, Mr. Wilson's attorney, and shut me up in his office till Mr. Wilson came. Mr. Dalzell was afraid that I would try to make my escape, and to make sure of me one man kept watch at the window and another at the door. When Mr. Wilson came in he did not know me, and asked who I was. One of the men told him that I was Ashton. He said, "Very well; keep him here till I am ready to send him down to the estate." He then came up to the place where I was standing, and examined me from head to foot; then turned to Mr. Dalzell, and began talking to him about me. I was too young, and too much frightened at being stolen away, to remember much of their discourse; but I am very sure that I shall never forget that day.
Before Mr. Wilson left the office, my mother and Daphne Crosbie came to hear what was to be done with me, and why I had been taken away. But all they said was of no use; they could do no good where there was no justice to be had. Mr. Wilson insisted that I was a slave, and his slave, and he would have it so, in spite of my mother's tears and my aunt's entreaties. My poor mother was greatly distressed, and cried very bitterly. She entreated Mr. Wilson, if he thought he had a just claim for me, to put me in gaol till the question as to my freedom could be fairly settled; but he refused to do this, and when she continued her entreaties he grew angry, and ordered her not to stop in the yard, but to go away directly. And she and aunt Crosbie, on finding that nothing could be done for me there, were obliged to leave me in his hands.
The manager then put me into a boat, and took me down to the estate. It was rather late in the afternoon when we got there. I had nothing given me to do that day. It was Saturday, and I was not set to work till the Monday morning. I was very sad, and wished very much to run away. I could not bear the thought of being a slave, and I was very restless and unhappy.
On the Monday morning, John, the head cooper, took me down to the sugar works to help him; but I had no heart to work--I did nothing but think how I might run away. I was not knowing enough, however, to make my escape; and, after consulting with myself a long time, I found it would be the best plan to make myself as patient as I could. But still I was always thinking of my mother and aunt, and of Pierre Wynn, and the home I had been taken from. The estate of Cane Grove was in the middle of a deep valley, near the sea shore. Mr. Wilson's house stood upon the brow of the hill, and overlooked the whole sugar plantation. He had about three hundred slaves, and was considered one of the severest masters in the whole island.
The manager put me under the charge of John, the cooper. He was a black man, and a slave; but he was very cruel to those of his own colour who were placed under him. I had not been with him many days before he gave me a proof of this. He ordered me to go to the plantation and cut a bundle of faggots from some trees which had been lately felled. This was at noon, when the sun was at the hottest. Owing to the great heat I was a long time making up my bundle. When I brought it home, he was angry with me because I had not cut more, and said that he knew that I had been playing and idling away my time, instead of minding my work. I told him that I had worked as hard as I could, but the heat was so great that I had no strength to chop more. He seized hold of me, and, holding me fast with one hand, he took a piece of wood from the bundle, and struck me over the head again and again, till I was quite stunned with the pain, and the blood flowed from the wound. I went crying to the manager, and complained of the cooper's cruelty. He was not so harsh a man as John, and he told him that he had done wrong; for he knew that Mr. Wilson did not wish me to be treated severely. This was not from any liking he had to me above the rest of the slaves; but Mr. Wilson, having no just claim to me, was fearful that ill usage would induce me to make my escape. I did not suspect this then, but I knew it when I grew older. After John had treated me in this way, I went to live with a slave on the estate called Ben: I slept at his place, and only worked with John, in the coopers' yard, during the day.
The first time I was trusted to leave the estate, John's wife took me with her to Kingston on Sunday morning (which is the slaves' market-day) to sell some Indian corn. I carried the Indian corn to market in an open basket upon my head, just as it had been gathered in the long ears. I had, that day, a great desire to see my mother and aunt, which became stronger and stronger the nearer we drew to Kingston. As we went along, I asked the cooper's wife to let me go home and speak to my people. I was so earnest about it, and pressed her so hard, that at last she said she would let me go if I would promise to come back soon. In the market, however, I met my mother, and John's wife gave me into her charge. Oh, I was so glad to see her!--so full of joy after our long, long parting; and when I saw with her a boy of my own age, called William, who had been my play-fellow, and whom I loved as if he had been my brother, and thought I should never see again, I could contain myself no longer, but burst into tears. William was as glad to see me as I was to see him, and we went home together. I told him, as we went along, all that had happened to me since I was stolen away, and how much I disliked being a slave. I was so happy with my friends all that day that I quite forgot my promise to the cooper's wife. I went out to play with William: he took me on board the ship to which he belonged; and, when John's wife came to my aunt's to take me home with her, I was no where to be found; and she was obliged, though much against her will, to return without me. When asked by the manager what had become of me, she told him that I was lost. He was very angry with her for letting me out of her sight; and, thinking that I had taken this opportunity to run away, he ordered some of his people to go to Kingston early in the morning and bring me back. One of the slaves set off before it was light in search of me. But, as my mother and aunt had persuaded me not to run away, but to return to the estate, and be a good and dutiful lad to my master till they could obtain justice for me,--as soon as the day broke I bade them good-bye, and went back to Cane Grove. The slave who had been sent to find me missed me upon the road, and was the whole day looking for me about the town.
The next morning Mr. Wilson rode up to the cooper's shop, and asked me where I had been; and why I did not come home on the Sunday night, as I had promised? I told him that I went to see my mother, and that I did not mean to stay long away. He did not say many angry words to me; but he told me, the next time I went to Kingston, and wished to see my mother, I must ask his leave, and he would give me a paper to show that I had it. But I never had an opportunity to come to him for a pass: he went away suddenly to England, and I never saw him again.
Mr. Wilson left me to the care of Mr. Donald, his manager, and Mr. Dalzell, his attorney, who always treated me very well--though I was still held unjustly as a slave. But some time afterwards Mr. Donald was discharged from the estate, because he had not made enough of sugar; and it was reported by some person to Mr. Wilson that he was too indulgent to the slaves, and did not work them hard enough. Another manager came in his place, called Mr. John M'Fie, who was a very severe task-master, and worked the slaves much harder. Under him my condition became considerably worse. One day he sent and called me to his house, and said that, as there was not sufficient job-work for me about the homestall, I must take a hoe and join the field gang. If the sentence of death had been passed upon me, I could not have felt more stunned. I shall never forget it! I knew that if I was sent to the field it would make me destroy myself--for it is always counted by negroes who have been above it, the worst of all punishments--the lowest step of disgrace--to be placed in the field gang. It is a dreadful state of slavery. I have often seen it--I may say I have felt it, though never in my own person. God mercifully spared me that trial. I declare before Almighty God that I would far rather die than submit to it; and, when the manager threatened to send me to the field, I felt so ill and so desperate that I did not care for life. But I did not answer a word. If I had spoken my thoughts, he would have had me flogged on the spot. I turned away in silence, with the salt water in my eyes. He saw that it would not do to drive me desperate, and he soon sent after me and ordered me to another task. On another occasion, when something had offended him, Mr. M'Fie once more threatened to send me to the field; but he never went so far as actually to force me to take the hoe. Had he done so, I can scarcely tell what would have been the consequence. I think it would have been my destruction.
As I have spoken of the condition of the field negroes as being so much worse than that of the mechanics among whom I was ranked on the estate, I shall here endeavour to describe the manner in which the field gang were worked on Cane Grove estate. They were obliged to be in the field before five o'clock in the morning; and, as the negro houses were at the distance of from three to four miles from the cane pieces, they were generally obliged to rise as early as four o'clock, to be at their work in time. The driver is first in the field, and calls the slaves together by cracking the whip or blowing the conch shell. Before five o'clock the overseer calls over the roll; and if any of the slaves are so unfortunate as to be too late, even by a few minutes, which, owing to the distance, is often the case, the driver flogs them as they come in, with the cart-whip, or with a scourge of tamarind rods. When flogged with the whip, they are stripped and held down upon the ground, and exposed in the most shameful manner.
In the cultivation of the canes the slaves work in a row. Each person has a hoe, and the women are expected to do as much as the men. This work is so hard that any slave, newly put to it, in the course of a month becomes so weak that often he is totally unfit for labour. If he falls back behind the rest, the driver keeps forcing him up with the whip.
They work from five o'clock to nine, when they are allowed to sit down for half an hour in the field, and take such food as they have been able to prepare over night. But many have no food ready, and so fast till mid-day.
They go to work again directly after half an hour's respite, and labour till twelve o'clock, when they leave off for dinner. They are allowed two hours of mid-day intermission, out of crop time, and an hour and a half in crop time.
During this interval every slave must pick a bundle of grass to bring home for the cattle at night. The grass grows in tufts, often scattered over a great space of ground, and, when the season is dry, it is very scarce and withered, so that the slaves collect it slowly and with difficulty, and are often employed most of the time allowed them for mid-day rest, in seeking for it. I have frequently known them occupied the whole two hours in collecting it.
They work again in gang from two till seven o'clock. It is then dark. When they return home the overseer calls over the roll, and demands of every man and woman their bundles of grass. He weighs with his hand each bundle as it is given in, and, if it be too light, the person who presents it is either instantly laid down and flogged severely with the cart-whip, or is put into the stocks for the whole night. If the slaves bring home no grass, they are not only put into the stocks all night, but are more severely flogged the next morning. This grass-picking is a very sore grievance to the field slaves.
When they are manuring the ground, the slaves are forced to carry the wet manure in open baskets upon their heads. This is most unpleasant as well as severe work. It is a usual occupation for wet weather, and the moisture from the manure drips constantly down upon the faces, and over the body and clothes of the slaves. They are forced to run with their loads as fast as they can; and, if they flag, the driver is instantly at their heels with the cart-whip.
The crop-time usually commences in January and lasts till June, and, if the season is wet, till July. During this season every slave must bring in a bundle of cane-tops for the cattle, instead of a bundle of grass. They then go immediately to the sugar works, where they have to take up the mogass which was spread out at nine o'clock in the morning to dry for fuel to boil the sugar. This mogass is the stalks of the cane after the juice has been squeezed out by the mill. The slaves are employed till ten at night in gathering in the mogass, that it may not be wetted with the dew and rendered unfit for immediate use. The overseer then calls over the roll, and issues orders for a certain spell of them to be up and at the works at one o'clock in the morning. After this the slaves have to prepare their suppers; for, if they have no very aged parents or friends belonging to them, they must do this themselves, which occupies them another hour. Every creature that is capable of work must take a part in the labours of the crop; and no person remains at home but those who are totally unfit for work. Slaves who are too old and weak to go to the field have to make up bundles of mogass, cut grass for the stock, &c.
During this season all the mechanics on the estate are employed to pot the sugar; carpenters, coopers, masons, and rum-distillers, even the pasture-boys who tend the cattle, are called in to assist. To the little people are given small tubs to carry the sugar into the curing house; and the grown-up slaves have shovels to fill the tubs for them. When employed in potting the sugar, we did not leave off to get our breakfast till ten or eleven o'clock, and I have known it mid-day before we have tasted food.
The whole gang of field slaves are divided into spells, and every man and woman able to work has not only to endure during crop-time the severe daily labour, but to work half the night also, or three whole nights in the week. The work is very severe, and great numbers of the slaves, during this period, sink under it, and become ill; but if they complain, their complaints are not readily believed, or are considered only a pretence to escape from labour. If they are so very ill that their inability to work can be no longer doubted, they are at length sent to the sick house.
The sick-house is just like a penn to keep pigs in; if you wish to keep yourself clean and decent, you cannot. It is one of the greatest punishments to the slaves to be sent there. When we were hard pressed, and had much sugar to pot, the manager would often send to the sick-house for the people who were sick, or lame with sores, to help us. If they refused to come, and said that they were unable to work, they were taken down and severely flogged, by the manager's order, with the cart-whip. There is nothing in slavery harder to bear than this. When you are ill and cannot work, your pains are made light of, and your complaints neither listened to, nor believed. I have seen people who were so sick that they could scarcely stand, dragged out of the sick-house, and tied up to a tree, and flogged in a shocking manner; then driven with the whip to the work. I have seen slaves in this state crawl away, and lie down among the wet trash to get a little ease, though they knew that it would most likely cause their death.
The quantity of food allowed the slaves is from two pounds and a half to three pounds of salt-fish per week, for each grown person. They could easily eat this in two days, but they must make it last till they receive a fresh allowance from the overseer. The rest of their food they raise upon their provision grounds. The owner gives to each slave from thirty to forty feet square of ground; not the best ground, but such as has been over-cropped, and is no longer productive for canes. This is taken from them the next year, when, by manuring and planting with yams and other things, it has been brought round, and recovered strength for the cultivation of sugar. The slaves are likewise permitted to cultivate waste pieces of ground, and the headlands of fields, that are unfit for planting. They work this ground every Sunday. It is generally given to them in March or April, and it is taken away in December or January. Besides the Sunday, they get part of twenty-six Saturdays, out of crop-time, to cultivate their grounds. What I mean by saying they get only part of these Saturdays is this--that they are employed in their master's work, such as carrying out trash, &c., from five to ten o'clock in the forenoon; and in the evening they must bring each his bundle of grass to deliver as usual at the calling of the lists; so that about seven hours, even of the day which is called their own, is occupied with their owner's work. They are obliged to work on these days at the provision grounds, if they wish ever so much for a holiday. If they are absent when the overseer inspects the grounds, they are flogged, or put in the stocks. The grounds produce plantains, yams, potatoes, pumpkins, calabashes, &c. On the Sunday, at every town, a market is held, in which the slaves are allowed to sell the produce of their grounds. Those that can save a little money, buy a pig and fatten it, that, in case of any death happening among their friends, they may sell the pig to provide a few necessaries for the funeral. They bury the dead during the night, being allowed no time during the day for their funerals.
In building their houses, they are allowed as much board as will form a window and a door. They go to the woods and cut wild canes, to form the walls and roof. The huts are thatched with cane-trash or tops.
For clothing, the owner gives to each slave in the year six yards of blue stuff, called bamboo, and six yards of brown. The young people and children are given a less allowance, in proportion to their size and age; the young children getting only a small stripe to tie round the waist. For bed-clothing, they give them only a blanket once in four or five years; and they are obliged to wear this till it falls in pieces. If the slaves require other clothes, they must buy them out of their own little savings. Many of the field negroes are very badly off for clothing. A good many are always to be seen with only a rag of cloth round their loins in all weathers.
People so hardly, so harshly, treated, and so destitute of every comfort, cannot be supposed to work with a willing mind. They have no home which they can well call their own. They are worked beyond their strength, and live in perpetual fear of the whip. They are insulted, tormented, and indecently exposed and degraded; yet English people wonder that they are not contented. Some have even said that they are happy! Let such people place themselves for a few minutes under the same yoke, and see if they could bear it. Such bondage is ruin both to the soul and body of the slave; and I hope every good Englishman will daily pray to God, that the yoke of slavery may soon be broken from off the necks of my unfortunate countrymen for ever.3
What made me feel more deeply for the sad condition of the field slaves was the circumstance of my having taken a wife from among them, after I had resided several years on Cane Grove estate. When I was about twenty-one years of age, finding my condition lonely, because I had no friends to manage for me, as the other slaves had, I wished to marry, and have a home of my own, and a kind partner to do for me. Among the field slaves there was a very respectable young woman, called Sally, for whom I had long felt a great deal of regard. At last I asked her to be my wife; and we stood up in her father's house, before her mother, and her uncle, and her sisters, and, holding each other by the hand, pledged our troth as husband and wife, and promised before God to be good and kind to each other, and to love and help each other, as long as we lived.
And so we married. And though it was not as white folks marry, before the parson, yet I considered her as much my wife, and I loved her as well, as though we had been married in the church; and she was as careful, and managed as well for me, as if she had been my mother. I could not bear to see her work in the field. It is, as I have already said, a very sad and hard condition of slavery; and the more my wife suffered, the more I wished to be free, and to make her so. When she was with child, she was flogged for not coming out early enough to work, and afterwards, when far advanced in pregnancy, she was put into the stocks by the manager, because she said she was unable to go to the field. My heart was almost broken to see her so treated, but I could do nothing to help her; and it would have made matters worse if I had attempted to speak up for her. She was twice punished in this cruel manner, though the overseer must have known that she was in no condition to work. After our child was born, she was again repeatedly flogged for not coming sooner to the field, though she had stopped merely to attend and suckle the baby. But they had no feeling for the mother or for her child, they cared only for the work. It is a dreadful thing to be a field negro; and it is scarcely less dreadful, if one's heart is not quite hardened, to have a wife, or a husband, or a child, in that condition. On this account I was often grieved that I had taken poor Sally to be my wife; for it caused her more suffering as a mother, while her cruel treatment wrung my heart, without my being able to move a finger, or utter a word, in her behalf.
After Mr. M'Fie had become manager, I thought now would be my time to run away; but my aunt still begged me to remain quietly on the estate till she could raise money to get justice. She put the business into the hands of Mr. Jackson. He promised very fair, and said that he could easily get me out of Mr. Wilson's hands. My aunt gave him £4. to begin with; but he shortly after went to reside at Grenada; and we lost the money, and got no justice. This was a sad cross to all our hopes, and my mother's husband was obliged to go to Grenada to recover the papers; but the money he never got. These lawyers in the West Indies never return any money. You are obliged to fee them before they will do any thing for you. If you are rich, they will do all they can, in the hope of getting more money; but if you are poor, they soon grow tired of helping you; and you have to pay them whether they do any thing for you or not. It is all one to them whether you are right or wrong; they only care for the pay.
We were glad to get the papers into our own hands again. My mother then went to Judge Hobson, but he said that, as I was claimed upon the estate, I had better remain upon it till they could prove my manumission, and then he would make Mr. Wilson pay me wages for all the time I had been upon the estate. Though he was the chief Judge, he said that he could do nothing for me till the case was brought into court. He then sent us to the Attorney General, who looked over the papers, and asked my mother whether she was certain that I was the very child she had at the breast when she was sold to Daphne Crosbie, and if she had any person that could prove it in court? My mother said that I was her first-born child; and she could bring respectable persons to prove that I was an infant at the breast at the time Daphne Crosbie bought her. He then asked if Mr. Wilson's attorney had ever seen those papers? My mother replied, "Often and often; but there was no good to be done with him--no justice to be had." He then said that he would see Mr. Dalzell himself, and settle with him what was to be done.
All this time I was on the estate, hoping for the best; nor did I go with my mother to the lawyers, till this last time, when I had leave of absence for nine days, to try and get an answer. For Mr. Wilson wrote out from England, that if my friends would give a little money in advance, he would let me off the estate as a slave, and employ me as a free person receiving wages; only they must give him security for the payment of the rest of my value. I thought this a great thing at first; but when I applied to my friends they told me that I had as good a claim to freedom as they had, and that I must not submit to be sold in any way, as that would be owning myself to have been justly enslaved. I was not altogether satisfied with what they said, but went one morning to Mr. Donald, the manager who had first taken me from my apprenticeship away to the estate by force. He was then manager of the Hope estate, in Bucumar Valley, not far from Cane Grove. When I showed him my papers, he was surprised, and blamed me very much for not bringing them forward before. "I knew," he said, "that you were free; but I did not think that you had any papers to show. Your name is not upon the books; but we had an old worn-out slave, called Ashton, upon the estate, and Mr. Wilson claims you under his name." He then told me that he was sorry to take me as he did, but he was forced to do it, by Mr. Wilson's order. "You are free," he said; "I would not give a penny for you as a slave; for Mr. Wilson can give no title with you, and you could leave any person who was so foolish as to buy you." I told him that my mother had applied to all the lawyers, but could get no justice. He laughed, and said, she must write a petition and send to England, and then she would obtain what she wanted.
I went back to the estate; but determined that I would no longer be treated as a slave, nor work like a slave. I refused to turn out early in the morning; but went down to the works at nine, and helped the slaves in what they were doing, just as it pleased myself; for, as I was not paid, I did not think that I had any right to work.
Mr. M'Fie, the manager, was very angry with me for refusing to work. He said, with an oath and language too bad to be repeated, "that I must and should work!" "I am free," I said, "and will not work like a slave." He replied, "You are not free; your name is on my master's books; you are left under my care, and you shall do your duty like the rest. If you refuse to turn out, I will have you flogged with the cart-whip." I was very angry--I felt savage at him, and said, in great heat, "You may do it as soon as you like, Mr. M'Fie, for it will only make me more resolute not to work. I have been made to work unjustly too long, and I will put up with it no more."
The next morning I was in the carpenter's shop; it was a long building divided from the cooper's shop by a slight partition. Mr. M'Fie rode up, and, seeing me standing in the carpenter's shop looking on, he got off his horse and came in. He was in a great rage. "Hollo! Ashton!" he said, "what are you doing there?" "Nothing," I said. "What is the reason that you are not at your work?" I said quite coolly, "I don't know what work mine is." He said, "It is cooper's work." I answered directly, "I do not intend to do any cooper's work at all." He said; "I will make you do it, you scoundrel!" He looked very angry, and I should have been afraid of him if I had not felt so angry myself. When he said, "I will make you," I turned out of the place, and went into the cooper's shop. I folded my arms, and stood up against the wall. I was in such a passion I could not speak. He followed me in, and stood over against me, looking at me with a smile of contempt upon his face. At last he said, "Ashton, don't be foolish; do your work the same as you used to do. You are not better than the other negroes, and whilst you are under me you shall work like them." I felt my heart would burst if I did not speak out all that was in it. "Mr. M'Fie," I said, "I will never work here again; I was a great fool to work as I did--every body says so; I will be such a fool no more." He was surprised. He looked at me very hard, then mounted his horse, and rode away. I am sure that he would have punished me, but he was afraid of getting into trouble, for Mr. Dalzell had told him that he must not lift a hand against me; but, notwithstanding this, he had already beaten me cruelly on the following occasion.
One morning an ox fell into the ditch; I was the first person who discovered the accident, and I ran directly and called the pasture-men to help me to get it out. Whilst we were pulling the ox out of the water Mr. M'Fie came up. He was determined to quarrel with us, and he began by declaring that we did not pull hard enough--that we did not wish to get the ox out; and, snatching up an old broken iron butt-hoop, he began to beat us with it as soon as we got the animal upon the bank. I felt that I had not only done my duty, but had been the means of saving the ox's life; and when he struck me over the head with the hoop, I grew so angry that I tried to get it out of his hand; but he only struck me the harder. When he dropped the hoop I took it up, stained as it was with my blood, and went to Kingston, and showed it to my aunt and mother. The manager sent after me directly, but the man did not see me, though I was in my aunt's house. He told her to advise me to come back, for the manager was sorry for what he had done. A week after this I met the same man. He attempted to seize hold of me, but I got away from him, and made my escape. He then went to the attorney, and told him that he had seen me, but that I had got away. Mr. Dalzell told him that, as he had suffered me to make my escape, he would stop his allowance, which was three pounds of fish a week. He asked him if I had any relations in town. The man said, "Oh, yes; he has plenty of relations." He then told him to go to my family, and to tell them to come to him, and he would give them a paper to the manager for me, to say that he should not strike or use me ill any more.
I went to the attorney myself after this, to see if I could prevail upon him to help me. He asked me the reason why I did not come to him before, and why I had made a fool of myself by leaving the estate? I told him that I had no right to be upon the estate at all, much less right had I to be ill-treated. He said, "Go back, Ashton, and I will not suffer the manager again to ill-treat you."
I took his advice, and went back, though I did not much like to go; but, as he said that he would write to Mr. Wilson and get me off, I went more cheerfully. When I saw the manager the next morning, he said that he was sorry that he had struck me, and asked why I went away. I said, "Because you beat me." He replied, "It is my duty to beat any negro on the estate. I am sorry only because I took an iron hoop and cut your head; but the next time I will take you down and give you a complete cart-whipping." I felt my blood rise at this, and I said, in great heat, "I should like to see you do it;" for I thought that, if he did, I could make him pay dearly, when I claimed my freedom, for flogging a free man with the cart-whip. After he made this speech, I said to him, "Mr. M'Fie, I did not think that you had been so brutal as to strike a man over the head with an iron hoop for doing his duty. You must, Sir, have had some spite against me, or you could not have done it." He said, "Spite! there is not a negro upon the estate I respect more than I do you; but it is my duty to flog them, and you too, when you behave amiss." He then told me to go to my work.
After he left the cooper's shop, I turned to and assisted the people, but I would not do it whilst he was by. The other slaves told me that I had done right, for if they were in my case they would not work without wages--that, when they went to the town, all the free people were asking about me, and said that I must be fond of slavery to remain there, for I had no business upon the estate. These things made me less inclined to stay than ever. I felt convinced that if I were not free the manager would not have put up with what I had said. If any negro upon the estate had replied to him as I had done, he would have been flogged to death.
One day the overseer who was under Mr. M'Fie, came to me, and asked me if I meant to work? "When I get wages for working, then I'll work," I replied. He answered--"There's little to do now--but, when the crop-time comes, we will make you work. You say you are a free man--you think yourself a gentleman, and that you will do as you please; but we will make you do as we please then."
The manner in which I was thus kept, from youth to manhood, in a state of slavery, was very distressing to my mother. What she suffered God alone can tell. Had I been free I should have worked to help her, but she was obliged to toil in her old age in the hope of serving me. I bore, for a long time, the manager's threats, till I could endure them no longer; and the day they began to cut the canes, to make the sugar, I ran away from the estate and returned to it no more. I took my papers to the governor's secretary, and he gave me a pass to go to Grenada as a free man. It gave me great grief to leave my poor wife, especially to leave her in the sad condition of a field negro; but I saw no other means open to me to obtain my freedom; and unless I got my own freedom I should never be able to free her. And, then, to be the father of a young family of slaves, who must grow up to endure the same sad lot, was very bitter to me, and made me often repent my thoughtlessness in marrying a poor unfortunate slave--though I loved her dearly. We had been about fifteen months married when I was thus obliged to leave her; and our child was then about four months old.
Three days after I landed at Grenada I was so lucky as to meet with a young man whom I had known at St. Vincent's. He asked me, what I was doing at Grenada, and if I had any work? I told him, No--that was just what I wanted: that I had left St. Vincent's because Mr. Wilson had claimed me as a slave, and I was going to England to see whether he would acknowledge my freedom, and pay me for the years which I had been unjustly forced to work upon his estate. My friend's name was James Fox; he was the master of a schooner, and he said that he would give me work as long as I remained at Grenada. From him I received the first money I ever earned on my own account; no money ever appeared so valuable in my eyes.
The mate of the vessel was brother-in-law to Mr. M'Fie, the manager. He had often seen me at Cane Grove; but, luckily for me, he did not then recollect me. I knew him, however, the moment I saw him, and I was in constant dread lest he should find me out, and inform against me. I was very careful not to let any word drop in his presence which might open his eyes. We sailed from Grenada to St. Vincent's, to Mount Wynn estate, to take in some clothes which belonged to the mate, who was called Nichol; and I was in constant fear of detection till we arrived at Martinique. This was the first place where any opportunity occurred of writing to my friends. James Fox wrote a letter for me, and Nichol, by accident, saw it. A few days after he asked me if I knew any person on the Cane Grove estate? I said, I knew people there. He asked if I knew the manager? For fear of being discovered I denied any positive knowledge of him. We took in a fresh cargo at Martinique, and sailed for Barbadoes; and having delivered our freight, we sailed for Trinity Bay to take in tiles. During the night we were cast away, and in great danger of losing our lives; for the ship went to pieces on the point, and we escaped from the fury of the waves by leaping from the wreck upon the rocks. If the ship had gone ashore a hundred yards higher, we must have been lost; it was the good providence of God that saved us that night. We lost all our clothes and provisions, and were forced to remain three days upon a plantation, in a wretched condition.
After this misfortune, I went with Fox to the town of St. Pierre, and returned with him, in another vessel, to Trinidad, leaving Nichol in Martinique; but I met him again in Trinidad, though I took such pains to keep out of his way. He told me that he was going to St. Vincent's. I expected directly that he would inform against me; nor was I mistaken. He mentioned the vessel and the crew he had sailed with, and the manager instantly discovered that I was one of them. Nichol, finding the manager was anxious to have me back upon the estate, told him that he knew where to find me in Trinidad, and if he would give him twenty pounds currency he would bring me back by force. Before he could betray me into the hands of the manager, however, some persons came from Cane Grove and told me what Nichol intended to do. I went directly to the judge and showed him my papers, and he said that I might remain as long as I pleased in Trinidad, for whilst I had those papers no person could claim me as a slave.
I got employ as soon as I could in another vessel, for I was always in fear of being disturbed and carried back to Cane Grove; and, having once tasted freedom, the thought of slavery grew more terrible to me. We sailed to St. Kitts, and took in cargo there, and then sailed for England in October, 1830. The ship was an English brig that belonged to Liverpool; and in seven weeks I landed at St. Catherine's docks, London, and found myself a stranger in this great city; but the hope of gaining my freedom made every thing pleasant to me.
When, however, I enquired for Mr. Wilson, my disappointment was great to find that he was dead, and that his property was left to his children, and in the hands of executors. It was a fortnight before I could find them out. At last, I saw Mr. Warner Ottley and Mr. Forbes, two of the executors, to whom I told my case, and showed my manumission paper. They promised to look into the business, and settle it for me as well as they could, according to justice.
I have been now in England three months; but as yet nothing has been done for me, except that Mr. Wilson's executors have consented to allow me something for subsistence while my case is under investigation. Some other benevolent persons gave me support since my arrival, or I should have starved. I still hope for the best. If Mr. Wilson's executors mean to walk right, they will not withhold my freedom from me. This is all I have now to say of myself.
It is not from what I have suffered in my own body as a slave, that I wish to publish this narrative, for I was better off than thousands of my poor countrymen--but I wished to relate not only my own case, but also all that I knew of slavery--all that I have heard with my own ears, and beheld with my own eyes--in the hope that it may help to make known the condition of the poor negroes to the English people, and stir them up to do away with slavery altogether.
1. Slices of pig's head, salted and prepared in a particular manner, and sold in the markets by the slaves.
2. This is poor Ashton's own statement. Whether the Colonial Slave Law will support his claim for freedom on this ground, is a question which remains to be determined.--S. S.
3. Such is the impressive language in which Ashton speaks of slavery. The above are his own expressions; for, though an uneducated, he is a very intelligent, negro, and speaks remarkably good English. Any reader, who wishes it, may see and converse with himself, by making application through the publisher.--S. S.