Monday, June 1, 2015

June 2, 1861 - W.H. Russell visits the slave quarters

William Howard Russell, the first great war correspondent, was an important contact for British Consul Robert Bunch, Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South. Here, he is just ending his visit to New Orleans.

June 2—My good friend the Consul [Mure] was up early to see me off; and we drove together to the steamer J. L. Gotten. The people were going to mass as we passed through the streets; and it was pitiable to see the children dressed out as Zouaves, with tin swords and all sorts of pseudo-military tomfoolery; streets crowded with military companies; bands playing on all sides.

* * *

My quarters [on a sugar plantation owned by a former governor of Louisiana] were in a detached house, complete in itself, containing four bedrooms, library, and sitting-room, close to the mansion, an-d surrounded, like it, by fine trees.

After we had sat for some time in the shade of the finest group, M. Roman, or, as he is called, the Governor once a captain always a captain asked me whether I would like to visit the slave quarters. I assented, and the Governor led the way to a high paling at the back of the house, inside which the scraping of fiddles was audible. As we passed the back of the mansion some young women flitted past in snow-white dresses, crinolines, pink sashes, and gaudily colored handkerchiefs on their heads, who were, the Governor told me, the domestic servants going off to a dance at the sugar-house; he lets his slaves dance every Sunday. The American planters who are not Catholics, although they do not make the slaves work on Sunday except there is something to do, rarely grant them the indulgence of a dance, but a few permit them some hours of relaxation on each Saturday afternoon.

We entered, by a wicket-gate, a square enclosure, lined with
negro huts, built of wood, something like those which came
from Malta to the Crimea in the early part of the campaign.
They are not furnished with windows, a wooden slide or
grating admits all the air a negro desires. There is a partition dividing the hut into two departments, one of which is used as the sleeping-room, and contains a truckle bedstead and a mattress stuffed with cotton wool, or the hair-like fibres of dried Spanish moss. The wardrobes of the inmates hang from nails or pegs driven into the wall. The other room is furnished with a dresser, on which are arranged a few articles of crockery and kitchen utensils. Sometimes there is a table in addition to the plain wooden chairs, more or less dilapidated, constituting the furniture a hearth, in connection with a brick chimney outside the cottage, in which, hot as the day may be, some embers are sure to be found burning. The
ground round the huts was covered with litter and dust, heaps of old shoes, fragments of clothing and feathers, amidst which pigs and poultry were recreating. Curs of low degree scampered in and out of the shade, or around two huge dogs, chiens de garde, which are let loose at night to guard the precincts; belly deep, in a pool of stagnant water, thirty or forty mules were swimming in the sun and enjoying their day of rest.

The huts of the negroes engaged in the house are separated from those of the slaves devoted to field labor out of doors by a wooden paling. I looked into several of the houses, but somehow or other felt a repugnance, I dare say unjustifiable, to examine the penetralia, although invited indeed, urged, to do so by the Governor. It was not that I expected to come upon anything dreadful, but I could not divest myself of some regard for the feelings of the poor creatures, slaves though they were, who stood by, shy, courtesying. and silent, as I broke in upon their family circle, felt their beds, and turned over their clothing. What right had I to do so? 

Swarms of flies, tin cooking utensils attracting them by remnants of molasses, crockery, broken and old, on the dressers, more or less old clothes on the wall, these varied over and over again, were found in all the huts ; not a sign of ornament or decoration was visible ; not the most tawdry print, image of Virgin or Saviour ; not a prayer-book or printed volume. The slaves are not encouraged, or indeed permitted to read, and some communities of slave-owners punish heavily those at tempting to instruct them. ...

The women were not very well-favored ; one yellow girl, with fair hair and light eyes, whose child was quite white, excepted ; the men were disguised in such strangely-cut clothes, their hats and shoes and coats so wonderfully made, that one could not tell what their figures were like. On all faces there was a gravity which must be the index to serene contentment and perfect comfort ; for those who ought to know best declare they are the happiest race in the world.

It struck me more and more, however, as I examined the expression of the faces of the slaves, that deep dejection is the prevailing, if not universal, characteristic of the race.

No comments:

Post a Comment