Thursday, July 15, 2010

A British View of American Slavery, 1838-1839

Like Fanny Trollope, Fanny Kemble was of British birth, a visitor to the United States. Both came from the middle class. I suspect Mrs. Trollope's status may have been higher than Ms. Kemble's, but that Ms. Kemble's reach in British society may have been a little greater, owing to her cosmopolitan profession. Both of them received good schooling, and were well-inculcated with British abolitionist sentiments.

Frances Ann Kemble Butler
Fanny Kemble was from the famous acting family in London, operators of the Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres. The famous Sarah Siddons was her aunt. Fanny was a good actress gaining good reviews, but owing to the steadily decreasing fortunes of the family, she was a bit sick of the whole business. Her family sold their theatres, which were failing, and Fanny came with some of her family to work in New York and other major American cities.

She fell in love with Pierce Butler of Philadelphia, who represented himself as a man of genteel means. They married in 1834; in 1835 Fanny learned that the Butler money came from a plantation operating on the Georgia Sea Islands.  Raised with abolitionist sentiments, she suddenly found she was the beneficiary of slave labor. She then determined that she would go to the plantation, but the family vetoed this. Eventually the trustee to Pierce Butler's estate died, and the estate manager quit. Pierce Butler and his brother had to take charge, starting in 1838.

Her diary for the years 1838-1839 is full of conflict between the regard she had for her husband and her moral compass, her sentiments toward him and her observations of the cruelties of plantation life. To add to this dilemma, she and Butler had children by then. Fanny stuck it out, hoping she could get her husband to change his relationship to the slaves, even perhaps moving the plantation and granting manumission to them.

The Butler Plantation.

In 1840, she consolidated the diary for publication. That year, Pierce Butler, Fanny, and the children sailed to England to visit his father. By 1843 they were separated; by 1849, divorced. Custody of the children went to Mr. Butler. His plantation was sold for debts in 1859. In the meantime, Fanny had returned to the stage.

The diary was not published until 1862, and in England first. The decision to publish at last came at a time when British sentiment was veering toward the Confederacy. Its publication was a sensation, and many, on both sides of the conflict, believe this journal helped turn the tide of public opinion in Great Britain against the South. It was published there in 1863, and in New York some months later.

The following entry is a domestic argument about a flogging of a slave. Pretty much I just opened the book, and there it was. She calls her husband "Mr." in the diary.
February, 1839
On my return from the river [outfitting the infirmaries for the slaves around the islands, actually-ATH] I had a long and painful conversation with Mr. [Butler] upon the subject of the flogging which had been inflicted on the wretched Teresa. These discussions are terrible; they throw me into perfect agonies of distress for the slaves, whose position is utterly hopeless; for myself, whose intervention on their behalf sometimes seems to me worse than useless; for Mr., whose share in this horrible system fills me by turns with indignation and pity.  . . . how should he wish to help it? and, of course, he does not; and I am in despair that he does not: et voila, it is a happy and hopeful plight for us both.  He maintained that there had been neither hardship nor injustice in the case of Teresa's flogging; and  that, moreover, she had not been flogged at all for complaining to me, but simply because her alloted task was not done at the appointed time. Of course this was the result of her having come to appeal to me instead of going to her labor; and as she knew perfectly well, the penalty she was incurring, he maintained that there was neither hardship nor injustice in the case; the whole thing was a regularly established law, with which all the slaves were perfectly well acquainted; and this case was no exception whatever. The circumstance of my being on the island could not, of course, be allowed to overthrow the whole system of discipline established to secure the labor and obedience of the slaves; and if they chose to try experiments as to that fact, they and I must take the consequences. At the end of the day, the driver of the gang to which Teresa belongs reported her work not done, and Mr. O ordered him to give her the usual number of stripes, which order the driver of course obeyed, whithout knowing how Teresa had employed her time instead of hoeing. Mr. Mr. O knew well enough, for the wretched woman told me that she had herself told him she should appeal to me about her weakness, and suffering, and inability to do the work exacted from her.
( . . . .)
 . . . to Mr. Butler's assertion of the justice of poor Teresa's punishment, I retorted the manifest injustice of unpaid and enforced labor; the brutal inhumanity of allowing a man to strip and lash a woman, the mother of ten children to exact from her, toil, which was to maintain in luxury two idle young men, the owners of the plantation. I said I thought female labor of the sort exacted from these slaves, and corporal chastisement such as they endure, must be abhorrent to any manly or humane man. Mr. said he thought it was disagreeable, and left me to my reflections with that concession.
You can see that this marriage was not going to make it, even in an age where divorce was hard to obtain. Furthermore, it's very possible that Fanny's presence on the plantation made things mostly worse for those she tried to aid. As soon as any slave was observed entreating her, they may well have been singled out for extra duties or punishments.

Slavery as described here was a system that, it seemed, forced everyone into a regulated system and limited the lives of all involved.  In Trollope's account, slavery seems like a reckless, disordered, and ill-thought-out system. It may be that both are true simultaneously. It may be that differences in their placement (mistress v. observer) privileges different views. Both record slavery's dehumanizing and limiting world view for all concerned.

Diplomacy Influenced by Public Opinion
I have included these accounts to show how close it was, in diplomatic terms, that Britain might have come to disrupting Lincoln's blockade of the South. For any nation to acknowledge the Confederate States of America would have been disastrous to the Union cause: and no nation more so than Great Britain, with the best Navy, at that time, on the planet.

These accounts also explain Lincoln's aversion to the institution of slavery, which he saw on his wife's family's plantation and had already philosophically opposed.

It also helps describe another worldwide market--the market for ideas--that spans borders. It is a part of our globalization today. It is also a part of the globalization of the United States, and the forces at work, in the pre-Civil War and Civil War period. And just as this affects outcomes today, it affected outcomes then, too.

Frances Ann Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. Edited, with an introduction by John A. Scott.  The University of Georgia Press. (pp. 159-160). I am not sure it is still in print, but it is probably available through used book exchanges on the Internet. UPDATE: It IS available from the University of Georgia Press!

photos:  Friends of the Blue Hills dot org and Georgia Pioneers dot com.


Carolina Linthead said...

Dear Ann T.

This is quite informative and well-reasoned. Thanks for bringing Fanny Kemble to the attention of your avid readers! Her journal, as published, with a very interesting letter appended, by Harper and Brothers in 1863, is available for reading online at Google Books. Just search the title listed under "Reference."

I love how you bring us back to globalization! Both the movement to halt the African slave trade and the abolitionist movement were international efforts involving global trade empires, with Great Britain being the epicenter. While some in the British government, and certain British industrialists, may have wanted to recognize the Confederacy, they knew that there would be a backlash from the growing British middle class, which generally favored abolitionism. Fanny Kemble and others had brought the reality of slavery in the United States home to Great Britain by writing about their first-person experiences/observations, thus fueling the abolitionist movement.

In Kemble's case, this was particularly significant, given that she had tried to be an advocate for her husband's slaves...a stance that doomed her marriage. No one could question her perspective, as she had been immersed in the world of slavery. Her journal makes clear slavery's dehumanizing effect both on slaves and masters/overseers.

Finally, I love how you dive right into the primary sources on these posts! Catherine Clinton has written extensively on Fanny Kemble, should one want to read more, but I, like you, highly recommend reading Fanny's story in her own words.

Ann T. said...

Dear Carolina,
Thank you for the kind comment! I am glad to see that further reading on Ms. Kemble is available.

There's so much in her diary and it is so well-written. I think the way she wrote it, as letters to a friend, helped her externalize and explain the daily events in a way that reads well. They are painful nonetheless.

The other item inherent in the biography that I find interesting: the slave system didn't even work as a sustainable business. It encouraged grand living at the top--a huge displacement of resources and benefits. But not even that displacement via unpaid labor could sustain the "business"--one of the largest and most important plantations in Georgia.

Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.

Bob G. said...

I simply love this bit of history that we never manage to hear otherwise.
Thanks for bringing it to light.

Makes me wonder if Butler, PA is named after Fannie's plantation-owning husband?
(btw, Fannie is one beautiful woman, imho - I'm just sayin'...)

Interesting thing about was an unsustainable "business"...human trafficking - UNsustainable.
Of course it HAD to be.

It makes the case for other forms of "slavery" as well...such as Communism and Socialism...
(just as insidious, but often subtle in their tactics)
And it was predicted long before that those were also JUST as unsustainable.

Great stuff you have here!

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
Thank you for the encouragement!

And she WAS beautiful--outside, and apparently inside also.

I think any system that doesn't allow for individual liberty is lost--especially economically. To put it as Lincoln did, "adding the fuel of interest to the fire of discovery."

Thanks for stopping by! Have a great day!

Ann T.

David Des Jardines said...

Dear Ann:

Nice piece (and nice comments by your readers, too).

Fanny Kemble's diary is still in print and available from the University of Georgia Press. More info. here:

Also available is a sweeping biography of the Butler family. More info. here:

Hope this is useful.

Best wishes,
University of Georgia Press
Athens, GA

Ann T. said...

Dear David,
Sincerely, I have some of the most thoughtful readers and comment-makers in the blog world.

I feel very fortunate indeed.

I have updated my post to reflect the book's availability.

Thank you for stopping by.
Ann T.