Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A British View of American Slavery, 1832

This is from Domestic Manners of the Americans. In 1827, Fanny Trollope came to the United States to get away from her mad husband (mercury poisoning), her debts, and to start a Utopian community of emancipated slaves.

The Utopian community went bust. Instead Mrs. Trollope traveled throughout the U.S. with her youngest children, starting small businesses, closing them down, and being received everywhere as a genteel visitor from England. Basically, she was in the 1827 version of the rubber-chicken circuit.

She repaid this hospitality by returning to England and describing us exactly as we appeared to her, in that particularly decided tone of writing that the English do so well. The only American of record who thought she was right was Mark Twain: in his opinion, she captured us dead on.  I also have a high opinion of her; she seems to have made her way on two continents, starting businesses, making some money, failing and trying again. She is also very interesting to read on the American diet of the time, and the manners--such as the extreme segregation of the sexes--which she thought not conducive to good behavior or good conversation.
"I observed every where throughout the slave states that all articles which can be taken and consumed are constantly locked up, and in large families where the extent of the establishment multiplies the number of keys, these are deposited in a basket, and consigned to the care of a little negress, who is constantly seen following her mistress's steps with this basket on her arm . . .  not only that the keys be on hand, but  . . . should they be out of sight for one moment, that moment would infallibly be employed for purposes of plunder. It seemed to me  . . . that the close personal attendance of these sable shadows, must be very annoying; but whenever I mentioned it, I was assured that no such feeling existed, and that use rendered them almost unconscious of their presence.
"I had, indeed, frequent opportunities of observing their habitual indifference to the presence of their slaves. They talk of them, of their condition, of their faculties, of their conduct, exactly as if they were incapable of hearing. I once saw a young lady, who, when seated at table between a male and a female, was induced by her modesty to intrude on the chair of her female neighbour to avoid the indelicacy of touching the elbow of a man. I once saw this very young lady lacing her stays with the most perfect composure before a negro footman.  A Virginian gentleman told me that ever since he had married, he had been accustomed to have a negro girl sleep in the same chamber with himself and his wife. I asked for what purpose this nocturanl attendance was necessary? "Good heaven!" was the reply, "if I wanted a glass of water during the night, what would become of me?"
I know, it almost sounds like the man was pulling her leg. I think it more likely the nocturnal attendant was there to get rid of the chamber pot.  It would also be an interesting question of household security . . . to go to the kitchen for a glass of water . . . and so forth.

This book is one of the reasons that England believed the genteel South to be full of un-admirable people. Another such author who influenced England's stance in the Civil War was Fanny Kemble . . . stay tuned.

Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, Penguin Books. Available.
Photo: Cincinnnati Library


Gia's Spot said...

"sable shadows" what a beautiful/horrible description. I am always disturbed when I read history concerning the slaves, how does one justify in their own minds the enslavement of another and think they are inferior, cant think, feel the same just because their skin is a different color? They werent stupid, they just needed some justification so they wouldnt feel bad, but man I don't know how they slept at night ! And it was a whole mindsset of almost everyone in those times! Sorry for the rant! Sometimes I can't wrap my mind around concepts like slavery!
Thnaks for the post!

Ann T. said...

Dear Gia,
Beautiful/horrible seems exactly right for her word choice, yes!

I'm kind of amazed at the security rationale--to trust someone with your life but not your sugar and flour. It just seems like a strange way of life.

And as you point out, they must have somehow mutually assured each other that this was "okay". Unbelievable.

Rant all you please! Thanks for stopping by!

Ann T.

Bob G. said...

I'm also in disbelief of this double-standard regarding the "protection of property".
Then again, I have no desire to embrace ANY form of slavery, and I find it in times past an abhorrent practice to place upon ANY person.

Also, the manner in which these slave OWNERS treated their slaves (walking, sitting or sleeping nearby) as if they were not even there, or as though they had no other worth than to do bidding on a whim of the owner is appalling on so many levels.

And these slaves were apparently "trusted" members of the household.

You find some of the most intriguing aspects to history.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob,
The number of ironies to go with the cruelties. It is just a mind-blower.

And I honor all your sentiments.

Thanks for reading through! And stopping by!

Your e-neighbor,
Ann T.

The Observer said...

Ann T:
The only way that one human can treat another like this is to strip someone of their humanity.

Have you ever read "Black Like Me" by John Howard Griffin? It describes how a white man using medical treatments to darken his skin traveled about the South in 1959. The way he was dehumanized, the "hate stare"--it is frightening what happens once we take a human being's value as a human from him...and all this because his skin was brown instead of pink.

It was this devaluing of humanity, the humanity made in God's image, that caused prominent Christians such as George Whitfield, John Newton and John Wesley to come out against African slavery as early as the late 1700s...

Thanks for the timely history lesson

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
Again I just get knocked out by what commenters teach me!

I just ran across John Wesley's name in a preface to Fanny Kemble. Talk about coincidence! Or, rather, a more than timely observation!

I loved Black Like Me. As far as I'm concerned, that book taught me not just about race but about viewpoint in general. And I will never forget reading about the hate stare.

Thanks for a great comment!
Ann T.