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In the island of Jamaica there lived two planters, whose methods of managing their slaves were as different as possible. Mr. Jefferies considered the negroes as an inferior species, incapable of gratitude, disposed to treachery, and to be roused from their natural indolence only by force; he treated his slaves, or rather suffered his overseer to treat them, with the greatest severity.
Jefferies was not a man of a cruel, but of a thoughtless and extravagant temper. He was of such a sanguine disposition, that he always calculated upon having a fine season, and fine crops on his plantation; and never had the prudence to make allowance for unfortunate accidents: he required, as he said, from his overseer produce and not excuses.
Durant, the overseer, did not scruple to use the most cruel and barbarous methods of forcing the slaves to exertions beyond their strength. 1 Complaints of his brutality, from time to time, reached his master’s ears; but though Mr. Jefferies was moved to momentary compassion, he shut his heart against conviction: he hurried away to the jovial banquet, and drowned all painful reflections in wine.
He was this year much in debt; and, therefore, being more than usually anxious about his crop, he pressed his overseer to exert himself to the utmost.
The wretched slaves upon his plantation thought themselves still more unfortunate when they compared their condition with that of the negroes on the estate of Mr. Edwards. This gentleman treated his slaves with all possible humanity and kindness. He wished that there was no such thing as slavery in the world, but he was convinced, by the arguments of those who have the best means of obtaining information, that the sudden emancipation of the negroes would rather increase than diminish their miseries. His benevolence, therefore, confined itself within the bounds of reason. He adopted those plans for the amelioration of the state of the slaves which appeared to him the most likely to succeed without producing any violent agitation or revolution. 2 For instance, his negroes had reasonable and fixed daily tasks; and when these were finished, they were permitted to employ their time for their own advantage or amusement. If they chose to employ themselves longer for their master, they were paid regular wages for their extra work. This reward, for as such it was considered, operated most powerfully upon the slaves. Those who are animated by hope can perform what would seem impossibilities to those who are under the depressing influence of fear. The wages which Mr. Edwards promised, he took care to see punctually paid.
He had an excellent overseer, of the name of Abraham Bayley, a man of a mild but steady temper, who was attached not only to his master’s interests but to his virtues; and who, therefore, was more intent upon seconding his humane views than upon squeezing from the labour of the negroes the utmost produce. Each negro had, near his cottage, a portion of land, called his provision-ground; and one day in the week was allowed for its cultivation.
It is common in Jamaica for the slaves to have provision-grounds, which they cultivate for their own advantage; but it too often happens, that, when a good negro has successfully improved his little spot of ground, when he has built himself a house, and begins to enjoy the fruits of his industry, his acquired property is seized upon by the sheriff’s officer for the payment of his master’s debts; he is forcibly separated from his wife and children, dragged to public auction, purchased by a stranger, and perhaps sent to terminate his miserable existence in the mines of Mexico; excluded for ever from the light of heaven; and all this without any crime or imprudence on his part, real or pretended. He is punished because his master is unfortunate!
To this barbarous injustice the negroes on Mr. Edwards’ plantation were never exposed. He never exceeded his income; he engaged in no wild speculations; he contracted no debts; and his slaves, therefore, were in no danger of being seized by a sheriff’s officer: their property was secured to them by the prudence as well as by the generosity of their master.
One morning, as Mr. Edwards was walking in that part of his plantation which joined to Mr. Jefferies’ estate, he thought he heard the voice of distress at some distance. The lamentations grew louder and louder as he approached a cottage, which stood upon the borders of Jefferies’ plantation.
This cottage belonged to a slave of the name of Caesar, the best negro in Mr. Jefferies’ possession. Such had been his industry and exertion, that, notwithstanding the severe tasks imposed by Durant, the overseer, Caesar found means to cultivate his provision-ground to a degree of perfection no where else to be seen on this estate. Mr. Edwards had often admired this poor fellow’s industry, and now hastened to inquire what misfortune had befallen him.
When he came to the cottage, he found Caesar standing with his arms folded, and his eyes fixed upon the ground. A young and beautiful female negro was weeping bitterly, as she knelt at the feet of Durant, the overseer, who, regarding her with a sullen aspect, repeated, “He must go. I tell you, woman, he must go. What signifies all this nonsense?”
At the sight of Mr. Edwards, the overseer’s countenance suddenly changed, and assumed an air of obsequious civility. The poor woman retired to the farther corner of the cottage, and continued to weep. Caesar never moved. “Nothing is the matter, sir,” said Durant, “but that Caesar is going to be sold. That is what the woman is crying for. They were to be married; but we’ll find Clara another husband, I tell her; and she’ll get the better of her grief, you know, sir, as I tell her, in time.” “Never! never!” said Clara.
“To whom is Caesar going to be sold? and for what sum?”
“For what can be got for him,” replied Durant, laughing; “and to whoever will buy him. The sheriff’s officer is here, who has seized him for debt, and must make the most of him at market.”
“Poor fellow!” said Mr. Edwards; “and must he leave this cottage which he has built, and these bananas which he has planted?”
Caesar now for the first time looked up, and fixing his eyes upon Mr. Edwards for a moment, advanced with an intrepid rather than an imploring countenance, and said, “Will you be my master? Will you be her master? Buy both of us. You shall not repent of it. Caesar will serve you faithfully.”
On hearing these words Clara sprang forward, and clasping her hands together, repeated, “Caesar will serve you faithfully.”
Mr. Edwards was moved by their entreaties, but he left them without declaring his intentions. He went immediately to Mr. Jefferies, whom he found stretched on a sofa, drinking coffee. As soon as Mr. Edwards mentioned the occasion of his visit, and expressed his sorrow for Caesar, Jefferies exclaimed, “Yes, poor devil! I pity him from the bottom of my soul. But what can I do? I leave all those things to Durant. He says the sheriff’s officer has seized him; and there’s an end of the matter. You know, money must be had. Besides, Caesar is not worse off than any other slave sold for debt. What signifies talking about the matter, as if it were something that never happened before! Is not it a case that occurs every day in Jamaica?”
“So much the worse,” replied Mr. Edwards.
“The worse for them, to be sure,” said Jefferies. “But, after all, they are slaves, and are used to be treated as such; and they tell me the negroes are a thousand times happier here, with us, than they ever were in their own country.”
“Did the negroes tell you so themselves?”
“No; but people better informed than negroes have told me so; and, after all, slaves there must be; for indigo, and rum, and sugar, we must have.”
“Granting it to be physically impossible that the world should exist without rum, sugar, and indigo, why could they not be produced by freemen as well as by slaves? If we hired negroes for labourers, instead of purchasing them for slaves, do you think they would not work as well as they do now? Does any negro, under the fear of the overseer, work harder than a Birmingham journeyman, or a Newcastle collier, who toil for themselves and their families?”
“Of that I don’t pretend to judge. All I know is, that the West India planters would he ruined if they had no slaves; and I am a West India planter.”
“So am I; yet I do not think they are the only people whose interests ought to be considered in this business.”
“Their interests, luckily, are protected by the laws of the land; and though they are rich men, and white men, and freemen, they have as good a claim to their rights as the poorest black slave on any of our plantations.”
“The law, in our case, seems to make the right; and the very reverse ought to be done — the right should make the law.”
“Fortunately for us planters, we need not enter into such nice distinctions. You could not, if you would, abolish the trade. Slaves would be smuggled into the islands.”
“What! if nobody would buy them? You know that you cannot smuggle slaves into England. The instant a slave touches English ground he becomes free. Glorious privilege! Why should it not be extended to all her dominions? If the future importation of slaves into these islands were forbidden by law, the trade must cease. No man can either sell or possess slaves without its being known: they cannot be smuggled like lace or brandy.”
“Well, well!” retorted Jefferies, a little impatiently, “as yet the law is on our side. I can do nothing in this business, nor can you.”
“Yes, we can do something; we can endeavour to make our negroes as happy as possible.”
“I leave the management of these people to Durant.”
“That is the very thing of which they complain; forgive me for speaking to you with the frankness of an old acquaintance.”
“Oh! you can’t oblige me more: I love frankness of all things! To tell you the truth, I have heard complaints of Durant’s severity; but I make it a principle to turn a deaf ear to them, for I know nothing can be done with these fellows without it. You are partial to negroes; but even you must allow they are a race of beings naturally inferior to us. You may in vain think of managing a black as you would a white. Do what you please for a negro, he will cheat you the first opportunity he finds. You know what their maxim is: ‘God gives black men what white men forget.’”
To these common-place desultory observations Mr. Edwards made no reply; but recurred to poor Caesar, and offered to purchase both him and Clara, at the highest price the sheriff’s officer could obtain for them at market. Mr. Jefferies, with the utmost politeness to his neighbour, but with the most perfect indifference to the happiness of those whom he considered of a different species from himself, acceded to this proposal. Nothing could be more reasonable, he said; and he was happy to have it in his power to oblige a gentleman for whom he had such a high esteem.
The bargain was quickly concluded with the sheriff’s officer; for Mr. Edwards willingly paid several dollars more than the market price for the two slaves. When Caesar and Clara heard that they were not to be separated, their joy and gratitude were expressed with all the ardour and tenderness peculiar to their different characters. Clara was an Eboe, Caesar a Koromantyn negro: the Eboes are soft, languishing, and timid; the Koromantyns are frank, fearless, martial, and heroic.
Mr. Edwards took his new slaves home with him, desired Bayley, his overseer, to mark out a provision-ground for Caesar, and to give him a cottage, which happened at this time to be vacant.
“Now, my good friend,” said he to Caesar, “you may work for yourself, without fear that what you earn may be taken from you; or that you should ever be sold, to pay your master’s debts. If he does not understand what I am saying,” continued Mr. Edwards, turning to his overseer, “you will explain it to him.”
Caesar perfectly understood all that Mr. Edwards said; but his feelings were at this instant so strong that he could not find expression for his gratitude: he stood like one stupefied! Kindness was new to him; it overpowered his manly heart; and at hearing the words “my good friend,” the tears gushed from his eyes: tears which no torture could have extorted! Gratitude swelled in his bosom; and he longed to be alone, that he might freely yield to his emotions.
He was glad when the conch-shell sounded to call the negroes to their daily labour, that he might relieve the sensations of his soul by bodily exertion, He performed his task in silence; and an inattentive observer might have thought him sullen.
In fact, he was impatient for the day to be over, that he might get rid of a heavy load which weighed upon his mind.
The cruelties practised by Durant, the overseer of Jefferies’ plantation, had exasperated the slaves under his dominion.
They were all leagued together in a conspiracy, which was kept profoundly secret. Their object was to extirpate every white man, woman, and child, in the island. Their plans were laid with consummate art; and the negroes were urged to execute them by all the courage of despair.
The confederacy extended to all the negroes in the island of Jamaica, excepting those on the plantation of Mr. Edwards. To them no hint of the dreadful secret had yet been given; their countrymen, knowing the attachment they felt to their master, dared not trust them with these projects of vengeance. Hector, the negro who was at the head of the conspirators, was the particular friend of Caesar, and had imparted to him all his designs. These friends were bound to each other by the strongest ties. Their slavery and their sufferings began in the same hour; they were both brought from their own country in the same ship. This circumstance alone forms, amongst the negroes, a bond of connexion not easily to be dissolved. But the friendship of Caesar and Hector commenced even before they were united by the sympathy of misfortune; they were both of the same nation, both Koromantyns. In Africa they had both been accustomed to command; for they had signalized themselves by superior fortitude and courage. They respected each other for excelling in all which they had been taught to consider as virtuous; and with them revenge was a virtue!
Revenge was the ruling passion of Hector: in Caesar’s mind it was rather a principle instilled by education. The one considered it as a duty, the other felt it as a pleasure. Hector’s sense of injury was acute in the extreme; he knew not how to forgive. Caesar’s sensibility was yet more alive to kindness than to insult. Hector would sacrifice his life to extirpate an enemy. Caesar would devote himself for the defence of a friend; and Caesar now considered a white man as his friend.
He was now placed in a painful situation. All his former friendships, all the solemn promises by which he was bound to his companions in misfortune, forbade him to indulge that delightful feeling of gratitude and affection, which, for the first time, he experienced for one of that race of beings whom he had hitherto considered as detestable tyrants — objects of implacable and just revenge!
Caesar was most impatient to have an interview with Hector, that he might communicate his new sentiments, and dissuade him from those schemes of destruction which he meditated. At midnight, when all the slaves except himself were asleep, he left his cottage, and went to Jefferies’ plantation, to the hut in which Hector slept. Even in his dreams Hector breathed vengeance. “Spare none! Sons of Africa, spare none!” were the words he uttered in his sleep, as Caesar approached the mat on which he lay. The moon shone full upon him. Caesar contemplated the countenance of his friend, fierce even in sleep. “Spare none! Oh, yes! There is one that must be spared. There is one for whose sake all must be spared.”
He wakened Hector by this exclamation. “Of what were you dreaming?” said Caesar.
“Of that which, sleeping or waking, fills my soul — revenge! Why did you waken me from my dream? It was delightful. The whites were weltering in their blood! But silence! we may be overheard.”
“No; every one sleeps but ourselves,” replied Caesar. “I could not sleep without speaking to you on — a subject that weighs upon my mind. You have seen Mr. Edwards?” “Yes. He that is now your master.”
“He that is now my benefactor — my friend!”
“Friend! Can you call a white man friend?” cried Hector, starting up with a look of astonishment and indignation.
“Yes,” replied Caesar, with firmness. “And you would speak, ay, and would feel, as I do, Hector, if you knew this white man. Oh, how unlike he is to all of his race, that we have ever seen! Do not turn from me with so much disdain. Hear me with patience, my friend.”
“I cannot,” replied Hector, “listen with patience to one who between the rising and the setting sun can forget all his resolutions, all his promises; who by a few soft words can be so wrought upon as to forget all the insults, all the injuries he has received from this accursed race; and can even call a white man friend!”
Caesar, unmoved by Hector’s anger, continued to speak of Mr. Edwards with the warmest expressions of gratitude; and finished by declaring he would sooner forfeit his life than rebel against such a master. He conjured Hector to desist from executing his designs; but all was in vain. Hector sat with his elbows fixed upon his knees, leaning his head upon his hands, in gloomy silence.
Caesar’s mind was divided between love for his friend and gratitude to his master: the conflict was violent and painful. Gratitude at last prevailed: he repeated his declaration, that he would rather die than continue in a conspiracy against his benefactor!
Hector refused to except him from the general doom. “Betray us if you will!” cried he. “Betray our secrets to him whom you call your benefactor! to him whom a few hours have made your friend! To him sacrifice the friend of your youth, the companion of your better days, of your better self! Yes, Caesar, deliver me over to the tormentors: I can endure more than they can inflict. I shall expire without a sigh, without a groan. Why do you linger here, Caesar? Why do you hesitate? Hasten this moment to your master; claim your reward for delivering into his power hundreds of your countrymen! Why do you hesitate? Away! The coward’s friendship can be of use to none. Who can value his gratitude? Who can fear his revenge?” Hector raised his voice so high, as he pronounced these words, that he wakened Durant, the overseer, who slept in the next house. They heard him call out suddenly, to inquire who was there: and Caesar had but just time to make his escape, before Durant appeared. He searched Hector’s cottage; but finding no one, again retired to rest. This man’s tyranny made him constantly suspicious; he dreaded that the slaves should combine against him; and he endeavoured to prevent them, by every threat and every stratagem he could devise, from conversing with each other.
They had, however, taken their measures, hitherto, so secretly, that he had not the slightest idea of the conspiracy which was forming in the island. Their schemes were not yet ripe for execution; but the appointed time approached. Hector, when he coolly reflected on what had passed between him and Caesar, could not help admiring the frankness and courage with which he had avowed his change of sentiments. By this avowal, Caesar had in fact exposed his own life to the most imminent danger, from the vengeance of the conspirators, who might be tempted to assassinate him who had their lives in his power. Notwithstanding the contempt with which, in the first moment of passion, he had treated his friend, he was extremely anxious that he should not break off all connexion with the conspirators. He knew that Caesar possessed both intrepidity and eloquence, and that his opposition to their schemes would perhaps entirely frustrate their whole design. He therefore determined to use every possible means to bend him to their purposes.
The enlightened inhabitants of Europe may, perhaps, smile at the superstitious credulity of the negroes, who regard those ignorant beings called Obeah people with the most profound respect and dread; who believe that they hold in their hands the power of good and evil fortune, of health and sickness, of life and death. The instances which are related of their power over the minds of their countrymen are so wonderful, that none but the most unquestionable authority could make us think them credible. The following passage, from Edwards’ History of the West Indies, is inserted, to give an idea of this strange infatuation:
“In the year 1760, when a very formidable insurrection of the Koromantyn or Gold Coast negroes broke out, in the parish of St. Mary, and spread through almost every other district of the island, an old Koromantyn negro, the chief instigator and oracle of the insurgents in that parish, who had administered the fetish, or solemn oath, to the conspirators, and furnished them with a magical preparation, which was to render them invulnerable, was fortunately apprehended, convicted, and hung up with all his feathers and trumperies about him; and his execution struck the insurgents with a general panic, from which they never afterwards recovered. The examinations, which were taken at that period, first opened the eyes of the public to the very dangerous tendency of the Obeah practices; and gave birth to the law, which was then enacted, for their suppression and punishment; but neither the terror of this law, the strict investigation which has since been made after the professors of Obi, nor the many examples of those who, from time to time, have been hanged or transported, have hitherto produced the desired effect. A gentleman, on his returning to Jamaica, in the year 1775, found that a great many of his negroes had died during his absence; and that, of such as remained alive, at least one half were debilitated, bloated, and in a very deplorable condition. The mortality continued after his arrival; and two or three were frequently buried in one day; others were taken ill, and began to decline under the same symptoms. Every means were tried, by medicine and the most careful nursing, to preserve the lives of the feeblest; but in spite of all his endeavours, this depopulation went on for a twelvemonth longer, with more or less intermission, and without his being able to ascertain the real cause, though the Obeah practice was strongly suspected, as well by himself as by the doctor, and other white persons upon the plantation; as it was known to have been very common in that part of the island, and particularly among the negroes of the Popaw or Popo country. Still he was unable to verify his suspicions; because the patients constantly denied their having any thing to do with persons of that order, or any knowledge of them. At length, a negress, who had been ill for some time, came and informed him, that, feeling it was impossible for her to live much longer, she thought herself bound in duty, before she died, to impart a very great secret, and acquaint him with the true cause of her disorder, in hopes that the disclosure might prove the means of stopping that mischief which had already swept away such a number of her fellow slaves. She proceeded to say that her step~mother, a woman of the Popo country, above eighty years old, but still hale and active, had put Obi upon her, as she had upon those who had lately died; and that the old woman had practised Obi for as many years past as she could remember. The other negroes of the plantation no sooner heard of this impeachment than they ran in a body to their master, and confirmed the truth, of it. — Upon this he repaired directly, with six white servants, to the old woman’s house; and, forcing open the door, observed the whole inside of the roof, which was of thatch, and every crevice of the wall, stuck with the implements of her trade, consisting of rags, feathers, bones of cats, and a thousand other articles. — The house was instantly pulled down; and, with the whole of its contents, committed to the flames, amidst the general acclamations of all his other negroes. — From the moment of her departure, his negroes seemed all to be animated with new spirits; and the malady spread no farther among them. The total of his losses, in the course of about fifteen years preceding the discovery, and imputable solely to the Obeah practice, he estimates at least, at one hundred negroes.”
Esther, an old Koromantyn negress, had obtained by her skill in poisonous herbs, and her knowledge of venomous reptiles, a high reputation amongst her countrymen. She soon taught them to believe her to be possessed of supernatural powers; and she then worked their imagination to what pitch and purpose she pleased.
She was the chief instigator of this intended rebellion. It was she who had stimulated the revengeful temper of Hector almost to frenzy. She now promised him that her arts should be exerted over his friend; and it was not long before he felt their influence. Caesar soon perceived an extraordinary change in the countenance and manner of his beloved Clara. A melancholy hung over her, and she refused to impart to him the cause of her dejection. Caesar was indefatigable in his exertions to cultivate and embellish the ground near his cottage, in hopes of making it an agreeable habitation for her; but she seemed to take no interest in any thing. She would stand beside him immoveable, in a deep reverie; but when he inquired whether she was ill, she would answer no, and endeavour to assume an air of gaiety: but this cheerfulness was transient; she soon relapsed into despondency. At length, she endeavoured to avoid her lover, as if she feared his farther inquiries.
Unable to endure this state of suspense, he one evening resolved to bring her to an explanation. “Clara,” said he, “you once loved me: I have done nothing, have I, to forfeit your confidence?”
“I once loved you!” said she, raising her languid eyes, and looking at him with reproachful tenderness; “and can you doubt my constancy? Oh, Caesar, you little know what is passing in my heart! You are the cause of my melancholy!”
She paused and hesitated, as if afraid that she had said too much; but Caesar urged her with so much vehemence, and so much tenderness, to open to him her whole soul, that, at last, she could not resist his eloquence. She reluctantly revealed to him that secret of which she could not think without horror. She informed him, that unless he complied with what was required of him by the sorceress Esther, he was devoted to die. What it was that Esther required of him, Clara knew not: she knew nothing of the conspiracy. The timidity of her character was ill suited to such a project; and every thing relating to it had been concealed from her with the utmost care.
When she explained to Caesar the cause of her dejection, his natural courage resisted these superstitious fears; and he endeavoured to raise Clara’s spirits. He endeavoured in vain: she fell at his feet; and with tears, and the most tender supplications, conjured him to avert the wrath of the sorceress, by obeying her commands, whatever they might be!
“Clara,” replied he, “you know not what you ask!”
“I ask you to save your life!” said she. “I ask you, for my sake, to save your life, while yet it is in your power!”
“But would you, to save my life, Clara, make me the worst of criminals? Would you make me the murderer of my benefactor?”
Clara started with horror.
“Do you recollect the day, the moment, when we were on the point of being separated for ever, Clara? Do you remember the white man’s coming to my cottage? Do you remember his look of benevolence — his voice of compassion? Do you remember his generosity? Oh! Clara, would you make me the murderer of this man?”
“Heaven forbid!” said Clara. “This cannot be the will of the sorceress!”
“It is,” said Caesar. “But she shall not succeed, even though she speaks with the voice of Clara. Urge me no further; my resolution is fixed. I should be unworthy of your love if I were capable of treachery and ingratitude.”
“But is there no means of averting the wrath of Esther?” said Clara. “Your life —”
“Think, first, of my honour,” interrupted Caesar. “Your fears deprive you of reason. Return to this sorceress, and tell her that I dread not her wrath. My hands shall never be imbrued in the blood of my benefactor. Clara! can you forget his look when he told us that we should never more be separated?”
“It went to my heart,” said Clara, bursting into tears “Cruel, cruel Esther! Why do you command us to destroy such a generous master?”
The conch sounded to summon the negroes to their morning’s work. It happened this day, that Mr. Edwards, who was continually intent upon increasing the comforts and happiness of his slaves, sent his carpenter, while Caesar was absent, to fit up the inside of his cottage; and when Caesar returned from work, he found his master pruning the branches of a tamarind tree that over-hung the thatch. “How comes it, Caesar,” said he, “that you have not pruned these branches?”
Caesar had no knife. “Here is mine for you,” said Mr. Edwards. “It is very sharp,” added he, smiling; “but I am not one of those masters who are afraid to trust their negroes with sharp knives.”
These words were spoken with perfect simplicity: Mr. Edwards had no suspicion, at this time, of what was passing in the negro’s mind. Caesar received the knife without uttering a syllable; but no sooner was Mr. Edwards out of sight than he knelt down, and, in a transport of gratitude, swore that, with this knife, he would stab himself to the heart sooner than betray his master!
The principle of gratitude conquered every other sensation. The mind of Caesar was not insensible to the charms of freedom: he knew the negro conspirators had so taken their measures that there was the greatest probability of their success. His heart beat high at the idea of recovering his liberty: but he was not to be seduced from his duty, not even by this delightful hope; nor was he to be intimidated by the dreadful certainty that his former friends and countrymen, considering him as a deserter from their cause, would become his bitterest enemies. The loss of Hector’s esteem and affection was deeply felt by Caesar. Since the night that the decisive conversation relative to Mr. Edwards passed, Hector and he had never exchanged a syllable.
This visit proved the cause of much suffering to Hector, and to several of the slaves on Jefferies’ plantation. We mentioned that Durant had been awakened by the raised voice of Hector. Though he could not find any one in the cottage, yet his suspicions were not dissipated; and an accident nearly brought the whole conspiracy to light. Durant had ordered one of the negroes to watch a boiler of sugar: the slave was overcome by the heat, and fainted. He had scarcely recovered his senses when the overseer came up, and found that the sugar had fermented, by having remained a few minutes too long in the boiler. He flew into a violent passion, and ordered that the negro should receive fifty lashes. His victim bore them without uttering a groan; but, when his punishment was over, and when he thought the overseer was gone, he exclaimed, “It will soon be our turn!”
Durant was not out of hearing. He turned suddenly, and observed that the negro looked at Hector when he pronounced these words, and this confirmed the suspicion that Hector was carrying on some conspiracy. He immediately had recourse to that brutality which he considered as the only means of governing black men: Hector and three other negroes were lashed unmercifully; but no confessions could be extorted.
Mr. Jefferies might perhaps have forbidden such violence to be used, if he had not been at the time carousing with a party of jovial West Indians, who thought of nothing but indulging their appetites in all the luxuries that art and nature could supply. The sufferings which had been endured by many of the wretched negroes to furnish out this magnificent entertainment were never once thought of by these selfish epicures. Yet so false are the general estimates of character, that all these gentlemen passed for men of great feeling and generosity! The human mind, in certain situations, becomes so accustomed to ideas of tyranny and cruelty, that they no longer appear extraordinary or detestable: they rather seem part of the necessary and immutable order of things.
Mr. Jefferies was stopped, as he passed from his dining-room into his drawing-room, by a little negro child, of about five years old, who was crying bitterly. He was the son of one of the slaves who were at this moment under the torturer’s hand. “Poor little devil!” said Mr. Jefferies, who was more than half intoxicated. “Take him away; and tell Durant, some of ye, to pardon his father — if he can.”
The child ran, eagerly, to announce his father’s pardon; but he soon returned, crying more violently than before. Durant would not hear the boy; and it was now no longer possible to appeal to Mr. Jefferies, for he was in the midst of an assembly of fair ladies, and no servant belonging to the house dared to interrupt the festivities of the evening. The three men, who were so severely flogged to extort from them confessions, were perfectly innocent: they knew nothing of the confederacy; but the rebels seized the moment when their minds were exasperated by this cruelty and injustice, and they easily persuaded them to join the league. The hope of revenging themselves upon the overseer was a motive sufficient to make them brave death in any shape.
Another incident, which happened a few days before the time destined for the revolt of the slaves, determined numbers who had been undecided. Mrs. Jefferies was a languid beauty, or rather a languid fine lady who had been a beauty, and who spent all that part of the day which was not devoted to the pleasures of the table, or to reclining on a couch, in dress. She was one day extended on a sofa, fanned by four slaves, two at her head and two at her feet, when news was brought that a large chest, directed to her, was just arrived from London.
This chest contained various articles of dress of the newest fashions. The Jamaica ladies carry their ideas of magnificence to a high pitch: they willingly give a hundred guineas for a gown, which they perhaps wear but once or twice. In the elegance and variety of her ornaments, Mrs. Jefferies was not exceeded by any lady in the island, except by one who had lately received a cargo from England. She now expected to outshine her competitor, and desired that the chest should be unpacked in her presence.
In taking out one of the gowns, it caught on a nail in the lid, and was torn. The lady, roused from her natural indolence by this disappointment to her vanity, instantly ordered that the unfortunate female slave should be severely chastised. The woman was the wife of Hector; and this fresh injury worked up his temper, naturally vindictive, to the highest point. He ardently longed for the moment when he might satiate his vengeance.
The plan the negroes had laid was to set fire to the canes, at one and the same time, on every plantation; and when the white inhabitants of the island should run to put out the fire, the blacks were to seize this moment of confusion and consternation to fall upon them, and make a general massacre. The time when this scheme was to be carried into execution was not known to Caesar; for the conspirators had changed their day, as soon as Hector told them that his friend was no longer one of the confederacy. They dreaded he should betray them; and it was determined that he and Clara should both be destroyed, unless they could be prevailed upon to join the conspiracy.
Hector wished to save his friend, but the desire of vengeance overcame every other feeling. He resolved, however, to make an attempt, for the last time, to change Caesar’s resolution.
For this purpose, Esther was the person he employed: she was to work upon his mind by means of Clara. On returning to her cottage one night, she found suspended from the thatch one of those strange fantastic charms with which the Indian sorceresses terrify those whom they have proscribed. Clara, unable to conquer her terror, repaired again to Esther, who received her first in mysterious silence; but, after she had implored her forgiveness for the past, and with all possible humility conjured her to grant her future protection, the sorceress deigned to speak. Her commands were that Clara should prevail upon her lover to meet her, on this awful spot, the ensuing night.
Little suspecting what was going forward on the plantation of Jefferies, Mr. Edwards that evening gave his slaves a holiday. He and his family came out at sunset, when the fresh breeze had sprung up, and seated themselves under a spreading palm-tree, to enjoy the pleasing spectacle of this negro festival. His negroes were all well clad, and in the gayest colours, and their merry countenances suited the gaiety of their dress. While some were dancing, and some playing on the tambourine, others appeared amongst the distant trees, bringing baskets of avocado pears, grapes, and pine-apples, the produce of their own provision-grounds; and others were employed in spreading their clean trenchers, or the calabashes, which served for plates and dishes. The negroes continued to dance and divert themselves till late in, the evening. When they separated and retired to rest, Caesar, recollecting his promise to Clara, repaired secretly to the habitation of this sorceress. It was situated in the recess of a thick wood. When he arrived there, he found the door fastened; and he was obliged to wait some time before it was opened by Esther.
The first object he beheld was his beloved Clara, stretched on the ground, apparently a corpse! The sorceress had thrown her into a trance by a preparation of deadly nightshade. The hag burst into an infernal laugh, when she beheld the despair that was painted in Caesar’s countenance. “Wretch!” cried she, “you have defied my power: behold its victim!”
Caesar, in a transport of rage, seized her by the throat: but his fury was soon checked.
“Destroy me,” said the fiend, “and you destroy your Clara. She is not dead: but she lies in the sleep of death, into which she has been thrown by magic art, and from which no power but mine can restore her to the light of life. Yes! look at her, pale and motionless! Never will she rise from the earth, unless, within one hour, you obey my commands. I have administered to Hector and his companions the solemn fetish oath, at the sound of which every negro in Africa trembles! You know my object.”
“Fiend, I do!” replied Caesar, eyeing her sternly; “but, while I have life, it shall never be accomplished.”
“Look yonder!” cried she, pointing to the moon; “in a few minutes that moon will set: at that hour Hector and his friends will appear. They come armed — armed with weapons which I shall steep in poison for their enemies. Themselves I will render invulnerable. Look again!” continued she; “if my dim eyes mistake not, yonder they come. Rash man, you die if they cross my threshold.”
“I wish for death,” said Caesar. “Clara is dead!”
“But you can restore her to life by a single word.” Caesar, at this moment, seemed to hesitate. “Consider! Your heroism is vain,” continued Esther. “You will have the knives of fifty of the conspirators in your bosom, if you do not join them; and, after you have fallen, the death of your master is inevitable. Here is the bowl of poison, in which the negro knives are to be steeped. Your friends, your former friends, your countrymen, will be in arms in a few minutes; and they will bear down every thing before them — Victory, Wealth, Freedom, and Revenge, will be theirs.”
Caesar appeared to be more and more agitated. His eyes were fixed upon Clara. The conflict in his mind was violent: but his sense of gratitude and duty could not be shaken by hope, fear, or ambition; nor could it be vanquished by love. He determined, however, to appear to yield. As if struck with panic, at the approach of the confederate negroes, he suddenly turned to the sorceress, and said, in a tone of feigned submission, “It is in vain to struggle with fate. Let my knife, too, be dipped in your magic poison.”
The sorceress clapped her hands with infernal joy in her countenance. She bade him instantly give her his knife, that she might plunge it to the hilt in the bowl of poison, to which she turned with savage impatience. His knife was left in his cottage, and, under pretence of going in search of it, he escaped. Esther promised to prepare Hector and all his companions to receive him with their ancient cordiality on his return. Caesar ran with the utmost speed along a bye-path out of the wood, met none of the rebels, reached his master’s house, scaled the wall of his bedchamber, got in at the window, and wakened him, exclaiming, “Arm — arm yourself, my dear master! Arm all your slaves! They will fight for you, and die for you; as I will the first. The Koromantyn yell of war will be heard in Jefferies plantation this night! Arm — arm yourself, my dear master, and let us surround the rebel leaders while it is yet time. I will lead you to the place where they are all assembled, on condition that their chief, who is my friend, shall be pardoned.”
Mr. Edwards armed himself and the negroes on his plantation, as well as the whites; they were all equally attached to him. He followed Caesar into the recesses of the wood.
They proceeded with all possible rapidity, but in perfect silence, till they reached Esther’s habitation: which they surrounded completely, before they were perceived by the conspirators.
Mr. Edwards looked through a hole in the wall; and, by the blue flame of a cauldron, over which the sorceress was stretching her shrivelled hands, he saw Hector and five stout negroes standing, intent upon her incantations. These negroes held their knives in their hands, ready to dip them into the bowl of poison. It was proposed, by one of the whites, to set fire immediately to the hut, and thus to force the rebels to surrender. The advice was followed; but Mr. Edwards charged his people to spare their prisoners. The moment the rebels saw that the thatch of the hut was in flames, they set up the Koromantyn yell of war, and rushed out with frantic desperation.
“Yield! You are pardoned, Hector,” cried Mr. Edwards, in a loud voice.
“You are pardoned, my friend!” repeated Cæsar.
Hector, incapable at this instant of listening to anything but revenge, sprang forwards, and plunged his knife into the bosom of Cæsar. The faithful servant staggered back a few paces: his master caught him in his arms. “I die content,” said he. “Bury me with Clara.”
He swooned from loss of blood as they were carrying him home; but when his wound was examined, it was found not to be mortal. As he recovered from his swoon, he stared wildly round him, trying to recollect where he was, and what had happened. He thought that he was still in a dream, when he saw his beloved Clara standing beside him. The opiate, which the pretended sorceress had administered to her, had ceased to operate; she wakened from her trance just at the time the Koromantyn yell commenced. Cæsar’s joy! — we must leave that to the imagination.
In the mean time, what became of the rebel negroes, and Mr. Edwards?
The taking the chief conspirators prisoners did not prevent the negroes upon Jefferies’ plantation from insurrection. The moment they heard the war-whoop, the signal agreed upon, they rose in a body; and, before they could be prevented, either by the whites on the estate, or by Mr. Edwards’ adherents, they had set fire to the overseer’s house, and to the canes. The overseer was the principal object of their vengeance — he died in tortures, inflicted by the hands of those who had suffered most by his cruelties. Mr. Edwards, however, quelled the insurgents before rebellion spread to any other estates in the island. The influence of his character, and the effect of his eloquence upon the minds of the people, were astonishing: nothing but his interference could have prevented the total destruction of Mr. Jefferies and his family, who, as it was computed, lost this night upwards of fifty thousand pounds. He was never afterwards able to recover his losses, or to shake off his constant fear of a fresh insurrection among his slaves. At length, he and his lady returned to England, where they were obliged to live in obscurity and indigence. They had no consolation in their misfortunes but that of railing at the treachery of the whole race of slaves. Our readers, we hope, will think that at least one exception may be made, in favour of THE GRATEFUL NEGRO.
1 THE NEGRO SLAVES— a fine drama, by Kotzebue. It is to be hoped that such horrible instances of cruelty are not now to be found in nature. Bryan Edwards, in his History of Jamaica, says that most of the planters are humane; but he allows that some facts can be cited in contradiction of this assertion.
2 History of the West Indies, from which these ideas are adopted — not stolen.
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