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Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since/Chapter VI

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[81]
CHAPTER VI.


                "Mistake me not for my complexion
                 The shadowed livery of the burnish'd Sun,
                 To whom I am a neighbour, and near bred.
                 But prove whose blood is reddest, thine or mine."[1]
                                                                    Merchant of Venice.

In the neighbourhood of Madam Lathrop, was a tenement, inhabited by an aged African, whose name was Primus. To him she extended not only her benevolent offices, but her kind regard. Venerable at once for years and virtues, he was respected both by the young and old. His countenance displayed the characteristicks of the country of his birth; and though his features might war with all our ideas of beauty, yet their expression caused the eye to rest on them with complacency. Seldom is matter more completely modified by mind, than it was in this case; where the mild eye, beaming love to mankind, made the beholder forget the jutting forehead, and depressed nostrils, by which it was encompassed. A gentle, yet dignified deportment, a politeness which seemed natural to him, and the white blossoms of the grave, curling closely around his temples, suffered not materially in their effect, from the complexion which an African sun had burnt upon him. It was remarked, by children in the streets, that no one bowed so low, or turned out their toes so well as Primus; nor was their reverence for his character [82] abated, because they found him "guilty of a skill, not coloured, like their own." Early instructed in reading, and the principles of religion, he had imbibed an ardent love for the Scriptures, and stored his memory with a surprising number of their passages. If the great Selden merited the name of a "walking dictionary," Primus might have been styled a living concordance. At the private religious meetings, which were occasionally held by the pious, it was customary, when any text was under discussion, whose place was doubtful in the memory of the speaker, to appeal to the venerable African. Then, from some remote corner, a modest voice would be heard, to pronounce with precision, respecting the chapter and verse. This information, which his humility generally connected with some expression of doubt, was almost in variably found a "sure word of testimony;" for he had made the Bible his sole study from his youth, exercising his memory, not only upon its substance, but upon its links of connexion and dependance, as the historian clings to chronology, to systematize the facts, with which his mind overflows.

Primus had been, for more than half a century, a member of the Congregational Church in his vicinity. We might say an ornament also, if the circle of Christian duties, and spiritual graces, were ever found so umningled with imperfection, as to justify such an epithet. At that most solemn ordinance, appointed by the Saviour to "keep in remembrance hjs death till he come," the devotion, the [83] humility, the gratitude of this participant could scarcely escape observation. While he bent over the mysterious symbols, with an eye now fixed on the earth, now humbly raised as if in the language of an ancient supplicant, "let thy servant wash the feet of these servants of my Lord," those, who knew the purity of his life, would often utter mentally,—

                  "When the Archangel's trump shall blow.
                      And souls to bodies join,
                   Millions shall wish their lives below,
                      Had been as pure as thine."[2]

His home, which was comfortable, and comprised two stories, more spacious than usually fall to the lot of Africans in this country, was provided for him by the family whom he had served in his youth. They had become justly attached to him for his excellent qualities, and for them, he testified the zeal of an old feudal retainer. Though four-score years had passed over him, he still preferred supplying his moderate wants by occasional labour in the gardens of his neighbours, to a dependance on the industry of his daughter who resided with him. Their habitation was situated near a ledge of dark, broken rocks; between whose base and its walls, rose a School-house of brick, which still remains, though no vestige is left of the abode of the good African. The noisy inmates of that seminary of learning used often to pay a passing visit to Father Primus. He kept a small stock of walnuts for the good, hence the good were most frequently his guests. Often would the red tinge in their cheeks fade, and the [84] dancing blood at their gay hearts be cold for a moment, while he explained to them the only picture in his habitation, the tearing of the forty and two children, who mocked at the bald-headed prophet. The furious deportment of the two she-bears, the various attitudes of torture and death in which the victims appeared, and the solemn enunciation of that old, grey-headed man, made this part of the bible better understood than others by the breathless listeners, and impressed on their minds the turpitude of reviling age and piety, more than the formal instruction of the pulpit. Sometimes he would indulge them with the story of his captivity, and many a little bosom would beat indignantly, and tears would gush from many a fair eye, at hearing that he was a child like themselves, when he was torn from his native land to be made a slave. His narrative, when divested of its vernacular, ran thus:

"I was born in that part of Africa, which lies between the Rivers Gambia and Senegal. The king of our tribe possessed a small territory, about fifty miles from the western coast. The dwelling of my parents was on a branch of the river Senegal. Its humble roof was overshadowed by lofty palm-trees, and near it grew yams, and plantains for our food. Orange trees, and shaddocks were abundant there, and the pine-apple might be seen, thrusting forth its head like a young cabbage, wherever we trod. There was war, at the time I was captured, between our king, and the chief of a neighbouring nation. It was begun, in order to obtain prisoners to sell to the dealers [85] in slaves. It is not one of the slightest evils of the slave-trade, that it kindles war among tribes, who would otherwise be at peace. The sight of an European sail is the signal for dissension and robbery, and ere the ship has arrived at its harbour, cottages have blazed, and blood has flowed. Those, who were comparatively innocent, are rendered sinful by those who have more light and know ledge than themselves, so that the Africans who inhabit the shores, are worse than those in the interiour, who have never seen a Christian. Nations, who deal in slaves, have factors or merchants stationed along the coasts, to instigate the avaricious and wicked natives to sell their own countrymen. Thus private robberies, and civil wars add to the desolations of Africa. The whites, also, sail in vessels, or boats up the principal rivers, and make victims of those who may escape the pursuit of their agents. They sometimes march with considerable force into the country, and seize whole families, leaving only the sick and the aged. Alas! they have not always left these, to mourn the loss of all their race. They have staid to destroy those lives, which they deemed not worth their capture. When the English ship arrived which bore me from Africa, my father was summoned to aid in defending our tribe against the inroads of a powerful chief. I had attained the age of ten years, and was left to stay by the bed of a sick mother. I said to her in my simplicity—

"I see people coming towards us with a white skin, and their voices have a strange sound." [86]

"Hide yourself, my son!" she hastily exclaimed. "these are the men who make slaves of us."

"But, in a moment, their grasp was upon my shoulder. She shrieked in agony—"Take him not away, he is our only one. Spare him, he is my all. He is but a child, what service can he render you? Take me, and leave him, for when this sickness departs, my hand is stronger than his. See! I am well already. I will labour for you, and be your slave; but let him stay to comfort his father."

"Ere she had finished speaking, they had torn me away, I gazed back on my dear home, and saw that she had crept to the door, for she was unable to walk. There she lay grovelling, following me with her eyes, and filling the air with incessant screams, while she implored the gods of Africa to restore her child.

"All that day we travelled, and in the course of it were joined by large parties of slaves. Muffled, they were not permitted to speak to each other, but groans were heard, and tears fell without measure. Chained together, two and two, they were driven along by the lash like beasts. At night, when we all lay down to sleep, an arm, raised as high as its fetters would permit, encircled me, and I heard the whispered words, "rest your head on my bosom."

I knew the voice of my father. But I could not look up, for my heart was heavier, to find him in that place of torment. He had been disarmed and sold by the treachery [87] of his own countrymen, whom he was hazarding his life to defend. The next day we were put on board the slave-ship. Here our miseries were increased, to what seemed at first view insupportable. We were forced between two low decks, where the grown people could not stand upright. So crowded were we, that scarcely twenty inches of space were allotted each in his living coffin. Our sufferings for want of air, in this confined prison, I cannot adequately describe. When in bad weather, the tarpaulin was drawn over the hole whence we received fresh air, the noise of hundreds drawing their breath as if in suffocation, was mingled with piercing cries of " kickeraboo! we die! we die!"

"Every day, except in cases of severe storms, they were brought on deck to take their dinner, which consisted of boiled horse-beans, and rice. After this they were compelled to jump for exercise, as high as their chains would permit. If they refused, they were punished with the cat of nine tails; if they complied, the irons on their limbs caused excoriations of the flesh, and sprains of the joints. They were ordered to sing also. But only lamentations were heard, or fragments of songs, broken with sobs, speaking of the palm-tree shade, and the home of their fathers. Their thrilling and mournful voices, with whatever burden they burst forth, ended in the same word, Africa! dear Africa!"

"When the short space allotted to breathe the fresh air had expired, if any testified reluctance to be packed into [88] their living tombs, they were quickened by the lash. Yet if I could only be placed, where I might see the face of my father, I seemed to forget a part of my sorrow. But at length, as I watched him, tears were continually lying upon his burning cheek. His head declined upon his breast, and he forebore to look at me, save with deadly, despairing eyes.

"A terrible sickness was beginning among the slaves The contagion spread rapidly, for those who might have escaped, were often chained to the diseased, the dying, and the dead. Numbers were removed to what was called the hospital. Here they were indeed permitted room to stretch themselves out, which had been before denied them. But it was upon rough boards, when the motion of the ship tore the flesh from their bones. Soon, there were spaces enough to be seen, but they were reddened with the blood of the dead who had filled them. Every day, the plunging of bodies into the ocean was heard, with no more concern than if beasts were consigned to its depths. Stern joy sat upon the faces of the sufferers. They complained not, as they suffocated in the pestilent atmosphere. They thought that they were escaping their oppressors, and returning to the home of their ancestors.

My father was among the first victims. I feigned sickness, that I might be near where he lay. Not a groan escaped him, though his body was one continued wound. Constantly panting for air, which was denied him, his [89] parched lips could scarcely utter an articulate sound. But as he drew his last, long gasp, he said,—

"Come with me, my son! to the fields of pure light, where are no white men, no slaves."

"I was stupid for many days, as one whose mind had forsaken his body. Yet I escaped the pestilence. So terrible was it, that out of 800, comparatively few remained. More attention was paid to the health of the survivors, as the owners began to fear it would be a losing voyage. We had now more room, and a less corrupted atmosphere, and no more deaths occurred save a few of broken hearts.

"The ship landed her crew in New-York, from whence a few of the slaves were sent to Connecticut. This state had not then prohibited their importation; nor has it until recently decreed, that whoever is born within its jurisdiction, shall be free.

"My lot was cast in this place, with a kind master who at his death gave me freedom. I was about his person and he required no task of me, beyond my years and strength. He first told me that I had a soul, which must be forever in heaven or in hell. He taught me to read in my bible, of the God who had created man, of the Saviour who died to redeem him. And oh! that knowledge was worth more to me, than all I had suffered, all I had lost. Had I continued in Africa, I should have been a worshipper of idols that cannot save. Ah! what if this short life were all of it sorrow, if when it endeth, we might carry [90] with us a hope that can never fail, a glory that can never die."

It has been mentioned that this good old African, had a daughter who resided with him. She was the sole surviving offspring of a wife who had been many years dead, and bore no resemblance to her father, either in person or mind. Without being decidedly vicious, she might be ranked among those many personages who prove that merit is not hereditary. Having but little employment at home, she was by profession both spy and gossip; not that the union of these departments is peculiar, or monopolized by females of her colour and station. Seldom was any occurrence in the household of her neighbours, unknown to her. The incipient designs of courtship and matrimony were favourite subjects for her boasted discernment, or malignant prediction, and it might almost be said of her, that

           "She hated men, because they lov'd not her,
            And hated women because they were lov'd."[3]

She was time-keeper, for all who came within the range of her acquaintance. No single-lady, who approached the frontier of desperation, could presume to curtail a year from the fearful calendar, if Flora were near to bring her back to the correct computation of her own date. That portion of the affections, which Nature had introduced into the system of this wayward dame, were more liberally bestowed upon animals, than upon her own kind. Cats were her principal favourites, and wandered around her precincts, in every shade and diversity of colour. [91] Under her clement reign, they waxed fat, and multiplied exceedingly. At her meals, she was the centre of a circle, who, with lynx eyes, watched every movement of her hand to her lips, and with discordant growling, grudged every morsel which was not bestowed upon them. Sometimes she might be heard by those who passed her mansion, addressing her dependants with every appellation of fondness: at others, with bitter vituperations; while their shrill voices, now mingling with her cadence, and anon leading the concert, gave notice that they were paying the penalty of some petty larceny on the larder. Frequently she was seen, issuing from her habitation, her tall, gaunt form clad in a sky-blue tammy petticoat, partially concealed from view by a short, faded, scarlet cloak, bearing a basket of kittens to display their beauty to some amateur, or put them to service with some rat-infested householder. Following, with distracted haste, the mother Grimalkin might be traced, tossing her whiskers, and uttering piteous moans; occasionally infixing her claws, in the stiff blue petticoat, that she might thereby climb to her kidnapped offspring. The bereaved parent would be either consoled with caresses, or distanced by a blow, as the caprice of the dame might dictate.

Another object claimed her attention, though in an inferiour degree. On the utmost limits of the parapet of rock, which flanked her suburbs, was a solitary barberry-bush, which possibly she felt bound to patronize, by virtue of her name, as Goddess cf Flowers. To this spot, the visits [92] of the children, from the adjacent temple of science, were constant as the advances of its fructification. Even the leaves did not come amiss, as study is known to be a provocative of appetite. When its drupes began to assume their crimson tinge, dire were the labours, and sore the watchings of Flora, between the depredations of the urchins without, and the cats within. At this season of the year, her irascible propensities predominated; and many a little girl has vanished like a frighted bird from the contested bush; and many a stout boy, with teeth on edge from the rough acid of the unripe fruit, has lingered to shout defiance at the threats which assailed him.

Her principal amusement, amid the pressure of avocations like these, was to trace in the aspect of the sky, signs of a portending storm. No mariner, whose life balances upon the cloud, transcended her in this species of discernment; for she could gather amid the unsullied brightness of a summer sky, omens of elemental conflict. Her delight was amid the convulsions of nature, and the deformities of character. This love of scandal led her to dread the reproofs of Madam Lathrop, and to avoid her presence, except when she found it expedient to solicit some favour. Her father was ever received with kindness, and even with affection, as a "brother in Christ. notwithstanding his bonds." But when she made her visitations to set forth her poverty, before this benevolent lady, she invariably received, with her gift, some admonition [93] whose severity induced her to murmur as she returned to her dwelling.

"It is well enough, for aught I know, for rich people to be so mighty good; but poor folks have not had so much eddecation, and must take the world as they find it."

Yet she fond that punishment invariably attends the indulgence of unkind feelings, though conscience may have become too obtuse to administer it. The terrours of superstition haunted her, and the wakeful hours of night, were rendered miserable by fears of ghosts and spectres. No Neapolitan ever believed more firmly in the influence of an evil eye, than she in the system of witchcraft. The tragical scenes acted at Salem, in the preceding century, had been rendered familiar to her, by the pages of a torn book, which she perused on Sundays, as a substitute for the bible. All things monstrous, or mysterious were traced by her to a similar source. The unknown stranger who had sought refuge in the abode of old Zachary at Mohegan, was to her a meet subject for explanation dire. She had no doubt, she was one of that race who held communion with evil spirits. Her living among Indians was a sure proof of that. She had heard that when people were in pursuit of her, she would cast a mist before their eyes, that they could not discover her. She believed that at her first arrival, there was a blue flame and a strong scent of sulphur; and hinted that, if the "Authority of the Town," were as strict as they ought to be, old Zachary would be committed to prison, and the [94] creature whom nobody knew, tied in a sack, and thrown into the river, to see if she would sink or swim. Then lowering her voice, she would assert that other people, as well as herself, were confident that she was a witch, for that she had been seen to rise into the air upon a broom stick so high, that she appeared no larger than a nighthawk. This mischievous narrator found listeners; for at that period, low scandal, and the belief in the contracts of man with evil demons, were popular among the vulgar. Superstition has since vanished before the sway of superiour illumination; but slander still thrives on the faults of mankind. They are still forced into daily circulation, though not always by those, whom society condemns as ignorant, worthless, or malignant.

Notes[edit]

  1. It is probably a typesetting error that "mistake" appears here instead of "mislike". In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the Prince of Morocco's line is rendered as follows:

               "Mislike me not for my complexion,
                The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
                To whom I am a neighbour, and near bred.
                Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
                Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles,
                And let us make incision for your love
                To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine."

  2. Wesley, Samuel. "Epitaph on an Infant." This version of the poem seems slightly altered. In James Montgomery's The Christian Poet; or, Selections in Verse, on Sacred Subjects, 3rd ed., at page 429, this poem appears as follows:

               Beneath, a sleeping infant lies,
                  To earth whose ashes lent,
               More glorious shall hereafter rise,
                  Though not more innocent.

               When the arch-angel's trump shall blow,
                  And souls and bodies join,
               What crowds will wish, their lives below
                  Had been as short as thine!

  3. Robert Southey, The Curse of Kehama, "The Enchantress."