Slavery on the Plantations

I had planned to be in Italy now. In preparation, I wrote this post last year, and postdated it to be published today. It is weirdly relevant given what is happening. As I read Fanny’s book, it was fascinating to hear her say things that today would be considered blatant racism, even though she was fighting for the abolition of slavery. There is a lesson here for today. If we are protesting against racial inequality, is it okay to shop for cheap clothes, which are made by slaves in Bangladesh? Do we only want racial equality in the UK and the US? Or are we prepared to give our money to aid agencies to help fight Covid-19 amongst the poor in India, Africa, and beyond? What, I wonder, will the future think of us?

Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839

by Frances Kemble

While we were visiting the Southern States of America last year, we were very aware of echoes of the past wherever we went. We saw old plantations, fields of cotton, museums, relics from the civil war, and were ever conscious of the comparatively recent slave trade. I began to explore this a little, to try and discover some facts beyond what we could see, and one of the books that I bought was the Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. It is a brilliant book, and allows the reader to see the slave trade, as it was, through the eyes of another investigator.

Fanny Kemble was an English actress. She was fairly well-known, as both an actress and an author, and during a tour of America with her father, she met Pierce Mease Butler. They married, and she went back to live with him in America, having no idea about how, exactly, he made his money. She then discovered that Butler owned a plantation, and slaves. Fanny deplored the idea of slavery, and insisted that she be allowed to visit the plantation, and see for herself the life of the slaves owned by her husband. The book is a series of letters and extracts from her journal, describing what she discovers.

I read the book shortly after arriving home from our road trip through Georgia and the Carolinas, so much of what Fanny describes is clear in my memory. She talks about the swamps, where the trees appear to be balanced on long fingers, and she calls them ‘woods of water.’ She describes the wildlife, the climate—all of which is pretty much unchanged even today. However, read through modern eyes, Fanny herself would be classed as racist, as her language reflects the thinking of the day. A strident abolitionist, Fanny makes a strong argument for the evils of the slave trade, whilst also describing black people in unflattering terms. It is unclear whether Fanny considers the slaves to be her equal, or whether she simply thinks the owning and degradation of human beings is deplorable (which is not quite the same thing).

The living conditions of the slaves are described as dirty, with no comfort, insufficient food. However, the aspect that affects Fanny the most is the whole being owned principle. Although the slaves married, and had children (which were then considered the property of the plantation owner) this was not respected beyond the confines of the slave residencies. So a man might return home from work one day to find, without warning, that his wife or child had been sold to a new owner, many miles away. Fanny also refutes the idea of benevolent owners, saying that those people who claimed to be kind to their slaves were still treating them as animals, and doubting whether a full-grown person would prefer to be treated as a much-loved pet dog, or as a donkey–both are belittling, and both undermine the basic principle that people of all colour, are human. This was radical thinking for her times.

One part which was interesting, is when Fanny is discussing Shakespeare (which would be very relevant to an actress). She ponders the play of Othello, and how the character, who is black, is described as a Moor, not a Negro. Fanny tells her friend that the hateful speech by Iago, Othello’s enemy, would be much more realistic if his hatred of “the moor” was changed to “the negro” and would add to his criticism of Desdemona, who has married a “negro.”

To discover what happened to Fanny later, beyond the pages of the book, I had to search the internet.

Fanny later divorces Butler and returns to England. Butler squanders his money, and eventually sells 436 slaves at The Great Auction in Savannah. This was notable, and is still part of the remembered history of Savannah today, used as an example of the horrors of the slave trade. Families were wrenched apart in the sale, and local people described the wailing and crying.

I found this book exceptionally interesting, though the style of writing was not my personal taste. It gives a clear account of how someone living in the times of slavery viewed what was happening, and I loved how her own biases were unconscious, and never addressed. I wonder what Fanny would think of her own writings if she was alive today. . . and I wonder what a future Anne would think about my own views. We are all products of the society in which we live, even if we like to think our generation has ‘sussed it’. I wonder if perhaps before we shout at those who we think are racist today, we had better look into our own hearts. You might claim that you believe all people are equal–but have you ever bought cheap clothes that might have been made by slaves in Asia? When did you last donate money to help downtrodden people? Would you allow the field near your home be used to build homes for refugees? I wonder. . .

Thank you for reading
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