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26 June, 2013
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter XXXI: The Middle Passage
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
"Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look
upon iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously,
and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is
more righteous than he?" --HAB. 1: 13.
On the lower part of a small, mean boat, on the Red river,
Tom sat,--chains on his wrists, chains on his feet, and a weight
heavier than chains lay on his heart. All had faded from his
sky,--moon and star; all had passed by him, as the trees and banks
were now passing, to return no more. Kentucky home, with wife and
children, and indulgent owners; St. Clare home, with all its
refinements and splendors; the golden head of Eva, with its saint-like
eyes; the proud, gay, handsome, seemingly careless, yet ever-kind
St. Clare; hours of ease and indulgent leisure,--all gone! and in
place thereof, what remains?
It is one of the bitterest apportionments of a lot of slavery,
that the negro, sympathetic and assimilative, after acquiring,
in a refined family, the tastes and feelings which form the
atmosphere of such a place, is not the less liable to become
the bond-slave of the coarsest and most brutal,--just as a chair
or table, which once decorated the superb saloon, comes, at last,
battered and defaced, to the barroom of some filthy tavern, or some
low haunt of vulgar debauchery. The great difference is, that the
table and chair cannot feel, and the man can; for even a legal
enactment that he shall be "taken, reputed, adjudged in law, to be
a chattel personal," cannot blot out his soul, with its own private
little world of memories, hopes, loves, fears, and desires.
Mr. Simon Legree, Tom's master, had purchased slaves at one
place and another, in New Orleans, to the number of eight, and
driven them, handcuffed, in couples of two and two, down to the
good steamer Pirate, which lay at the levee, ready for a trip up
the Red river.
Having got them fairly on board, and the boat being off, he came
round, with that air of efficiency which ever characterized him,
to take a review of them. Stopping opposite to Tom, who had been
attired for sale in his best broadcloth suit, with well-starched
linen and shining boots, he briefly expressed himself as follows:
Tom stood up.
"Take off that stock!" and, as Tom, encumbered by his fetters,
proceeded to do it, he assisted him, by pulling it, with no
gentle hand, from his neck, and putting it in his pocket.
Legree now turned to Tom's trunk, which, previous to this, he
had been ransacking, and, taking from it a pair of old pantaloons
and dilapidated coat, which Tom had been wont to put on about his
stable-work, he said, liberating Tom's hands from the handcuffs,
and pointing to a recess in among the boxes,
"You go there, and put these on."
Tom obeyed, and in a few moments returned.
"Take off your boots," said Mr. Legree.
Tom did so.
"There," said the former, throwing him a pair of coarse, stout
shoes, such as were common among the slaves, "put these on."
In Tom's hurried exchange, he had not forgotten to transfer
his cherished Bible to his pocket. It was well he did so; for Mr.
Legree, having refitted Tom's handcuffs, proceeded deliberately to
investigate the contents of his pockets. He drew out a silk
handkerchief, and put it into his own pocket. Several little
trifles, which Tom had treasured, chiefly because they had amused
Eva, he looked upon with a contemptuous grunt, and tossed them over
his shoulder into the river.
Tom's Methodist hymn-book, which, in his hurry, he had
forgotten, he now held up and turned over.
Humph! pious, to be sure. So, what's yer name,--you belong
to the church, eh?"
"Yes, Mas'r," said Tom, firmly.
"Well, I'll soon have that out of you. I have none o' yer
bawling, praying, singing niggers on my place; so remember.
Now, mind yourself," he said, with a stamp and a fierce glance
of his gray eye, directed at Tom, "I'm your church now!
You understand,--you've got to be as I say."
Something within the silent black man answered No! and, as if
repeated by an invisible voice, came the words of an old prophetic
scroll, as Eva had often read them to him,--"Fear not! for I have
redeemed thee. I have called thee by name. Thou art MINE!"
But Simon Legree heard no voice. That voice is one he never
shall hear. He only glared for a moment on the downcast face
of Tom, and walked off. He took Tom's trunk, which contained a
very neat and abundant wardrobe, to the forecastle, where it was
soon surrounded by various hands of the boat. With much laughing,
at the expense of niggers who tried to be gentlemen, the articles
very readily were sold to one and another, and the empty trunk
finally put up at auction. It was a good joke, they all thought,
especially to see how Tom looked after his things, as they were
going this way and that; and then the auction of the trunk, that
was funnier than all, and occasioned abundant witticisms.
This little affair being over, Simon sauntered up again to
"Now, Tom, I've relieved you of any extra baggage, you see.
Take mighty good care of them clothes. It'll be long enough 'fore
you get more. I go in for making niggers careful; one suit has to
do for one year, on my place."
Simon next walked up to the place where Emmeline was sitting,
chained to another woman.
"Well, my dear," he said, chucking her under the chin,
"keep up your spirits."
The involuntary look of horror, fright and aversion, with which
the girl regarded him, did not escape his eye. He frowned fiercely.
"None o' your shines, gal! you's got to keep a pleasant face,
when I speak to ye,--d'ye hear? And you, you old yellow poco
moonshine!" he said, giving a shove to the mulatto woman to whom
Emmeline was chained, "don't you carry that sort of face! You's
got to look chipper, I tell ye!"
"I say, all on ye," he said retreating a pace or two back,
"look at me,--look at me,--look me right in the eye,--straight,
now!" said he, stamping his foot at every pause.
As by a fascination, every eye was now directed to the
glaring greenish-gray eye of Simon.
"Now," said he, doubling his great, heavy fist into something
resembling a blacksmith's hammer, "d'ye see this fist? Heft it!"
he said, bringing it down on Tom's hand. "Look at these yer bones!
Well, I tell ye this yer fist has got as hard as iron knocking
down niggers. I never see the nigger, yet, I couldn't bring down
with one crack," said he, bringing his fist down so near to the
face of Tom that he winked and drew back. "I don't keep none o'
yer cussed overseers; I does my own overseeing; and I tell you
things is seen to. You's every one on ye got to toe the mark,
I tell ye; quick,--straight,--the moment I speak. That's the way
to keep in with me. Ye won't find no soft spot in me, nowhere.
So, now, mind yerselves; for I don't show no mercy!"
The women involuntarily drew in their breath, and the whole
gang sat with downcast, dejected faces. Meanwhile, Simon turned
on his heel, and marched up to the bar of the boat for a dram.
"That's the way I begin with my niggers," he said, to a
gentlemanly man, who had stood by him during his speech.
"It's my system to begin strong,--just let 'em know what
"Indeed!" said the stranger, looking upon him with the
curiosity of a naturalist studying some out-of-the-way specimen.
"Yes, indeed. I'm none o' yer gentlemen planters, with lily
fingers, to slop round and be cheated by some old cuss of an
overseer! Just feel of my knuckles, now; look at my fist.
Tell ye, sir, the flesh on 't has come jest like a stone,
practising on nigger--feel on it."
The stranger applied his fingers to the implement in
question, and simply said,
"'T is hard enough; and, I suppose," he added, "practice
has made your heart just like it."
"Why, yes, I may say so," said Simon, with a hearty laugh.
"I reckon there's as little soft in me as in any one going.
Tell you, nobody comes it over me! Niggers never gets round me,
neither with squalling nor soft soap,--that's a fact."
"You have a fine lot there."
"Real," said Simon. "There's that Tom, they telled me he was
suthin' uncommon. I paid a little high for him, tendin' him
for a driver and a managing chap; only get the notions out that
he's larnt by bein' treated as niggers never ought to be, he'll
do prime! The yellow woman I got took in on. I rayther think she's
sickly, but I shall put her through for what she's worth; she
may last a year or two. I don't go for savin' niggers. Use up,
and buy more, 's my way;-makes you less trouble, and I'm quite
sure it comes cheaper in the end;" and Simon sipped his glass.
"And how long do they generally last?" said the stranger.
"Well, donno; 'cordin' as their constitution is. Stout fellers
last six or seven years; trashy ones gets worked up in two
or three. I used to, when I fust begun, have considerable trouble
fussin' with 'em and trying to make 'em hold out,--doctorin' on
'em up when they's sick, and givin' on 'em clothes and blankets,
and what not, tryin' to keep 'em all sort o' decent and comfortable.
Law, 't wasn't no sort o' use; I lost money on 'em, and 't was
heaps o' trouble. Now, you see, I just put 'em straight through,
sick or well. When one nigger's dead, I buy another; and I find
it comes cheaper and easier, every way."
The stranger turned away, and seated himself beside a gentleman,
who had been listening to the conversation with repressed
"You must not take that fellow to be any specimen of Southern
planters," said he.
"I should hope not," said the young gentleman, with emphasis.
"He is a mean, low, brutal fellow!" said the other.
"And yet your laws allow him to hold any number of human
beings subject to his absolute will, without even a shadow of
protection; and, low as he is, you cannot say that there are not
"Well," said the other, "there are also many considerate
and humane men among planters."
"Granted," said the young man; "but, in my opinion, it is you
considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the
brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it
were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could
not keep foothold for an hour. If there were no planters except
such as that one," said he, pointing with his finger to Legree,
who stood with his back to them, "the whole thing would go down like
a millstone. It is your respectability and humanity that licenses
and protects his brutality."
"You certainly have a high opinion of my good nature," said the
planter, smiling, "but I advise you not to talk quite so loud,
as there are people on board the boat who might not be quite so
tolerant to opinion as I am. You had better wait till I get up to
my plantation, and there you may abuse us all, quite at your leisure."
The young gentleman colored and smiled, and the two were soon
busy in a game of backgammon. Meanwhile, another conversation
was going on in the lower part of the boat, between Emmeline and
the mulatto woman with whom she was confined. As was natural, they
were exchanging with each other some particulars of their history.
"Who did you belong to?" said Emmeline.
"Well, my Mas'r was Mr. Ellis,--lived on Levee-street.
P'raps you've seen the house."
"Was he good to you?" said Emmeline.
"Mostly, till he tuk sick. He's lain sick, off and on, more
than six months, and been orful oneasy. 'Pears like he warnt
willin' to have nobody rest, day or night; and got so curous, there
couldn't nobody suit him. 'Pears like he just grew crosser, every
day; kep me up nights till I got farly beat out, and couldn't keep
awake no longer; and cause I got to sleep, one night, Lors, he talk
so orful to me, and he tell me he'd sell me to just the hardest
master he could find; and he'd promised me my freedom, too, when
"Had you any friends?" said Emmeline.
"Yes, my husband,--he's a blacksmith. Mas'r gen'ly hired
him out. They took me off so quick, I didn't even have time to
see him; and I's got four children. O, dear me!" said the woman,
covering her face with her hands.
It is a natural impulse, in every one, when they hear a tale
of distress, to think of something to say by way of consolation.
Emmeline wanted to say something, but she could not think of anything
to say. What was there to be said? As by a common consent, they
both avoided, with fear and dread, all mention of the horrible man
who was now their master.
True, there is religious trust for even the darkest hour.
The mulatto woman was a member of the Methodist church, and had an
unenlightened but very sincere spirit of piety. Emmeline had been
educated much more intelligently,--taught to read and write, and
diligently instructed in the Bible, by the care of a faithful and
pious mistress; yet, would it not try the faith of the firmest
Christian, to find themselves abandoned, apparently, of God, in
the grasp of ruthless violence? How much more must it shake the
faith of Christ's poor little ones, weak in knowledge and tender
The boat moved on,--freighted with its weight of sorrow,--up the
red, muddy, turbid current, through the abrupt tortuous windings
of the Red river; and sad eyes gazed wearily on the steep red-clay
banks, as they glided by in dreary sameness. At last the boat
stopped at a small town, and Legree, with his party, disembarked.