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13 January, 2012
The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Chapter XI: Select Incidents of Lawful Trade.
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
In this chapter of Uncle
Tom's Cabin were recorded some of the most highly-wrought and touching
incidents of the slave- trade. It will be well to authenticate a few of them.
One of the first sketches presented to view is an account of the separation
of a very old decrepit negro woman from her young son, by a sheriff's sale.
The writer is sorry to say that not the slightest credit for invention is
due to her in this incident. She found it, almost exactly as it stands, in
the published journal of a young Southerner, related as a scene to which he
was eye-witness. The only circumstance which she has omitted in the narrative
was one of additional inhumanity and painfulness which he had delineated.
He represents the boy as being bought by a planter, who fettered his hands,
and tied a rope round his neck which he attached to the neck of his horse,
thus compelling the child to trot by his side. This incident alone was suppressed
by the author.
Another scene of fraud and cruelty, in the same chapter, is described as
perpetrated by a Kentucky slave-master, who sells a woman to a trader, and
induces her to go with him by the deceitful assertion that she is to be taken
down the river a short distance, to work at the same hotel with her husband.
This was an instance which occurred under the writer's own observation, some
years since, when she was going down the Ohio river. The woman was very respectable,
both in appearance and dress. The writer recalls her image now with distinctness,
attired with great neatness in a white wrapper, her clothing and hair all
arranged with evident care, and having with her a prettily-dressed boy about
seven years of age. She had also a hair-trunk of clothing, which showed that
she had been carefully and respectably brought up. It will be seen, in perusing
the account, that the incident is somewhat altered to suit the purpose of
the story, the woman being there represented as carrying with her a young
The custom of unceremoniously separating the infant from its
mother, when the latter is about to be taken from a Northern to a Southern
market, is a matter of every-day notoriety in the trade. It is not done occasionally
and sometimes, but always, whenever there is occasion for it; and the mother's
agonies are no more regarded than those of a cow when her calf is separated
The reason of this is, that the care and raising of children is no part
of the intention or provision of a Southern plantation. They are a trouble;
they detract from the value of the mother as a field-hand, and it is more
expensive to raise them than to buy them ready raised; they are therefore
left behind in making up of a coffle. Not longer ago than last summer, the
writer was conversing with Thomas Strother, a slave minister of the gospel
in St. Louis, for whose emancipation she was making some effort. He incidentally
mentioned to her a scene which he had witnessed but a short time before, in
which a young woman of his acquaintance came to him almost in a state of distraction,
telling him that she had been sold to go South with a trader, and leave behind
her a nursing infant.
In Lewis Clark's narrative he mentions that a master in his neighbourhood
sold a woman and child to a trader, with the charge that he should not sell
the child from its mother. The man, however, traded off the child in the very
next town, in payment of his tavern-bill.
The following testimony is from a gentleman who writes from New Orleans
to the National Era.
This writer says:--
While at Robinson, or Eyree Springs, twenty miles from Nashville, on the
borders of Kentucky and Tennessee, my hostess said to me, one day, "Yonder
comes a gang of slaves chained." I went to the road-side and viewed
them. For the better answering my purpose of observation, I stopped the white
man in front, who was at his ease in a one-horse waggon, and asked him if
those slaves were for sale. I counted them and observed their position. They
were divided by three one-horse waggons, each containing a man-merchant, so
arranged as to command the whole gang. Some were unchained; sixty were chained
in two companies, thirty in each, the right hand of the one to the left hand
of the other opposite one, making fifteen each side of a large ox-chain, to
which every hand was fastened, and necessarily compelled to hold up--men
and women promiscuously, and about in equal proportions--all young people.
No children here, except a few in a waggon behind, which were the only children
in the four gangs. I said to a respectable mulatto woman in the house, "Is
it true that the negro-traders take mothers from their babies?" "Massa,
it is true; for here, last week, such a girl (naming her), who lives about
a mile off, was taken after dinner-- knew nothing of it in the morning--sold,
put into the gang, and her baby given away to a neighbour. She was a stout
young woman, and brought a good price."
Nor is the pitiful lie to be regarded which says that these unhappy mothers
and fathers, husbands and wives, do not feel when the most sacred ties are
thus severed. Every day and hour bears living witness of the falsehood of
this slander, the more false because spoken of a race peculiarly affectionate,
and strong, vivacious and vehement, in the expression of their feelings.
The case which the writer supposed of the woman's throwing herself overboard
is not by any means a singular one. Witness the following recent fact, which
appeared under the head of
[title]ANOTHER INCIDENT FOR "UNCLE TOM'S CABIN."
The editorial correspondent of the Oneida (N. Y.) Telegraph,
writing from a steamer on the Mississippi river,
gives the following sad story:--
"At Louisville, a gentleman took passage, having with him a family
of blacks --husband, wife, and children. The master was bound for Memphis,
Tennessee, at which place he intended to take all except the man ashore. The
latter was handcuffed, and although his master said nothing of his intention,
the negro made up his mind, from appearances, as well as from the remarks
of those around him, that he was destined for the Southern
market. We reached Memphis during the night, and whilst within sight
of the town, just before landing, the negro caused his wife to divide their
things, as though resigned to the intended separation, and then, taking a
moment when his master's back was turned, ran forward and jumped into the
river. Of course he sank, and his master was several hundred dollars poorer
than a moment before. That was all; at least, scarcely any one mentioned it
the next morning. I was obliged to get my information from the deck hands,
and did not hear a remark concerning it in the cabin. In justice to the master,
I should say that, after the occurrence, he disclaimed any intention to separate
them. Appearances, however, are quite against him, if I have been rightly
informed. This sad affair needs no comment. It is an argument, however, that
I might have used to-day, with some effect, whilst talking with a highly-intelligent
Southerner of the evils of slavery. He had been reading Uncle Tom's Cabin,
and spoke of it as a novel,
which, like other romances, was well calculated to excite the sympathies,
by the recital of heart-touching incidents which never
had an existence, except in the imagination of the writer."
Instances have occurred where mothers, whose children were about to be
sold from them, have, in their desperation, murdered their own offspring,
to save them from this worst kind of orphanage. A case of this kind has been
recently tried in the United States, and was alluded to, a week or two ago,
by Mr. Giddings, in his speech on the floor of Congress.
An American gentleman from Italy, complaining of the effect of
Uncle Tom's Cabin on the Italian mind, states that images of fathers
dragged from their families to be sold into slavery, and of babes torn from
the breasts of weeping mothers, are constantly presented before the minds
of the people as scenes of every-day life in America. The author
can only say, sorrowfully, that it is only the truth
which is thus presented.
These things are, every day, part and parcel of
one of the most thriving trades that is carried on in America.
The only difference between us and foreign nations is, that we have
got used to it, and they have not. The thing has been done, and done again,
day after day, and year after year, reported and lamented over in every variety
of way; but it is going on this day with more briskness
than ever before, and such scenes as we have described are enacted oftener,
as the author will prove when she comes to the chapter on the internal slave-trade.
The incident in this same chapter which describes the scene where the wife
of the unfortunate article, catalogued as "John, aged 30," rushed
on board the boat and threw her arms around him, with moans and lamentations,
was a real incident. The gentleman who related it was so stirred in his spirit
at the sight, that he addressed the trader in the exact words which the writer
represents the young minister as having used in her narrative.
My friend, how can you, how dare you, carry on a trade like this? Look
at those poor creatures! Here I am, rejoicing in my heart that I am going
home to my wife and child; and the same bell which is the signal to carry
me onward towards them will part this poor man and his wife for ever. Depend
upon it, God will bring you into judgment for this.
If that gentleman has read the work, as perhaps he has before now, he has
probably recognised his own words. One affecting incident in the narrative,
as it really occurred, ought to be mentioned. The wife was passionately bemoaning
her husband's fate, as about to be for ever separated from all that he held
dear, to be sold to the hard usage of a Southern plantation. The husband,
in reply, used that very simple but sublime expression which the writer has
placed in the mouth of Uncle Tom, in similar circumstances:--"There'll
be the same God there that there is here."
One other incident mentioned in Uncle Tom's Cabin
may, perhaps, be as well verified in this place as in any other.
The case of old Prue was related by a brother and sister of the writer
as follows:--She was the woman who supplied rusks and other articles
of the kind at the house where they boarded. Her
manners, appearance, and character were just as described. One day another
servant came in her place, bringing the rusks. The sister of the writer inquired
what had become of Prue. She seemed reluctant to answer
for some time, but at last said that they had taken her into the
cellar and beaten her, and that the flies had got at her and she was dead!
It is well known that there are no cellars, properly
so called, in New Orleans, the nature of the ground being such as to forbid
digging. The slave who used the word had probably been imported from some
State where cellars were in use, and applied the term to the place which was
used for the ordinary purposes of a cellar. A cook who lived in the writer's
family, having lived most of her life on a plantation, always applied the
descriptive terms of the plantation to the very limited enclosures and retinue
of a very plain house and yard.
This same lady, while living in the same place, used frequently to have
her compassion excited by hearing the wailings of a sickly baby in a house
adjoining their own, as also the objurgations and tyrannical abuse of a ferocious
virago upon its mother. She once got an opportunity to speak to its mother,
who appeared heart-broken and dejected, and inquired what was the matter with
her child. Her answer was, that she had had a fever, and that her milk was
all dried away; and that her mistress was set against her child, and would
not buy milk for it. She had tried to feed it on her own coarse food, but
it pined and cried continually; and in witness of this she brought the baby
to her. It was emaciated to a skeleton. The lady took the little thing to
a friend of hers in the house who had been recently confined, and who was
suffering from a redundancy of milk, and begged her to nurse it. The miserable
sight of the little, famished, wasted thing affected the mother so as to overcome
all other considerations, and she placed it to her breast, when it revived,
and took food with an eagerness which showed how much it had suffered. But
the child was so reduced that this proved only a transient alleviation. It
was after this almost impossible to get sight of the woman, and the violent
temper of her mistress was such as to make it difficult to interfere in the
case. The lady secretly afforded what aid she could, though, as she confessed,
with a sort of misgiving that it was a cruelty to try to hold back the poor
little sufferer from the refuge of the grave; and it was a relief to her when
at last its wailings ceased, and it went where the weary are at rest. This
is one of those cases which go to show that the interest of the owner
will not always insure kind treatment of the slave.
There is one other incident, which the writer interwove into the history
of the mulatto woman who was bought by Legree for his plantation. The reader
will remember that, in telling her story to Emmeline, she says:--
"My mas'r was Mr. Ellis--lived in 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 warn't willin' to have nobody
rest, day nor night; and got so cur'ous, there couldn't nobody suit him. 'Pears
like he just grew crosser every day; kep me up nights till I got fairly 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 he died!"
An incident of this sort came under the author's observation in the following
manner. A quadroon slave family, liberated by the will of the master, settled
on Walnut Hills, near her residence, and their children were received into
her family school, taught in her house. In this family was a little quadroon
boy, four or five years of age, with a sad, dejected appearance, who excited
The history of this child, as narrated by his friends, was simply this:
his mother had been the indefatigable nurse of her master, during a lingering
and painful sickness which at last terminated his life. She had borne all
the fatigue of the nursing both by night and by day, sustained in it by his
promise that she should be rewarded for it by her liberty, at his death. Overcome
by exhaustion and fatigue, she one night fell asleep, and he was unable to
rouse her. The next day, after violently upbraiding her, he altered the directions
of his will, and sold her to a man who was noted in all the region round as
a cruel master, which sale, immediately on his death, which was shortly after,
took effect. The only mitigation of her sentence was that her child was not
to be taken with her into this dreaded lot, but was given to this quadroon
family to be brought into a free State.
The writer very well remembers hearing this story narrated among a group
of liberated negroes, and their comments on it. A peculiar form of grave and
solemn irony often characterises the communications of this class of people.
It is a habit engendered in slavery to comment upon proceedings of this kind
in language apparently respectful to the perpetrators, and which is felt to
be irony only by a certain peculiarity of manner, difficult to describe. After
the relation of this story, when the writer expressed her indignation in no
measured terms, one of the oldest of the sable circle remarked, gravely--
"The man was a mighty great Christian, anyhow."
The writer warmly expressed her dissent from this view, when another of
the same circle added--
"Went to glory, anyhow."
And another continued--
"Had the greatest kind of a time when he was a-dyin'; said he was
goin' straight into heaven."
And when the writer remarked that many people thought so who never got
there, a singular smile of grim approval passed round the circle, but no further
comments were made. This incident has often recurred to the writer's mind,
as showing the danger to the welfare of the master's soul from the possession
of absolute power. A man of justice and humanity when in health, is often
tempted to become unjust, exacting, and exorbitant in sickness. If, in these
circumstances, he is surrounded by inferiors, from whom law and public opinion
have taken away the rights of common humanity, how is he tempted to the exercise
of the most despotic passions, and, like this unfortunate man, to leave the
world with the weight of these awful words upon his head: "If ye forgive
not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."