Tuesday, December 13, 2016

An Englisman Witnesses a Virginia Slave Coffle

Like many Europeans who visited the United States in the antebellum era, British author and geographer George Featherstonehaugh saw a contradiction between the infant nation's claims of liberty and their practice of slavery.

While traveling through the Old Dominion in the 1830s, Featherstonehaugh happened upon a slave coffle operated by slave trader John Armfield, which was headed southwest up the Valley of Virginia and crossing the New River, likely near the present-day town of Radford. He wrote:

"Just as we reached New River, in the early grey of morning, we came up with a singular spectacle, the most striking one of a kind I have ever witnessed. It was a camp of negro slave-drivers, just packing up to start; they had about three hundred slaves with them, who had bivouacked the preceding night in chains in the woods; these they were conducting to Natchez [Mississippi], upon the Mississippi River, to work upon the sugar plantations in Louisiana. It resembled one of those coffles of slaves spoken of by Mungo Park, except they had a caravan of nine wagons and single-horse carriages, for the purpose of conducting the white people, and any of the black people who should fall lame, to which they were now putting the horses to pursue the march. The female slaves were, some of them, sitting on logs of wood, whilst some of them were standing, and a great many little black children were warming themselves at the fires of the bivouac. In front of them all, and prepared for the march, stood, in double files, about two hundred male slaves, manacled and chained to each other. I had never seen so revolting a sight before! Black men in fetters, torn from the lands where they were born, from the ties they had formed, and from the comparatively easy condition which agricultural labor affords, and driven, by white men, with liberty and equality in their mouths, to a distant and unhealthy country, to perish in the sugar-mills of Louisiana, where the duration of life for a sugar-mill slave does not exceed seen years! To make this spectacle still more disgusting and hideous, some of the principal white slave-drivers, who were tolerably well dressed, and had broad-brimmed white hats on, with black crepe around them, were standing near, laughing and smoking cigars."

Featherstonehaugh later commented on the coffle's New River crossing:
"It was an interesting, but melancholy spectacle, to see them effect the passage of the river; first a man on horseback selected a shallow place in the ford for the male slaves; then followed a wagon and four horses, attended by another man on horseback. The other wagons contained the children and some that were lame, whilst the scows, or flat-boats, crossed the women and some of the people belonging to the caravan. There was much method and vigilance observed, for this was one of the situations where the gangs--always watchful to obtain their liberty--often show a disposition to mutiny, knowing that if one or two of them could wrench their manacles off, the could soon free the rest, and either disperse themselves or overpower and slay their sordid keepers, and fly to the Free States. The slave-drivers, aware of this disposition in the unfortunate negroes, endeavor to mitigate their discontent by feeding them well on the march, and by encouraging them to sing "Old Virginia never tire," to the banjo."

The scene Featherstonehaugh's witnessed was not uncommon in the first half of the nineteenth century. Thousands of slaves went cross-country from the eastern and upper-South states to the Old Southwest to markets in Natchez and New Orleans, where their demand brought higher prices and where they were purchased for toil in the cotton fields and sugar plantations of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and East Texas.

A little later on in his travels, Featherstonhaugh ran into Armfield's coffle again, this time in East Tennessee. He stated about the scene: "Before we stopped for the night, but long after sunset, we came to a place where numerous fires were gleaming through the forest : it was the bivouac of the gang. Having prevailed upon the [stagecoach] driver to wait half an hour, I went with Pompey--who was to take leave of us here--into the woods, where they were all encamped. There were a great many blazing fires around, at which the female slave were warming themselves; the children were asleep in some tents; and the males, in chains, were lying on the ground, in groups of about a dozen each. The white men, who were the partners of Pompey's master, were standing about with whips in their hands; and the 'complete' was, I suppose, in her tent; for I judged, from the attendants being busy in packing the utensils away, that they had taken their evening's repast. It was a fearful and irritating spectacle, and I could not bear long to look at it."

Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

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