Authors: Al Lacy
As the crowd dispersed and Robert was walking his limping wife back to their room, Benjamin picked up his mop and went back to work. Moments later, Lester Winters approached him. “Benjamin, I want to thank you for saving my life.”
The young slave dipped the mop into a soapy bucket of seawater. “I’m glad I was able to get to you before the propeller did.”
Winters licked his tips nervously. “Well, it amazes me that you would risk your own life to save mine.”
Winters cleared his throat. “Well, I … ah … I’m a white man, and you’re a black man.”
Benjamin shook his head. “So, is a white man’s life not supposed to be important to a black man?”
Winters cleared his throat again. “Well, I thought—”
“Negro people have hearts, too, Mr. Winters. We have feelings just like you white folks do. Why shouldn’t I care if you drown or are cut to pieces by a propeller?”
Emotion flooded Lester’s face. “I’m sorry. I guess I’ve just had my brain filled with the wrong ideas. Please forgive me … and thank you for saving my life.”
When the ship had been on the Atlantic for six days, two of the slaves were feverish and unable to work. Thomas Green called for the captain to look at the slaves and see if he knew what was ailing them.
It took Kimball only minutes to pronounce that the slaves had dysentery. He explained that there was no treatment for it. All they could do was give them plenty of water and hope they lived through it. When Green brought up that they were carrying a limited supply of water, Kimball told him he should still give them plenty. He would put in at Bermuda and replenish the water supply.
By the seventh day, three more slaves had come down with the sickness, including Robert and Nannie.
By the ninth day, some twenty-one slaves were down with dysentery and the water supply was getting seriously low.
The next day, three slaves died and were buried at sea. On the eleventh day, Robert and Nannie were at the point of death. Benjamin labored over them to relieve their suffering and gave them his meager share of water, trying to keep them alive until they reached Bermuda.
As he stood between their cots, he said, “Mother … Father … you would not have this sickness if we had not been forced at gunpoint to board this ship. If we could live free in Transvaal, as we wanted, you would not be lying here at the point of death. Slavery is a wicked and vile thing. If there
a God that lives above the sky and cares about people here on earth, why does He allow this?”
Nannie looked up at him with dull eyes and said weakly, “Please, my son … do not become bitter. It will only dry up your heart and take away the goodness in you. Some questions cannot be answered. Just go on being the good son you have always been since you were born to us.”
“Yes,” said Robert, hardly able to speak. “If we do not live to see America, please remain our kind and generous Benjamin.”
That day, more slaves died, and the water supply was now depleted.
On the thirteenth day, Nannie died, and Benjamin wept inconsolably. His father was so sick that he was unaware when Nannie’s body was carried out of the room. Neither did he know how Benjamin wept when he saw his mother dropped into the ocean.
The next day, Robert died only moments before the Bermuda islands came into view. Benjamin’s heart felt like stone as he watched his father’s body sink into the sea just ten miles from Bermuda’s main island.
Thomas Green brought two doctors aboard to examine his slaves. When the doctors had completed their examinations, they
told Green there were one or two slaves who probably would die yet, but now that he had plenty of water, the others would have a good chance of pulling through.
As the ship steamed away from Bermuda and headed southwest toward South Carolina—still eight hundred miles away—Benjamin and a small group of young slaves sat on the deck and discussed their future in America.
A slave named Wasson told the group he had learned from one of the ship’s crew that most of the rice and cotton plantation owners treated their slaves well, and they fed, clothed, and housed them decently. But there were also those who beat their slaves for various reasons, fed them poorly, and made them live like animals in cheap and run-down quarters.
Benjamin ran his gaze over the faces of his fellow Africans and said, “I … I believe that if there is a God up there above the sky, someday this loathsome treatment of human beings will surely be brought to an end.”
HE WINTER OF
1855 was a mild one in South Carolina, and by the second week of March, spring had come with its balmy days and summery nights.
On the Finn Colvin plantation, a few miles inland from Charleston, the wealthy plantation owner stood between two of his barns, glowering at the twenty-nine-year-old slave who was being dragged toward him by Colvin’s two sons. A group of slaves stood looking on, fear evident in their widened eyes. Two of the younger women held small babies.
Twenty-three-year-old George and twenty-one-year-old Edward Colvin held the cowering slave as their father said, “Nathaniel, George told me you refused to work in the fields today! Don’t you realize we’ve got to get the spring planting done? What’s this stomach problem stuff?”
Nathaniel had been beaten several times during his years at the Colvin plantation. His lips quivered as he said, “Massa Finn, it’s true. My stomach is a-hurtin’ me bad today. I tol’ Massa George this when he come to the shack an’ asked why I wasn’t in the fields.”
Finn set cool eyes on George and said, “Give me the details.”
“Well, Pa, like I told you, when the slaves showed up to work their assigned places in the fields this morning, Matilda was there, ready to do her work, but she said her husband wasn’t feeling well … that his stomach was hurting him, so he stayed in the shack.”
“I got the rest of them started to work, then went immediately to the shack and found Nathaniel, here, washing clothes. I asked him
how he could do the wash if his stomach was hurting him. He told me he was doing it for Matilda to help relieve her work load. He said that doing the wash wasn’t as hard as working in the fields, so he could do it. That’s when I came and told you about it.”
Finn glared at Nathaniel with cruel eyes. His voice shook as he said, “If you could wash clothes, Nathaniel, you could plow ground. You need to be punished so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. Take him to the barn, boys!”
At the same time Finn Colvin was dealing with Nathaniel, Martha Colvin was on the front porch of the stately mansion, watching the carriage from the Moore plantation wind its way down the lane toward her.
Her heart leapt with joy at the thought of the weekly visit with her friends Evelyn Moore and Catherine Johnson. The Moores were the Colvins’ nearest neighbors to the north, and the Johnsons were their nearest neighbors to the south. Today the ladies would spend their time at the Johnson plantation. Although Martha would have loved to entertain Evelyn and Catherine in her own home, Finn objected because the women were Christians.
Martha recognized Evelyn Moore’s favorite male slave at the reins of the carriage as it pulled to a halt. “Good morning, Malcolm,” she called.
Malcolm flashed his white teeth in a smile and said, “Mornin’, Miz Colvin.” Immediately, he was out of the carriage and opening the door for Martha.
Inside were Evelyn’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Priscilla, with Priscilla’s personal slave, sixteen-year-old Dorena. In the seat just ahead of them, Evelyn sat beside a middle-aged woman who was a stranger to Martha.
“Good morning, everybody,” Martha said.
“Good morning,” echoed a chorus of greetings.
The ladies and young Priscilla were prettily dressed in spring pastels,
and each held a dainty parasol. White lace gloves adorned their hands. Martha was dressed in like manner.
“Martha,” Evelyn said, “I want you to meet my cousin from Delaware, Earline Faulkner.”
Martha smiled amiably. “I’m so glad to meet you, Earline. Evelyn has mentioned you to me several times.”
“Earline is leaving tomorrow,” Evelyn said. “She could only stay three days.”
“Well, then, I’m glad she could be here today.”
“My husband is in New York on business,” Earline said, “so I took a train down to Charleston.”
Martha nodded, then looked behind her. “So how are you girls doing?”
“Just fine,” said Priscilla.
Setting her eyes on Dorena, who was strikingly beautiful, Martha said, “Dorena, that’s a pretty dress you are wearing.”
Dorena looked down at the dress that had been given to her by Priscilla. “Thank you, ma’am.”
As the carriage rolled along the lane toward the road, Evelyn and Martha chatted about the visit they were going to have with Catherine Johnson and her seventeen-year-old daughter, Angeline.
Although Martha Colvin was not a Christian, she loved to spend time with Evelyn and Catherine. The ladies had caused her to think much about her need to know the Lord, but they spoke in a kind and tender manner, never trying to push salvation on her.
The Moores had one heavy heartache in their lives—their twenty-two-year-old son, Lewis, who was not a Christian and was somewhat of a rebel. Talk in the community was that Lewis was living for the day when he would inherit the plantation and run it the way he wanted to. Lewis, Martha told herself, was much like her own husband and two sons. He thought slaves should be kept in fear by frequent beatings, whereas Charles Moore treated his slaves kindly.
The carriage was turning onto the road when Evelyn said,
“Earline, I haven’t told you this, but Martha and her husband are the most wealthy plantation owners in Charleston County. They are very successful in the cotton business.”
“Now, Evelyn …” Martha said, shaking her head.
“Well, it’s true. Earline, they have the largest plantation … eighty-five hundred acres, and they have the most slaves. How many now, Martha? Three hundred and fifty?”
A bit embarrassed, Martha said, “No. Right now, we have three hundred and thirty-one.”
Evelyn chuckled again. “So I missed it by a few.” Turning to her cousin, she said, “The second most wealthy plantation owners in the county are the Johnsons. Zack and Catherine have eight thousand acres and just under three hundred slaves. No other plantation owners in Charleston County can come close to their wealth.”
“Well, now, Evelyn,” said Martha, “you and Charles aren’t doing so bad. After all, you haven’t been in the cotton plantation business near as long as the Colvins and the Johnsons. One day you will pass us up.”
“I doubt that, Martha. Both Finn and Zack are hardworking men. They will continue to prosper.”
Even as Evelyn spoke, Malcolm turned the carriage off the road and headed toward the Johnson mansion, which could barely be seen from the road. They found themselves driving through a canopy of trees laden with Spanish moss. The sun was lifting higher in the eastern sky, and they were beginning to feel its warmth and the humidity it emphasized.
Soon the Johnson plantation came into view as they passed through a heavy stand of trees. The house stood on a small knoll, glistening white in the bright morning sun. Huge white columns supported the balcony off the second-floor rooms, and each sparkling window was open to catch what errant breeze might come along.
Wide steps led to the wraparound porch adorned with colorful pots of budding flowers and green ferns. Comfortable padded chairs and white linen-covered tables extended their invitation to family and visitors to sit and rest a while.
The grounds were manicured to a fair-thee-well and dotted here and there with magnificent rose gardens, lush shade trees, stone benches, and a pair of stone lions that guarded the wide porch at the base of the steps. Over all, the breath of spring was on the massive Johnson yard. It was a grand scene and a treat to the eye.
When Malcolm drew the carriage to a halt in front of the porch steps, a male slave came through the ornate doors and descended the steps to help the ladies and Priscilla down. Dorena alighted without help.
As they ascended the porch steps, the Johnsons’ youngest son, Alexander, came through the door. At sixteen, the youth was tall and handsome.
Alexander greeted them with a smile. “Please come in, ladies. Big brother Dan took Mother and Angeline into town quite early this morning. I know they expected to be back before you arrived. I’m sure they will be here soon.”
Evelyn introduced Alexander to her cousin Earline, and the young man welcomed her, saying that he was glad she could come along with Mrs. Moore.
Earline was all eyes as Alexander guided his mother’s guests inside the mansion. An atmosphere of serenity greeted them. When they were ushered into the lush sitting room, Alexander told them he was to meet his father at one of the fields quite soon and politely excused himself, saying that he would send his mother’s personal slave, Daisy, to take care of any needs they might have.
The ladies made themselves comfortable on richly upholstered couches and chairs. It was a lovely room, full of treasured pieces collected over many years and placed carefully on mantel, small tables, and coffee table. The tapestried walls were adorned with exquisite paintings of outdoor scenes and eye-catching still-life paintings.