Chapter 6

25th March 1830

I woke early this morning, just as the first strands of light were creeping across my floor. Lying for a few moments to listen to the birdsong, I was filled with anticipation about the day ahead. Mama and I were planning a trip to visit her friend for tea in the afternoon, a whole hour away by carriage. I do not think I have ever travelled so far! Father often visits other plantations around the island to meet with those owners who are still in Jamaica. He tells me that many have now returned to Scotland, or wherever they may live, to enjoy the high life, leaving an agent in charge of their dealings here. When I asked him why we are still here he said he liked to see that his affairs were conducted correctly, and there would be plenty of time for luxury in the future once our fortune was secure. I am not sure what luxury I might need, as I seem to have all that brings me joy right here. I decided to list in my mind all of the things that bring gladness to my heart. I have a comfortable bed, and books to read. I have a loving father and mother. Endless fruit in the gardens. Clarence my faithful mule. And now I have a friend in Jacob. I do not know what use I might have for pretty dresses or fancy parties. I suppose I could always have more books. That would be the greatest luxury indeed, an entire library of books all to myself! That’s what I shall do with whatever fortune may come my way – create my very own collection of literature and stories, picture books and maps. I think then I should be so deliriously happy that I would never leave that room. I would take my tea there, and greet my guests in my comfortable chair and then I would read all day, every day.

I hopped out of bed to open the shutters and let in the warm air of the dawn. I had every intention of returning to bed to read but the day was so inviting and my mind so very awake that I decided to take a stroll around the garden before breakfast. I walked the edges of the lawn to keep in the shade of the trees, absentmindedly humming to myself and stroking the delicate pink leaves of the trumpet flower when, before I knew it, I was heading towards the path leading to the boiling house. Father has made it very clear that this is not a part of the estate in which I am to wander, but I find myself drawn more and more to the places where I know that Jacob might be. I knew that were I to see him we would not be able to speak – indeed I should not even be able to show myself – but I longed to get a glimpse of him in the day just going about his business, and so I came off the path and in among the trees, getting as close to the activity as I dare before tucking myself up into one of the branches so as to be entirely obscured by the leaves.

The first thing that struck me was the noise. Aside from the grind of the machinery, the sounds that rose to meet me were a great swell of grunting and groaning, of extraordinary human effort, and layered on top of that the shouts of Thomas, our overseer, using the most profane and offensive language. It was as though I were encountering a stranger and not one who has shared our dining table on many an evening, regaling me with stories of his school days in London before bellowing with laughter at his own tales. Today his face was contorted with contempt and anger as he prowled around the working slaves, the whip twitching in his hand. The men working the machinery were gleaming with sweat, their muscles straining with the effort it took to turn the mill stone that was crushing the cane. One of them seemed so very old to be doing such work, and wore a look of tired defeat upon his face. He stumbled and fell to the ground but the others kept turning the mill as Thomas called for a replacement. I could not take my eyes off the man who was on the ground as he was kicked aside before slowly crawling away towards the boiling house. I watched him as he went, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. My eyes then returned to the working party and I realised that the person who had come to take the place of the fallen man was Jacob.  In an instant I was restless and anxious. My heart had leapt to see him but was immediately overrun with fear. As I watched him push the arm of the mill round and round, he stared at the dirt and seemed to grit his teeth. Thomas paced back and forth, reprimanding the lack of speed and effort and cursing the lethargic attitude of the men. I saw Jacob’s lips move although I could not hear what he said.   Thomas heard the insubordination immediately and shouted with such ferocity as he pulled Jacob out from turning circle to stand before him. Jacob no longer looked to the ground but defiantly stood stretching all of his 14 years of height to its fullest and raised his chin to look up and into Thomas’s face. A swinging arm and a mighty slap from the back of Thomas’s hand had Jacob on his knees in seconds. I cried out before I knew it, then clasped both hands across my mouth. My voice had been drowned out by that of Thomas, growling and spitting into Jacob’s face with rage. Then came the whip, raised high and thundering down across the back of my friend. I could not bear to watch for fear that I would give myself away and so I ran as fast as I could until I emerged through the trees and back onto the lawn facing the house.

It felt as though I had been in another world just seconds before. The episode I had witnessed could not be more than two hundred metres away but it felt like a thousand miles. I slumped onto the beautifully manicured grass and sobbed in despair. Everything before me was quiet and genteel and yet I had left a world of pain and violence, and it was happening all at once and in the same place. The image of Jacob cowering beneath Thomas’s whip kept turning around and around in my mind until, before I realised it, it had become the memory of Papa beating Jacob’s brother. For the first time it occurred to me that it could easily be Papa whipping Jacob the next time, and my mind could not conceive of how to reconcile that truth.

There was a call from the house bidding me come in for breakfast. I dried my cheeks with my sleeve and gathered myself together as best I could, pushing from my mind all that I had just seen. I endured a few hours of lessons, during which I was distracted and in such unfavourable humour that Mama threatened to have me stay home this afternoon and not come out for tea. I would have been glad of the escape, but as it turned out the day brought further revelations to encourage my heart.

After midday we were driven into town by Joseph and before venturing to our luncheon we called to see if there were any letters awaiting us. There were several for Father and one for Mama from Pastor Knibb in which she seemed deeply interested. I enquired as to the content of the letter, at which point she adopted a casual tone telling me only that he and Mrs Knibb have had another baby and are recently moved to Falmouth on the north coast of the island. I could tell, however, that there was a great deal more and resolved to try and read the letter for myself at whatever point I could. I cannot say what has come over me in these recent times! The very idea of my reading my mother’s private correspondence would not have entered my head before and yet now I find myself with a growing fire inside which terrifies and thrills me in equal measure.

We returned home after a terribly dull visit with old Mrs Jacobs, consisting of two hours of complaints by our hostess. She was unhappy about the weather, the state of her gardens, the laziness of her overseer (not to mention her slaves), the immoral drunkenness being encouraged by the local tavern, the list went on. I do not believe she made one positive statement during our entire visit! I believe the lady to be incapable of smiling as her face appears to be forever frowning, as though her physical appearance has been dragged south with the weight of such negative words. Even as we were leaving and she declared how delighted she was with our company her expression was the epitome of gloom. If you had seen us you would have been certain that we were leaving her with sincerest condolences on the death of a loved one. Should Mama ever invite me to accompany her again I shall feign illness or insanity to escape such torture. On our journey home I asked Mama why she kept returning to visit with Mrs Jacobs when she is so unspeakably dreary, and she sighed deeply and simply said that Mrs Jacobs had been kind to her when she first arrived on the island and she had very little company these days. I can entirely see why.

As soon as we returned to the house Mama said she had a headache and would retire to her room for the remainder of the afternoon, but not before placing the letter from Pastor Knibb in her writing bureau. As Papa was gone for the day I had the freedom to execute the plan I had been preparing in my mind for several hours. I left time for Mama to settle down in her chamber before making my way into the drawing room, retrieving the letter from where I had seen it placed and taking it up to my room. I shall copy it word for word below.

My dearest Mrs Mackenzie, how long it has been since we enjoyed your company in Kingston! Although we are now at some physical distance, truly our hearts are knit with yours in the bond of Christian esteem. We have had a most eventful three months since our last correspondence. In January we welcomed the arrival of Ann Elizabeth and so I now have a brood of three on earth and one in heaven. My heart is glad and my home is full.

In February a vacancy arose in Falmouth due to the untimely death of the pastor there. The area being surrounded by plantations the parish has some 27,000 slaves and many are church members.  It was made known to me that the sizeable congregation there desired me to come and lead them. I believe they had heard of my work and that I am a champion of the Negro. A special church meeting was called, a gathering of four or five hundred persons, and I was proposed as minister and a show of hands requested to confirm their intent. The whole church immediately rose as one, raised both hands and promptly began to weep. It was a most profound and extraordinary moment in my life and a call I could scarcely ignore. Although it pained me to leave my charge at Savanna-la-Mar I sensed the hand of the Lord on my shoulder and I walk as his obedient servant.

Of course there has been much opposition from the planters in the parish, who also know of my reputation, but our Lord can and will support us under every trial. We are comfortably settled here now and are seeing much fruit in the ministry with new believers almost weekly. If you are ever able to come and see us we should be most glad of it, however I know that our company is not what may be encouraged by your husband. We know your heart, dear sister, and see that you are engaged in the same cause but your hands are somewhat tied. Know that your gentle influence and quiet prayers are not in vain.

I shall endeavour to write again, as time allows. For now please know that you are held fondly in the hearts of myself and my dear family.

Your faithful servant and friend,

William Knibb

What revelations about my own mother! Pastor Knibb says that she is engaged in the same cause – but what can he mean? Is Mama secretly in favour of abolition? If she is then I am guessing that father has no idea, other than that she entertained the company of the pastor and his wife while they remained in Kingston. Her good care to hide the correspondence suggests he does not know that the connection continues. As I write it occurs to me for the first time how very differently my parents treat the slaves in our home. Father sees them as objects in his house, there to serve his every need, bring him food, clear his plate, do his bidding. They are the machinery of the plantation. He doesn’t truly see them, merely what they do for him. Mother is pleasant and thankful towards them, more so when Papa is out of the house. I believe she cares about their wellbeing and treats them with as much respect as her circumstances allow.  Now that my curiosity is aroused I want to ask so many questions but dare not for fear of causing trouble for Mama. I shall instead keep a watchful eye on the letters that come and go to see what else I might learn.

This evening was long and the minutes seemed to go so slowly. I wanted to see if Jacob would come to meet me, indeed if he was even able. I needed to know if he was badly hurt and at the same time my stomach turned to think about coming face to face once more with what I witnessed this morning. As I made my way across the lawn to our tree I did not run or skip as before but rather walked with strides alternately purposeful and fearful. I waited for what felt like an age and at last, slowly and clearly in pain, Jacob came through the trees his head bowed, his spirit broken. When he reached me he slumped to the ground with his face in the dirt and began sobbing loud cries, raw and full of such sorrow. I knelt beside him, placing my hand gently on his head, as the tears ran down my face and dropped onto his neck. Leaning down close to him I glanced along his back and could faintly see the skin ripped apart and the glisten of still fresh blood. I could only think to whisper “I’m sorry” over and over again.  Slowly he began to quiet down until there was only the sound of our muffled breathing. Wincing, he straightened up and we knelt face to face. When we stand he is taller than me, and obviously older, but kneeling down we are the same height and tonight his face was that of a little boy. I reached across and gently wiped away the remaining tears and held his head in my hands.

What sorrow fills my heart! I cannot bear this pain and suffering. Here I lie safe and comfortable in my bed while my friend is in agony and there is nothing I can do. I have heard of slaves running away before – perhaps we could run away, Jacob and I. Load up Clarence with provisions and escape to the mountains. It is a fanciful idea, I know, but anything would be better than this.

I love my father dearly and cannot believe that he is a bad man and yet all around me the work of his hands would lead me to think of him as an unfeeling brute. How can one person be both? And how can I remain a dutiful daughter and still be a friend to Jacob? What is to be done?

6th September 1830

My days have taken such a different turn of late. I have become one who eavesdrops on every conversation and hides unseen to discover the truth. I am diligent in my schoolwork so as not to arouse suspicion and to be allowed the freedom of my afternoons. I believe that Mother thinks I ride or read during that time, but I can no longer entertain such simple notions. My eyes have been opened to the harsh reality of this world and I must decide now how to live in it.

For my Father I am sweetness and light and when he looks on me with tenderness I feel as though my heart will break. I see him as two people now, my Papa whom I love dearly, who rocked me in his arms with such gentleness and bounced me on his knee with joy, and the slave owner who I see is part of a terrible system that must somehow end. I believe a time is coming when he or I must choose a difficult path. I do not know when or how it will happen but in my heart I know it is inevitable.

There is talk among the slaves about dissent and uprising. Jacob trusts me enough now to know that I will not give them away and so I hear the chatter and desire for change. I continue to glean information from mother’s letters about the growing strength of the abolitionist movement, and overhear father’s heated debates with his fellow planters about how to quash the rebellious attitude arising among their workforce. Harsh treatment and greater punishment seem to be most readily suggested, although how much worse it can become I can barely begin to imagine. In recent months my eyes have become open to the reality of what goes on all around me, which has been hidden from me for so long. I find myself regularly hiding near the boiling house to see what I can discover, and it has been a most gruesome pastime. Beatings of every kind are a daily occurrence, to the point of becoming unnaturally normal. I have seen men, women and children punished with such brutality it has given me nightmares.

Then yesterday I witnessed a horror that will be burned in my mind for eternity. Early in the morning I was watching the cane crushing for the last hour of the nightshift. These men and boys had worked for almost twelve straight hours, walking in an endless circle to push the millstone, while another of their number fed the cane into the device, stalk after stalk after stalk. This young man was exhausted from his efforts and rested one arm on the edge of the mill while feeding the cane into the centre with the other. Slowly his head nodded in slumber to lean on his resting arm and in a moment I could see what was about to happen. In his one blink of sleep his right arm, still on the cane, followed it into the machinery. I have never heard a cry of despair and agony such as that which came from his mouth the moment his arm was caught in the crushing metal embrace. The overseer roared with dissatisfaction at the inconvenient pause in movement from the rest of the crew as he ordered them to continue turning the mill. Looking to the trapped man he nodded towards an axe resting on the stone beside him and I saw the young man’s wide-eyed fear and anguish as he understood his choice. The mill would keep turning come what may and if he did not wish to die or lose his entire arm then his only option was to cut it off.

“Turn!”

The order was given one more time and the young man reached for the axe, screaming as he hacked at his arm to free himself from the torture. I did not see where he went for I was behind the tree being violently sick and when I looked back he was gone and another was working in his place, standing in the bloody shadow of his predecessor. The barbarity of this system is almost too much to bear, and I am but an onlooker. I may still be young but my mind is made up – I shall fight with every fibre of my being against what I see here. I do not know exactly how to do it but I will find a way.

Then last night I went to meet Jacob. He was on edge as he arrived, angry and accusing. He spat out insults and abuse towards my father, walking in a circle around me as he did so. I listened without saying a word until finally he stopped and pointed his finger in my face.

“An you? Wha yuh do? You play at being mi friend, coming down to grace mi wit yuh presence from di Great House. Wha yuh do bout how I am treated? Wha yuh do bout the beatings an di fact that we are worked to death? Wha will yuh do when di uprising happen? Whose side yuh ago be pan then? Cuz it coming. An mi nah back down wen it does.”

For a few moments I was silent, looking into Jacob’s face and feeling afraid for the first time. Afraid of him, his height and strength and anger, afraid of what I’d become involved in and the choices that lay ahead, afraid of losing everything I hold dear, no matter what happens next. I thought of the dream I had, where my feet rested on the logs in the river, and I felt myself start to be pulled apart.

“I don’t know what to do,” I whispered, “I don’t know how to change this. My voice is small and carries no weight. I am a thirteen year old girl! Who will listen to me? ”

“Yuh Fada might. Ave yuh even try? Ave yuh spoken one word to him bout what yuh say is inna yuh heart?”

My words stumbled in the face of the accusation as I searched for something to say.

“No, yuh haven’t. Not one word. How can yuh know how much weight yuh voice carry wen yuh have yet to speak?”

Jacob stood and stared me down. Anger gave way to disappointment and then hurt.

“Yuh nuh even tried?” he asked quietly.

I hung my head, no longer able to meet his gaze. For a few moments there were no words, only the slightest movement of a breeze through the treetops above us and the accompanying chorus of cicadas filling the silence.

“Dis is nuh a game Molly. Mi people are dying. Nelson lose him hand today an suffers a great fever. Him may nuh last di night. An still yuh say nuttin? Yuh are right dat yuh Fada will nuh listen to yuh. Mi nuh expectin change from dat conversation. But mi expect someting from yuh.”

I raised my eyes to his once more. He stood closer than I realised and I could feel his breath on my face. My heart pounded in my chest as I looked at him. In amongst the challenge of his words was something else, a tone that was different, new. Soft and familiar but with a depth of relationship implied that thrilled me. Despite the heat of the evening my arms ran like gooseflesh. I took a step back from him with a fresh sense of resolve.

“I will speak to my Father. He will not listen, but I shall have my say.”

A warmth of fondness spread across Jacob’s face and he nodded.

I began to walk away, still facing him, unable to take my eyes off his face.

“And I will pray for Nelson,” I called in a whisper as his shape disappeared into the darkness of the night.

This morning when I awoke my first thought was of Jacob. In my mind’s eye I could see him before me as he had been last night, could feel the warmth of him standing so close. And then I wondered what task he might be doing at this moment, imagining him in the same position as Nelson had been yesterday, hearing his screams of suffering and his fevered flesh succumbing to injury and giving way to death. In a moment my joy had melted into anguish and I did not even wait to dress before rushing downstairs and into the dining room where Father was at breakfast.

“Well my Molly, what on earth is the matter? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost! What distresses you so? Come, tell me.”

Papa beckoned me over and drew me into the crook of his arm, holding me closely to him.

“What bothers you my sweet one?” he enquired, reaching up to wipe away the tears that had begun to fall. “Tell me, what has made my Molly cry so?”

As my head was resting on his shoulder Papa enquired if I had awoken from a nightmare. I nodded, for it was partially true.

“Well well, you are safe now, see? No more tears.”

I sat wondering if I should speak what was on my heart. I decided that if I was to have the best chance of being heard I should address the subject when I was more myself and could make my points with reason and balance. I dried my face, squeezed Papa’s neck to say thank you and slipped from his embrace before returning to my room and beginning in earnest the task of gathering my thoughts. All day I wrote lines of argument back and forth, trying to decide how much I could say without revealing too much and placing Jacob in danger. Finally I settled on a plan and went to find Father late in the afternoon. He was out inspecting the horses and I watched him for a few moments before making my presence known. He ran his strong hand along the hind quarters of Bess, his favourite, whispering quietly to her and patting her down with real affection. In that moment all that I had planned to say left me and as I stepped forward I simply said what was in my mind.

“Papa how can you treat a horse with such tenderness and people with such disdain?”

He looked surprised and almost amused by the question.

“What people? Your mother always insists I must be polite and cheerful so as not to give us a bad name in society. And now my one daughter comes to tell me that I treat people with disdain! Who are these people who speak so ill of your good Papa?”

He was pretending to be offended by the accusation and being playful with me. I swallowed hard and gathered up all of my courage before speaking once more.

“The slaves Papa. I do not like how they are so cruelly treated. They are flesh and blood like you and me and should not be treated worse than animals.”

He stopped and stood still, seeing me with fresh eyes. Something was shifting in our relationship. I was crossing a line that had not been there before and he seemed unsure of what to do or say. He turned back to the horse walking around her so that she stood between us.

“Who has been putting these ideas in your head?”

“No one,” I answered quickly. “I am no longer a little girl. I live among all that happens here, it is not hidden from me. I see it, I see what goes on and I… I hate it.”

I had not meant to speak so passionately. The words settled between us like a gaping void stretching wider moment by moment. I felt my Papa slipping away from me but I had started now and there was no going back. He continued to inspect the horse before nodding at the stable hand to lead her away. Standing across from me he seemed to weigh up what approach to take next.

“You are young. You do not understand the ways of the world Molly. This is how the system works. They are not like us…”

“They are! They love and they hate, they cry and they bleed just like us. They are people!”

I had raised my voice and was almost shouting. I had never spoken this way in my life, especially not to my father. As soon as I stopped I was afraid of what I had said. Stepping closer but not catching my eye and speaking in a flat voice, Papa told me we would speak no more about it.

“Go and get ready for supper,” he said walking past me, making it clear that our conversation was over.

Dinner was an awkward affair. My parents made polite conversation with each other and my father didn’t look at me once. The moment he was finished eating he excused himself and left the room. I looked to my lap as silent tears began to fall. Mama noticed that something was amiss and called me to her side. Pushing my hair from my face with tenderness, she asked me what was the matter. I wanted in that moment to tell her everything, about all I had seen and heard, about reading Pastor Knibb’s letters, about my conversation with Papa, and about Jacob and our secret friendship, but I knew I could not. There is too much at stake. I sank to my knees and laid my head on her lap and cried like I had not done in a long time. All the while Mama stroked my hair and held me close, not pressing me for further details. When I was myself again we took our place on the wide seat on the veranda and enjoyed the cooler air of evening.  After a little while Mama approached the subject once more.

“Molly, do you want to tell me what’s wrong? What has upset you so?”

I decided to reveal a little of what was on my heart.

“I am sad about the slaves, mother. I do not think it is right how we treat them.”

I pulled myself upright to look Mama in the eye, deciding to be bold.

“I think you feel the same.”

There came a long sigh followed by a pause as my mother also seemed to weigh up how much she could trust me. Finally came the answer.

“I do.”

She shifted on the seat so that we now faced each other and as she did so I felt friendship enter our relationship for the first time.

“We find ourselves in a difficult place Molly.  William Mackenzie is a good man in so many ways, a loving husband and father, and we both esteem him greatly – but in the manner of the slaves, like so many of our countrymen and women, I believe that he is wrong. I did not feel so strongly about it until we came here and I began to see their treatment for myself. And then I met some of the abolitionists and became interested in their work and have encouraged and supported them secretly where possible. But I think you have seen for yourself that your father is immovable in this area and so my hands are tied. I do what I can, but it feels very little most of the time. And so I understand your anguish Molly, truly I do. It is why I have tried to shelter you from it as much as I can, because I did not want you to experience the same feelings of helplessness as I do – but I suppose that was only ever going to last for so long. You are a young woman now, with eyes and ears to take in the world as it really is, and in so many ways I am proud that you are doing so. I cannot tell you how to respond my love. In the years to come you will be able to make decisions for yourself. For me, I am tied to your father and so will love him as well as I can and work to change the things he disagrees with where I have the opportunity to do so and I will make my peace with that place of tension. But you must follow your heart.”

She reached across to take my hand.

“My girl,” she whispered, “my precious, brave and beautiful girl. Promise me this: make good choices, in life and in love. We women do not always have the say in our lives that we would like, but where you can, make good choices.”

“I will Mama,” I promised as I wrapped my arms around her and we held each other close.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s