Chapter 8

27th October 1831

What a tiresome week it has been! We have had many visitors to the house, friends of Papa’s who gather and speak in such disgusting ways about the slaves that it turns my stomach. I see now why Papa thinks of himself as being a reasonable man among such people. Not only do they see slaves as animals to work for them, devoid of feelings or needs, but some of the men (I will not call them gentlemen for there is nothing gentlemanly about their conduct) treat the female slaves with such thinly disguised lechery. This is a vile business in every aspect, of that there can be no doubt.

I have begun to read the newspapers with interest, once Papa is finished with them, and see for myself the task that Pastor Knibb and other missionary preachers have before them. This island is against them at every turn. They are spoken of with abhorrence, both in the press and around our dinner table, although Papa is careful not to be too harsh on Pastor Knibb, I believe as a small deference to Mama. However I have loitered downstairs once she has gone to bed and father has been left alone with his compatriots and then the pastor comes in for a fair lashing from his tongue. I believe the missionaries must truly be sent by God for this task, for how else could they bear to work in the face of such opposition? They are remarkable people. Mama and I are here because we have no choice and we do what we can in the midst of it, but they have chosen to leave all behind and sail into a storm. I do not know how long this wretched system will continue, or what I can do to fight against it, but my resolve is strengthened daily to lend what little weight I have to this cause.

Tonight we had the current Governor dining at our table, amongst a few others, and so Papa insisted we dress in our absolute finest and bring out the very best of everything. What a pompous affair it was! Once the dinner was cleared away my father made a toast, to King and country, and then each man around the table took their turn and it descended into a drunken roar. Anything that was genteel about the start of the night evaporated into a slur of wine-soaked nonsense, with their language and behaviour towards the slaves becoming increasingly ugly with each glass imbibed. And to think that they consider themselves to be a higher, more intelligent species and the Negroes to be savages! Any fool could observe the scene in our dining room this night and tell you the opposite was true.

I had the misfortune to be placed at the table next to Mr. Shaeffer who, I believe, spat more of his food than he swallowed as he insisted on shouting his remarks to the far end of the table, interjecting where his opinion was seldom wanted. On the occasional moments when he remembered I was sitting next to him, he spoke with such condescension referring to me as ‘the little lady’. At one point I do believe I could identify five different foodstuffs in his mouth as he addressed me, despite my leaning back as far as was possible without falling off my chair. I counted each and every long and arduous minute in his company, leaving the table the very moment it was polite to do so and making my escape upstairs to wait.

Thankfully they have now gone, leaving in a raucous chorus of farewells and racing back down the hill in their carriages to the city and the house has returned to relative quiet. I can already hear father’s snoring, which is always especially loud after so much wine, but allows me the knowledge that I am safe in leaving the house to go and find Jacob. It is a beautiful night, clear and starlit with a cool breeze and a chorus of unseen creatures. I shall gather up a parcel of leftovers to take to the reading tree and we shall have a feast all to ourselves.

2am

My heart races and my hand shakes to write! I must gather myself to capture all that has happened this last glorious hour.

Jacob was waiting for me in the tree and, hearing me approach, jumped down to greet me. As I walked towards him there was a look on his face I had not seen before, a joy in my coming that contained an extra portion of delight, and it made my heart skip as I stepped towards him. We did not speak immediately but he stood and beheld me, taking in my whole self. I felt a little self-conscious then, realising I was still in my finest dinner attire, and I began to explain what had been happening up at the house. He bid me hush and looked again, this time with a strange, questioning expression. In a moment he seemed to have his answer and stepped towards me. Standing above me and looking into my face he reached around to the back of my head to find the slides holding my hair up and released them, allowing it to tumble to my shoulders. Then he took a step back and looked afresh, gently touching the edge of my curls that fell on to my face.

“There yuh are,” he whispered. “Mi like di wild Molly betta.”

We stood holding each other’s gaze for what felt like hours but must have only been seconds, with a thousand unspoken words dancing between our eyes. Then he looked down and saw my basket and asked what I was carrying and we made our way into the reading nook to enjoy the peace of the night and the food. We leant against each other’s bodies as we did when we were children but this time I could barely catch my breath with how different it felt. Jacob produced a sharp stone from his pocket and carved our names onto the branch beside us.

“Dis here is our tree. Nuh yuh father’s or anyone else’s. It is ours, yours an mine. It belong to us. Mi jus made it so. Now we be here forever.”

When it came time to leave we stood apart once more and I became uncertain and unsure of what to say. How ridiculous in the presence of someone who has been my best friend all of these years! I looked at my hands, at my feet, at my dress and then finally back at Jacob, who was waiting and smiling at me. Slowly, his expression changed to something deeper and he tentatively reached his hand across and held my face in his palm. At his touch my world tilted and to this moment has not yet recovered. I do not think it will. Indeed I do not wish it to.

Jacob leant in as he released his hand and bade me goodnight, his breath kissing my cheek, before disappearing among the trees. I remained on that spot just watching the space where he had been and it was all I could do to stop myself singing and laughing with delight. I do not think I shall sleep this night but rather lie on my bed and smile at the moon.

23 Dec 1831

We had the company of several other plantation owners at our dinner table tonight. As it often does these days, talk inevitably turned to the scourge of the abolitionist movement, with each of the company seeming to take turns at calling down curses upon the heads of, in the words of my father, “those damned missionaries”. Mama’s look of reproach bid him curb his language for the remainder of the meal, but the same cannot be said for his friends. Henry Campbell of the Rutherglen Estate made mention of a rumour that the King was about to set the slaves free. It was immediately dismissed as nonsense by those around the table – but not before the notion had been firmly planted in the ears of those slaves in attendance. My eyes darted between my mother’s face and those of Beatrice and Flora who were clearing the table and pouring wine. I saw the fleeting exchange of wonder and hope that went between them and knew this information would be throughout the plantation by the close of night. A knot appeared in my stomach with the knowledge that this moment would have implications.

I paced in my room for what seems like hours, waiting for the dining party to leave and for the household to settle to bed. I was anxious to speak with Jacob and urge him against any drastic action he may have in mind. In recent months I have seen a growing agitation in him, as news comes from the western part of the island where there is a swell of discontent among the slave population and a great many more preachers in favour of abolition. He is like a tinder box just waiting for a spark and I fear greatly what he may do when that fire comes. I wished to urge him to caution and common sense. Slavery must end and it is my great desire that it would be soon, but if it is not done right then a great calamity may come to us all.

As soon as all was quiet and settled I made my way out of the house and ran across the lawn and through the trees as fast as I was able. Jacob stood waiting for me, his face aglow, and as I approached him he placed his hands on my shoulders, almost shaking me with excitement.

“Is true? Mi going to be a free man?”

I tried to speak quietly and calmly, telling him there were only rumours and nothing more, urging him to patience. But he would not stand still and his voice was full of urgency.

“Mi done wit patience! There is time fi action and it comin soon. Him nah be able to keep wi down fuh much longa – yuh father will ave tuh step aside an give us the freedom that is rightfully ours. Oh wat a day that will be! Mi can almost taste di sweetness of it, like there is someting different in the air tuh fill mi senses. I will be free, and then…”

At that point he stopped his constant movement and stood opposite me, putting his hand to my waist and gently pulling me close to him. He held me there for a long moment before his other hand reached up to caress my face and he looked into my eyes.

“…then yuh an I will be equal. I will come tuh yuh as a free man an ask yuh to be mine.”

He leaned towards me and gently brushed my lips with his, tentative and questioning in his manner, unsure how I would respond. My surprise lasted but a second as a swell of warmth filled my body and my mouth welcomed his kiss. We stood together, foreheads touching, bodies entwined, breathless and bold in our brave new world. The thrill of my heart was immediately laced with fear – fear of losing him through his own impulsive and impatient desire to be free, and the fear of what my father would do with him were we to be discovered. I held him close and urged him not to be foolish.

“Hush” he whispered, “all will be well”, and he kissed me once more.

“See there,” he pointed to the tree. “Our names carved as one, an no one can undo it. Keep faith now. We will be together.”

He had such conviction in his voice that I believed him fully in that moment, but as I lie here in bed once more my heart changes minute by minute between great swells of joy and crashing waves of anxiety. I believe there are dangerous days ahead.

27th December 1831

My heart is torn in two and my mind agonised with worry. The west of the island is ablaze. The slaves have revolted in the parish of St James, setting fire to the houses and plantations and all hell has broken loose. All additional men have been required for service in the militia. Father left yesterday and will now be in the midst of it.

Thomas has been given leave to act as brutally as need be to keep the rebellion from catching here. Whippings have increased tenfold and are now meted out for a mere sideways glance. But I also see a new determination on the faces of those at work, a look of grim, teeth-clenching strength to push through to the end, a sense of working towards something other than death. There is a dark undertone to the murmurings I overhear. I deeply wish this abhorrent practice to end, but for it to happen without further violence and bloodshed. I feel naïve to write that in the midst of such turmoil.

Last night I saw Jacob for a brief time. He was almost feverish with excitement.

“Mi ready. Mi ready to fight. Mi ready tuh lead. We not bow down nuh more. We will be free people. Mi will ave a new name, a name I choose, nuh a name given by a white man. Di Negro rising, do yuh see it? We cannot wait nuh more. Change comin, change is ere.”

All of this was said as he paced up and down before me, with words tumbling from his lips at a pace I could not keep up with. I felt afraid as I watched him, mindful of where these passions may lead.

When I slept, I dreamed once more of the river. I was in the water, the current pulling me back and forth as I struggled to stay my course. My limbs grew weary as voices called above me. I lifted up an arm for help as I saw Jacob and my Father come towards me, but instead of reaching for me they fell upon each other, tumbling into water as they beat one another furiously. Trying to call out, my head sank below the surface. I woke, gasping for air.

30th December 1831

The rebellion in St. James has been quashed and the ringleaders executed. Father is returned to us safe and well. My relief was almost immediately tempered by his triumphant posture. I had hoped this experience might be a sobering one for him, seeing the strength of feeling from among the slave population, but alas I am disappointed. He is more set in what he believes than before and there is a fresh hardness to his attitude and tone. There is a greater wedge between us than ever.

We have had word from Pastor Knibb, whose church was in the midst of the turmoil. It seems his life is also in danger, not from the rebels but from the planters in his parish. He is accused of inciting the slaves to action, when in fact he urged the very opposite, encouraging those in his congregation to defend their masters’ land and property from those who would bring destruction. However his reputation of being so outspoken against the current system has earned him many enemies and they have believed that which suits their own purposes. We wait for further news but in the meantime Mama has taken to pacing a great deal. She spends hours on the front porch walking back and forth along the length of the house, whispering prayers and looking to the heavens.

It feels as though there has been a mighty shaking throughout this island and we all wait to see how the landscape has shifted, that we might navigate our way ahead.

1st January 1832

I had not seen Jacob for several days, as a new regime of vigilance over the slaves on our plantation made it too dangerous for us to meet. However the turning of the year brought a great celebration, with much merriment for the household and our guests, and so while everyone had their backs turned and their minds distracted with too much wine, I took Jacob up the hill to my viewing spot and we lay on the ground amid the trees, looking to the stars and listening to the mingled sounds of merriment below and tree frogs above. I expected to find him disheartened after the events of recent days, but when I asked about it he looked somewhere beyond and said, “We nah finish.” His tone was determined, his voice steady.

“What did you mean before, about changing your name?” I asked.

There was a pause, long enough for me to wonder if he had heard me.

“Wah mek yuh call Molly? Who decide tuh give yuh di name?”

“I am named after my grandmother in Scotland, whom I have never met, but am led to believe there is quite a likeness.”

“An who decide tuh give mi di name Jacob? Nuh mi fada or mada. Mi nuh know dem.”

I felt foolish with my question. My privilege has blinded me to so much.

“Mi nuh know where mi come from,” he whispered.

We lay in silence for several minutes.

“But wen mi a free man,” he continued, his voice strong again, “mi wi choose a name fi myself.”

A gentle breeze swayed the branches, moving the leaves so they played a giant game of hide and seek with the moon above us. It brought a vivid, long forgotten memory rushing back to my mind, of playing such a game with my father when I was very little. He would enter a room and hide behind doors or furniture and when I came to look for him, as I always did, he would call to me softly and then emerge suddenly with a great smile on his face and arms raised aloft shouting “here I am!” and I would shriek with delight as he came to scoop me up and spin me round and round. Then I would say “More Papa, more” and he would move to the next room to begin the game again until we had made our way around the entire house.

Jacob rolled on to his side and asked me what was wrong. It was only then I realised I was crying. I tried to find words to give reason and explanation to my tears but where would I begin. My heart felt suddenly broken, recognising my family life as one that Jacob has never known, seeing the chasm between the man beside me and the one who first had my heart, knowing with certainty that I shall surely lose one of them. Jacob reached across and wiped away each tear with his hand before leaning down to kiss my cheek. I turned my face to him, rolled my body closer and allowed him to envelope me in his arms. Despite the danger I had never felt more at home. 

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