Chapter 10

25th March 1832

A letter arrived this morning from Pastor Knibb. Father was gone for the day and mother called on a neighbour this afternoon and so I took the opportunity to visit the study and retrieve it from the secret compartment. I am not sure Papa has ever expressed interest in the contents of Mama’s writing desk, but she has taken to hiding her correspondence in these most restless of days. Running my hands over the ornate carvings of ships and anchors that adorn the desk front, I felt some connection with a homeland I have never known. This piece of furniture belonged to my grandfather and the one item Mama insisted on bringing with her from Scotland. I tried to picture him sitting in my place, writing to tell me about his life. He died long before I was born but I have a sense of him from hearing all Mama’s stories of his life and adventures on the high seas. He was a ship’s captain and this bureau sat on board his vessel, which is why the engravings have a naval theme.

Skimming my hand over the crest of his initials, caressing the carved waves that frame the edge of the wood, my hand moved up to the corner to pull down the desk. I found the panel on the left and pressed firmly in the top right corner until I heard the familiar sound of the catch releasing and the narrow compartment was revealed. Several letters were inside, mostly from Pastor Knibb, as well as some pamphlets from other abolitionists both in Jamaica and Scotland. I sifted through looking for the most recent arrival before copying the contents to read at my leisure and in the privacy of my own chamber. The details are cause for distress and hope in equal measure. I will write below the full transcript so that I might burn my original copy, ensuring it cannot fall into the wrong hands. I am now able to keep my journal in my own writing box, for which I am the only person with a key, and so this copy of the letter I believe to be secure and for my eyes only.

My dearest Mrs Mackenzie

These are indeed troubling and dangerous times and it is my fervent prayer that this letter finds you safe and well. I believe that the uprising did not reach as far as Kingston and so I have some hope that you all escaped without damage to flesh or property. As you know we were not so fortunate in St. James and although the rebellion was crushed in the most severe manner, the repercussions of those days continue. I wrote previously that those in power had assumed I was an instigator of the riots and I have been trying to persuade them of my innocence these past two months. While I have now received assurance of the knowledge that I only ever encouraged the peaceful resolution of the uprising, and the testimony of many slaves that I never gave any promise or hope that their freedom was imminent but rather counselled them to work as unto the Lord, it seems that I and my fellow missionaries are the worst of enemies to the planters of this island. Indeed it would seem now that they will not rest until they have driven each and every one of us from this place so they may continue with this wicked and mercenary practice unopposed.

However they will not find us so easily dispatched. They have plundered our homes, destroyed our chapels and dispersed and discouraged our flocks, but we are here under the instruction of the Almighty himself and shall not depart on the insistence of men. Indeed their actions of these past days have given us further resolve to stand against them. When I arrived on this island, although I found slavery to be abhorrent, I set myself on a path to work within the system to give religious instruction to the slave population, as were my orders from home. However it now appears that the powers of this land see true Christianity and its teaching to be in opposition to keeping the system of slavery intact and they wish with all their might to expel us from this place that they may continue without obstruction. Until this moment I have been sympathetic to the cause of the abolitionists but felt unable to directly align myself to their cause given that my employers had forbidden it– no longer. I will now raise my voice fully alongside theirs and shall not rest until this system is brought down.

Within these past weeks I and several missionary friends have discussed the need for one of our number to travel to England and plead our cause with the British people. It has been decided that as I have the most intimate acquaintance with the mission in the disturbed part of the island and my knowledge of the circumstances immediately connected with the rebellion, that I should be the one appointed for that purpose. I had hoped I should not have to leave my people here. Their current sufferings would make a heart of stone surely weep. However many of the Christians in Britain have aligned themselves to the wrong side of this cause and must be persuaded to see things as they really are. I will therefore give myself at this time to the greater purpose in the hope that it shall bring about the downfall of this stain upon our land. I plan to sail on 26th of next month and shall be accompanied by my wife and family. Do pray for my safety in the weeks ahead. I have been obliged to run for my life two or three times of late as I believe the local planters have a desire to murder me, such is the strength of feeling toward me.

I also have a grave concern that having left, the missionary society may not approve my return after everything that has transpired. My deepest hope and prayer is that they might join with us in cooperation to bring about the overthrow of slavery and agree to sustain us in this work for however long it may take. I will endeavour to keep you connected with my efforts as and when I can.

In the meantime, I know your heart is with us and that gives us great comfort.

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

William Knibb

The very idea that people would want to murder a peaceful pastor is shocking to me. We seem to be sheltered from the worst of that conflict in this corner of the island and this letter stirs an anxiety in my heart once more. Equally, the idea that an eloquent and godly man such as Reverend Knibb is now in full-throated support of the abolitionist movement gives me great hope. However this is not something I shall share with Jacob. I fear that this piece of information could embolden his already strengthening desire to fight for his liberty. The physical fires of the uprising may have been quenched but the sentiment smoulders on. The slaves now have heroes among those they consider martyrs to their cause, none more so than Samuel Sharpe, one of the ringleaders of the rebellion. I hear his name whispered among them as they work, spoken with reverence and admiration, a verbal talisman from which they draw strength and courage. Only yesterday as I saw a Negro mother nursing her baby boy, I passed by close enough to hear the whispers she made in his ear, I believe spoken for my benefit.

“Rise up mi baby. Dem leg grow strong, dis heart be bold, di spirit of Sam Sharpe be like a fire in yuh belly. Hush mi pickney, yuh soon be free.”

Part of me longed to stand with her in that sentiment, yet as soon as that thought had entered my head it was overshadowed with a strong sense of foreboding. For one to win, another must lose. For this child to be victorious, my Papa must be defeated. I believe with all my heart that he is wrong but I do not wish to see him ruined. Is that what would happen were slavery to end? Would all of this on which I stand come to nothing?

And then another thought came, one which had not entered my head until this moment. If slavery was over would we return to Scotland? Would I be forced to leave the only home I’ve ever known and the man who has my heart? I long for Jacob to be free, but if he is then that may mean we shall be separated, never to be together. Yet if he remains a slave we can never truly be united. It seems that every which way there is heartache, but I know in the depths of myself the choice I shall make. I would rather him be a free man standing on a distant shore than enslaved by my side. I now see without doubt that there will come a time to choose and when that day arrives I pray I will have the courage to do what I know is right.

8th December 1832

This morning was full of smoke. The cane was ready to be harvested and so orders were given to set the fires. This is done so as to burn the leaves that the stalk can be more readily cut. A time was chosen when the air was calm and therefore smoke would not come towards the house, but after the flames caught hold a breeze began to blow, carrying it up the hill. There was a great scolding from the house slaves, realising they must immediately drop their current chores and  hurry to close up the house so as to not have us all engulfed in a stinking fog. Other estates which are considerably larger than ours have less of an issue, as their fields of cane are at some considerable distance from the main property, but our plantation is relatively modest and so we are at the mercy of the wind with each harvest. Mother decided this was a perfect opportunity to visit Mrs Mackay on their coffee plantation further up the hill and so we readied the carriage and set off down the drive. As we rounded the bend towards the gate a small group of slaves were making their way up the hill, including Morag who works at the house. Mama stopped the carriage so as to speak with her about some domestic matters.

As we came to a standstill I realised that Jacob was among the group and while they waited, clustered together at the side of the road, he stepped forward as though waiting for Morag but it placed him more naturally in my line of sight. Our eyes met and I could tell we were both straining to keep our faces in a repose that would not give us away, but I swear that if my Mother had examined my expression in that moment she would have known every ounce of the truth.  It was well that I remained seated as I felt a weakness in my body at the very sight of him. As we began to pull away we passed where he was standing and I held his gaze as we went by. At the final moment, when no one else could catch our exchange, he lifted his head and winked at me before turning back to the group. A short while later Mama looked at me and saw me still smiling and asked what I was so cheerful about! I spoke some nonsense about the beauty of the day and the joy of a ride off the estate but I was certain my cheeks were flushing red as I spoke for my mind could not rid itself of Jacob’s face. We are due to meet tomorrow night but I wish with all my heart it was tonight, especially after what followed later this afternoon.

We arrived at the Mackay estate around noon and as luncheon was prepared we were sitting on the porch taking refreshments with Mrs Mackay when her eldest son Robert appeared. He was introduced with some ceremony, as he is the heir to the fortune recently arrived having finished his schooling in Scotland and here to learn about the coffee business from his father. There was such gushing pride from his mother that to hear her you’d think the crown prince himself had arrived, but I saw nothing so note-worthy standing before me. He was thin and pale but with an arrogance that puffed out his demeanour with a sense of importance and entitlement. I am sorry to say I disliked him immediately. Mother has always taught me to look for the good in people and withhold judgement but I do not have her kindness nor her gentle spirit, and in this case I have to say I am glad, for I was proven absolutely right in my assessment.

Robert was encouraged by his mother to take me for a short ride around the estate before we ate and although I could think of nothing worse my mother’s exclamation of “Oh how kind, that would be lovely,” put paid to any chance I had of refusal. What a hideous bore he was. He spoke of nothing but himself for most of the time, telling me of his great achievements at school while interjecting with details of how a coffee plantation differs from one which grows sugar. If I could have found the space to say one word I might have pointed out that I have in fact lived here for a full fifteen years now and know better than he does what plantation life looks like. Finally, towards the end of our time, he turned to me with a question.

“Do you have any siblings?”

I told him it was just me alone. And then I could not believe my ears at what he said next.

“I’ve been told that it would be good to marry in the next year or two, which I’m not opposed to. If I married you we could combine our land and I would become one of the biggest landowners on this side of the island. And being in both the coffee and sugar business makes a lot of sense, especially in these turbulent times, wouldn’t you agree? Doesn’t that sound like a fine idea? I shall speak to my Father this evening to hear his thoughts on the matter.”

I may have been silent for several moments, such was my shock at his suggestion but when I recovered my voice I left him in no doubt as to what I thought.

“Thank you sir,” I began, only barely remembering my manners. “I am sure you consider your offer to be one I should be glad of, and there may be many other foolish girls on this island who would look only at your wealth and thereby forgive your ignorance and arrogance, but not me. I intend to marry for love or not at all.  I neither esteem nor respect you and indeed would not agree to be your wife were you the last bachelor in Christendom!” 

From his expression I’m not sure he’s ever had anyone speak to him that way but by the end of my little speech he was laughing at me.

“My, my, you are a spirited one aren’t you?  The best horses often are when you first get a hold of them, but with some firm handling they soon learn who’s in charge. My Father knows that and so does yours. He’ll want a good man to hand his affairs on to. I’ll speak with them and take care of it.”

He was saying all of this as he handed me down from the carriage before driving off and leaving me in the courtyard without any right of reply. I stood where I was pulsing with anger, trying to calm down before returning to the house. He spoke about me as though I were a commodity, a silent pawn in the world of men to be moved from place to place with no choice of my own. I do not know what power I have but I absolutely will not agree to such a plan! This will not be my future, of that I am sure.

Regaining my composure I joined Mama and Mrs Mackay in the dining room suffering through them fawning over the wonderful Robert. I do believe that mother was simply being polite and agreeing with all that her friend had to say, but to listen to Mrs Mackay you would be forgiven for thinking there was no better man on the face of the earth. I have to conclude that familial ties really do make one entirely blind to what is standing before them. I did my best to smile along with the conversation while inwardly replaying what had occurred a short while before, resolving to speak to Papa and seek his assurance that I shall never be required to marry such a man.

By mid-afternoon we thought it safe to return back down the hill and so took leave of our hostess, but not before Robert appeared once more to ask Mama to relay his finest greetings to Father and that he would be sure to call with him in the very near future. As we sat together in the carriage I had time to reflect on Robert’s words. I realised that what I thought to be the fanciful notion of an arrogant boy may indeed be what my life has in store. I fought every urge to throw myself on Mama’s mercy and plead with her for my happiness, instead biting my lip and beginning to rehearse my speech to Papa. He will be the one who decides how to receive Robert when he comes to call and will weigh whatever suggestion he might make about our potential union and so I shall go straight to him. He has been gone for most of today and did not dine with us this evening and so I shall have to hold my thoughts captive until a suitable opportunity arises.

I long to see Jacob tonight. Lying here in my bed I can see his face lifted to me this morning and the smile and wink which left me weak. I replay in my mind each touch and kiss of the last months in the hope that they shall fill my dreams and sustain me until tomorrow.

9th December 1832

Today was one endless stretch of waiting – to speak to Father, who was once again gone for a lot of the day, and longing for the night so that I might go and meet Jacob. I idled the time away unable to settle to any one task. My mind was too distracted for reading, I could not still myself to paint and so I took to roaming the estate, by late afternoon sitting in a spot from where I could see the road up to the house to be sure of the exact moment when Papa returned.

Eventually, as the sun began to sink low in the sky casting shades of pink and peach across the horizon and lighting up the clouds with a golden trim, my eye caught a flurry of dust moving up the road through the fields of cane and I knew for certain that it was Papa. I have never seen anyone else ride with such fury and passion. He travels much more sedately when accompanied by myself or Mama or when held back by the carriage, but when he is alone with his steed it is as though he wishes to fly and as he rounds the final bend into the courtyard he only pulls up his horse at the last possible second causing anyone waiting there to dash for cover lest they be trampled by stampeding hooves. His face in those moments is a picture of exhilaration and joy, of unbridled freedom, and his laughter as everyone scatters in his wake is as deep and full of mirth as you will ever hear it. I knew this was my best chance to catch him in a fine mood and so hurried down to be ready for his arrival. I had not quite made it into the courtyard before he came thundering up the road, pulling up his horse at the sight of me and calling my name with delight.

“There’s my Miss Molly! Have you come to meet your Papa? Come. There is still light in the sky, climb up behind me and let us take a final race around the grounds before supper.”

This is not something I have done for many a year, and I know that Mother would be horrified. There was one occasion when I was much younger where she witnessed Papa and me racing towards the stables and she scolded him in a manner like I had never heard before or since. She forbade us to ever be on horseback together again, and until this day that decree has stood. But my Father’s face wore such an expression of delight in the invitation that I could not refuse, nor indeed did I wish to. When I was younger I would ride in front of him, with his arms forming a barrier around my sides, but now I stepped up and sat behind him, wrapping myself around his torso and holding on with all my might. This is not how a lady should ride, but I do not enjoy sitting side-saddle. It is uncomfortable and impossible to travel at any speed. Father kicked his heels and we took off up the hill at such a pace that I screamed with the perfect blend of fear and joy. I had not felt this close to him, in any way, for a very long time. I felt the strength of his body steering the horse and could sense the powerful force of man and beast in full flight. When we reached the highest part of the road he brought us to a slower pace before pausing to take in the view of the land below. We sat together, breathless and laughing, taking in the last moments of the setting sun.

“Where you scared Molly?”

“No Papa.”

He looked over his shoulder to check my expression.

“Well maybe a little – but the good kind.”

“That’s my girl.”

He said this with such gentle tenderness. I have missed this closeness and until this moment had not realised how much. He patted my hands, still clamped around his waist.

“Step down and let me look at you. It seems a long while since I really looked at you.”

I slid down and waited for Papa to join me. He stood opposite me, tall and broad, with his cheeks flushed and hair wild from the ride. He had never looked more handsome. Reaching across he brushed my hair back from my face.

“There’s my girl. My but you are a beauty. You have grown to a woman before my very eyes and I have not noticed. There will be young men calling before too long I have no doubt, but I shall keep you with me as long as I am able.”

At his compliment and mention of a suitor tears began to swim in my eyes. I tried to hide them but it was too late.

“Molly, whatever is the matter?”

Where would I begin? I would speak of Robert, of course, but in that moment there seemed so much to say, so much that I longed to reconcile in my heart but I knew it was impossible. All of my prepared protestations floated from my mind and I found myself lost for words. Taking a deep breath I gathered myself as best I could and recounted the conversation from yesterday. When I was done with the facts I simply looked to my father’s face hoping my expression would impart all that was needed. I need not have feared.

“So this young upstart seeks my daughter as well as my land? I can see that there are a few things schooling has not taught him, but he will learn soon enough! Fear not my Molly, his presumptions shall not be satisfied on either of us. Dry those tears now, your Papa will not let you go so easily.”

He wrapped his arm around me and kissed the top of my head. So it seems I am safe from Robert Mackay but how much longer can I stay sheltered in Papa’s arms before my true heart is discovered? We returned down the hill at a more sedate pace so as not to cause a disturbance and the rest of the evening passed uneventfully. At the first available opportunity I excused myself and retired to my room eager to be alone with my thoughts of Jacob. I whiled away the time trying to read but unable to settle my mind to even one paragraph. With each passing minute my heart quickened and my stomach tied itself in knots.

Eventually I could wait no longer. I raced across the gardens and when I saw him standing by the reading tree I could not hide my delight. We spoke not one word but any sense of decorum or pretending evaporated in that moment as we held each other’s gaze. Everything else melted away, Robert Mackay, my Father, the impossibility of our situation, nothing else seemed to have any weight or substance. Slowly he reached for me with one strong arm, putting his hand around my waist and pulling me close. My body felt as though it were on fire as he lifted his hands to hold my face and kissed me with such extraordinary passion that I could no longer feel the earth beneath my feet. Eyes, lips, arms, bodies, all were entwined as though we were one and could not, would not be separated.  I cannot say how long we were together. Time meant nothing in those moments. When he left I was breathless and weak in body, and yet my will had a new found strength. As I lie here alone I cannot imagine what lies ahead but I know this for certain – my future is him.

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