Child, Lydia Maria. "The Black Saxons." The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings. Ed. Glynis Carr. Online. Internet. Posted: Winter 1998.



         Thou 'It guard thy country's freedom
To despotize in all the patriot's pomp;
While conscience, mid the mob's applauding clamors,
Sleeps in thine ear, nor whispers blood-stained tyrant.

Mr. Duncan was sitting alone in his elegantly furnished parlor, in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina. Before him lay an open volume of the History of the Norman Conquest. From the natural kindliness of his character, and democratic theories, deeply imbibed in childhood, his thoughts dwelt more with a nation prostrated and kept in base subjection by the strong arm of violence, than with the renowned robbers, who seized their rich possessions, and haughtily trampled on their dearest rights.

"And so that bold and beautiful race became slaves!" thought he. "The brave and free-souled Harolds, strong of heart and strong of arm; the fair-haired Ediths, in their queenly beauty, noble in soul as well as ancestry; these all sank to the condition of slaves; -- and tamely submitted to their lot, till their free, bright beauty passed under the heavy cloud of animal dulness, and the contemptuous Norman epithet of 'base Saxon churls' was but too significantly true. Yet not without efforts did they thus sink; how often renewed, or how bravely sustained, we know not; for Troubadours rarely sing of the defeated, and conquerors write their own History. That they did not relinquish freedom without a struggle, is proved by Robin Hood and his bold followers, floating in dim and shadowy glory on the outskirts of history; brave outlaws of the free forest, and the wild mountain-passes, taking back, in the very teeth of danger, a precarious subsistence from the rich possessions that were once their own; and therefore styled thieves by the robbers who had beggared them. And doubtless they had minstrels of their own; unknown in princely halls, untrumpeted by fame, yet singing of their exploits in spirit-stirring tones, to hearts burning with a sense of wrong. Troubled must be the sleep of those who rule a conquered nation!"

These thoughts were passing through his mind, when a dark mulatto opened the door, and making a servile reverence, said, in wheedling tones, "Would massa be so good as gib a pass to go to Methodist meeting?"

Mr. Duncan was a proverbially indulgent master; and he at once replied, "Yes, Jack, you may have a pass; but you must mind and not stay out all night."

"Oh, no, massa. Tom neber preach more than two hours."

Scarcely was the pass written, before another appeared with a similar request; and presently another; and yet another. When these interruptions ceased, Mr. Duncan resumed his book, and quietly read of the oppressed Saxons, until the wish for a glass of water induced him to ring the bell. No servant obeyed the summons. With an impatient jerk of the rope, he rang a second time, muttering to himself, "What a curse it is to be waited upon by slaves! If I were dying, the lazy loons would take their own time, and come dragging their heavy heels after them, an hour after I was in the world of spirits. My neighbors tell me it is because I never flog them. I believe they are in the right. It is a hard case, too, to force a man to be a tyrant, whether he will or no."

A third time he rang the bell more loudly; but waited in vain for the sound of coming footsteps. Then it occurred to him that he had given every one of his slaves a pass to go to the Methodist meeting. This was instantly followed by the remembrance, that the same thing had occurred a few days before.

We were then at war with Great Britain; and though Mr. Duncan, in conversation with New England relatives and friends, often boasted the attachment of his slaves, and declared them to be the most contented and happy laborers in the world, yet, by some strange coincidence of thought, the frequency of Methodist meetings suddenly suggested the common report, that British troops were near the coast, and about to land in Charleston. As suddenly came the remembrance of Big-boned Dick, who many months before had absconded from a neighboring planter, and was suspected of holding a rendezvous for runaways in the swampy depths of some dark forest. The existence of such a gang was indicated by the rapid disappearance of young corn, sweet potatoes, fat hogs, &c., from the plantations for many miles round.

"The black rascal!" exclaimed he: "If my boys are in league with him!" --

The coming threat was arrested by a voice within, which, like a strain of music from some invisible choir, all at once struck up the lively ballad of Robin Hood; and thus brought Big-boned Dick, like Banquo's Ghost, unbidden and unwelcome, into incongruous association with his spontaneous sympathy for Saxon serfs, his contempt of "base Saxon churls," who tamely submitted to their fate, and his admiration of the bold outlaws, who lived by plunder in the wild freedom of Saxon forests.

His republican sympathies, and the "system entailed upon him by his ancestors," were obviously out of joint with each other; and the skilfullest soldering of casuistry could by no means make them adhere together. Clear as the tones of a cathedral bell above the hacks and drays of a city, the voice of Reason rose above all the pretexts of selfishness, and the apologies of sophistry, and loudly proclaimed that his sympathies were right, and his practice wrong. Had there been at his elbow some honest John Woolman, or fearless Elias Hicks, that hour might perhaps have seen him a freeman, in giving freedom to his serfs. But he was alone; and the prejudices of education, and the habits of his whole life, conjured up a fearful array of lions in his path; and he wist not that they were phantoms. The admonitions of awakened conscience gradually gave place to considerations of personal safety, and plans for ascertaining the real extent of his danger.

The next morning he asked his slaves, with assumed nonchalance, whether they had a good meeting.

"Oh, yes, massa; bery good meeting."

"Where did you meet?"

"In the woods behind Birch Grove, massa."

The newspaper was brought, and found to contain a renewal of the report that British troops were prowling about the coast. Mr. Duncan slowly paced the room for some time, apparently studying the figures of the carpet, yet utterly unconscious whether he trod on canvass or the greensward. At length he ordered his horse and drove to the next plantation. Seeing a gang at work in the fields, he stopped, and after some questions concerning the crop, said to one of the most intelligent, "So you had a fine meeting last night?"

"Oh, yes, massa, bery nice meeting."

"Where was it?"

The slave pointed far east of Birch Grove. The white man's eye followed the direction of his finger, and a deeper cloud gathered on his brow. Without comment, he rode on in another direction, and with apparent indifference made similar inquiries of another gang of laborers. They pointed north of Birch Grove, and replied, "In the Hugonot woods, massa."

With increasing disquietude, he slowly turned his horse toward the city. He endeavored to conceal anxiety under a cheerful brow; for he was afraid to ask counsel, even of his most familiar friends, in a community so prone to be blinded by insane fury under the excitement of such suspicions. Having purchased a complete suit of negro clothes, and a black mask well fitted to his face, he returned home, and awaited the next request for passes to a Methodist meeting.

In a few days, the sable faces again appeared before him, one after another, asking permission to hear Tom preach. The passes were promptly given, accompanied by the cool observation, "It seems to me, boys, that you are all growing wonderfully religious of late."

To which they eagerly replied, "Ah, if massa could hear Tom preach, it make his hair stand up. Tom make ebery body tink weder he hab a soul."

When the last one had departed, the master hastily assumed his disguise, and hurried after them. Keeping them within sight, he followed over field and meadow, through woods and swamps. As he went on, the number of dark figures, all tending toward the same point, continually increased. Now and then, some one spoke to him; but he answered briefly, and with an effort to disguise his voice. At last, they arrived at one of those swamp islands, so common at the South, insulated by a broad, deep belt of water, and effectually screened from the main-land by a luxuriant growth of forest trees, matted together by a rich entanglement of vines and underwood. A large tree had been felled for a bridge; and over this dusky forms were swarming, like ants into their new made nest.

Mr. Duncan had a large share of that animal instinct called physical courage; but his heart throbbed almost audibly, as he followed that dark multitude.

At the end of a rough and intricate passage, there opened before him a scene of picturesque and imposing grandeur. A level space, like a vast saloon, was enclosed by majestic trees, uniting their boughs over it, in richly fantastic resemblance to some Gothic cathedral. From the points of the arches hung wild vines in luxuriant profusion, some in heavy festoons, others lightly and gracefully leaping upward. The blaze of pine torches threw some into bold relief, and cast others into a shadowy background. And here, in this lone sanctuary of Nature's primeval majesty, were assembled many hundreds of swart figures, some seated in thoughtful attitudes, others scattered in moving groups eagerly talking together. As they glanced about, now sinking into dense shadow, and now emerging into the red light, they seemed to his excited imagination like demons from the pit come to claim guilty souls. He had, however, sufficient presence of mind to observe that each one, as he entered, prostrated himself till his forehead touched the ground, and rising placed his finger on his mouth. Imitating this signal, he passed in with the throng, and seated himself behind the glare of the torches. For some time he could make out no connected meaning amid the confused buzz of voices, and half-suppressed snatches of songs. But, at last, a tall man mounted the stump of a decayed tree, nearly in the centre of the area, and requested silence.

"When we had our last meeting," said he, "I suppose most all of you know, that we all concluded it was best for to join the British, if so be we could get a good chance. But we didn't all agree about our masters. Some thought we should never be able to keep our freedom, without we killed our masters in the first place; others didn't like the thoughts of that; so we agreed to have another meeting to talk about it. And now, boys, if the British land here in Caroliny, what shall we do with our masters?"

He stepped down, and a tall, sinewy mulatto stepped into his place, exclaiming, with fierce gestures, "Ravish wives and daughters before their eyes, as they have done to us. Hunt them with hounds, as they have hunted us. Shoot them down with rifles, as they have shot us. Throw their carcasses to the crows, they have fattened on our bones; and then let the Devil take them where they never rake up fire o' nights. Who talks of mercy to our masters?"

"I do," said an aged black man, who rose up before the fiery youth, tottering as he leaned both hands on an oaken staff. "I do;-- because the blessed Jesus always talked of mercy. I know we have been fed like hogs, and shot at like wild beasts. Myself found the body of my likeliest boy under the tree where buckra rifles reached him. But thanks to the blessed Jesus, I feel it in my poor old heart to forgive them. I have been member of a Methodist church these thirty years; and I've heard many preachers, white and black; and they all tell me Jesus said, Do good to them that do evil to you, and pray for them that spite you. Now I say, let us love our enemies; let us pray for them; and when our masters flog us, and sell our pickaninnies, let us break out singing:

"You may beat upon my body,
But you cannot harm my soul;
I shall join the forty thousand by and bye.

"You may sell my children to Georgy,
But you cannot harm their soul;
They will join the forty thousand by and bye.

"Come, slave-trader, come in too;
The Lord's got a pardon here for you;
You shall join the forty thousand by and bye.

"Come, poor nigger, come in too;
The Lord's got a pardon here for you;
You shall join the forty thousand by and bye.

"My skin is black, but my soul is white;
And when we get to Heaven, we'll all be alike;
We shall join the forty thousand by and bye.

That's the way to glorify the Lord."

Scarcely had the cracked voice ceased the tremulous chant in which these words were uttered, when a loud altercation commenced; some crying out vehemently for the blood of the white men, others maintaining that the old man's doctrine was right. The aged black remained leaning on his staff, and mildly replied to every outburst of fury, "But Jesus said, do good for evil." Loud rose the din of excited voices; and the disguised slaveholder shrank deeper into the shadow.

In the midst of the confusion, an athletic, gracefully-proportioned young man sprang upon the stump, and throwing off his coarse cotton garment, slowly turned round and round before the assembled multitude. Immediately all was hushed; for the light of a dozen torches, eagerly held up by fierce, revengeful comrades, showed his back and shoulders deeply gashed by the whip, and still oozing with blood. In the midst of that deep silence, he stopped abruptly, and with stern brevity exclaimed, "Boys! shall we not murder our masters?"

"Would you murder all?" inquired a timid voice at his right hand. "They don't all cruellize their slaves."

"There's Mr. Cambell," pleaded another; "he never had one of his boys flogged in his life. You wouldn't murder him, would you?"

"Oh, no, no, no," shouted many voices; "we wouldn't murder Mr. Campbell. He always good to colored folks."

"And I wouldn't murder my master," said one of Mr. Duncan's slaves; "and I'd fight anybody that set out to murder him. I an't a going to work for him for nothing any longer, if I can help it; but he shan't be murdered; for he's a good master."

"Call him a good master, if ye like!" said the bleeding youth, with a bitter sneer in his look and tone. "I curse the word. The white men tell us God made them our masters; I say it was the Devil. When they don't cut up the backs that bear their burdens, when they throw us enough of the grain we have raised to keep us strong for another harvest, when they forbear to shoot the limbs that toil to make them rich, there are fools who call them good masters. Why should they sleep on soft beds, under silken curtains, while we, whose labor bought it all, lie on the floor at the threshold, or miserably coiled up in the dirt of our own cabins? Why should I clothe my master in broad-cloth and fine linen, when he knows, and I know, that he is my own brother? and I, meanwhile, have only this coarse rag to cover my aching shoulders?" He kicked the garment scornfully, and added, "Down on your knees, if ye like, and thank them that ye are not flogged and shot. Of me they'll learn another lesson!"

Mr. Duncan recognised in the speaker the reputed son of one of his friends, lately deceased; one of that numerous class, which southern vice is thoughtlessly raising up to be its future scourge and terror.

The high, bold forehead, and flashing eye, indicated an intellect too active and daring for servitude; while his fluent speech and appropriate language betrayed the fact that his highly educated parent, from some remains of instinctive feeling, had kept him near his own person, during his lifetime, and thus formed his conversation on another model than the rude jargon of slaves.

His poor, ignorant listeners stood spell-bound by the magic of superior mind; and at first it seemed as if he might carry the whole meeting in favor of his views. But the aged man, leaning on his oaken staff, still mildly spoke of the meek and blessed Jesus; and the docility of African temperament responded to his gentle words.

Then rose a man of middle age, short of stature, with a quick, roguish eye, and a spirit of knowing drollery lurking about his mouth. Rubbing his head in uncouth fashion, he began: "I don't know how to speak like Bob; for I never had no chance. He says the Devil made white men our masters. Now dat's a ting I've thought on a heap. Many a time I've axed myself how pon arth it was, that jist as sure as white man and black man come togeder, de white man sure to git he foot on de black man. Sometimes I tink one ting, den I tink anoder ting; and dey all be jumbled up in my head, jest like seed in de cotton, afore he put in the gin. At last, I find it all out. White man always git he foot on de black man; no mistake in dat. But how he do it? I'll show you how!"

Thrusting his hand into his pocket, he took out a crumpled piece of printed paper, and smoothing it carefully on the palm of his hand, he struck it significantly with his finger, and exclaimed triumphantly, "Dat's de way dey do it! Dey got de knowledge! Now, it'll do no more good to rise agin our masters, dan put de head in de fire and pull him out agin; and may be you can't pull him out agin. When I was a boy, I hear an old conjuring woman say she could conjure de Divil out of anybody. I ask her why she don't conjure her massa, den; and she tell me, 'Oh, nigger neber conjure buckra--can't do't.' But I say nigger can conjure buckra. How he do it? Get de knowledge! Dat de way. We make de sleeve wide, and fill full of de tea and de sugar, ebery time we get in missis' closet. If we take half so much pains to get de knowledge, de white man take he foot off de black man. Maybe de British land, and maybe de British no land; but you tell you sons to marry de free woman, dat know how to read and write; and you tell you gals to marry de free man, dat know how to read and write; and den by'm bye, you be de British yourselves! You want to know how I manage to get de knowledge? I tell you. I want right bad to learn to read. My old boss is the most begrudgfullest massa, and I know he won't let me learn. So, when I see leetle massa with he book, (he bout six year old,) I say to him. What you call dat? He tell me dat is A. Oh, dat is A! So I take old newspaper, and I ax missis, may I hab dis to rub my brasses? She say yes. I put it in my pocket, and by'm bye, I look to see I find A; and I look at him till I know him bery well. Den I ask my young massa, What you call dat? He say, dat is B. So I find him on my paper, and look at him till I know him bery well. Den I ask my young massa what C A T spell? He tell me cat. Den, after great long time, I can read de newspaper. And what you tink I find dere? I read British going to land! Den I tell all de boys British going to land. What you do, s'pose British land? When I stand behind massa's chair, I hear him talk, and I tell all de boys what he say. Den Bob say must hab Methodist meeting, and tell massa, Tom going to preach in de woods. But what you tink I did toder day? You know Jim, massa Gubernor's boy? Well, I want mighty bad to let Jim know British going to land. But he lib ten mile off, and old boss no let me go. Well, massa Gubernor he come dine my massa's house; and I bring he horse to de gate; and I make my bow, and say massa Gubernor, how Jim do? He tell me Jim bery well. Den I ax him, be Jim good boy? He say yes. Den I tell him Jim and I leetle boy togeder; and I want mighty bad send Jim someting. He tell me Jim hab enough of ebery ting. Oh, yes, massa Gubernor, I know you bery good massa, and Jim hab ebery ting he want; but when leetle boy togeder, dere is always something here, (laying his hand on his heart). I want to send leetle backy to Jim. I know he hab much backy he want; but Jim and I leetle boy togeder, and I want to send Jim someting. Massa Gubernor say, bery well Jack. So I gib him de backy, done up in de bery bit o' newspaper dat tell British going to land! And massa Gubernor himself carry it! And massa Gubernor himself carry it!!"

He clapped his hands, kicked up his heels, and turned somersets like a harlequin. These demonstrations were received with loud shouts of merriment; and it was sometime before sufficient order was restored to proceed with the question under discussion.

After various scenes of fiery indignation, gentle expostulation, and boisterous mirth, it was finally decided, by a considerable majority, that in case the British landed, they would take their freedom without murdering their masters; not a few, however, went away in wrathful mood, muttering curses deep.

With thankfulness to Heaven, Mr. Duncan again found himself in the open field, alone with the stars. Their glorious beauty seemed to him, that night, clothed in new and awful power. Groups of shrubbery took to themselves startling forms; and the sound of the wind among the trees was like the unsheathing of swords. Again he recurred to Saxon history, and remembered how he had thought that troubled must be the sleep of those who rule a conquered people. A new significance seemed given to Wat Tyler's address to the insurgent laborers of his day; an emphatic, and most unwelcome application of his indignant question, why serfs should toil unpaid in wind and sun, that lords might sleep on down, and embroider their garments with pearl.

"And these Robin Hoods, and Wat Tylers, were my Saxon ancestors," thought he. "Who shall so balance effects and causes, as to decide what portion of my present freedom sprung from their seemingly defeated efforts? Was the place I saw to-night, in such wild and fearful beauty, like the haunts of the Saxon Robin Hoods? Was not the spirit that gleamed forth there as brave as theirs? And who shall calculate what even such hopeless endeavors may do for the future freedom of their race?"

These cogitations did not, so far as I ever heard, lead to the emancipation of his bondmen; but they did prevent his revealing a secret, which would have brought hundreds to an immediate and violent death. After a painful conflict between contending feelings and duties, he contented himself with advising the magistrates to forbid all meetings whatsoever among the colored people, until the war was ended.

He visited Boston several years after, and told the story to a gentleman, who often repeated it in the circle of his friends. In brief outline, it reached my ears. I have told it truly, with some filling up by imagination, some additional garniture of language, and the adoption of fictitious names, because I have forgotten the real ones.

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