From the [Philadelphia] General Advertiser, Saturday, March 3, 1792 (number 446)
“Perhaps there is no sight in nature more beautiful than a planter’s seat in the West India islands, where the several improvements and ornamental appendages have been directed by a man of taste. The trees and shrubs of the tropical climates have a particular aspect for beauty contributing at first glance to excite those romantic ideas of philosophical solitude and rural felicity, which a native of the more northern parts of the world has imbibed from fiction only. I was not long since, invited to a sugar plantation to pass the night and part of the succeeding day. The importunity of the owner, and his affected anticipation of the pleasure that could not fail to attend the execution, was my principal motive for accepting the invitation.
In approaching to what I had been led to suppose a terrestrial paradise, my satisfaction was considerably abated, on the way, by the Negro boy who had been sent with the horse for my accommodation. It is almost universally the custom in these islands for the attendant to follow the horse on foot. If you travel too far for him to keep on an even pace with you, (which he is obliged to do at his peril) he twirls a wisp of the horse’s tail about his forefinger, and by this means is, as it were, in addition to his own exertions, towed along by the horse, sometimes at the rate of 10 miles an hour.
Before reaching the mansion house, I passed through a small village of Negroes belonging to the plantation – not a cheerful look could I observe amongst the wretched inhabitants, except for some naked children who had not yet come to a sense of the misery of their condition. The imperial buildings (as I may call them) were small, but neat, convenient, and numerous, surrounded by and intermingled with a vast number of beautiful trees and shrubs, some of them of the aromatic kind, which, with the prospect of distant hills, valleys, plains covered with sugar canes two thirds grown, and beyond all, the immense and orbicular ocean, formed a scene which for rural beauty and magnificence, could not, I am certain, be exceeded in either of the Indies.
Everything on a West India plantation wears the severe aspect of despotism. The tyranny that originates with the master proceeds through every grade of the black domestics, and each becomes a tyrant in his turn to those over whom chance or merit gives him a momentary direction. All in authority go constantly armed with a whip, which is applied on the most trifling occasions with an unfeeling heart in hand. Do the young ladies wish to have a sociable family dance, and a petit souper? The Negro fiddler, commonly a tall young fellow, perhaps 19 or 20 years of age, is called then. He makes some blunders in playing a march – a severe whipping about the naked legs is the sure consequence, as well as being obliged to undergo the mortification of returning thanks in form to the master and mistress of the house for every stroke inflicted. This is common to all the English Islands. I was awakened soon after daylight, in the morning, by the cries of the most pugnant and agonizing distress, which continued something more than a quarter of an hour. Upon inquiry, after rising, I found these cries proceeded from about a dozen slaves, who had some time before ran away, were afterwards apprehended, put in the dungeon, fed on little else than water and a scant allowance of potatoes, and had been sentenced to receive, each, 30 lashes every morning for a week. About an hour after, I had the misfortune to see these objects; they were chained together by the neck, employed in carrying stones and lime to a new building, appeared horribly mangled, starved, and naked – their legs swollen to an enormous size, from a failure of the doctor in extracting the Guinea worm; their feet devoured with an insect called a chigger ; and, in fact, altogether constituting a group of human wretchedness beyond anything it was ever my lot to behold before.
A negro-man was soon after brought to the house, who had been caught in one of the cane fields cutting a sugar cane. He confessed the fact, but assured the planter, his master, it was solely committed to gratify the gnawings of an empty stomach, the overseer having that morning refused him his allowance, because he came five minutes too late. He was ordered 25 lashes, well laid on, to warn him how to transgress in future with a view to alleviate the cravings of hunger.
In northern countries the crack of a whip, even from a horse driver, is not always accompanied with the idea of a stroke inflicted at the same time, on the animal substance. Here, however, except at the morning alarm, you may be sure it is a token of anguish, hear it when you will; which is frequently to the distance of 3 miles – and once I recollect, distinctly to have heard a cart-whipping from St. Kitts to St. Eustatius, over a channel near three leagues wide.
Not to mention several other disagreeable incidents of the same kind as those above, which are constantly taking place on the West India sugar farm, a stranger who resides in these Islands will find that flagellation is as constant as the day, and maybe called the creature of the whole year round. It is thought superfluous to address the question or understandings of ignorant barbarians; and the owner of this beautiful plantation assured me, that if he were to relax but a single week of his usual severe discipline, if he were only to seem the man of sympathy or pity; if the slaves were not made to feel the most excruciating torment upon the slightest infringement of his laws, he and his family would not rest a single night without the most serious danger of having their throats cut; or if this did not actually happen, their property would be wasted, ruined and embezzled by their unprincipled domestics.
“If so, replied I, may heaven deliver me from ever owning a sugar plantation on this side [of] the Tropic! If this fatal sweet must be had, let us rather retire to the force of the North, where it is extracted from the sugar maple by the hands of freedom and innocence. We may there possess this luxury without a crime; without steeling the heart against every feeling of nature and metamorphosing man into a monster.”
The peculiar misery attending such a rural life is that I have been describing is not a little affecting to a foreigner, and all such as have not become unfeeling despots from habits of custom. The shades and charming prospects of the island bpring to mind the innocence of the first men of the earth, contrasted with the view of avarice, cruelty, and tortures every moment inflicted unfortunate victims, in addition to poverty, slavery, and the severest of all labor.
I returned on a slow walk to the seaport, with the horse and negro boy, who had before attended me. Upon alighting, he assured me I was the first man he had ever known who had been so merciful as not to oblige him to follow the horse, if not on a gallop, at least on a brisk six mile trot.
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