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(Miss Minnie Vining is about to venture into the district in old Richmond where the slave markets were held, accompanied by Elizabeth Van Lew, and a pair of male cousins who are friends of the family she is visiting: Captain Shaw, and Preston Devereaux, who has promised Miss Van Lew that he will purchase two slaves for her … slaves that Miss Van Lew will free. Much discussion of the “peculiar institution” ensues.)

The carriage arrived before the Edmonds’ door just before the hour of nine. Annabelle, waiting with Minnie in the front parlor made one last attempt to dissuade her from the excursion.
“It might be dangerous!” she insisted. “You heard what Cousin Peter said – about being recognized as being of abolitionist sympathies, among those whose livelihood depends on perpetuating the peculiar institution.”
“I have no apprehensions, ‘Belle,” Minnie replied. “We will be accompanied by a gallant soldier, and a gentleman who recently returned from the California gold mines; I am certain that both Captain Shaw and Mr. Devereaux have faced such dangers as would make a set of slave-driving ruffians a mere annoyance in comparison.” Outside in the street, the sound of carriage wheels carried to her ears. “I believe that will be the coach … if we do not return for dinner at midday, make my excuses to Susan, dear.”
“Is there nothing I can say?” Annabelle dropped her embroidery hoop into her lap and clasped her hands together. “Nothing to make you consider turning aside from this course?”
“No, nothing,” Minnie gathered up her reticule and tied the strings of her mantle at her throat, as she heard voices at the door – Susan’s housemaid, and that of Captain Shaw. “Not once my mind is set on a course which I have determined.”
“Be most careful,” Annabelle whispered – or that was what Minnie thought she heard, as she left the parlor. Outside, an elegant dark-grey berline carriage awaited, drawn by a pair of matched, dapple-grey horses, whose reins lay in the hands of a coachman – another black slave, in a fine dark grey coat and starched white stock, the elegance of whose attire rivaled that of Captain Shaw himself.
“Miss Vining! Good morning!” Captain Shaw took her arm, going down the steps. “You know, this is not considered an acceptable outing for a lady… But Pres insisted, and he’s a hard man to gainsay.”
“I have been assured of this, solo and in chorus,” Minnie replied, with some asperity. “But I will not be deterred!”
“No, I was afraid not,” Captain Shaw sighed, as he assisted her to step from the ground, onto the narrow carriage step. “You and Miss Van Lew are of a kind, I perceive. I should warn you, though – ladies do not generally attend the auctions. You see … umm … it is the practice among prospective buyers, to assure themselves of the health and fitness of a male slave they are interested in … that they remove their garments, in order that their bodies may be closely inspected.”
“Good heavens!” Minnie exclaimed. “Surely they do not require that of females in public! Why, that is barbaric!”
Preston Devereaux took her other hand, with a mocking grin, and settled her onto the seat next to Miss Van Lew, observing, “Barbarism is in the eye of the beholder, Miss Vining – as I have good reason to know.”
“Not … in that portion of the auction,” Captain Shaw replied, and Minnie could have sworn that the man’s countenance reddened – but that was in the relative dimness of the carriage interior. Captain Shaw tapped on the glass of the window nearest the driver’s perch, and the berline lurched away from the Edmonds’ front door. “But – it is my understanding that such is required now and again, in … a private viewing of the … um… merchandise. Well before the auction and bidding begins.”
“Of a high-yellow fancy, most usually,” Mr. Devereaux, suave as ever. Minnie would be willing to swear that the gentlemen were as determined to discourage herself and Miss Van Lew from the proposed excursion, only that they had chosen a more subtle means of going about it. The carriage rocked gently, as the black coachman in elegant livery clucked to the horses.
From the corner of the closed carriage, Miss Van Lew remarked, as if making a note of the weather, “That would be a woman with a bare minimum of African blood, Miss Vining. Such is the tendency for owners of female slaves to engage in congress upon their bodies. After generations of such conduct … one cannot really tell free from slave. It requires the judgement of a veritable Solomon to tell the difference between a free white woman and a black slave.”
“I see,” Minnie retorted, although she didn’t … not entirely. But untried waters were to be ventured upon, and hopefully without fear or favor. “I perceive that you gentleman both have experience with the matter of holding Negroes in the condition of bondage. I suppose that you both hold slaves.”
“We do,” Captain Shaw admitted, through suddenly thinned lips. “But I can assure you that we treat our people well and fairly. None of Marylebone Hill’s people have ever been sold down the river, not in my lifetime or that of my father.”
“My own family, alas, does not own as many slaves as formerly,” Pres Deveraux admitted, with an exaggeratedly tragic sigh. “The reversals of the cotton trade made it necessary that we dispense of the excess in recent years; they will multiply naturally, you know. Conditions over the last few years were desperately unfavorable for Deveraux crops – insufficient income to support the family and our dependents at the current market price of cotton and tobacco. Do not look so horrified, Miss Van Lew, Miss Vining – our agent arranged private sales, and specified stringently that families would be sold entire, and only to purchasers of whom he approved. Otherwise – what are we to do? In the North, one may merely fire workers superfluous to momentary needs, and one is relieved of all further responsibility for their welfare. Is that not a cruelty, according to your Christian lights? Are we not our brothers’ keeper, after all?”
“But free men possess the inalienable right to order their own lives,” Minnie retorted. “To work at whatever they chose, to travel where they will without hinderance, to contract marriage to a woman of their own choosing …”
“To starve in a gutter, if that is their choice,” Pres Devereaux agreed, smoothly. “Without any notice being taken of their situation. Is it not kinder, Miss Minerva – in the situation of a lesser breed, when sick or old, no longer able to work – to be taken care of? Housed, clothed, fed, to have the attention of a doctor when ill? It is a great responsibility, even greater than that of being a father with children. Children grow up and take charge of their own lives, eventually – but the responsibility for your field hands and house slaves never, ever ends.”
“I admit of no fair comparison,” Minnie was indignant. “Between a slave, subject to the whims of an owner, and the condition of a free man or woman. We are God’s creatures, of His creation, every one of us – and no matter what our native capabilities may be, all deserve that freedom.”
“The African race are like children,” Pres Devereaux spoke with infinite patience – nearly as irritating to Minnie as open condescension would have been. “Would you allow a small child do as they wish, in every respect? That would be careless, irresponsible, unfitting…”
“Mr. Devereaux is provoking you deliberately, Miss Vining,” Miss Van Lew interjected. “Did I not warn you yesterday of his habit of being a dancing whirligig, assuming attitudes merely to tease and provoke?”
“You did, indeed, Miss Van Lew,” Minnie replied, and scowled behind her veil at Mr. Devereaux. The berline, meanwhile, had left behind the relatively smooth streets of Church Hill, and descended into more crowded – and therefore more rutted and pot-holed thoroughfares closer to the river. Minnie craned her neck, at the familiar shriek of a locomotive steam whistle – yes, they were passing very close to the railway lines which threaded Richmond like a ragged spider-web. Here was the hubble-bubble of commerce, of loud voices, the grinding of cartwheels and cracking whips. Over it all floated a distant vision of the white-pillared state capitol building, a classic Roman temple set in a grove of young trees, floating above it all like a white-sails of a distant ship, above a vista of common warehouses, narrow side lanes and a tumbled wasteland piled with trash threaded through by a muddy stream.
“I told Rufus to take us past Lumpkin’s, first,” Captain Shaw murmured to Mr. Devereaux, who absently stroked his narrow mustache, as he nodded in agreement with this itinerary.
“Ah, yes,” he continued pleasantly to Minnie. “Robert Lumpkin – keeper of the most notorious slave-jail in Richmond, familiarly called ‘The Devils’ Half-Acre.’ A man equally notorious for his riches accumulated in his chosen trade as for the brutality he exercises in the conduct of it. Low breeding; such always shows. Although, he has made his slave concubine his legal wife, for what that might be worth, socially.”
“The peculiar institution encompasses curious complications, on occasion,” Captain Shaw murmured.
There was an uncomfortable silence in the coach as the coach continued on, down a rough and rutted alley; Miss Van Lew silent behind her veil, and Captain Shaw looking out from his side of the coach as if he wished to be anywhere else but here. Only Pres Devereaux appeared to relish the company and the occasion. Really, what an appalling man! Minnie thought to herself. And Susan wishes to match hers’ and My-Dear-Ambrose’s Charlotte with him as a husband!
“Ah, yes, there it is; that fortress with a stout wall all the way around.” Pres Devereaux announced, cheery as a cricket with a happy song. “Not as scenic as the Tower of London, or as romantic as the prison of Chillon in Lord Byron’s cheery ditty, is it, ladies?”
Minnie could hardly bear to look upon such a scene of misery: yes, a stout plank wall, encompassing a foot-trampled yard with a single rambling brick building within, farther down the sloping hillside. Iron bars set into every window made it plain that it housed prisoners. Three other buildings stood somewhat closer to the rutted lane in which the berline had paused; buildings which had a look of domesticity about them, especially since there were no bars in the windows.
“As for famous inmates in this place, I daresay you have heard of the escaped slave Burns? He was apprehended in Boston, was he not? And returned to his master by order of the magistrates – backed up by Army troops?”
“Yes, I have heard of that matter,” Minnie replied truthfully – for the matter of Anthony Burns, escaped slave, being arrested in the street, and forcefully returned South to his owner had been the means of metaphorically setting Boston aflame with abolitionist passion all that spring. Her brother George had been suffering his final illness, or he would have struggled up from his sickbed to join with his fellow abolitionists in protest.
“It was a mystery to all good Southerners,” Pres Devereaux confided, “Why those who championed Burns willingly defied the law. And it is the law – that stolen property be returned to the proper owner.”
“There is the law which is written by men, who are not perfect – and those higher laws instituted by our creator,” Minnie stated, for she was truly rankled by Pres Devereaux’s bland self-assurance. “Those fugitive slave laws were created by such imperfect men – who compound the insult to freedom-loving citizens of the North by insisting that we endorse the brutality of slavery. It’s not enough that slave power confine itself to those places which have willingly chosen to endorse the practice – that we could endure and have for decades! But now to demand that we in the North who object to fellow human beings treated as objects to be bought and sold in the marketplace must go against our own conscience, and cooperate with slave-takers on free soil? Is it not as the great Luther himself advised – to go against one’s conscience is neither right nor safe!”
“Bravo, Miss Vining,” Pres Devereaux applauded. “A fine piece of oratory, I must say! You might almost convince a man such as myself to the cause of abolition – almost; but that I am a Southerner, and our fortunes here depend upon exercise of the peculiar institution.”
“Ah, your fortunes,” Minnie nodded – yes, a momentary concession. That would disarm an opponent in the legal hustings, Papa-the-Judge advised, when he had guided Minnie in her studies of his old trials and in his volumes of Blackstone’s Commentaries. “Fortunes which are based primarily on agriculture and the export of cotton. But what of industry? Where are your armories, your factories – why must the raw materials produced in your plantations be shipped wholesale to the mills of England? Why must your fortunes depend on forced labor of Africans, imported under great hardship and cruelty? It is said that a sound tree will bear sound fruit, but a tree with roots in poisoned soil will bear naught but poisoned fruit. I would hold that slavery is the most poisoned soil of all!”
“We do have industry in the South,” Captain Shaw spoke vigorously for nearly the first time in this exchange. “Behold – the chimneys of the Tredegar Iron and Locomotive Works! That must count for something, Miss Vining!”
“And that would be your only example?” Minnie tempered her exasperation, did her best to sound conciliatory. “Has the South nothing to equal the fabric mills of Lowell and Fall River, the Armory of Colonel Colt, a long-ranging transport project such as the Erie Canal, the iron works of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey? The Tredegar works are a fine one, indeed – the canal and basin for river commerce here in Richmond – but when the North has five or ten such enterprises for every single one in the South, you will forgive me, Captain Shaw, for not being entirely convinced of the advantages of the peculiar institution.”
“Miss Vining’s mind is made up,” Pres Devereaux interjected. “And will only admit such facts as those which confirm her existing prejudice. We should drive on – I had it in mind to see the auction at the Old Fellows’ Hall on the hour of eleven.”
Minnie opened her mouth to object to this – she was perfectly capable of exercising reason, when a sensible reason applied for admission, but at that moment, she recalled again Miss Van Lew’s warning; that Pres Devereaux lived to be provoking.

1 Comment

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    Nice! I look forward to being able to buy this one.