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Chapter 15

_Covey, the Negro Breaker_


The morning of the first of January, 1834, with its chilling wind
and pinching frost, quite in harmony with the winter in my own
mind, found me, with my little bundle of clothing on the end of a
stick, swung across my shoulder, on the main road, bending my way
toward Covey's, whither I had been imperiously ordered by Master
Thomas. The latter had been as good as his word, and had
committed me, without reserve, to the mastery of Mr. Edward
Covey. Eight or ten years had now passed since I had been taken
from my grandmother's cabin, in Tuckahoe; and these years, for
the most part, I had spent in Baltimore, where--as the reader has
already seen--I was treated with comparative tenderness. I was
now about to sound profounder depths in slave life. The rigors
of a field, less tolerable than the field of battle, awaited me.
My new master was notorious for his fierce and savage
disposition, and my only consolation in going to live <160>with
him was, the certainty of finding him precisely as represented by
common fame. There was neither joy in my heart, nor elasticity
in my step, as I started in search of the tyrant's home.
Starvation made me glad to leave Thomas Auld's, and the cruel
lash made me dread to go to Covey's. Escape was impossible; so,
heavy and sad, I paced the seven miles, which separated Covey's
house from St. Michael's--thinking much by the solitary way--
averse to my condition; but _thinking_ was all I could do. Like
a fish in a net, allowed to play for a time, I was now drawn
rapidly to the shore, secured at all points. "I am," thought I,
"but the sport of a power which makes no account, either of my
welfare or of my happiness. By a law which I can clearly
comprehend, but cannot evade nor resist, I am ruthlessly snatched
from the hearth of a fond grandmother, and hurried away to the
home of a mysterious `old master;' again I am removed from there,
to a master in Baltimore; thence am I snatched away to the
Eastern Shore, to be valued with the beasts of the field, and,
with them, divided and set apart for a possessor; then I am sent
back to Baltimore; and by the time I have formed new attachments,
and have begun to hope that no more rude shocks shall touch me, a
difference arises between brothers, and I am again broken up, and
sent to St. Michael's; and now, from the latter place, I am
footing my way to the home of a new master, where, I am given to
understand, that, like a wild young working animal, I am to be
broken to the yoke of a bitter and life-long bondage."

With thoughts and reflections like these, I came in sight of a
small wood-colored building, about a mile from the main road,
which, from the description I had received, at starting, I easily
recognized as my new home. The Chesapeake bay--upon the jutting
banks of which the little wood-colored house was standing--white
with foam, raised by the heavy north-west wind; Poplar Island,
covered with a thick, black pine forest, standing out amid this
half ocean; and Kent Point, stretching its sandy, desert-like
shores out into the foam-cested bay--were all in <161 COVEY'S
RESIDENCE--THE FAMILY>sight, and deepened the wild and desolate
aspect of my new home.

The good clothes I had brought with me from Baltimore were now
worn thin, and had not been replaced; for Master Thomas was as
little careful to provide us against cold, as against hunger.
Met here by a north wind, sweeping through an open space of forty
miles, I was glad to make any port; and, therefore, I speedily
pressed on to the little wood-colored house. The family
consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Covey; Miss Kemp (a broken-backed
woman) a sister of Mrs. Covey; William Hughes, cousin to Edward
Covey; Caroline, the cook; Bill Smith, a hired man; and myself.
Bill Smith, Bill Hughes, and myself, were the working force of
the farm, which consisted of three or four hundred acres. I was
now, for the first time in my life, to be a field hand; and in my
new employment I found myself even more awkward than a green
country boy may be supposed to be, upon his first entrance into
the bewildering scenes of city life; and my awkwardness gave me
much trouble. Strange and unnatural as it may seem, I had been
at my new home but three days, before Mr. Covey (my brother in
the Methodist church) gave me a bitter foretaste of what was in
reserve for me. I presume he thought, that since he had but a
single year in which to complete his work, the sooner he began,
the better. Perhaps he thought that by coming to blows at once,
we should mutually better understand our relations. But to
whatever motive, direct or indirect, the cause may be referred, I
had not been in his possession three whole days, before he
subjected me to a most brutal chastisement. Under his heavy
blows, blood flowed freely, and wales were left on my back as
large as my little finger. The sores on my back, from this
flogging, continued for weeks, for they were kept open by the
rough and coarse cloth which I wore for shirting. The occasion
and details of this first chapter of my experience as a field
hand, must be told, that the reader may see how unreasonable, as
well as how cruel, my new master, Covey, was. <162>The whole
thing I found to be characteristic of the man; and I was probably
treated no worse by him than scores of lads who had previously
been committed to him, for reasons similar to those which induced
my master to place me with him. But, here are the facts
connected with the affair, precisely as they occurred.

On one of the coldest days of the whole month of January, 1834, I
was ordered, at day break, to get a load of wood, from a forest
about two miles from the house. In order to perform this work,
Mr. Covey gave me a pair of unbroken oxen, for, it seems, his
breaking abilities had not been turned in this direction; and I
may remark, in passing, that working animals in the south, are
seldom so well trained as in the north. In due form, and with
all proper ceremony, I was introduced to this huge yoke of
unbroken oxen, and was carefully told which was "Buck," and which
was "Darby"--which was the "in hand," and which was the "off
hand" ox. The master of this important ceremony was no less a
person than Mr. Covey, himself; and the introduction was the
first of the kind I had ever had. My life, hitherto, had led me
away from horned cattle, and I had no knowledge of the art of
managing them. What was meant by the "in ox," as against the
"off ox," when both were equally fastened to one cart, and under
one yoke, I could not very easily divine; and the difference,
implied by the names, and the peculiar duties of each, were alike
_Greek_ to me. Why was not the "off ox" called the "in ox?"
Where and what is the reason for this distinction in names, when
there is none in the things themselves? After initiating me into
the _"woa," "back" "gee," "hither"_--the entire spoken language
between oxen and driver--Mr. Covey took a rope, about ten feet
long and one inch thick, and placed one end of it around the
horns of the "in hand ox," and gave the other end to me, telling
me that if the oxen started to run away, as the scamp knew they
would, I must hold on to the rope and stop them. I need not tell
any one who is acquainted with either the strength of the
disposition of an untamed ox, that this order <163 FIRST
ADVENTURE AT OX DRIVING>was about as unreasonable as a command to
shoulder a mad bull! I had never driven oxen before, and I was
as awkward, as a driver, as it is possible to conceive. It did
not answer for me to plead ignorance, to Mr. Covey; there was
something in his manner that quite forbade that. He was a man to
whom a slave seldom felt any disposition to speak. Cold,
distant, morose, with a face wearing all the marks of captious
pride and malicious sternness, he repelled all advances. Covey
was not a large man; he was only about five feet ten inches in
height, I should think; short necked, round shoulders; of quick
and wiry motion, of thin and wolfish visage; with a pair of
small, greenish-gray eyes, set well back under a forehead without
dignity, and constantly in motion, and floating his passions,
rather than his thoughts, in sight, but denying them utterance in
words. The creature presented an appearance altogether ferocious
and sinister, disagreeable and forbidding, in the extreme. When
he spoke, it was from the corner of his mouth, and in a sort of
light growl, like a dog, when an attempt is made to take a bone
from him. The fellow had already made me believe him even
_worse_ than he had been presented. With his directions, and
without stopping to question, I started for the woods, quite
anxious to perform my first exploit in driving, in a creditable
manner. The distance from the house to the woods gate a full
mile, I should think--was passed over with very little
difficulty; for although the animals ran, I was fleet enough, in
the open field, to keep pace with them; especially as they pulled
me along at the end of the rope; but, on reaching the woods, I
was speedily thrown into a distressing plight. The animals took
fright, and started off ferociously into the woods, carrying the
cart, full tilt, against trees, over stumps, and dashing from
side to side, in a manner altogether frightful. As I held the
rope, I expected every moment to be crushed between the cart and
the huge trees, among which they were so furiously dashing.
After running thus for several minutes, my oxen were, finally,
brought to a stand, by a tree, against which they dashed
<164>themselves with great violence, upsetting the cart, and
entangling themselves among sundry young saplings. By the shock,
the body of the cart was flung in one direction, and the wheels
and tongue in another, and all in the greatest confusion. There
I was, all alone, in a thick wood, to which I was a stranger; my
cart upset and shattered; my oxen entangled, wild, and enraged;
and I, poor soul! but a green hand, to set all this disorder
right. I knew no more of oxen than the ox driver is supposed to
know of wisdom. After standing a few moments surveying the
damage and disorder, and not without a presentiment that this
trouble would draw after it others, even more distressing, I took
one end of the cart body, and, by an extra outlay of strength, I
lifted it toward the axle-tree, from which it had been violently
flung; and after much pulling and straining, I succeeded in
getting the body of the cart in its place. This was an important
step out of the difficulty, and its performance increased my
courage for the work which remained to be done. The cart was
provided with an ax, a tool with which I had become pretty well
acquainted in the ship yard at Baltimore. With this, I cut down
the saplings by which my oxen were entangled, and again pursued
my journey, with my heart in my mouth, lest the oxen should again
take it into their senseless heads to cut up a caper. My fears
were groundless. Their spree was over for the present, and the
rascals now moved off as soberly as though their behavior had
been natural and exemplary. On reaching the part of the forest
where I had been, the day before, chopping wood, I filled the
cart with a heavy load, as a security against another running
away. But, the neck of an ox is equal in strength to iron. It
defies all ordinary burdens, when excited. Tame and docile to a
proverb, when _well_ trained, the ox is the most sullen and
intractable of animals when but half broken to the yoke.

I now saw, in my situation, several points of similarity with
that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; they were to be
<165 SENT BACK TO THE WOODS>broken, so was I. Covey was to break
me, I was to break them; break and be broken--such is life.

Half the day already gone, and my face not yet homeward! It
required only two day's experience and observation to teach me,
that such apparent waste of time would not be lightly overlooked
by Covey. I therefore hurried toward home; but, on reaching the
lane gate, I met with the crowning disaster for the day. This
gate was a fair specimen of southern handicraft. There were two
huge posts, eighteen inches in diameter, rough hewed and square,
and the heavy gate was so hung on one of these, that it opened
only about half the proper distance. On arriving here, it was
necessary for me to let go the end of the rope on the horns of
the "in hand ox;" and now as soon as the gate was open, and I let
go of it to get the rope, again, off went my oxen--making nothing
of their load--full tilt; and in doing so they caught the huge
gate between the wheel and the cart body, literally crushing it
to splinters, and coming only within a few inches of subjecting
me to a similar crushing, for I was just in advance of the wheel
when it struck the left gate post. With these two hair-breadth
escape, I thought I could sucessfully{sic} explain to Mr. Covey
the delay, and avert apprehended punishment. I was not without a
faint hope of being commended for the stern resolution which I
had displayed in accomplishing the difficult task--a task which,
I afterwards learned, even Covey himself would not have
undertaken, without first driving the oxen for some time in the
open field, preparatory to their going into the woods. But, in
this I was disappointed. On coming to him, his countenance
assumed an aspect of rigid displeasure, and, as I gave him a
history of the casualties of my trip, his wolfish face, with his
greenish eyes, became intensely ferocious. "Go back to the woods
again," he said, muttering something else about wasting time. I
hastily obeyed; but I had not gone far on my way, when I saw him
coming after me. My oxen now behaved themselves with singular
<166>propriety, opposing their present conduct to my
representation of their former antics. I almost wished, now that
Covey was coming, they would do something in keeping with the
character I had given them; but no, they had already had their
spree, and they could afford now to be extra good, readily
obeying my orders, and seeming to understand them quite as well
as I did myself. On reaching the woods, my tormentor--who seemed
all the way to be remarking upon the good behavior of his oxen--
came up to me, and ordered me to stop the cart, accompanying the
same with the threat that he would now teach me how to break
gates, and idle away my time, when he sent me to the woods.
Suiting the action to the word, Covey paced off, in his own wiry
fashion, to a large, black gum tree, the young shoots of which
are generally used for ox _goads_, they being exceedingly tough.
Three of these _goads_, from four to six feet long, he cut off,
and trimmed up, with his large jack-knife. This done, he ordered
me to take off my clothes. To this unreasonable order I made no
reply, but sternly refused to take off my clothing. "If you will
beat me," thought I, "you shall do so over my clothes." After
many threats, which made no impression on me, he rushed at me
with something of the savage fierceness of a wolf, tore off the
few and thinly worn clothes I had on, and proceeded to wear out,
on my back, the heavy goads which he had cut from the gum tree.
This flogging was the first of a series of floggings; and though
very severe, it was less so than many which came after it, and
these, for offenses far lighter than the gate breaking

I remained with Mr. Covey one year (I cannot say I _lived_ with
him) and during the first six months that I was there, I was
whipped, either with sticks or cowskins, every week. Aching
bones and a sore back were my constant companions. Frequent as
the lash was used, Mr. Covey thought less of it, as a means of
breaking down my spirit, than that of hard and long continued
labor. He worked me steadily, up to the point of my powers of
endurance. From the dawn of day in the morning, till the
dark<167 CUNNING AND TRICKERY OF COVEY>ness was complete in the
evening, I was kept at hard work, in the field or the woods. At
certain seasons of the year, we were all kept in the field till
eleven and twelve o'clock at night. At these times, Covey would
attend us in the field, and urge us on with words or blows, as it
seemed best to him. He had, in his life, been an overseer, and
he well understood the business of slave driving. There was no
deceiving him. He knew just what a man or boy could do, and he
held both to strict account. When he pleased, he would work
himself, like a very Turk, making everything fly before him. It
was, however, scarcely necessary for Mr. Covey to be really
present in the field, to have his work go on industriously. He
had the faculty of making us feel that he was always present. By
a series of adroitly managed surprises, which he practiced, I was
prepared to expect him at any moment. His plan was, never to
approach the spot where his hands were at work, in an open, manly
and direct manner. No thief was ever more artful in his devices
than this man Covey. He would creep and crawl, in ditches and
gullies; hide behind stumps and bushes, and practice so much of
the cunning of the serpent, that Bill Smith and I--between
ourselves--never called him by any other name than _"the snake."_
We fancied that in his eyes and his gait we could see a snakish
resemblance. One half of his proficiency in the art of Negro
breaking, consisted, I should think, in this species of cunning.
We were never secure. He could see or hear us nearly all the
time. He was, to us, behind every stump, tree, bush and fence on
the plantation. He carried this kind of trickery so far, that he
would sometimes mount his horse, and make believe he was going to
St. Michael's; and, in thirty minutes afterward, you might find
his horse tied in the woods, and the snake-like Covey lying flat
in the ditch, with his head lifted above its edge, or in a fence
corner, watching every movement of the slaves! I have known him
walk up to us and give us special orders, as to our work, in
advance, as if he were leaving home with a view to being absent
several days; and before he got half way to the <168>house, he
would avail himself of our inattention to his movements, to turn
short on his heels, conceal himself behind a fence corner or a
tree, and watch us until the going down of the sun. Mean and
contemptible as is all this, it is in keeping with the character
which the life of a slaveholder is calculated to produce. There
is no earthly inducement, in the slave's condition, to incite him
to labor faithfully. The fear of punishment is the sole motive
for any sort of industry, with him. Knowing this fact, as the
slaveholder does, and judging the slave by himself, he naturally
concludes the slave will be idle whenever the cause for this fear
is absent. Hence, all sorts of petty deceptions are practiced,
to inspire this fear.

But, with Mr. Covey, trickery was natural. Everything in the
shape of learning or religion, which he possessed, was made to
conform to this semi-lying propensity. He did not seem conscious
that the practice had anything unmanly, base or contemptible
about it. It was a part of an important system, with him,
essential to the relation of master and slave. I thought I saw,
in his very religious devotions, this controlling element of his
character. A long prayer at night made up for the short prayer
in the morning; and few men could seem more devotional than he,
when he had nothing else to do.

Mr. Covey was not content with the cold style of family worship,
adopted in these cold latitudes, which begin and end with a
simple prayer. No! the voice of praise, as well as of prayer,
must be heard in his house, night and morning. At first, I was
called upon to bear some part in these exercises; but the
repeated flogging given me by Covey, turned the whole thing into
mockery. He was a poor singer, and mainly relied on me for
raising the hymn for the family, and when I failed to do so, he
was thrown into much confusion. I do not think that he ever
abused me on account of these vexations. His religion was a
thing altogether apart from his worldly concerns. He knew
nothing of it as a holy principle, directing and controlling his
daily life, <169 SHOCKING CONTEMPT FOR CHASTITY>making the latter
conform to the requirements of the gospel. One or two facts will
illustrate his character better than a volume of

I have already said, or implied, that Mr. Edward Covey was a poor
man. He was, in fact, just commencing to lay the foundation of
his fortune, as fortune is regarded in a slave state. The first
condition of wealth and respectability there, being the ownership
of human property, every nerve is strained, by the poor man, to
obtain it, and very little regard is had to the manner of
obtaining it. In pursuit of this object, pious as Mr. Covey was,
he proved himself to be as unscrupulous and base as the worst of
his neighbors. In the beginning, he was only able--as he said--
"to buy one slave;" and, scandalous and shocking as is the fact,
he boasted that he bought her simply "_as a breeder_." But the
worst is not told in this naked statement. This young woman
(Caroline was her name) was virtually compelled by Mr. Covey to
abandon herself to the object for which he had purchased her; and
the result was, the birth of twins at the end of the year. At
this addition to his human stock, both Edward Covey and his wife,
Susan, were ecstatic with joy. No one dreamed of reproaching the
woman, or of finding fault with the hired man--Bill Smith--the
father of the children, for Mr. Covey himself had locked the two
up together every night, thus inviting the result.

But I will pursue this revolting subject no further. No better
illustration of the unchaste and demoralizing character of
slavery can be found, than is furnished in the fact that this
professedly Christian slaveholder, amidst all his prayers and
hymns, was shamelessly and boastfully encouraging, and actually
compelling, in his own house, undisguised and unmitigated
fornication, as a means of increasing his human stock. I may
remark here, that, while this fact will be read with disgust and
shame at the north, it will be _laughed at_, as smart and
praiseworthy in Mr. Covey, at the south; for a man is no more
condemned there for buying a woman and devoting her to this life
of dishonor, <170>than for buying a cow, and raising stock from
her. The same rules are observed, with a view to increasing the
number and quality of the former, as of the latter.

I will here reproduce what I said of my own experience in this
wretched place, more than ten years ago:

If at any one time of my life, more than another, I was made to
drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the
first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked all
weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain,
blow, snow, or hail too hard for us to work in the field. Work,
work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than the
night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest
nights were too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I
first went there; but a few months of his discipline tamed me.
Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul
and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed; my intellect
languished; the disposition to read departed; the cheerful spark
that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed
in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of
beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.
At times, I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would
dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope,
flickered for a moment, and then vanished. I sank down again,
mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to
take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a
combination of hope and fear. My sufferings on this plantation
seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.

Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake bay, whose
broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the
habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white,
so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded
ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched
condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's
Sabbath, stood all alone upon the banks of that noble bay, and
traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number
of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these
always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel
utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would
pour out my soul's complaint in my rude way, with an apostrophe
to the moving multitude of ships:

"You are loosed from your moorings, and free; I am fast in my
chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale,
and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-
winged angels, that fly around the world; I am confined in bands
of iron! O, that I were free! O, that I were on one of your
gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me
<171 ANGUISH BEYOND DESCRIPTION>and you the turbid waters roll.
Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I
could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!
The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left
in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God,
deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a
slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or
get clear, I'll try it. I had as well die with ague as with
fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed
running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles
straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I
will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will
take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom.
The steamboats steered in a north-east coast from North Point. I
will do the same; and when I get to the head of the bay, I will
turn my canoe adrift, and walk straight through Delaware into
Pennsylvania. When I get there, I shall not be required to have
a pass; I will travel without being disturbed. Let but the first
opportunity offer, and come what will, I am off. Meanwhile, I
will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in
the world. Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of
them. Besides, I am but a boy, and all boys are bound to some
one. It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my
happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming."

I shall never be able to narrate the mental experience through
which it was my lot to pass during my stay at Covey's. I was
completely wrecked, changed and bewildered; goaded almost to
madness at one time, and at another reconciling myself to my
wretched condition. Everything in the way of kindness, which I
had experienced at Baltimore; all my former hopes and aspirations
for usefulness in the world, and the happy moments spent in the
exercises of religion, contrasted with my then present lot, but
increased my anguish.

I suffered bodily as well as mentally. I had neither sufficient
time in which to eat or to sleep, except on Sundays. The
overwork, and the brutal chastisements of which I was the victim,
combined with that ever-gnawing and soul-devouring thought--"_I
am a slave--a slave for life--a slave with no rational ground to
hope for freedom_"--rendered me a living embodiment of mental and
physical wretchedness.

Frederick Douglass

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