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Chapter 17

_The Last Flogging_


Sleep itself does not always come to the relief of the weary in
body, and the broken in spirit; especially when past troubles
only foreshadow coming disasters. The last hope had been
extinguished. My master, who I did not venture to hope would
protect me as _a man_, had even now refused to protect me as _his
property;_ and had cast me back, covered with reproaches and
bruises, into the hands of a stranger to that mercy which was the
soul of the religion he professed. May the reader never spend
such a night as that allotted to me, previous to the morning
which was to herald my return to the den of horrors from which I
had made a temporary escape.

I remained all night--sleep I did not--at St. Michael's; and in
the morning (Saturday) I started off, according to the order of
Master Thomas, feeling that I had no friend on earth, and
doubting if I had one in heaven. I reached Covey's about nine
o'clock; and just as I stepped into the field, before I had
reached the house, Covey, true to his snakish habits, darted out
at me <181 RETURN TO COVEY'S>from a fence corner, in which he had
secreted himself, for the purpose of securing me. He was amply
provided with a cowskin and a rope; and he evidently intended to
_tie me up_, and to wreak his vengeance on me to the fullest
extent. I should have been an easy prey, had he succeeded in
getting his hands upon me, for I had taken no refreshment since
noon on Friday; and this, together with the pelting, excitement,
and the loss of blood, had reduced my strength. I, however,
darted back into the woods, before the ferocious hound could get
hold of me, and buried myself in a thicket, where he lost sight
of me. The corn-field afforded me cover, in getting to the
woods. But for the tall corn, Covey would have overtaken me, and
made me his captive. He seemed very much chagrined that he did
not catch me, and gave up the chase, very reluctantly; for I
could see his angry movements, toward the house from which he had
sallied, on his foray.

Well, now I am clear of Covey, and of his wrathful lash, for
present. I am in the wood, buried in its somber gloom, and
hushed in its solemn silence; hid from all human eyes; shut in
with nature and nature's God, and absent from all human
contrivances. Here was a good place to pray; to pray for help
for deliverance--a prayer I had often made before. But how could
I pray? Covey could pray--Capt. Auld could pray--I would fain
pray; but doubts (arising partly from my own neglect of the means
of grace, and partly from the sham religion which everywhere
prevailed, cast in my mind a doubt upon all religion, and led me
to the conviction that prayers were unavailing and delusive)
prevented my embracing the opportunity, as a religious one.
Life, in itself, had almost become burdensome to me. All my
outward relations were against me; I must stay here and starve (I
was already hungry) or go home to Covey's, and have my flesh torn
to pieces, and my spirit humbled under the cruel lash of Covey.
This was the painful alternative presented to me. The day was
long and irksome. My physical condition was deplorable. I was
weak, from the toils of the previous day, and from the want of
<182>food and rest; and had been so little concerned about my
appearance, that I had not yet washed the blood from my garments.
I was an object of horror, even to myself. Life, in Baltimore,
when most oppressive, was a paradise to this. What had I done,
what had my parents done, that such a life as this should be
mine? That day, in the woods, I would have exchanged my manhood
for the brutehood of an ox.

Night came. I was still in the woods, unresolved what to do.
Hunger had not yet pinched me to the point of going home, and I
laid myself down in the leaves to rest; for I had been watching
for hunters all day, but not being molested during the day, I
expected no disturbance during the night. I had come to the
conclusion that Covey relied upon hunger to drive me home; and in
this I was quite correct--the facts showed that he had made no
effort to catch me, since morning.

During the night, I heard the step of a man in the woods. He was
coming toward the place where I lay. A person lying still has
the advantage over one walking in the woods, in the day time, and
this advantage is much greater at night. I was not able to
engage in a physical struggle, and I had recourse to the common
resort of the weak. I hid myself in the leaves to prevent
discovery. But, as the night rambler in the woods drew nearer, I
found him to be a _friend_, not an enemy; it was a slave of Mr.
William Groomes, of Easton, a kind hearted fellow, named "Sandy."
Sandy lived with Mr. Kemp that year, about four miles from St.
Michael's. He, like myself had been hired out by the year; but,
unlike myself, had not been hired out to be broken. Sandy was
the husband of a free woman, who lived in the lower part of
_"Potpie Neck,"_ and he was now on his way through the woods, to
see her, and to spend the Sabbath with her.

As soon as I had ascertained that the disturber of my solitude
was not an enemy, but the good-hearted Sandy--a man as famous
among the slaves of the neighborhood for his good nature, as for
his good sense I came out from my hiding place, and made <183 THE
ASH CAKE SUPPER>myself known to him. I explained the
circumstances of the past two days, which had driven me to the
woods, and he deeply compassionated my distress. It was a bold
thing for him to shelter me, and I could not ask him to do so;
for, had I been found in his hut, he would have suffered the
penalty of thirty-nine lashes on his bare back, if not something
worse. But Sandy was too generous to permit the fear of
punishment to prevent his relieving a brother bondman from hunger
and exposure; and, therefore, on his own motion, I accompanied
him to his home, or rather to the home of his wife--for the house
and lot were hers. His wife was called up--for it was now about
midnight--a fire was made, some Indian meal was soon mixed with
salt and water, and an ash cake was baked in a hurry to relieve
my hunger. Sandy's wife was not behind him in kindness--both
seemed to esteem it a privilege to succor me; for, although I was
hated by Covey and by my master, I was loved by the colored
people, because _they_ thought I was hated for my knowledge, and
persecuted because I was feared. I was the _only_ slave _now_ in
that region who could read and write. There had been one other
man, belonging to Mr. Hugh Hamilton, who could read (his name was
"Jim"), but he, poor fellow, had, shortly after my coming into
the neighborhood, been sold off to the far south. I saw Jim
ironed, in the cart, to be carried to Easton for sale--pinioned
like a yearling for the slaughter. My knowledge was now the
pride of my brother slaves; and, no doubt, Sandy felt something
of the general interest in me on that account. The supper was
soon ready, and though I have feasted since, with honorables,
lord mayors and aldermen, over the sea, my supper on ash cake and
cold water, with Sandy, was the meal, of all my life, most sweet
to my taste, and now most vivid in my memory.

Supper over, Sandy and I went into a discussion of what was
_possible_ for me, under the perils and hardships which now
overshadowed my path. The question was, must I go back to Covey,
or must I now tempt to run away? Upon a careful survey, the
latter was found to be impossible; for I was on a narrow neck of
land, <184>every avenue from which would bring me in sight of
pursuers. There was the Chesapeake bay to the right, and "Pot-
pie" river to the left, and St. Michael's and its neighborhood
occupying the only space through which there was any retreat.

I found Sandy an old advisor. He was not only a religious man,
but he professed to believe in a system for which I have no name.
He was a genuine African, and had inherited some of the so-called
magical powers, said to be possessed by African and eastern
nations. He told me that he could help me; that, in those very
woods, there was an herb, which in the morning might be found,
possessing all the powers required for my protection (I put his
thoughts in my own language); and that, if I would take his
advice, he would procure me the root of the herb of which he
spoke. He told me further, that if I would take that root and
wear it on my right side, it would be impossible for Covey to
strike me a blow; that with this root about my person, no white
man could whip me. He said he had carried it for years, and that
he had fully tested its virtues. He had never received a blow
from a slaveholder since he carried it; and he never expected to
receive one, for he always meant to carry that root as a
protection. He knew Covey well, for Mrs. Covey was the daughter
of Mr. Kemp; and he (Sandy) had heard of the barbarous treatment
to which I was subjected, and he wanted to do something for me.

Now all this talk about the root, was to me, very absurd and
ridiculous, if not positively sinful. I at first rejected the
idea that the simple carrying a root on my right side (a root, by
the way, over which I walked every time I went into the woods)
could possess any such magic power as he ascribed to it, and I
was, therefore, not disposed to cumber my pocket with it. I had
a positive aversion to all pretenders to _"divination."_ It was
beneath one of my intelligence to countenance such dealings with
the devil, as this power implied. But, with all my learning--it
was really precious little--Sandy was more than a match for me.
"My book learning," he said, "had not kept Covey off me" (a
powerful <185 THE MAGIC ROOT>argument just then) and he entreated
me, with flashing eyes, to try this. If it did me no good, it
could do me no harm, and it would cost me nothing, any way.
Sandy was so earnest, and so confident of the good qualities of
this weed, that, to please him, rather than from any conviction
of its excellence, I was induced to take it. He had been to me
the good Samaritan, and had, almost providentially, found me, and
helped me when I could not help myself; how did I know but that
the hand of the Lord was in it? With thoughts of this sort, I
took the roots from Sandy, and put them in my right hand pocket.

This was, of course, Sunday morning. Sandy now urged me to go
home, with all speed, and to walk up bravely to the house, as
though nothing had happened. I saw in Sandy too deep an insight
into human nature, with all his superstition, not to have some
respect for his advice; and perhaps, too, a slight gleam or
shadow of his superstition had fallen upon me. At any rate, I
started off toward Covey's, as directed by Sandy. Having, the
previous night, poured my griefs into Sandy's ears, and got him
enlisted in my behalf, having made his wife a sharer in my
sorrows, and having, also, become well refreshed by sleep and
food, I moved off, quite courageously, toward the much dreaded
Covey's. Singularly enough, just as I entered his yard gate, I
met him and his wife, dressed in their Sunday best--looking as
smiling as angels--on their way to church. The manner of Covey
astonished me. There was something really benignant in his
countenance. He spoke to me as never before; told me that the
pigs had got into the lot, and he wished me to drive them out;
inquired how I was, and seemed an altered man. This
extraordinary conduct of Covey, really made me begin to think
that Sandy's herb had more virtue in it than I, in my pride, had
been willing to allow; and, had the day been other than Sunday, I
should have attributed Covey's altered manner solely to the magic
power of the root. I suspected, however, that the _Sabbath_, and
not the _root_, was the real explanation of Covey's manner. His
religion hindered him from breaking the <186>Sabbath, but not
from breaking my skin. He had more respect for the _day_ than
for the _man_, for whom the day was mercifully given; for while
he would cut and slash my body during the week, he would not
hesitate, on Sunday, to teach me the value of my soul, or the way
of life and salvation by Jesus Christ.

All went well with me till Monday morning; and then, whether the
root had lost its virtue, or whether my tormentor had gone deeper
into the black art than myself (as was sometimes said of him), or
whether he had obtained a special indulgence, for his faithful
Sabbath day's worship, it is not necessary for me to know, or to
inform the reader; but, this I _may_ say--the pious and benignant
smile which graced Covey's face on _Sunday_, wholly disappeared
on _Monday_. Long before daylight, I was called up to go and
feed, rub, and curry the horses. I obeyed the call, and would
have so obeyed it, had it been made at an earilier{sic} hour, for
I had brought my mind to a firm resolve, during that Sunday's
reflection, viz: to obey every order, however unreasonable, if it
were possible, and, if Mr. Covey should then undertake to beat
me, to defend and protect myself to the best of my ability. My
religious views on the subject of resisting my master, had
suffered a serious shock, by the savage persecution to which I
had been subjected, and my hands were no longer tied by my
religion. Master Thomas's indifference had served the last link.
I had now to this extent "backslidden" from this point in the
slave's religious creed; and I soon had occasion to make my
fallen state known to my Sunday-pious brother, Covey.

Whilst I was obeying his order to feed and get the horses ready
for the field, and when in the act of going up the stable loft
for the purpose of throwing down some blades, Covey sneaked into
the stable, in his peculiar snake-like way, and seizing me
suddenly by the leg, he brought me to the stable floor, giving my
newly mended body a fearful jar. I now forgot my roots, and
remembered my pledge to _stand up in my own defense_. The brute
was endeavoring skillfully to get a slip-knot on my legs, before
I could <187 THE FIGHT>draw up my feet. As soon as I found what
he was up to, I gave a sudden spring (my two day's rest had been
of much service to me,) and by that means, no doubt, he was able
to bring me to the floor so heavily. He was defeated in his plan
of tying me. While down, he seemed to think he had me very
securely in his power. He little thought he was--as the rowdies
say--"in" for a "rough and tumble" fight; but such was the fact.
Whence came the daring spirit necessary to grapple with a man
who, eight-and-forty hours before, could, with his slightest word
have made me tremble like a leaf in a storm, I do not know; at
any rate, _I was resolved to fight_, and, what was better still,
I was actually hard at it. The fighting madness had come upon
me, and I found my strong fingers firmly attached to the throat
of my cowardly tormentor; as heedless of consequences, at the
moment, as though we stood as equals before the law. The very
color of the man was forgotten. I felt as supple as a cat, and
was ready for the snakish creature at every turn. Every blow of
his was parried, though I dealt no blows in turn. I was strictly
on the _defensive_, preventing him from injuring me, rather than
trying to injure him. I flung him on the ground several times,
when he meant to have hurled me there. I held him so firmly by
the throat, that his blood followed my nails. He held me, and I
held him.

All was fair, thus far, and the contest was about equal. My
resistance was entirely unexpected, and Covey was taken all aback
by it, for he trembled in every limb. _"Are you going to
resist_, you scoundrel?" said he. To which, I returned a polite
_"Yes sir;"_ steadily gazing my interrogator in the eye, to meet
the first approach or dawning of the blow, which I expected my
answer would call forth. But, the conflict did not long remain
thus equal. Covey soon cried out lustily for help; not that I
was obtaining any marked advantage over him, or was injuring him,
but because he was gaining none over me, and was not able, single
handed, to conquer me. He called for his cousin Hughs, to come
to his assistance, and now the scene was changed. I was
compelled to <188>give blows, as well as to parry them; and,
since I was, in any case, to suffer for resistance, I felt (as
the musty proverb goes) that "I might as well be hanged for an
old sheep as a lamb." I was still _defensive_ toward Covey, but
_aggressive_ toward Hughs; and, at the first approach of the
latter, I dealt a blow, in my desperation, which fairly sickened
my youthful assailant. He went off, bending over with pain, and
manifesting no disposition to come within my reach again. The
poor fellow was in the act of trying to catch and tie my right
hand, and while flattering himself with success, I gave him the
kick which sent him staggering away in pain, at the same time
that I held Covey with a firm hand.

Taken completely by surprise, Covey seemed to have lost his usual
strength and coolness. He was frightened, and stood puffing and
blowing, seemingly unable to command words or blows. When he saw
that poor Hughes was standing half bent with pain--his courage
quite gone the cowardly tyrant asked if I "meant to persist in my
resistance." I told him "_I did mean to resist, come what
might_;" that I had been by him treated like a _brute_, during
the last six months; and that I should stand it _no longer_.
With that, he gave me a shake, and attempted to drag me toward a
stick of wood, that was lying just outside the stable door. He
meant to knock me down with it; but, just as he leaned over to
get the stick, I seized him with both hands by the collar, and,
with a vigorous and sudden snatch, I brought my assailant
harmlessly, his full length, on the _not_ overclean ground--for
we were now in the cow yard. He had selected the place for the
fight, and it was but right that he should have all the
advantges{sic} of his own selection.

By this time, Bill, the hiredman, came home. He had been to Mr.
Hemsley's, to spend the Sunday with his nominal wife, and was
coming home on Monday morning, to go to work. Covey and I had
been skirmishing from before daybreak, till now, that the sun was
almost shooting his beams over the eastern woods, and we were
still at it. I could not see where the matter was to terminate.
He evidently was afraid to let me go, lest I should again <189
BILL REFUSES TO ASSIST COVEY>make off to the woods; otherwise, he
would probably have obtained arms from the house, to frighten me.
Holding me, Covey called upon Bill for assistance. The scene
here, had something comic about it. "Bill," who knew _precisely_
what Covey wished him to do, affected ignorance, and pretended he
did not know what to do. "What shall I do, Mr. Covey," said
Bill. "Take hold of him--take hold of him!" said Covey. With a
toss of his head, peculiar to Bill, he said, "indeed, Mr. Covey I
want to go to work." _"This is_ your work," said Covey; "take
hold of him." Bill replied, with spirit, "My master hired me
here, to work, and _not_ to help you whip Frederick." It was now
my turn to speak. "Bill," said I, "don't put your hands on me."
To which he replied, "My GOD! Frederick, I ain't goin' to tech
ye," and Bill walked off, leaving Covey and myself to settle our
matters as best we might.

But, my present advantage was threatened when I saw Caroline (the
slave-woman of Covey) coming to the cow yard to milk, for she was
a powerful woman, and could have mastered me very easily,
exhausted as I now was. As soon as she came into the yard, Covey
attempted to rally her to his aid. Strangely--and, I may add,
fortunately--Caroline was in no humor to take a hand in any such
sport. We were all in open rebellion, that morning. Caroline
answered the command of her master to _"take hold of me,"_
precisely as Bill had answered, but in _her_, it was at greater
peril so to answer; she was the slave of Covey, and he could do
what he pleased with her. It was _not_ so with Bill, and Bill
knew it. Samuel Harris, to whom Bill belonged, did not allow his
slaves to be beaten, unless they were guilty of some crime which
the law would punish. But, poor Caroline, like myself, was at
the mercy of the merciless Covey; nor did she escape the dire
effects of her refusal. He gave her several sharp blows.

Covey at length (two hours had elapsed) gave up the contest.
Letting me go, he said--puffing and blowing at a great rate--
"Now, you scoundrel, go to your work; I would not have whipped
you half so much as I have had you not resisted." The fact was,
<190>_he had not whipped me at all_. He had not, in all the
scuffle, drawn a single drop of blood from me. I had drawn blood
from him; and, even without this satisfaction, I should have been
victorious, because my aim had not been to injure him, but to
prevent his injuring me.

During the whole six months that I lived with Covey, after this
transaction, he never laid on me the weight of his finger in
anger. He would, occasionally, say he did not want to have to
get hold of me again--a declaration which I had no difficulty in
believing; and I had a secret feeling, which answered, "You need
not wish to get hold of me again, for you will be likely to come
off worse in a second fight than you did in the first."

Well, my dear reader, this battle with Mr. Covey--undignified as
it was, and as I fear my narration of it is--was the turning
point in my _"life as a slave_." It rekindled in my breast the
smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams,
and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being
after that fight. I was _nothing_ before; I WAS A MAN NOW. It
recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence,
and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. A
man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity.
Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot _honor_ a helpless
man, although it can _pity_ him; and even this it cannot do long,
if the signs of power do not arise.

He can only understand the effect of this combat on my spirit,
who has himself incurred something, hazarded something, in
repelling the unjust and cruel aggressions of a tyrant. Covey
was a tyrant, and a cowardly one, withal. After resisting him, I
felt as I had never felt before. It was a resurrection from the
dark and pestiferous tomb of slavery, to the heaven of
comparative freedom. I was no longer a servile coward, trembling
under the frown of a brother worm of the dust, but, my long-cowed
spirit was roused to an attitude of manly independence. I had
reached the point, at which I was _not afraid to die_. This <191
RESULTS OF THE VICTORY>spirit made me a freeman in _fact_, while
I remained a slave in _form_. When a slave cannot be flogged he
is more than half free. He has a domain as broad as his own
manly heart to defend, and he is really _"a power on earth_."
While slaves prefer their lives, with flogging, to instant death,
they will always find Christians enough, like unto Covey, to
accommodate that preference. From this time, until that of my
escape from slavery, I was never fairly whipped. Several
attempts were made to whip me, but they were always unsuccessful.
Bruises I did get, as I shall hereafter inform the reader; but
the case I have been describing, was the end of the brutification
to which slavery had subjected me.

The reader will be glad to know why, after I had so grievously
offended Mr. Covey, he did not have me taken in hand by the
authorities; indeed, why the law of Maryland, which assigns
hanging to the slave who resists his master, was not put in force
against me; at any rate, why I was not taken up, as is usual in
such cases, and publicly whipped, for an example to other slaves,
and as a means of deterring me from committing the same offense
again. I confess, that the easy manner in which I got off, for a
long time, a surprise to me, and I cannot, even now, fully
explain the cause.

The only explanation I can venture to suggest, is the fact, that
Covey was, probably, ashamed to have it known and confessed that
he had been mastered by a boy of sixteen. Mr. Covey enjoyed the
unbounded and very valuable reputation, of being a first rate
overseer and _Negro breaker_. By means of this reputation, he
was able to procure his hands for _very trifling_ compensation,
and with very great ease. His interest and his pride mutually
suggested the wisdom of passing the matter by, in silence. The
story that he had undertaken to whip a lad, and had been
resisted, was, of itself, sufficient to damage him; for his
bearing should, in the estimation of slaveholders, be of that
imperial order that should make such an occurrence _impossible_.
I judge from these circumstances, that Covey deemed it best to
<192>give me the go-by. It is, perhaps, not altogether
creditable to my natural temper, that, after this conflict with
Mr. Covey, I did, at times, purposely aim to provoke him to an
attack, by refusing to keep with the other hands in the field,
but I could never bully him to another battle. I had made up my
mind to do him serious damage, if he ever again attempted to lay
violent hands on me.

_ Hereditary bondmen, know ye not
Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow?

Frederick Douglass

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