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Chapter 5

_Gradual Initiation to the Mysteries of Slavery_


Although my old master--Capt. Anthony--gave me at first, (as the
reader will have already seen) very little attention, and
although that little was of a remarkably mild and gentle
description, a few months only were sufficient to convince me
that mildness and gentleness were not the prevailing or governing
traits of his character. These excellent qualities were
displayed only occasionally. He could, when it suited him,
appear to be literally insensible to the claims of humanity, when
appealed to by the helpless against an aggressor, and he could
himself commit outrages, deep, dark and nameless. Yet he was not
by nature worse than other men. Had he been brought up in a free
state, surrounded by the just restraints of free society--
restraints which are necessary to the freedom of all its members,
alike and equally--Capt. Anthony might have been as humane a man,
and every way as respectable, as many who now oppose the slave
system; certainly as humane and respectable as are members of
society generally. The slaveholder, as well as the slave, is the
victim of the slave <62>system. A man's character greatly takes
its hue and shape from the form and color of things about him.
Under the whole heavens there is no relation more unfavorable to
the development of honorable character, than that sustained by
the slaveholder to the slave. Reason is imprisoned here, and
passions run wild. Like the fires of the prairie, once lighted,
they are at the mercy of every wind, and must burn, till they
have consumed all that is combustible within their remorseless
grasp. Capt. Anthony could be kind, and, at times, he even
showed an affectionate disposition. Could the reader have seen
him gently leading me by the hand--as he sometimes did--patting
me on the head, speaking to me in soft, caressing tones and
calling me his "little Indian boy," he would have deemed him a
kind old man, and really, almost fatherly. But the pleasant
moods of a slaveholder are remarkably brittle; they are easily
snapped; they neither come often, nor remain long. His temper is
subjected to perpetual trials; but, since these trials are never
borne patiently, they add nothing to his natural stock of

Old master very early impressed me with the idea that he was an
unhappy man. Even to my child's eye, he wore a troubled, and at
times, a haggard aspect. His strange movements excited my
curiosity, and awakened my compassion. He seldom walked alone
without muttering to himself; and he occasionally stormed about,
as if defying an army of invisible foes. "He would do this,
that, and the other; he'd be d--d if he did not,"--was the usual
form of his threats. Most of his leisure was spent in walking,
cursing and gesticulating, like one possessed by a demon. Most
evidently, he was a wretched man, at war with his own soul, and
with all the world around him. To be overheard by the children,
disturbed him very little. He made no more of our presence, than
of that of the ducks and geese which he met on the green. He
little thought that the little black urchins around him, could
see, through those vocal crevices, the very secrets of his heart.
Slaveholders ever underrate the intelligence with which <63
really understood the old man's mutterings, attitudes and
gestures, about as well as he did himself. But slaveholders
never encourage that kind of communication, with the slaves, by
which they might learn to measure the depths of his knowledge.
Ignorance is a high virtue in a human chattel; and as the master
studies to keep the slave ignorant, the slave is cunning enough
to make the master think he succeeds. The slave fully
appreciates the saying, "where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to
be wise." When old master's gestures were violent, ending with a
threatening shake of the head, and a sharp snap of his middle
finger and thumb, I deemed it wise to keep at a respectable
distance from him; for, at such times, trifling faults stood, in
his eyes, as momentous offenses; and, having both the power and
the disposition, the victim had only to be near him to catch the
punishment, deserved or undeserved.

One of the first circumstances that opened my eyes to the cruelty
and wickedness of slavery, and the heartlessness of my old
master, was the refusal of the latter to interpose his authority,
to protect and shield a young woman, who had been most cruelly
abused and beaten by his overseer in Tuckahoe. This overseer--a
Mr. Plummer--was a man like most of his class, little better than
a human brute; and, in addition to his general profligacy and
repulsive coarseness, the creature was a miserable drunkard. He
was, probably, employed by my old master, less on account of the
excellence of his services, than for the cheap rate at which they
could be obtained. He was not fit to have the management of a
drove of mules. In a fit of drunken madness, he committed the
outrage which brought the young woman in question down to my old
master's for protection. This young woman was the daughter of
Milly, an own aunt of mine. The poor girl, on arriving at our
house, presented a pitiable appearance. She had left in haste,
and without preparation; and, probably, without the knowledge of
Mr. Plummer. She had traveled twelve miles, bare-footed, bare-
necked and bare-headed. Her neck and shoulders <64>were covered
with scars, newly made; and not content with marring her neck and
shoulders, with the cowhide, the cowardly brute had dealt her a
blow on the head with a hickory club, which cut a horrible gash,
and left her face literally covered with blood. In this
condition, the poor young woman came down, to implore protection
at the hands of my old master. I expected to see him boil over
with rage at the revolting deed, and to hear him fill the air
with curses upon the brutual Plummer; but I was disappointed. He
sternly told her, in an angry tone, he "believed she deserved
every bit of it," and, if she did not go home instantly, he would
himself take the remaining skin from her neck and back. Thus was
the poor girl compelled to return, without redress, and perhaps
to receive an additional flogging for daring to appeal to old
master against the overseer.

Old master seemed furious at the thought of being troubled by
such complaints. I did not, at that time, understand the
philosophy of his treatment of my cousin. It was stern,
unnatural, violent. Had the man no bowels of compassion? Was he
dead to all sense of humanity? No. I think I now understand it.
This treatment is a part of the system, rather than a part of the
man. Were slaveholders to listen to complaints of this sort
against the overseers, the luxury of owning large numbers of
slaves, would be impossible. It would do away with the office of
overseer, entirely; or, in other words, it would convert the
master himself into an overseer. It would occasion great loss of
time and labor, leaving the overseer in fetters, and without the
necessary power to secure obedience to his orders. A privilege
so dangerous as that of appeal, is, therefore, strictly
prohibited; and any one exercising it, runs a fearful hazard.
Nevertheless, when a slave has nerve enough to exercise it, and
boldly approaches his master, with a well-founded complaint
against an overseer, though he may be repulsed, and may even have
that of which he complains repeated at the time, and, though he
may be beaten by his master, as well as by the overseer, for his
temerity, in the end the <65 SLAVEHOLDERS IMPATIENCE>policy of
complaining is, generally, vindicated by the relaxed rigor of the
overseer's treatment. The latter becomes more careful, and less
disposed to use the lash upon such slaves thereafter. It is with
this final result in view, rather than with any expectation of
immediate good, that the outraged slave is induced to meet his
master with a complaint. The overseer very naturally dislikes to
have the ear of the master disturbed by complaints; and, either
upon this consideration, or upon advice and warning privately
given him by his employers, he generally modifies the rigor of
his rule, after an outbreak of the kind to which I have been

Howsoever the slaveholder may allow himself to act toward his
slave, and, whatever cruelty he may deem it wise, for example's
sake, or for the gratification of his humor, to inflict, he
cannot, in the absence of all provocation, look with pleasure
upon the bleeding wounds of a defenseless slave-woman. When he
drives her from his presence without redress, or the hope of
redress, he acts, generally, from motives of policy, rather than
from a hardened nature, or from innate brutality. Yet, let but
his own temper be stirred, his own passions get loose, and the
slave-owner will go _far beyond_ the overseer in cruelty. He
will convince the slave that his wrath is far more terrible and
boundless, and vastly more to be dreaded, than that of the
underling overseer. What may have been mechanically and
heartlessly done by the overseer, is now done with a will. The
man who now wields the lash is irresponsible. He may, if he
pleases, cripple or kill, without fear of consequences; except in
so far as it may concern profit or loss. To a man of violent
temper--as my old master was--this was but a very slender and
inefficient restraint. I have seen him in a tempest of passion,
such as I have just described--a passion into which entered all
the bitter ingredients of pride, hatred, envy, jealousy, and the
thrist{sic} for revenge.

The circumstances which I am about to narrate, and which gave
rise to this fearful tempest of passion, are not singular nor
<66>isolated in slave life, but are common in every slaveholding
community in which I have lived. They are incidental to the
relation of master and slave, and exist in all sections of slave-
holding countries.

The reader will have noticed that, in enumerating the names of
the slaves who lived with my old master, _Esther_ is mentioned.
This was a young woman who possessed that which is ever a curse
to the slave-girl; namely--personal beauty. She was tall, well
formed, and made a fine appearance. The daughters of Col. Lloyd
could scarcely surpass her in personal charms. Esther was
courted by Ned Roberts, and he was as fine looking a young man,
as she was a woman. He was the son of a favorite slave of Col.
Lloyd. Some slaveholders would have been glad to promote the
marriage of two such persons; but, for some reason or other, my
old master took it upon him to break up the growing intimacy
between Esther and Edward. He strictly ordered her to quit the
company of said Roberts, telling her that he would punish her
severely if he ever found her again in Edward's company. This
unnatural and heartless order was, of course, broken. A woman's
love is not to be annihilated by the peremptory command of any
one, whose breath is in his nostrils. It was impossible to keep
Edward and Esther apart. Meet they would, and meet they did.
Had old master been a man of honor and purity, his motives, in
this matter, might have been viewed more favorably. As it was,
his motives were as abhorrent, as his methods were foolish and
contemptible. It was too evident that he was not concerned for
the girl's welfare. It is one of the damning characteristics of
the slave system, that it robs its victims of every earthly
incentive to a holy life. The fear of God, and the hope of
heaven, are found sufficient to sustain many slave-women, amidst
the snares and dangers of their strange lot; but, this side of
God and heaven, a slave-woman is at the mercy of the power,
caprice and passion of her owner. Slavery provides no means for
the honorable continuance of the race. Marriage as imposing
obligations on the parties to it--has no <67 A HARROWING SCENE>
existence here, except in such hearts as are purer and higher
than the standard morality around them. It is one of the
consolations of my life, that I know of many honorable instances
of persons who maintained their honor, where all around was

Esther was evidently much attached to Edward, and abhorred--as
she had reason to do--the tyrannical and base behavior of old
master. Edward was young, and fine looking, and he loved and
courted her. He might have been her husband, in the high sense
just alluded to; but WHO and _what_ was this old master? His
attentions were plainly brutal and selfish, and it was as natural
that Esther should loathe him, as that she should love Edward.
Abhorred and circumvented as he was, old master, having the
power, very easily took revenge. I happened to see this
exhibition of his rage and cruelty toward Esther. The time
selected was singular. It was early in the morning, when all
besides was still, and before any of the family, in the house or
kitchen, had left their beds. I saw but few of the shocking
preliminaries, for the cruel work had begun before I awoke. I
was probably awakened by the shrieks and piteous cries of poor
Esther. My sleeping place was on the floor of a little, rough
closet, which opened into the kitchen; and through the cracks of
its unplaned boards, I could distinctly see and hear what was
going on, without being seen by old master. Esther's wrists were
firmly tied, and the twisted rope was fastened to a strong staple
in a heavy wooden joist above, near the fireplace. Here she
stood, on a bench, her arms tightly drawn over her breast. Her
back and shoulders were bare to the waist. Behind her stood old
master, with cowskin in hand, preparing his barbarous work with
all manner of harsh, coarse, and tantalizing epithets. The
screams of his victim were most piercing. He was cruelly
deliberate, and protracted the torture, as one who was delighted
with the scene. Again and again he drew the hateful whip through
his hand, adjusting it with a view of dealing the most pain-
giving blow. Poor Esther had never yet been severely whipped,
and her shoulders <68>were plump and tender. Each blow,
vigorously laid on, brought screams as well as blood. _"Have
mercy; Oh! have mercy"_ she cried; "_I won't do so no more;"_ but
her piercing cries seemed only to increase his fury. His answers
to them are too coarse and blasphemous to be produced here. The
whole scene, with all its attendants, was revolting and shocking,
to the last degree; and when the motives of this brutal
castigation are considered,--language has no power to convey a
just sense of its awful criminality. After laying on some thirty
or forty stripes, old master untied his suffering victim, and let
her get down. She could scarcely stand, when untied. From my
heart I pitied her, and--child though I was--the outrage kindled
in me a feeling far from peaceful; but I was hushed, terrified,
stunned, and could do nothing, and the fate of Esther might be
mine next. The scene here described was often repeated in the
case of poor Esther, and her life, as I knew it, was one of

Frederick Douglass

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