In consequence of the following advertisement in the _Picayune_, I screwed up my feelings, and resolved for once at least in my life to see a slave-auction. I was the more disposed to attend this, as it was distinctly stated that they would be sold in families. I should not therefore have to behold the wife torn away from the husband, the husband from the wife, the parent from the child, or the child from the parent, as is so commonly done.
“COTTON-FIELD HANDS.–By Beard, Calhoun, and Co., auctioneers.–Will be sold at auction, on Friday, the 5th inst., at 12 o’clock, at Bank’s Arcade, thirty-seven Field Slaves; comprising eighteen from one plantation, and fourteen from another. All acclimated Negroes. To be sold in Families. Full particulars at sale.”
As I got in at one end, I heard a voice–with that peculiar, twirling, rapid, nasal twang, which marks the Transatlantic auctioneer–say, “400 dollars for this fine young woman–only 400 dollars–420, only 420–430–440, only 440 dollars offered for this fine young woman.” By this time I had got in front of the performer, and had a full view of the whole affair. And sure enough she was a “fine young woman,” about twenty-three years of age, neatly dressed, not quite—-But the scene shall form the subject of my next letter.
Yes, she _was_ a “fine young woman,” about 23 years of age, neatly dressed, not black, but slightly coloured. The auctioneer was a sleek-looking fellow, with a face that indicated frequent and familiar intercourse with the brandy-bottle. He stood upon a platform, about four feet high. Behind him was a table, at which a clerk sat to record the sales. High above was a semi-circular board, on which were written in large letters “Beard, Calhoun, and Co.” In front, standing upon a chair, exposed to the gaze of a crowd of men, stood the “fine young woman.” She had an air of dignity even in that degrading position. Around were twenty or thirty more of the sable race, waiting their turn.
“440 dollars only offered,” continued the coarse and heartless auctioneer; “450, thank you; 460, 460 dollars only offered for this excellent young woman–470 only, 470–480, 480 dollars only offered–490–500 dollars offered–going for 500 dollars–once, going for 500 dollars–503 dollars–going for 503 dollars–going–once –twice–gone for 503 dollars. She is yours, sir,” pointing to the highest bidder. She stepped down, and disappeared in the custody of her new proprietor.
A man and his wife, both black, were now put up. They were made to ascend the platform. “Now, how much for this man and his wife? Who makes an offer? What say you for the pair? 550 dollars offered–560 dollars only; 560 dollars,” &c., &c., till some one bidding 600 dollars–he added, “Really, gentlemen, it is throwing the people away–going for 600 dollars; going–once–twice–gone for 600 dollars. They are yours, sir.”
Jim, a blacksmith, about 30 years of age, was the next. He stood on the chair in front. “Now, who bids for Jim? He is an excellent blacksmith; can work on a plantation, and make his own tools; in fact, can turn his hand to anything. The title is good,”–(Is it, indeed? breathed I,)–“and he is guaranteed free from all the vices and maladies provided against by law. Who bids for him? 600 dollars bid for him –625 dollars–650 dollars,” and so on to 780. “‘Pon my soul, gentlemen, this is throwing the man away; he is well worth 1,200 dollars of anybody’s money; 790 dollars only offered for him–going for 790 dollars;–going–once–twice–gone for 790 dollars.”
The next “lot” was a family, consisting of the husband, a man slightly coloured, about 30 years of age, the wife about 25, quite black, and reminding me forcibly of an excellent woman in my own congregation, a little girl about 4 years of age, and a child in the arms. They were told to mount the platform. As they obeyed, I was attracted by a little incident, which had well nigh caused my feelings to betray me. Never shall I forget it. Parents of England, let me tell it you, and enlist your sympathies on behalf of oppressed and outraged humanity. It was that of a father helping up, by the hand, _his own little girl to be exposed for sale_.
“Now, who bids for this family? Title good–guaranteed free from the vices and maladies provided against by law. The man is an excellent shoemaker–can turn his hand to anything,–and his wife is a very good house-servant. Who bids for the lot? 500 dollars bid for them–600 dollars–only 600 dollars–700 dollars offered for them.” But the price ultimately mounted up to 1,125 dollars.–“Going for 1,125 dollars–once–twice–gone for 1,125 dollars.”
The next was a black boy, 16 years of age. He mounted the chair, not the platform. “Now, gentlemen, here is an excellent ploughboy. Who bids for him? Thank you,–400 dollars bid for him–425,” and so on to 550 dollars. “Why, look at him; he is a powerful-limbed boy; he will make a very large strong man.” He was knocked down at 625 dollars.
“The next I have to put up, gentlemen, is a young piece of city goods–the girl Cornelia. She is 18 years of age, a good washer and ironer, but not a very good cook. She is well known in the city, and has always belonged to some of the best families.” By this time Cornelia was standing upon the chair. “Now, gentlemen, who bids for this girl? She is sold for no fault, but simply for want of money. Who bids for this excellent washer and ironer?” At this moment one of the “gentlemen,” standing in front of her, deliberately took his walking-stick, and, with the point of it, lifted up her clothes as high as the knee. I afterwards saw this same man walking arm-in-arm with his white wife in the street. “500 dollars offered for her–530 dollars.” She went for 580.
Here let me state, once for all, that I took notes on the spot. Those around me no doubt thought I was deeply interested in the state of the slave-market, and wishful to convey the most accurate information to my slave-breeding and soul-driving correspondents at a distance. Had my real object and character been discovered, I gravely doubt whether I should have left that “great” and “free” city alive!
The next “lot” were Jim, his wife, and two children, one about three, and the other about two years of age,–all on the platform. They were said to be excellent cotton-field hands, title good, and so forth; but,somehow, there were no bidders.
A boy about ten years of age, a fine intelligent-looking little fellow, was now made to mount the chair. “Now, who bids for Tom? an excellent house-boy, ‘smart’ young lad; can wait well at table–title good–guaranteed free from all the vices and maladies provided against by law. Who bids for him?” The bidding began, at 350 dollars, and ended at 425.
“I have now to put up the boy Edmund, thirty-two years of age, an excellent cotton-field hand. Who bids for the boy Edmund?” At this moment a gentleman, who, like most of those present, appeared to be a sort of speculator in slaves, stepped forward, and examined with his hands the boy’s legs, especially about the ankles, just as I have seen horse-dealers do with those animals at fairs. There were, however, no bidders; and Edmund was put down again.
The next that mounted the chair was a shrewd-looking negro, about thirty-five years of age. “Now, gentlemen, who bids for Tom? He is an excellent painter and glazier, and a good cook besides; title good; sold for no fault, except that his owner had hired him at 25 dollars a month, and Tom would not work. An excellent painter and glazier, and a good cook besides. His only fault is that he has a great idea of his own reserved rights, to the neglect of those of his master.”
This was said with a waggish kind of a leer, as if he thought he had said a very smart thing in a very smart way. 300 dollars were first offered for him; but poor Tom went for 350. “Now, sir,” said the man-seller to Tom, with a malicious look, “you’ll go into the country.” He was bought by one of the speculators, who no doubt would sell him again for double the amount. Tom, as he descended from the chair, gave a look which seemed to say, “I care not whither I go; but my own reserved rights shall not be forgotten!”
A girl of seventeen years of age, somewhat coloured, was the next put up. She was “an excellent washer and getter-up of linen.” She was also “a tolerably good cook.” But there were no bidders; and the auctioneer said, “Really, gentlemen, I have a great deal of business to do in my office: I cannot lose any more time here, as you are not disposed to bid.” And so ended the exhibition.
I was now at leisure to observe that a strange noise which I had heard for some time proceeded from another auctioneer, engaged in the same line of business at the other end of the room. As I approached, I saw him with a young coloured man of about twenty-two years of age, standing on his left hand on the platform. What a sight! Two men standing together, and the one offering the other for sale to the highest bidder!
In the young man’s appearance there was something very good and interesting. He reminded me forcibly of an excellent young man of the same colour in my own congregation. 430 dollars were offered for him; but, as he was a good carriage driver, and worth a great deal more, only he had not had time to dress himself for the sale, being industrious, sober, and _no runaway_ (said with significant emphasis), the bidding ran up to 660 dollars. Here one of the bidders on the auctioneer’s right hand asked him something aside; to which he answered, loudly and emphatically, “_Fully guaranteed in every respect_;” and then said to the young man, “Turn this way, and let the gentleman see you,” He was sold for 665 dollars.
The next was a very modest-looking young mulatto girl, of small features and slender frame, with a little child (apparently not more than a year old) in her arms, evidently the daughter of a white man. “Now, who bids for Margaret and her child?” Margaret! my own dear mother’s name. “Margaret and her child!” What should I have been this day, if _that_ Margaret “and her child” Ebenezer had been so treated? Who can think of his own mother, and not drop a tear of sympathy for this mother–so young, so interesting, and yet so degraded?
“Now, gentlemen, who bids for Margaret and her child? She is between sixteen and seventeen years of age, and is six months gone in pregnancy of her second child: I mention the last circumstance, because you would not think it to look at her,–it is right, however, that you should know. She cooks well, sews well, washes well, and irons well. Only 545 dollars! Really, gentlemen, it’s throwing the girl away; she is well worth 800 dollars of any man’s money. She’ll no doubt be the mother of a great many children; and that is a consideration to a purchaser who wants to raise a fine young stock. Only 545 dollars offered for her!”
No higher offer being made, she was sent down,–it was no sale. Let us breathe again.
You shall now learn how men buy and sell women in America. “Elizabeth” was the first who was made to mount the platform. She was a very genteel-looking girl, about eighteen years of age, evidently the daughter of a white man, and said to be “a good seamstress and house-servant–_excellente couturiere et domestique de maison_.” 600 dollars was the first bid, and 810 the last, at which price (about 170_l._) Elizabeth–so young and so interesting–was sold!
“Susan,” too, was a mulatto–the daughter of a white man. She was short, dumpy, and full-faced, about sixteen years of age, “a plain seamstress and house-servant.” She appeared exceedingly modest, and kept her eyes on the floor in front of the platform. On that floor, as usual, the filthy dealers in human flesh were ever and anon pouring forth immense quantities of tobacco juice. For Susan the first bid was 500 dollars, and the highest 700 (nearly 150_l._), at which she was “knocked down.” But the fat old man, as before, in his peculiar drawling nasal tones, said, “The 700 dollars was my bid, and therefore Susan is not sold.” Poor Susan was very sad and gloomy.
“Betsy,” another “plain seamstress and house-servant,” about sixteen years of age, also the daughter of a white man, had a fine intelligent eye, and her effort to restrain her feelings was evidently great. The offers, however, not suiting, the auctioneer closed the exhibition, which had lasted an hour.
Part -> 4 – Letter X