Observations on American Slavery
Carpenter, Russell Lant. 1852. Observations on American Slavery: After a Year’s Tour in the United States. Publisher: London: Edward T. Whitfield; 69 pp. (References to Stephen Bishop and Mammoth Cave, pp. 46-47) http://books.google.com/books?id=_swSAAAAYAAJ&dq
A portion of this article was posted on a Facebook group to which I belong. It is a document that deserves to be read. Jackie Wheet, current Guide at Mammoth Cave, posted the relevant portion of the article and wrote:
“An amazing insight and look into Slavery and Stephen Bishop.
Russel Carpenter comes to travel America from Europe for 1 year and observe the issues, debates, lives and politics of slavery. He travels to New York and actually visits with Fredrick Douglas and his family and several other African Americans before traveling down south. He visits politicians, spent time with congress, witnessed slave actions, and interviewed slave owners and abolitionists.
What is amazing is the clip I am including where he travels to Mammoth Cave and spends a few days with Stephen. His statement about Stephen being the most intelligent slave he has ever met is powerful considering all the people he traveled to see. He even writes about his former master telling him he has to meet Stephen and how great he is. Then the conversation they have about slaves having a hard time adjusting once they are freed also shows insight about the way Stephen thought about being prepared for freedom.”
Here is the complete text from the section on Stephen Bishop by Carpenter (1852):
“From Chattanooga, Tennesee (on the borders of Georgia), I proceeded to the famous Mammoth Caves, in Kentucky, by stage. The distance was only about 240 miles, but it took me three days and part of three nights. The first part of the route, over the Cumberland Mountains, was very picturesque ; but two consecutive nights in a jolting coach are not agreeable: and as the streams we had to cross were suddenly swollen by unusual floods, our lives were once or twice endangered. Almost my only fellow-passengers, as far as Nashville, were a bishop* and clergyman belonging to the slaveholding section of the Episcopal Methodists. If a man speaks of slavery in the abstract as sin, the Garrisonians suspect him to be pro-slavery! This clergyman, however, was extremely indignant at any such doctrine. Slavery, he said, was not an abstract question, but a fact; as such he wished it judged. Where the masters were cruel, let them be condemned; where they provided well for the slaves and treated them kindly, let them be acquitted!
From Nashville my only companion part of the way was a dirty young Negro, twelve years old, whose master preferred the outside for the benefit of the driver’s company. He seemed by no means crushed by his servile condition (the full weight of which was yet to come), but enjoyed himself as he might, grinning at the persons whom we met. I saw several very respectably-dressed Negroes along the road. The boy said that he had been “raised” by this master, who seemed to take a kindly interest in him, asking him how he got on, &c., in very friendly tones. I had occasionally some interesting conversation with Negro drivers, porters, &c., and it was pleasant to feel that one could cheer them by some remuneration for their services. Their situation gave them intercourse with strangers, and they were far more intelligent than I apprehend the majority of “field hands” would be, or even than many of our rustics. I asked one of them how he would like to be sent to a rice plantation further south? He replied, “Lord, have mercy !” but those who are habituated to this relaxing heat cannot bear the cold of the hills. In the frontier States their condition is improving; and in Kentucky (H. Clay’s State) I was informed that education is not unlawful, and that masters may set their slaves free to live in the State. The Negroes are themselves rising in character. We may see no moral obligation that a slave is under to one who has robbed him of a priceless treasure—Liberty! yet this is perhaps one of the cases in which honesty is the best policy; the better-disposed masters repose more confidence in them, and treat them more as rational and accountable beings.
The most intelligent slave that I ever met was Stephen, one of the guides at the Mammoth Cave, for whom I had been told to inquire by a former master of his, who was now landlord of the inn at which I stopped at Nashville. His father was a white, and he has, I fancy, a slight admixture of Indian blood. His last master owned the Cave, and apprenticed him to the guide. He died not long before my visit, leaving his slaves to be freed in six years, so that Stephen has only a limited term to finish. He first taught himself to read by watching persons write their names, so that he could read manuscript before he could printing. The first difficulties surmounted, he obtained aid. I was very much interested in his conversation. He has an extremely retentive memory, and treasures up what different travellers say. He evidently wished to gain knowledge as well as to impart it, and was very attentive if I made any remark which struck him as new. His old master was very proud of him, and had lent him several geological works, so that he talked quite familiarly of Lyell, Buckland, &c. He had also sent him to visit other caves; he had been in some forty— none, however, above ” the line;” but he hopes, when he is free, to come and see the Peak and other caves of ours some day. I told him that he, and coloured men like him, were indirectly the best practical arguments for emancipation. Many Southerners must feel a little surprised, perhaps abashed, at finding “a chattel” so much more conversant with science than themselves. He was interested in hearing that F. Douglass had been my guest, and we had a good deal of conversation on slavery. When I told him that it was constantly urged that the Negroes if set free would sink into careless indolence, he replied that it would not be strange if those whose masters discouraged them from thinking or providing for themselves might not at first feel at home in their new condition, but he believed that the children would reap the benefit. He confirmed what I had heard of the improved condition of many of the slaves. Some years ago the masters declared that it was cheaper to work them up and buy new ones ;* but he believed that this is not the case now. (I heard it said of the Irish that they were killed off by wholesale in public works under the burning sun, but new immigrants were ready to fill the voids.) I took three excursions with Stephen,—two into the Mammoth Cave, and another into a smaller one. I was the only visiter, for it was not the season. The confidence which we repose in one another flashed vividly on my mind, when I found myself several miles from the entrance alone with him, a complete stranger. I was of course completely in his power—yet I felt no fear. The solitude was very awful in that immense cavern, especially when he left me for a few minutes to arrange some lights, &c. I was conscious of some reverence for a man who raised himself from the degradation to which human laws and prejudices would consign him, by linking himself as it were to nature. How much more enviably free is such a bondsman than those who are burdened with nothing—no bonds of affection, no weight of knowledge; whilst, indeed, their minds are fettered and their hearts heavy! We parted with regret.”
Russell Lant Carpenter was an English Unitarian minister who was deeply involved with social issues of the time. At the time he wrote this article he and his family were very active in the anti-slavery movement. Wikipedia notes:
Russell Lant Carpenter (December 17, 1816 – 1892), a Unitarian minister who carried on the works of his father, Dr. Lant Carpenter and wrote his biography. He was a brother of the social reformer Mary Carpenter. Carpenter was born in 1816 in Kidderminster, Worcester, England and was christened in Devonshire, England. He died in 1892.
There are a number of other works and correspondence by him available online, but this is the only one that talks about Stephen Bishop at Mammoth Cave.
The article was mentioned in “Trying the Dark” (2010 Peter West) and I found a copy on Google Books and at http://www.archive.org – I read it and thought it was interesting at the time. The significance of the comments was really pointed out to me by Greg Sorvig when I met him at the Roots in the Cave event at mammoth cave in November 2013. Now at this stage of my project the article is again brought out by the post by Jackie Wheet. I certainly need to include excerpts from the article in the documentary.
Edward Forrest Frank