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In Their Own Words

March 02, 1839

Fanny Kemble Journal Entry on Slave Families

Fanny Kemble’s Journal was actually a series of 31 entries from Dec. 30, 1838 to April 17, 1839 written while visiting the rice and cotton plantations of her husband [Pierce Butler] on the coast of Georgia. The entries were written in the format of letters addressed to “Dear Elizabeth” [her friend Mrs. Elizabeth Sedgwick of Lenox, Mass.] They were never mailed, though apparently it was her intent to one day allow Elizabeth to read them. In her “letter” for this day, Kemble continued to show her distress over the conditions faced by her husband’s slaves:

“…Before closing this letter, I have a mind to transcribe to you the entries for today recorded in a sort of daybook, where I put down very succinctly the number of people [slaves] who visit me, their petitions and ailments, and also such special particulars concerning them as seem to me worth recording. You will see how miserable the physical condition of many of these poor creatures is; and their physical condition, it is insisted by those who uphold this evil system, is the only part of it which is prosperous, happy, and compares well with that of Northern laborers. Judge from the details I now send you; and never forget, while reading them, that the people of this plantation are well off, and consider themselves well of, in comparison with the slaves on some of the neighboring estates.

“Fanny has had six children; all dead but one. She came to beg to have her work in the field lightened.

“Nanny has had three children; two of them are dead. She came to implore that the rule of sending them into the field three weeks after their confinement might be altered.

“Leah, Caesar’s wife, has had six children; three are dead.

“Sophy, Lewis’s wife, came to beg fro some old linen. She is suffering fearfully; has had ten children; five of them are dead. The principal favor she asked was a piece of meat, which I gave her.

“Sally, Scipio’s wife, has had two miscarriages and three children born, one of whom is dead. She came complaining of incessant and weakness in her back… .

“Charlotte, Renty’s wife, has had two miscarriages, and was with child again. She was almost crippled with rheumatism, and showed me a pair of poor swollen knees that made my heart ache… .

“Sarah, Stephen’s wife; this woman’s case and history were alike deplorable. She had had four miscarriages, had brought seven children into the world, five of whom were dead, and was again with child. She complained of dreadful pains in the back, and an internal tumor which swells with the exertion of working in the fields; probably, I think, she is ruptured… .

“Sukey, Bush’s wife, only came to pay her respects. She had had four miscarriages; had brought eleven children into the world, five of whom are dead.

“Molly, Quambo’s wife, also only came to see me. Hers was the best account I have yet received; she had had nine children, and six of them were still alive.

“This is only the entry for today, in my diary, of the people’s complaints and visits. Can you conceive a more wretched picture than that which it exhibits of the conditions under which these women live? Their cases are in no respect singular, and though they come with pitful entreaties that I will help them with some alleviation of their pressing physical distresses, it seems to me marvelous with what great patience (I write it advisedly, patience of utter despair) they endure their sorrow-laden existence… .”

Source: John A. Scott (ed.), Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Frances Anne Kemble (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984), pp. 229-231.