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In Their Own Words

February 13, 1839

Fanny Kemble Diary Entry Slavery Reservations

Sometime during her 1832-34 American tour, English actress Fanny Kemble performed in Philadelphia, where she met Pierce Butler. In 1834, they married and Kemble abandoned her promising acting career. Two years later, Butler and his brother inherited their grandfather’s rice and sea island cotton plantations and over 700 slaves in coastal Georgia. Fanny was opposed to slavery, though she knew very little about plantation life. For several years, she urged her husband to allow her to see his Georgia plantations. Finally, in 1838, Pierce relented, apparently believing that she might change her opposition to slavery if she were to see how his slaves were treated. Pierce and Fanny and their two children arrived at Darien, Ga. on Dec. 30, 1838 and immediately proceeded a short way up the Altamaha River to Butler Island, where she would stay until Feb. 16, 1839, when they moved to Pierce’s sea island cotton plantation on the north end of St. Simons Island. In mid-April, with warm weather coming, the Butler family returned to Pennsylvania. During her short stay in Georgia, Fanny Kemble Butler was shocked at what she saw, and almost immediately began compiling a journal documenting her firsthand impression of slave life. Her journal entry for Feb. 13 noted:

“… While rowing this evening I was led by my conversation with Jack [a slave who was doing the rowing] to some of those reflections with which my mind is naturally incessantly filled here, but which I am obliged to be very careful not to give any utterance to. The testimony of no Negro is received in a Southern court of law, and the reason commonly adduced for this is, that the state of ignorance in which the negroes are necessarily kept renders them incapable of comprehending the obligations of an oath, and yet, with an inconsistency which might be said to border on effrontery, these same people are admitted to the most holy sacrament of the Church, and are certainly thereby supposed to be capable of assuming the highest Christian obligations, and the entire fulfillment of God’s commandments, including, of course, the duty of speaking the truth at all times… .”

Source: John A. Scott, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Frances Anne Kemble (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984), p. 174.