day nine (Dec 29 – 30, 1838)

Fanny Kemble's Journey

Savannah, Georgia, to Butler Island

When the boat stopped at Savannah, it poured with rain; and in a perfect deluge we drove up to the Pulaski House, thankful to escape from the tedious confinement of a slow steamboat—an intolerable nuisance and anomaly in the nature of things. The hotel was, comparatively speaking, very comfortable; infinitely superior to the one where we had lodged at Charleston, as far as bed accommodations went. Here, too, we obtained the inestimable luxury of a warm bath; and the only disagreeable thing we had to encounter was that all but universal pest in this crowd-loving country, a public table. This is always a trial of the first water to me; and that day particularly I was fatigued, and out of spirits, and the din and confusion of a long table d'h te was perfectly intolerable, in spite of the assiduous attentions of a tiresome worthy old gentleman, who sat by me, and persisted in endeavoring to make me talk. Finding me impracticable, however, he turned, at length, in despair, to the hostess, who sat at the head of her table, and inquired in a most audible voice if it were true, as he had understood, that Mr. and Mrs. Butler were in the hotel? This, of course, occasioned some little amusement; and the good old gentleman being informed that I was sitting at his elbow, went off into perfect convulsions of apologies, and renewed his exertions to make me discourse, with more zeal than ever, asking me, among other things, when he had ascertained that I had never before been to the South: "How I liked the appearance of 'our blackies' (the Negroes)?—no want of cheerfulness, no despondency, or misery in their appearance, eh, madam?" As I thought this was rather begging the question, I did not trouble the gentleman with my impressions. He was a Scotchman, and his adoption of "our blackies" was, by his own account, rather recent, to be so perfectly satisfactory; at least, so it seems to me, who have some small prejudices in favor of freedom and justice yet to overcome before I can enter into all the merits of this beneficent system, so productive of cheerfulness and contentment in those whom it condemns to perpetual degradation.

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Our night wanderings were not yet ended, for the steamer in which we were to proceed to Darien was to start at ten o'clock that evening, so that we had but a short interval of repose at this same Pulaski House, and I felt sorry to leave it, in proportion to the uncertainty of our meeting with better accommodation for a long time. The Ocmulgee (the Indian name of a river in Georgia, and the cognomen of our steamboat) was a tiny, tidy little vessel, the exceeding small ladies' cabin of which we, fortunately, had entirely to ourselves.

On Sunday morning [December 30, 1838] the day broke most brilliantly over those Southern waters, and as the sun rose, the atmosphere became clear and warm, as in the early Northern summer. We crossed two or three sounds of the sea. The land in sight was a mere forest of reeds, and the fresh, sparkling, crisping waters had a thousand times more variety and beauty. At the mouth of the Altamaha is a small cluster of houses, scarce deserving the name of a village, called Doboy. At the wharf lay two trading vessels; the one with the harp of Ireland waving on her flag; the other with the union jack flying at her mast. I felt vehemently stirred to hail the beloved symbol; but, upon reflection, forbore outward demonstrations of the affectionate yearnings of my heart toward the flag of England; and so we boiled by them into this vast volume of turbid waters, whose noble width, and rapid rolling current, seem appropriately called by that most euphonious and sonorous of Indian names, the Alatamaha, which, in the common mode of speaking it, gains by the loss of the second syllable, and becomes more agreeable to the ear, as it is usually pronounced the Altamaha.

On either side lay the low reedy swamps, yellow, withered Lilliputian forests, rattling their brittle canes in the morning breeze . . . . Through these dreary banks we wound a most sinuous course for a long time; at length the irregular buildings of the little town of Darien appeared, and as we grazed the side of the wharf it seemed to me as if we had touched the outer bound of civilized creation. As soon as we showed ourselves on the deck we were hailed by a shout from the men in two pretty boats, which had pulled alongside of us; and the vociferations of "Oh, massa! how you do, massa? Oh, missis! oh! lily missis! me too glad to see you!" accompanied with certain interjectional shrieks, whoops, whistles and grunts, that could only be written down in Negro language, made me aware of our vicinity to our journey's end. The strangeness of the whole scene, its wildness (for now beyond the broad river and the low swamp lands the savage-looking woods arose to meet the horizon), the rapid retrospect which my mind hurried through of the few past years of my life; the singular contrasts which they presented to my memory; the affectionate shouts of welcome of the poor people, who seemed to hail us as descending divinities, affected me so much that I burst into tears, and could hardly answer their demonstrations of delight. We were presently transferred into the larger boat, and the smaller one being freighted with our luggage, we pulled off from Darien, not, however, without a sage remark from Margery, that, though we seemed to have traveled to the very end of the world, here yet were people and houses, ships, and even steamboats; in which evidences that we were not to be plunged into the deepest abysses of savageness she seemed to take no small comfort.

We crossed the river, and entered a small arm of it, which presently became still narrower and more straight, assuming the appearance of an artificial cut or canal, which indeed it is, having been dug by General Oglethorpe's men (tradition says, in one night), and [which] afforded him the only means of escape from the Spaniards and Indians, who had surrounded him on all sides, and [who] felt secure against all possibility of his eluding them. The cut is neither very deep nor very long, and yet both sufficiently to render the general's exploit rather marvelous. General Oglethorpe was the first British governor of Georgia; Wesley's friend and disciple.

The banks of this little canal were mere dikes, guarding rice swamps, and presented no species of beauty; but in the little creek, or inlet, from which we entered it, I was charmed with the beauty and variety of the evergreens growing in thick and luxuriant underwood, beneath giant straggling cypress trees, whose branches were almost covered with the pendant wreaths of gray moss peculiar to these Southern woods. Of all parasitical plants (if, indeed, it properly belong to that class) it assuredly is the most melancholy and dismal. All creepers, from the polished, dark-leaved ivy, to the delicate clematis, destroy some portion of the strength of the trees around which they cling, and from which they gradually suck the vital juices; but they, at least, adorn the forest shafts round which they twine, and hide, with a false smiling beauty, the gradual ruin and decay they make. Not so this dismal moss: it does not appear to grow, or to have root, or even clinging fiber of any sort, by which it attaches itself to the bark or stem. It hangs in dark, gray, drooping masses from the boughs, swinging in every breeze like matted grizzled hair. I have seen a naked Cypress with its straggling arms all hung with this banner of death, looking like a gigantic tree of monstrous cobweb—the most funereal spectacle in all the vegetable kingdom.

After emerging from the cut, we crossed another arm of the Altamaha (it has as many as Briareus)—I should rather, perhaps, call them mouths, for this is near its confluence with the sea, and these various branches are formed by a numerous sisterhood of small islands, which divide this noble river into three or four streams, each of them wider than England's widest, the Thames. We now approached the low, reedy banks of Butler Island, and passed the rice mill and buildings surrounding it, all of which, it being Sunday, were closed. As we neared the bank, the steersman took up a huge conch, and in the barbaric fashion of early times in the Highlands, sounded out our approach. A pretty schooner,5 which carries the produce of the estate to Charleston and Savannah, lay alongside the wharf, which began to be crowded with Negroes, jumping, dancing, shouting, laughing, and clapping their hands (a usual expression of delight with savages and children), and using the most extravagant and ludicrous gesticulations to express their ecstasy at our arrival.

On our landing from the boat, the crowd thronged about us like a swarm of bees; we were seized, pulled, pushed, carried, dragged, and all but lifted in the air by the clamorous multitude. I was afraid my children would be smothered. Fortunately Mr. O——, the overseer, and the captain of the little craft above-mentioned, came to our assistance, and by their good offices the babies and nurse were protected through the crowd. They seized our clothes, kissed them—then our hands, and almost wrung them off. One tall, gaunt Negress flew to us, parting the throng on either side, and embraced us in her arms. I believe I was almost frightened; and it was not until we were safely housed, and the door shut upon our riotous escort, that we indulged in a fit of laughing, quite as full, on my part, of nervousness as of amusement.

Later in the day I attempted to take some exercise, and thought I had escaped observation; but, before I had proceeded a quarter of a mile, I was again enveloped in a cloud of these dingy dependents, who gathered round me, clamoring welcome, staring at me, stroking my velvet pelisse, and exhibiting at once the wildest delight and the most savage curiosity. I was obliged to relinquish my proposed walk, and return home. Nor was the door of the room where I sat, and which was purposely left open, one moment free from crowds of eager faces, watching every movement of myself and the children, until evening caused our audience to disperse. This zeal in behalf of an utter stranger, merely because she stood to them in the relation of a mistress, caused me not a little speculation. These poor people, however, have a very distinct notion of the duties which ownership should entail upon their proprietors, however these latter may regard their obligation towards their dependents; and as to their vehement professions of regard and affection for me, they reminded me of the saying of the satirist, that "gratitude is a lively sense of benefits to come."


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