It felt good to be on solid ground. I had left New York six days ago, and while the voyage had been uneventful, the New Haven was a small coastal frigate with limited room on the decks to stretch one’s legs.
The Charleston docks were a maze of activity, large Negroes running back and forth, many groaning under the weight of large, heavy bales of cotton, the shouts of merchants and overseers directing the traffic hither and yon to insure that each load of precious cargo was delivered to the proper ship for transport to the mills of Manchester or Lowell, Massachusetts.
Straight ahead was a clump of lovely ladies dressed in fine silks and satins, despite the heat, which, while it was still May, was every bit as intense and uncomfortable as New York in July. The women were of every color and complexion, from milky white to dark black and every shade in between, and they beckoned and called enticingly. Having been deprived of female companionship while at sea, I found their offers tempting, but I could not tarry.
For I was here in South Carolina not to partake of the professional ladies of Charleston, but to visit my best friend from my days as a student at Princeton University, William “Bill” Jackson, who owned a plantation a short distance south of Charleston and also to get a sense of how the plantations of the southern part of our great country functioned. As I stood, taking in the bustling scene in front of me, I heard a booming voice calling, “Missa Owens! Missa Robert Owens!”
That was me, Robert Owens, 25 years old, of New York, New York, Chief Associate of van Vliet and Associates, Commodity Traders, located at 33 Wall Street. I looked around to see who might be calling me. In an exchange of letters and telegrams before my departure, Bill had informed me that one of his servants would meet me at the dock in Charleston and drive me to the plantation.
“I’m Robert Owens!” I said loudly, not sure to whom I was speaking but hoping that the designated person would step forward.
“Missa Owens!” shouted a large black man as he approached me. He was dressed in a uniform that would have done a French Admiral proud, a blue jacket with a large amount of gold embroidery and black and white striped trousers.
“Yes, I’m Robert Owens. Did Mr. Jackson send you?”
“Oh, yassuh,” he said, nodding and smiling broadly. “Massa William said you was old friends from college up North and was comin’ down fo’ a visit. He tells me, ‘George, you go meet Missa Owens down by the docks in Charleston and brings him out to the plantation.’”
“Well, it’s good to see you, George,” I replied, reaching out to shake his hand. He had a powerful grip. “I’m very much looking forward to seeing the plantation,” I told him. “I have a trunk on the ship,” I said pointing at the vessel. “Would you be so kind as to retrieve it?”
“Oh, yessuh, Missa Owens. You wait right here and I’ll bring it down and we’ll be on our way.” It took but a few moments before I saw George making his way through the crowd with the heavy trunk on his back, straining a bit under the weight. I could see that he was sweating profusely in the near-tropical heat as he came up next to me.
“Can I help you with that, George?” I asked, trying to be polite.
“Oh, no suh, I gots it,” he replied. “Y’all just follow me and we’ll be on our way in no time.” And follow George I did, though the bustling throng to a rather elegant looking carriage pulled by two healthy-looking brown horses. George set the trunk down and opened the door of the carriage. “You’s be ridin’ inside,” he told me, grasping my left hand in his large sweaty hand and helping me up the two steps, shutting the door behind me.
Then, he hefted the trunk up on top of the carriage and freed the horses from the hitching post to which they had been tied while George was looking for me. Grasping the reins in one hand, he hoisted himself on top of the carriage and we were off.
Soon, we left the smooth, brick-paved streets and elegant homes of Charleston behind for a rutted dirt road that led through fields planted with all manner of crops, most of which as a city boy, I couldn’t identify. As the carriage bounced along I noticed in almost every field, Negro slaves toiling in the hot sun, weeding the rows of young plants. When I opened the window of the carriage, I could just hear, over the sound of the springs bouncing whenever the wheels hit a rock or a deep depression, the sound of the slaves singing softly as they worked.
Finally, after approximately two hours, as the sun was slowly sinking into the west, we turned off the road down a lane lined with tall trees on both sides, surrounded by fields with the usual complement of Negroes working the rows. Ahead, lay a large white house with a long porch, the roof of which was supported by tall columns which I believe Professor Clark back at Princeton would have called Doric.
The carriage pulled up in front of the porch. George hopped down, opened the door and helped me out. Then, he mounted the carriage and retrieved my trunk from the roof, depositing it on the ground next to me.
In a moment, I saw the door of the house open and a tall, thin man emerging onto the porch, bounding down the steps, his hand outstretched, a broad smile on his face. There was no mistaking my old friend Bill Jackson. “Bobby, Bobby boy,” he cried in that familiar voice. “What’s it been, five years, if it’s been a day, I reckon.” He grasped my hand and shook it vigorously, then dropped the extended limb and embraced me.
Indeed it had been five years since that graduation day on the lawn back in New Jersey. The next day, hungover from our celebrations, we had both taken the train together to New York, from whence Bill had set out for Charleston to take over his ancestral plantation and I had set out to make my fortune on Wall Street. “Yes, Billy boy, it’s been five years, much too long, but now I am here,” I told him.
“And how was the journey?” he asked.
“A bit long,” I replied, “But more than worth it to see my best friend from the old days.”
Bill smiled. “We did have some good times then didn’t we? Remember those two Irish barmaids in the upstairs rooms at O’Grady’s Tavern?”
I laughed. “How could I possibly forget that, Billy boy? That red-haired one made quite a ruckus, didn’t she? I was afraid she would wake the whole town.”
“Good times, Bobby, good times,” Bill replied, poking me in the arm with an extended finger. “No responsibilities; enjoy life and study just enough to fool the profs, eh? But I am being a poor host, I’m afraid. You must be hungry and tired from your long journey. Let’s go inside-you can wash up and Sarah has prepared a Southern banquet fit for a king.”
As I was about to follow Bill into the house, I heard a woman’s voice yelling. I stopped, wondering what was going on. Bill turned, looking back at me. I must have had a puzzled look on my face, because he reassured me, “Oh don’t worry. That’s just one of the slaves about to get a whipping for slacking out in the field. Obviously she’s not happy about it, but she should have thought of that before and done her work.”
“A whipping?” I asked. “This was something I had never seen back in New York, slavery having been abolished there before I was born.
“Oh, of course,” Bill replied, “I guess that’s not something you would know about, but down here, it’s an everyday occurrence. Without that, I’m afraid these slaves would never do a decent day’s work. You’re welcome to watch if you’d like. It won’t take but a few minutes and dinner will keep.”
“Watch?” I thought. I wasn’t sure a brutal spectacle like that was something I would really want to see. On the other hand, part of the reason I had journeyed down here was to see how plantations ran, and I supposed that whippings were an essential element in the business. “I am at your disposal, Bill,” I said. “After all, I’m here to observe and learn.”