The Weeping Time – Fanny Kemble’s Experiences on a Georgia Plantation in the 1830s

Fanny Kemble

I’m as Southern as they come.  I can trace several branches of my family to South Carolina prior to the Revolutionary War and, of course, all sides fought for the South in the Civil War.  Yet, I write romances set in England in the nineteenth century.  A friend of mine often asks why I don’t write Southern historical romances; after all, it is my heritage.  So, every once in a while, I try to think of a Southern historical romance but always decide that I just can’t do it. It would be too depressing for me to write. I would not want to make up some revisionist, fantasy version of that dark time.

So, I borrow another country’s history.  But sometimes my heritage and the historical world of my fiction merge. Such is the case with Fanny Kemble.  She was a niece of the noted British thespians John Kemble and Sarah Siddons.  In 1834, Fanny Kemble married Pierce Butler, a wealthy American who would later inherit several plantations on the Georgia islands. She would journey with her husband to Georgia in the winter of 1838-39 and keep a journal of her experiences.   Her book Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation was not published until 1863, fourteen years after her divorce which divided her family between the North and South.  Fanny and her eldest daughter would become abolitionists and her ex-husband and younger daughter supporters of the Southern cause.

Pierce Bulter

Ultimately, Pierce Butler would lose a great deal of his money to gambling and speculation. In order to regain his wealth, he had to sell off his assets: 436 slaves. The auction took place in 1859 and would become known as the “Weeping Time.”  It was the largest sale of human beings in US history. Here is a newspaper article describing the event.

You can find out more about Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler at PBS’ Africans in America site.

The following are passages are from Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation describing the conditions of the slaves on Butler’s plantations.

Today, however, my visit to the Infirmary was marked by an event which has not occurred before—the death of one of the poor slaves while I was there. I found, on entering the first ward—to use a most inapplicable term for the dark, filthy, forlorn room I have so christened—an old negro called Friday lying on the ground. I asked what ailed him, and was told he was dying. I approached him, and perceived, from the glazed eyes and the feeble rattling breath, that he was at the point of expiring. His tattered shirt and trousers barely covered his poor body; his appearance was that of utter exhaustion from age and feebleness; he had nothing under him but a mere handful of straw that did not cover the earth he was stretched on; and under his head, by way of pillow for his dying agony, two or three rough sticks just raising his skull a few inches from the ground. The flies were all gathering around his mouth, and not a creature was near him.

I have had several women at the house today asking for advice and help for their sick children: they all came from No. 2, as they call it, that is, the settlement or cluster of huts nearest to the main one, where we may be said to reside. In the afternoon I went thither, and found a great many of the little children ailing: there had been an unusual mortality among them at this particular settlement this winter. In one miserable hut I heard that the baby was just dead; it was one of thirteen, many of whom had been, like itself, mercifully removed from the life of degradation and misery to which their birth appointed them; and whether it was the frequent repetition of similar losses, or an instinctive consciousness that death was indeed better than life for such children as theirs, I know not, but the father and mother, and old Rose, the nurse, who was their little baby’s grandmother, all seemed apathetic, and apparently indifferent to the event. The mother merely repeated over and over again, “I’ve lost a many; they all goes so;” and the father, without word or comment, went out to his enforced labor.

Slave quarters near Savannah

In the evening poor Edie came up to the house to see me, with an old negress called Sackey, who has been one of the chief nurses on the island for many years. I suppose she has made some application to Mr. G – for a respite for Edie, on finding how terribly unfit she is for work; or perhaps Mr. , to whom I represented her case, may have ordered her reprieve; but she came with much gratitude to me (who have, as far as I know, had nothing to do with it), to tell me that she is not to be sent into the field for another week. Old Sackey fully confirmed Edie’s account of the terrible hardships the women underwent in being thus driven to labor before they had recovered from childbearing. She said that old Major allowed the women at the rice-island five weeks, and those here four weeks, to recover from a confinement, and then never permitted them for some time after they resumed their work to labor in the fields before sunrise or after sunset; but Mr. K had altered that arrangement, allowing the women at the rice-island only four weeks, and those here only three weeks, for their recovery; “and then, missis,” continued the old woman, “out into the field again, through dew and dry, as if nothing had happened; that is why, missis, so many of the women have falling of the womb and weakness in the back; and if he had continued on the estate, he would have utterly destroyed all the breeding women.” Sometimes, after sending them back into the field at the expiration of their three weeks, they would work for a day or two, she said, and then fall down in the field with exhaustion, and be brought to the hospital almost at the point of death.

At the upper end of the row of houses, and nearest to our overseer’s residence, is the hut of the head driver. Let me explain, by the way, his office. The negroes, as I before told you, are divided into troops or gangs, as they are called; at the head of each gang is a driver, who stands over them, whip in hand, while they perform their daily task, who renders an account of each individual slave and his work every evening to the overseer, and receives from him directions for their next day’s tasks. Each driver is allowed to inflict a dozen lashes upon any refractory slave in the field, and at the time of the offense; they may not, however, extend the chastisement, and if it is found ineffectual, their remedy lies in reporting the unmanageable individual either to the head driver or the overseer, the former of whom has power to inflict three dozen lashes at his own discretion, and the latter as many as he himself sees fit, within the number of fifty; which limit, however, I must tell you, is an arbitrary one on this plantation, appointed by the founder of the estate, Major , Mr.’s grandfather, many of whose regulations, indeed I believe most of them, are still observed in the government of the plantation. Limits of this sort, however, to the power of either driver, head driver, or overseer, may or may not exist elsewhere; they are, to a certain degree, a check upon the power of these individuals; but in the absence of the master, the overseer may confine himself within the limit or not, as he chooses; and as for the master himself, where is his limit? He may, if he likes, flog a slave to death, for the laws which pretend that he may not are a mere pretense, inasmuch as the testimony of a black is never taken against a white; and upon this plantation of ours, and a thousand more, the overseer is the only white man, so whence should come the testimony to any crime of his? With regard to the oft-repeated statement that it is not the owner’s interest to destroy his human property, it answers nothing; the instances in which men, to gratify the immediate impulse of passion, sacrifice not only their eternal, but their evident, palpable, positive worldly interest, are infinite. Nothing is commoner than for a man under the transient influence of anger to disregard his worldly advantage; and the black slave, whose preservation is indeed supposed to be his owner’s interest, may be, will be, and is occasionally sacrificed to the blind impulse of passion.

To return to our head driver, or, as he is familiarly called, head man, Frank—he is second in authority only to the overseer, and exercises rule alike over the drivers and the gangs in the absence of the sovereign white man from the estate, which happens whenever Mr. O visits the other two plantations at Woodville and St. Simon’s. He is sole master and governor of the island, appoints the work, pronounces punishments, gives permission to the men to leave the island (without it they never may do so), and exercises all functions of undisputed mastery over his fellow-slaves, for you will observe that all this while he is just as much a slave as any of the rest. Trustworthy, upright, intelligent, he may be flogged tomorrow if Mr. O or Mr. so please it, and sold the next day, like a cart-horse, at the will of the latter. Besides his various other responsibilities, he has the key of all the stores, and gives out the people’s rations weekly; nor is it only the people’s provisions that are put under his charge—meat, which is only given out to them occasionally, and provisions for the use of the family, are also entrusted to his care.

On all the plantations I visited, and on those where I resided, the infants in arms were committed to the care of these juvenile slaves, who were denominated nurses, and whose sole employment was what they call to “mind baby.” [The babies were] carried by them to the fields where their mothers were working under the lash, to receive their needful nourishment, and then carried back again to the ” settlement,” or collection of negro huts, where they wallowed unheeded in utter filth and neglect until the time again returned for their being carried to their mother’s breast. Such was the employment of the children of eight or nine years old, and the only supervision exercised over either babies or “baby-minders” was that of the old woman left in charge of the Infirmary, where she made her abode all day long, and bestowed such samples of her care and skill upon its inmates as I shall have occasion to mention presently. The practice of thus driving the mothers afield, even while their infants were still dependent upon them for their daily nourishment, is one of which the evil as well as the cruelty is abundantly apparent without comment.

Slave hospital on St. Simons Island

I have been interrupted by several visits, my dear E , among other, one from a poor creature called Judy, whose sad story and condition affected me most painfully. She had been married, she said, some years ago to one of the men called Temba, who, however, now has another wife, having left her because she went mad. While out of her mind she escaped into the jungle, and contrived to secrete herself there for some time, but was finally tracked and caught, and brought back and punished by being made to sit, day after day, for hours in the stocks—a severe punishment for a man, but for a woman perfectly barbarous. She complained of chronic rheumatism, and other terrible ailments, and said she suffered such intolerable pain while laboring in the fields, that she had come to entreat me to have her work lightened. She could hardly crawl, and cried bitterly all the time she spoke to me.

She told me a miserable story of her former experience on the plantation under Mr. K ‘s overseership. It seems that Jem Valiant (an extremely difficult subject, a mulatto lad, whose valor is sufficiently accounted for now by the influence of the mutinous white blood) was her first-born, the son of Mr. K , who forced her, flogged her severely for having resisted him, and then sent her off, as a farther punishment, to Five Pound—a horrible swamp in a remote corner of the estate, to which the slaves are sometimes banished for such offenses as are not sufficiently atoned for by the lash. The dismal loneliness of the place to these poor people, who are as dependent as children upon companionship and sympathy, makes this solitary exile a much-dreaded infliction; and this poor creature said that, bad as the flogging was, she would sooner have taken that again than the dreadful lonely days and nights she spent on the penal swamp of Five Pound.

After my return home I had my usual evening reception, and, among other pleasant incidents of plantation life, heard the following agreeable anecdote from a woman named Sophy, who came to beg for some rice. In asking her about her husband and children, she said she had never had any husband; that she had had two children by a white man of the name of Walker, who was employed at the mill on the rice-island; she was in the hospital after the birth of the second child she bore this man, and at the same time two women, Judy and Sylla, of whose children Mr. K was the father, were recovering from their confinements. It was not a month since any of them had been delivered, when Mrs. K  came to the hospital, had them all three severely flogged, a process which she personally superintended, and then sent them to Five Pound—the swamp Botany Bay of the plantation, of which I have told you—with farther orders to the drivers to flog them every day for a week. Now, E , if I make you sick with these disgusting stories, I can not help it; they are the life itself here; hitherto I have thought these details intolerable enough, but this apparition of a female fiend in the middle of this hell I confess adds an element of cruelty which seems to me to surpass all the rest. Jealousy is not an uncommon quality in the feminine temperament; and just conceive the fate of these unfortunate women between the passions of their masters and mistresses, each alike armed with power to oppress and torture them. Sophy went on to say that Isaac was her son by Driver Morris, who had forced her while she was in her miserable exile at Five Pound. Almost beyond my patience with this string of detestable details, I exclaimed—foolishly enough, heaven knows—” Ah! but don’t you know—did nobody ever tell or teach any of you that it is a sin to live with men who are not your husbands?” Alas! E , what could the poor creature answer but what she did, seizing me at the same time vehemently by the wrist:” Oh yes, missis, we know—we know all about dat well enough; but we do any thing to get our poor flesh some rest from de whip; when he made me follow him into de bush, what use me tell him no? he have strength to make me.” I have written down the woman’s words; I wish I could write down the voice and look of abject misery with which they were spoken. Now you will observe that the story was not told to me as a complaint; it was a thing long past and over, of which she only spoke in the natural course of accounting for her children to me.

Interior of slave quarters

A young woman named Psyche, but commonly called Sack, not a very graceful abbreviation of the divine heathen appellation: she can not be much over twenty, has a very pretty figure, a graceful, gentle deportment, and a face which, but for its color (she is a dingy mulatto), would be pretty, and is extremely pleasing, from the perfect sweetness of its expression; she is always serious, not to say sad and silent, and has always an air of melancholy and timidity, that has frequently struck me very much.

Therefore, as I tell you, I asked Psyche no questions; but, to my great astonishment, the other day M asked me if I knew to whom Psyche belonged, as the poor woman had inquired of her with much hesitation and anguish if she could tell her who owned her and her children. She has two nice little children under six years old, whom she keeps as clean and tidy, and who are sad and as silent as herself. My astonishment at this question was, as you will readily believe, not small, and I forthwith sought out Psyche for an explanation. She was thrown into extreme perturbation at finding that her question had been referred to me, and it was some time before I could sufficiently reassure her to be able to comprehend, in the midst of her reiterated entreaties for pardon, and hopes that she had not offended me, that she did not know herself who owned her. She was, at one time, the property of Mr. K, the former overseer, of whom I have already spoken to you, and who has just been paying Mr. a visit. He, like several of his predecessors in the management, has contrived to make a fortune upon it (though it yearly decreases in value to the owners, but this is the inevitable course of things in the Southern states), and has purchased a plantation of his own in Alabama, I believe, or one of the Southwestern states. Whether she still belonged to Mr. K or not she did not know, and entreated me, if she did, to endeavor to persuade Mr. to buy her. Now you must know that this poor woman is the wife of one of Mr. B ‘s slaves, a fine, intelligent, active, excellent young man, whose whole family are among some of the very best specimens of character and capacity on the estate. I was so astonished at the (to me) extraordinary state of things revealed by poor Sack’s petition, that I could only tell her that I had supposed all the negroes on the plantation were Mr. K ‘s property, but that I would certainly inquire, and find out for her, if I could, to whom she belonged, and if I could, endeavor to get Mr. to purchase her, if she really was not his.

Now, E , just conceive for one moment the state of mind of this woman, believing herself to belong to a man who in a few days was going down to one of those abhorred and dreaded Southwestern states, and who would then compel her, with her poor little children, to leave her husband and the only home she had ever known, and all the ties of affection, relationship, and association of her former life, to follow him thither, in all human probability never again to behold any living creature that she had seen before; and this was so completely a matter of course that it was not even thought necessary to apprise her positively of the fact, and the only thing that interposed between her and this most miserable fate was the faint hope that Mr. might have purchased her and her children. But if he had, if this great deliverance had been vouchsafed to her, the knowledge of it was not thought necessary; and with this deadly dread at her heart she was living day after day, waiting upon me and seeing me, with my husband beside me, and my children in my arms in blessed security, safe from all separation but the one reserved in God’s great providence for all His creatures.

I did not see Mr. until the evening; but, in the meantime, meeting Mr. O , the overseer, with whom, as I believe I have already told you, we are living here, I asked him about Psyche, and who was her proprietor, when, to my infinite surprise, he told me that he had bought her and her children from Mr. K, who had offered them to him, saying that they would be rather troublesome to him than otherwise down where he was going; “and so,” said Mr. O , “as I had no objection to investing a little money that way, I bought them.” With a heart much lightened, I flew to tell poor Psyche the news, so that, at any rate, she might be relieved from the dread of any immediate separation from her husband. You can imagine better than I can tell you what her sensations were; but she still renewed her prayer that I would, if possible, induce Mr. to purchase her, and I promised to do so.

Early the next morning, while I was still dressing, I was suddenly startled by hearing voices in loud tones in Mr. ‘s dressing-room, which adjoins my bedroom, and the noise increasing until there was an absolute cry of despair uttered by some man. I could restrain myself no longer, but opened the door of communication and saw Joe, the young man, poor Psyche’s husband, raving almost in a state of frenzy, and in a voice broken with sobs and almost inarticulate with passion, reiterating his determination never to leave this plantation, never to go to Alabama, never to leave his old father and mother, his poor wife and children, and dashing his hat, which he was wringing like a cloth in his hands, upon the ground, he declared he would kill himself if he was compelled to follow Mr. K. I glanced from the poor wretch to Mr., who was standing, leaning against a table with his arms folded, occasionally uttering a few words of counsel to his slave to be quiet and not fret, and not make a fuss about what there was no help for. I retreated immediately from the horrid scene, breathless with surprise and dismay, and stood for some time in my own room, with my heart and temples throbbing to such a degree that I could hardly support myself. As soon as I recovered myself I again sought Mr. O , and inquired of him if he knew the cause of poor Joe’s distress. He then told me that Mr. , who is highly pleased with Mr. K ‘s past administration of his property, wished, on his departure for his newly-acquired slave plantation, to give him some token of his satisfaction, and had made him a present of the man Joe, who had just received the intelligence that he was to go down to Alabama with his new owner the next day, leaving father, mother, wife, and children behind. You will not wonder that the man required a little judicious soothing under such circumstances, and you will also, I hope, admire the humanity of the sale of his wife and children by the owner who was going to take him to Alabama, because they would be encumbrances rather than otherwise down there. If Mr. K did not do this after he knew that the man was his, then Mr. gave him to be carried down to the South after his wife and children were sold to remain in Georgia.

Slave from the Butler Plantation. Click picture to read her history at

Judge from the details I now send you; and never forget, while reading them, that the people on this plantation are well off, and consider themselves well off, 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 for 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 pain and weakness in her back. This woman was a mulatto daughter of a slave called Sophy, by a white man of the name of Walker, who visited the plantation.

Charlotte, Renty’s wife, had 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. I have promised her a pair of flannel trowsers, which I must forthwith set about making.

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. She told me she had once been mad and had ran into the woods, where she contrived to elude discovery for some time, but was at last tracked and brought back, when she was tied up by the arms, and heavy logs fastened to her feet, and was severely flogged. After this she contrived to escape again, and lived for some time skulking in the woods, and she supposes mad, for when she was taken again she was entirely naked. She subsequently recovered from this derangement, and seems now just like all the other poor creatures who come to me for help and pity. I suppose her constant childbearing and hard labor in the fields at the same time may have produced the temporary insanity.

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 morning I paid my second visit to the Infirmary, and found there had been some faint attempt at sweeping and cleaning, in compliance with my entreaties. The poor woman Harriet, however, whose statement with regard to the impossibility of their attending properly to their children had been so vehemently denied by the overseer, was crying bitterly. I asked her what ailed her, when, more by signs and dumb show than words, she and old Rose informed me that Mr. O had flogged her that morning for having told me that the women had not time to keep their children clean. It is part of the regular duty of every overseer to visit the Infirmary at least once a day, which he generally does in the morning, and Mr. O ‘s visit had preceded mine but a short time only, or I might have been edified by seeing a man horsewhip a woman. I again and again made her repeat her story, and she again and again affirmed that she had been flogged for what she told me, none of the whole company in the room denying it or contradicting her.

I told Mr. , with much indignation, of poor Harriet’s flogging, and represented that if the people were to be chastised for anything they said to me, I must leave the place, as I could not but hear their complaints, and endeavor, by all my miserable limited means, to better their condition while I was here. He said he would ask Mr. O about it, assuring me, at the same time, that it was impossible to believe a single word any of these people said. At dinner, accordingly, the inquiry was made as to the cause of her punishment, and Mr. O then said it was not at all for what she had told me that he had flogged her, but for having answered him impertinently; that he had ordered her into the field, whereupon she had said she was ill and could not work; that he retorted he knew better, and bade her get up and go to work; she replied, ” Very well, I’ll go, but I shall just come back again!” meaning that when in the field she would be unable to work, and obliged to return to the hospital. “For this reply,” Mr. O said,” I gave her a good lashing; it was her business to have gone into the field without answering me, and then we should have soon seen whether she could work or not; I gave it to Chloe too for some such impudence.” I give you the words of the conversation, which was prolonged to a great length, the overseer complaining of the sham sicknesses of the slaves, and detailing the most disgusting struggle which is going on the whole time, on the one hand to inflict, and on the other to evade oppression and injustice. With this sauce I ate my dinner, and truly it tasted bitter.

3 Replies to “The Weeping Time – Fanny Kemble’s Experiences on a Georgia Plantation in the 1830s”

  1. I read this last week.It is a period of history which I would rather forget though I am not a born and bred Southerner. We need to spread the word throughout the world: People are not property.
    Young people barely study this in school. Old people try to tell one that it was different in their family because their ancestors treated the slaves humanely.
    When I moved to GA wenI was twelve, slvwery was long over, of course. However, I had to walk past a Negro school on my way to the white school I attended. Many of the students at the Negro school had no shoes, or carried their shoes to school to keep them nice for the teacher. There wasn’t that much difference in the schools, though, both were wooden with small stoves in the back for the cold days of winter. We were fortunate to have books. I am not so certain that the Negroes did. Separate water fountains, separate entrances to theatres, separate restrooms, hotels . 100 years after the emancipation of the slaves , people were still trying to deny that Negroes were people.
    The crying time lasted for more than a 150 years from Fanny’s visit.

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