The book ‘Journal of Residence on a Georgia Plantation’ was based on the writings of Mrs. Francis Kemble. Kemble wrote to her friend Elizabeth Dwight Sedgwick in England regularly, and the book is based upon her memories of the year she spent at the plantation, and these letters. She corresponded to her friend in great detail about her observations of life on the plantation and the brutality and inhumanity of treatment that she witnessed. Ms. Kemble strongly believed that it was wrong for one human to own another, and she made it very clear in her many letters.
In order to access information on Ms. Kemble’s background and upbringing, which was not made clear in Journal of a Residence on a Georgia plantation, it was necessary to research information from another book, which was titled ‘The History of Southern Women’ (2002). This was necessary because throughout the entire book Ms. Kemble only refers to her husband, who she later divorced, mainly because of the disagreement over slavery, as ‘The Master of the plantation’. In fact all slave owner and overseer names are omitted in the book.
According to authors “Baxter, Perry and Weaks, though “Kemble was born into England’s most celebrated family of actors, and as a young girl she spent several years in France studying literature, poetry, music, French, and Italian” (Baxter. Perry. Weaks. 2002. 21), as was common for young ladies of stature in her time. It was while she was traveling as an actress with her father’s acting troupe in America where she it is said she “enchanted audiences in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Boston, and New York”(Baxter. Perry. Weaks. 2002. p.
22), that she met the husband who actually owned the Georgia plantation, Pierce Butler. In her role as mistress of the plantation she was very unhappy, because even though she was sympathetic to the plight of the slaves, every request they made to her whether for permission, such as baptisms, or additional needed items such as food or clothing, had to be referred through the master. She was often frustrated in her efforts to help them. In one example Ms. Kemble had tried to teach the slaves about the importance of cleanliness, especially in what passed for their hospital, a small unkempt infirmary.
She writes of what she found out when she came back the next day to check on the cleaning progress ” Mr. O. ___ had flogged her (Harriet) that morning for having told me that the women had not time to keep their children clean” (Kemble. 1864. p. 37). In another example there was an old black woman named Sinda, who was considered somewhat of a prophetess, and she announced that freedom, emancipation was coming. Ms. Kemble had related many stories about the freedoms that the black people up North enjoyed, and it was most likely believed, though not said, that she was the one stirring the slaves up into thoughts of freedom.
But after hearing Sinda say freedom was coming soon, and no doubt with thoughts of the slaves up north “The great final emancipation which they believed at hand had stripped even the lash of its prevailing authority”(Kemble. 1864. p. 84). Mr. K__ , the overseer of the plantation, decided not to argue with all of the slaves who had refused to work, and “Acquiesced in their determination not to work; but he expressed to them(the slaves) his belief that Sinda was mistaken, and he warned her that if, at the appointed time, it proved so (That Sinda was wrong), she would be severely punished”(Kemble.
1864. p. 84). Of course being only 1839 Sinda was wrong. Kemble writes “Her day of judgment came indeed, and a severe one it proved, for Mr. K___ had her tremendously flogged” (Kemble. 1864. 84). On another occasion Kemble writes that she attempted a conversation with Mr. ____(possibly the husband) regarding punishments and the plight of the slaves in general. It is clear she is getting depressed and feels like every time she tries to help them (the slaves) she makes things worse.
Kemble said in the letter “They throw me into perfect agonies of distress for the slaves, whose position is utterly hopeless; for myself, whose intervention in their behalf sometimes seems worse than useless; for Mr. ___, whose share in this horrible system fills me by turns with indignation and pity”(Kemble. 1864. p. 124). Kemble did try to do what she could for the slaves as mistress of the plantation, for example she writes in one letter “I have worked my fingers nearly off with making, for the last day or two, innumerable rolls of course little baby clothes, layettes for the use of small new born slaves”(Kemble.
1864. p. 158). As far as her opinion of slavery, she always believed the slaves should be free, earlier in the book it seemed she felt they would not know how to survive though, or earn a living. She wrote at one point, “That the ignorance of these poor people ought to screen them from punishment”(Kemble. 1864. p. 154). While she always felt that eventually freedom would come, by the time she left the plantation it was in great sadness. She felt she could not help them, and in fact had done them more harm.
Kemble had pretty much given up hope emancipation would ever come. Kemble did not publish this book, filled with tales of cruelty beyond belief, until the war was beginning, and she said she published it in the hopes it would help the North win the war, and bring freedom to the slaves. In the end though it was this inability to help, and the fact that there were so many floggings and beatings, and cruelty that she could not stand it any longer, and that was why she had to leave. This pretty much summed up her opinion of how she felt when she left the plantation; Ms.
Kemble wrote “If you are half as tired as of the sameness and stupidity of the conversation of my southern female neighbors as I am, I pity you; but not as much as I pity them for the stupid sameness of their most vapid existence, which would deaden any amount of intelligence, obliterate any amount of instruction, and render torpid and stagnant any amount of natural energy and vivacity” (Kemble. 1864. p. 156). Ms. Kemble stated she would “Rather die-rather a thousand times-than live the lives of these Georgia planters’ wives and daughters”(Kemble. 1864. p. 156).
This book is an excellent source for anyone who doubts how cruel the times were, as well a source of information for those interested in learning what life was like for the slaves before emancipation. The injustices, and absolute cruelty and excessive punishments were horrible, and it was probably about the saddest true tale I have ever read. Work Cited: Baxter, Mary Weaks. Perry, Carolyn. Weaks, Mary Louise. The history of southern women’s Literature Published by LSU Press, (2002). Kemble, Francis Anne. Journal of a residence on a Georgian plantation in 1838-1839, Edition: Illustrated, Published by Harper & Brothers, (1864).