My name is Millie and in the summer of 1734 I was taken from my home in Kenya. This is my story.
It was 1734 and I was playing out in the yard in front of my home, when suddenly my entire life was taken away from me and I was transported into a world I knew nothing about. I was born on April 7, 1727 and I had 4 older sisters and one younger brother and lived with my yeyo or mama, papa, my five siblings and my coco, which is my grandmother on my mother’s side. We all lived in a small, one room house, made out of dry mud and covered with woven grass mats for a roof. The house was small, but to me it was home. We were all crowded into one room, sleeping close to one another. On cool nights it was nice to huddle close, but on warm nights I often wanted to sneak out and sleep under the stars. Though I never did dare to.
The morning of June 8, 1734 dawned bright and the first thing I did was get my chores done. I did not have as many chores as my mama or my older siblings, but I had four of my own chores and I was proud that I could do them all by myself. I got them done quickly and went off by myself to watch our little village come to life. Which I did on most mornings. I went out and was digging in the sand at the front of my house, just playing there waiting for my friend to come out of her house. She had more chores than I did, as she didn’t have any older siblings.
There I sat in the cool of the day, as the sun hadn’t risen completely yet. It was promising to be a hot day, when a young man appeared. He wasn’t black skinned like I was and he spoke in a funny language. I did not understand him but something intrigued me about him that made me want to follow him. There was not much to fear in my village, as it was quite isolated from the world, and slavery just sounded like a myth to most of us. None of us took it very seriously. Not until that fateful day. I followed the man, not knowing it was the wrong thing to do. Looking back now, I wish I hadn’t. I never saw my yeyo, papa, any of my siblings or friends ever again. I begged and cried, pleaded and yelled for them to let me go home. They kept telling me they were taking me home but I never went home. Within a few days we had travelled for many miles. Most of us were walking because the wagons were full, and many women carried their babies and young children. Some of us were able to speak to one another, but we did not all speak the same language. Some, like myself, were from villages that were so isolated that they had a language that their tribe had created. I spoke Maasai, which was one of the lesser known languages. Our feet burned as we walked on the desert sand, and they were cut on sharp rocks and sticks that we came across. But were forced to continue walking during even the hottest parts of the day. At night we slept right there, where we were, trying to stay warm, huddled together. We were given small bits of food when our captors remembered to feed us, though it was never enough to go around to feed all of us.
We finally arrived at the sea, a place that I had only been told about through stories. No one that I knew of in my village had ever seen it, and here I was staring out at the large expanse of blue. We were being pushed from all sides, to load these large floating ships. I was frightened as was almost everyone around me, even the wise, old men and women as we boarded the ship. Each of us unsure of where we were going or why we were going there. Why had we been chosen? What was going to happen to us? We were all led down into the belly of the ship.
Men and women were shackled to one another, and forced to lay there side by side, row after row of black men and women. Each of us younger children and even the babies were allowed to move freely. But the moment we were all loaded into the ship and shackled, the door above us was closed, and we left to lay there in the darkness with only the small cracks allowing light to shine through them. That was the only thing telling us if it was day or night outside that room. Weeks turned into months as we travelled over the water to this unknown place. So many people died on that trip. First the older men, women and the babies. It wasn’t often that people came in and removed the dead bodies and the smell of the dead bodies and the waste from all those people in the ship was overpowering. We were very rarely fed, lucky to get a piece of food more than once a week. Even then we had to share amongst those of us who were still alive. So many people died from illness, dehydration and starvation. You did not become close to anyone lest that person no longer was alive even a few hours later. Songs were sung as we travelled over the sea, many different songs, and even I sang along with them as I picked up the words. Some were foreign to me, and yet they still reminded me of home. I learned a few words from other languages, though I am still not exactly sure if I understood the meaning. It brought us closer together to be able to sing together and even speak to one another. We all had something in common, as we had all been taken from our homes and were all trapped in this big wooden boat that was taking us to a place we did not know. Most of all, we were all frightened, and not sure what they were going to do to us when we got there. We were all worried that we might be the next one that was discovered dead. Fear gripped us all. I missed home and even my annoying little brother who had only one job and that had been to make his bed. I missed being able to carry water for the cooking, water that each of us so desperately wanted.
The worst times during that trip wasn’t so much the death which was bad, but instead the storms that we went through. Water would get down into the ship, and we would end up sitting or lying there soaking wet. Only hoping that it wouldn’t flood so bad that we would all drown. Most of us had not even known what a boat was until we got onto that ship! It only flooded once or twice, but the fear of drowning was very real during those times. I did not know how to swim, and water to me was a very big fear. I had gone to the river back home many times, because we needed water to survive. In all those times, I had never attempted to try and swim. I’d only used it for use in the house or to bathe and wash in. Water was the only good thing that ever came out of those storms. We were able to drink the water, even as disgusting as that sounds, it was to us a lifesaver. Yes, disease was in that water, filth and waste as well, but it was able to quench our thirst even if just for a little while, and keep us alive for another day.
I made a few friends while I was there in the belly of the ship. Though none of us could really talk to one another. We got yelled at a lot when we accidentally stepped on someone, during our games. It was not fun really but it did keep us busy. We were not as bored having to sit there like the adults had to do, laying there unable to move. I do think we amused some of them, until one of accidentally stepped on them. I think it actually cheered many of them up to see us children running around and between them as they lay on the wooden floor. Most of them never complained unless they were stepped on. The worst part of playing, was when you tripped and fell across one of those who had died. That was unbelievably disgusting! They were so cold and stiff, and you had to push yourself off of them! Though, at times, it was fun to push one of the other children onto them and run off. I knew if I was at home I would be yelled at for disrespecting the person who had passed on, but was still fun to hear the shrieks from the child who fell on one of the dead bodies.
I really became close to one of the children who was only 5 years old and her name was Mae. She was a sweet girl, only two years younger than I was. She was very small though, and I always made sure if I got a bit of food to share it with her. I even gave her a bit bigger of a piece than I took for myself. We slept together trying to comfort each other. She cried often, trying to hide her tears and be as strong as I tried to be. I heard her though. I had stopped crying for my yeyo and papa long before I met Mae. I missed them but I did not cry for them any longer. I knew somehow in my heart I wouldn’t ever see them again and it hurt but I was not going to give into tears anymore. I was a big girl, and at seven I knew I had to grow up. Mae was like me, her coco had died while we were on the ship. She had been one of the first people to die, and had been carried out of the door above us with so many of the others that had died over the last few months. Mae and I did not speak the same language but we knew what the other was saying. We became fast friends and knew that nothing was going to separate us. We stood by each other and went together to help the adults who cried out. Climbing over the bodies whether they be alive or dead, to help someone who we knew we could not help any more than just hold their hand, and pray that they did not die when we were holding it. That happened a lot, and both Mae and I would be so disgusted that we would run and hope to find some water somewhere that had not been used and wash our hands in it.
One morning I had gone to find Mae because she had gotten up before I had. When I finally found her, I fell to my knees beside her and cried for what was the first time in months. She had died, my best friend, the one I had put my trust in and told my secrets to. Even though she did not understand me, had died, and once again I was all alone there in the ship. I did not move from that spot for many hours, even when the other children were running around. The other children even started taunting me, about having lost my friend. I know they did not really mean it, because each of them had lost someone during those months as well. Either by leaving their village or by losing a loved one or even just a friend there on the ship. I vowed to myself never to make another friend there in the ship. It was too hard losing them, and hurt too much to know that the next friend I made might have the exact same outcome as Mae did. Starving to death or dying of disease, just wasn’t worth making another friend. Even after Mae died, I still took the bigger piece of the food I managed to get and gave it to someone else. Because I knew Mae would want me to share that little bit. I did not cry again after that. I made myself be strong once again, not giving into the tears that had come when I had found Mae lying there dead. I had to be strong, if I were to survive. I was going to survive, that I was sure of. I was not going to give in, and was going to fight to make it to wherever we were heading.
I was determined to keep to myself, not even playing with the other children now as they ran around. I was afraid if I got too close that I would catch one of the diseases that so many others were catching and dying from. One night someone curled up next to me which made me curl up even tighter in the little ball I was in. It was a cold night, there were no blankets, and I was alone against one of the walls of the ship. The person, whoever they were, only moved closer to me pressing me right against the wall. I finally gave in, and let them stay warm with me but I did not wrap my arms around them. I was guarded still, I did not want to lose another person I cared about. The next morning, I shooed the girl that appeared about my age away. She ran off, and I did not see her the rest of the day. I stayed there in that spot, not leaving it the entire rest of the day. Most of the kids huddled close to each other at night and had come to ignore me since I was ignoring them. But again that night, the same girl appeared snuggling close to me and refusing to be pushed away. I did not speak to her, I did not want to know who she was or even what her name was. Not that we likely would understand one another anyway. Night after night we slept together, keeping one another warm. Eventually she broke through the wall I had put up and we had our arms around each other, each night as we slept. I still did not know who she was, but I think the feeling was mutual. She did not try to learn anything about me either, nor did she appear to want to learn more about me. She kept to herself as did I. Each night sleeping together and each morning separating and going about our own day.
It took over 4 months on the sea before we reached the distant country that was to become our new home. We lost almost half of the people that we had started out with. And we could sense a change in those who had us captive. More and more noise filtered through the ceiling above us, preparations were being made that we assumed were for where we were heading. It could only mean that we were getting closer to our destination. The young girl and I still slept close to each other each night, not speaking at all. But she and I would exchange looks whenever we heard a noise or saw movement in the cracks in the ceiling above us. Finally, one day we hit land and little by little we were all led from the bottom of the ship, seeing full daylight for the first time in four months. Pale and thin each of us stood there in the cool sunlight, barefoot and shivering on the deck of the ship being lowered onto the boats below and taken ashore. It was the middle of October 1734. Our clothes were hanging off of us, each of us dirtier than we had been in our lives, I was sure. Nothing but the grimy water to wash in but from the storms we had had at sea, and even that water had been saved for drinking only.
Those who had taken us captive shuffled us to a place where everyone was to get clean. Forcing us all in groups to clean ourselves up. They gave us weird clothing that I was not even sure how to put on. A dress that was way too big for me, and shoes that were way too small. People with white skin, like the man who had taken me from my village, gave us food and showed us where we could sleep. Somehow the young girl and I ended up in the same group, and the two of us stayed together as much as we could. We appeared to be the one constant for one another. In the new scary world, we were all alone, with no one to take care of us or make sure that we were safe. She spoke a few words I knew, and I knew a few words she knew. Because of that we discovered we could at least talk even if we couldn’t say full sentences to one another. Her name was Isina and she was almost 8 years old. She was from a village, it turned out, about ten miles from my own village. She would been taken in a similar fashion as I had been, but her older brother had been taken with her, and had been placed on a different ship. She hoped for one day to find him, in this new world, but for now, it was just the two of us alone here with strangers. We fell asleep together on the floor of the barn with many other women and children. With nothing to stay warm in the cool night air but the old dusty hay. Once again Isina and I curled up together to stay warm.
Big pots filled with porridge were set out the next day for us to eat from, each only given a bit in a bowl. Once we had finished we had to give our bowl to another person, so that the next person could eat. It was more than we could have ever hoped for. This weird food tasted amazing to me and almost everyone else. We were so hungry we would likely have eaten the mice that we had shared the barn with. Fresh, clean water from the pump at any time we wanted, was also a blessing to us. The younger children were reprimanded and even punished each time they were found wanting to play with the handle. We each made use of it often, now that we were able to have the water we each craved. The white skinned people encouraged us to wash with the water. Why should we waste the water when it was so pure and clean? It did not make sense to me and I refused, at least until one of the white skinned women came and gave me a scrubbing because I wouldn’t do it myself. I was so red after that scrubbing! She was not very gentle, and in the cold October air, my red skin stung.
The second day upon arrival we were all herded down the road to this big open area, where they had wood put together to form a platform of sorts. They then put each of us into groups of men, women, teenagers and children, each group in pens like animals. Every one of us dressed in clothing that had been given to us the day we arrived, nice and scrubbed and clean. Even my hair was braided like some of the young girls my own age that were white skinned. I did not feel like myself, and my hair did not look like it had back in my village. I had had short hair then, because it was too hot to grow your hair out in the hot sun. But over the months at sea, it had gotten long enough to be put in short braids. I did not like the look and it did not look like the white skinned girl’s hair did. I stood beside Isina with all the other kids my age and younger and even older, that were not teenagers. Why were we all in pens like animals? The other children and I wondered and questioned, looking at one another. Most of us still could not communicate with one another, and especially not with the white skinned people who were walking around.
A huge group of people appeared little by little and many of them started walking around the pens where we were all crowded into. Poking and pointing at us as we stood there with wide eyes not sure why they were poking us and looking at us. Let alone why they were there or why we were there. White children ran around among the adults laughing, pointing and sticking their tongues out at me and the other children. I wanted to run and hide but I couldn’t, there were too many people there. Soon it quieted down and the groups moved on. We just stayed there in the pens with a few people standing there watching us and appearing to be waiting for something to happen. Soon groups of us were taken from the pens, and those who were taken mostly did not return. A few did here and there, but they were sickly looking and really frail from the travels from across the sea. They started herding children from our pen and Isina and I clung tighter to one another. We could not be separated! We had no idea where the others had been taken to and were afraid they would separate us from one another. Again the people left and walked away and only one or two returned to the pens. Isina and I shook with fear, afraid that we would be next.
We were finally taken from the pen, and they tried separating us but we refused to break apart. Both of us looking fearful at those who were pushing and pulling us to the stage. We waited in a line as people held up boards with funny drawings on them out in the crowd. A man shouted out to the crowd to each person who held up a board. Sometimes, lots of signs appeared in the crowd, and other times only one or two. People were being taken off the stage to another holding area, holding papers in their hands with the same funny drawings on them as they went into the new pens. Isina and I again were being forced apart, and we still refused still clinging to one another. I could not lose another person I had learned to care about. Mae had died, I was not going to lose Isina as well. Finally, they sent us both on stage to the man that was shouting to the crowd. Hesitantly, a few signs appeared in the crowd, more appeared and more shouting. Finally, one large shout sounded from the man near us and we were ushered back off the stage, with papers shoved into both Isina and my hands. We were placed in a pen with a number of other people. We stared at one another and stood there watching as more people were escorted on and off that stage and to the pens. We could see everything that was happening now, as the big man on stage often went to the different dark skinned ones like myself. He opened their mouths, or showing them their arms. What did it mean? Why is it they had to see our teeth, or how strong we were? It was so confusing but many of the white skinned people seemed to enjoy it. The more those people were shown, the more people put those boards into the air, with drawings on them.
Finally, it seemed to be over, and people were no longer being led on stage. The big man came down from the stage and the crowd seemed to move towards where we all stood in pens. They handed the funny looking papers to those standing watch over us and grabbing those of us standing in the pens. Fear appeared on my face and Isina’s and we held onto each other tighter, afraid someone would try to pull us apart once again. It was never ending, everyone seemed to know what they were doing, and avoided us. Finally, I felt a tug on the back of my dress and I tried to fight to get away from whomever had caught me. Frightened I screamed and tried to run but someone caught me up in their arms and pulled me away from Isina, tears rolling down my face I fought with my fists and my feet kicking, trying to break free. I finally found his hand with my teeth and bit down as hard as I could. The strong man let go of me, and I fell to the ground hard. He dropped me to the ground and I scurried backwards til my back hit the side of the fence. I was slapped hard across the face, a mark left on my cheek and formed in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks as I cried out from the pain of being hit. I had never been hit before by a grown up. I had once gotten into a fight with my older sister, but never had my yeyo, papa or even coco, ever struck me. I backed away more from the man, fear showing on my face as I warily watched him through my tears. I feared this man, the one who had bought me in during the slave auction, the one who had taken me away from Isina. I did not trust him and had good reason not to.
Where was Isina? I could not have lost her! She could not be taken away from me! I stared up at the big man in front of me, tears rolling down my cheeks, pleading in my own language asking over and over again for Isina.
It was many years before I ever saw Isina again.
I was thrown into the back of a wagon with a bunch of others. Men, women and children, a total of 25 of us all put in this small wagon as if we were pigs. Barely any of us were able to speak to one another, none of us speaking the same language. The only language we all knew was fear, none of knew where they were taking us. I was one of the youngest, with only one other younger than myself. The younger child was a boy and he was about my brother’s age. He reminded me too much of my brother and I did not want to talk to him or even look at him, because it made me sad thinking of my family again. A kind older woman moved around the others right to my side and looked at my cheek where I had been struck. She spoke kindly and though I did not know what she was saying I knew she meant well and I let her draw me into her arms. I did not cry again though. Again I hid my tears and did not let them show. I was going to be a big girl again and not cry. I was not a little child. The young boy stood there stony faced as well. Not showing even the fear that I felt inside. We bounced around in that wagon for many hours, going to some unknown place where we would live. Which for most of us was, the rest of our lives.
The wagon came to a stop, and the gate opened at the back of the wagon. Men started ushering us down the board and to the ground, pointing for us to follow a few other men who had come to help. All of them were white faced. There were no other black faces that I could see around us. The whole land that we stood on was open with very little trees, and lots of crops as far as the eye could see. A large house sat not far from where we were standing and there were many buildings around it, including one long building where we were to sleep. We were all led to this building, and shown a bed inside it. Each of us were given 2 sets of clothes. That meant each of us had three sets of clothes, one we were wearing and the two additional sets to wear and keep clean. I was not given another pair of shoes, and the ones I had on my feet pinched them so. They led us out into the yard and showed us a pump similar to the one we had washed with back before the slave auction. I knew better than to use the pump for play as I did not want to be punished again. My cheek still stung from where I had been struck!
We were allowed to finally go back into the long building and go to sleep. The young boy curled up in his bed almost immediately and fell asleep. I lay there for hours listening to the grown-ups as they spoke late into the night, when the others joined them. The building was nearly full and every bed taken. How could the boy sleep with all the talking? It was too noisy for me, even though the adults were trying to talk quietly, I still did not fall asleep til many of them had fallen asleep as well. A strange place, strange white people, and even strange black people who all spoke in other languages. I could hear a few words I understood but very few. I was frightened, missing home, but still I did not cry.
We learned quickly that anything we were told to do was not a request, it was an order. Back home I had had 4 chores to do every day. We did not get the same chores each day here. We did what the white people told us to do. I worked mainly in the kitchens, where I learned fast what needed to be done and cooked. I cooked food that I had never even heard of and assisted the other women with cooking. I also had to run all over the entire huge house to deliver sheets, clothing, tea, and anything else the mistress of the house wanted, as well as her children and husband, other friends who came and family. Basically anyone who was not black skinned like me, was my boss and I had to do anything and everything they told me to do. It was not fun, they never acknowledged me they just told me to do it. If they did not explain with their hands, and I did not understand, I would be punished. Often by being smacked or pushed to go do it. I learned quickly the words they spoke. If I had not I would have been punished even more. They did not care to make sure that we understood them. They just told us what to do and expected it done. It was up to the older black slaves that shared our long house, to show us the words they used, to teach us the ways of the white people. Not for them to be bothered with.
I saw my first whipping in those days. A man had done something wrong. I never had heard what he had done but he got 10 lashes across his bare back with a strap from the master of the house. His hands were tied to the fence post and he was lashed with the whip 10 times. Red stripes appeared on his back but the man never made a sound. I watched wide-eyed as he was whipped. I hid behind one of the buildings watching, without anyone else aware of me being there. A cry sounded from my mouth and I quickly covered my mouth, so no one would hear. How could that man bear it? I could see him flinch as he was struck but not a sound came from him. How could people be so cruel as to strike a person with such a device? I could see the pain on the man’s face as he was left there once the whipping was done. Left for all to see the bloody back from the cuts that had opened up from the repeated lashings. It was a warning for all of us. Showing us what would happen if we disobeyed. I feared these people even more now, than I had before. What if I spilled some tea? Would I be the next person to be lashed at the fence post?
I hated those days. So much fear and worry that I might be next. I wanted to go home, but my home was thousands of miles away and there was no way of ever getting back there. I did not cry, not many did anymore. There was no use crying, not when there was work to be done. I learned the language of the white people and did my best to do as they told of me. One of the young white girls was about my age and somehow we started getting a repertoire. I did not dare talk to her, not as a friend but we got on well. She would follow me out to the fields when I took the master’s lunch to him, and the other white people. She would not say a word to me but would smile my way. Once, she even helped me up when I fell, offering her hand to me and then helped me to clean off the sandwiches and make them look presentable again. No one ever knew that that plate of sandwiches had been covered in grass. I likely would have been whipped if they had! Even if I had gone back for fresh ones, I am sure I would have been punished for bringing the lunch late as well. I found there was no perfect way for things to be done. If the master and/or mistress did not agree with what you had done, you were wrong. Even if you had done it precisely the same the day before. We were still in the wrong and would be punished accordingly for it.
The girl’s name was Mae and that name hurt so much! Every time I heard her name called, it felt like a knife being twisted inside me. I pictured that five year old girl who snuggled close to me at night on the ship, that I always gave the bigger bit of food to. The first time I heard her name called I flinched at the sound of it, looking around quickly for my little friend, before remembering she was gone, somewhere out in the sea, under all that water. When I realized it was the little white girl’s name I hated her for it. It wasn’t fair that my friend Mae had to die and this little white girl was my master’s daughter. Perhaps though it was for the best. At least now, Mae wasn’t having to endure the pain that I was going through.
I turned 8 the April after arriving in this strange land, not really knowing the precise date or even what day it was. But when the air started getting warmer, I knew my birthday had come. I did not tell anyone, but I knew that I was another year older. Did it feel different? No not really. It felt like any other day. Except this time I remembered how my yeyo would touch my cheek and tell me how proud she was of me. She would let me go off with my friends and not have to worry about my chores for one day. I would come home to a feast, and have all my favourite foods there to eat that night. A special dessert, perhaps, with berries if we were lucky enough to find some. Most often they were tiny and not really big enough to eat, not unless the year was warmer than usual by that time. This year I was supposed to be able to go with my sisters to bring in the animals. I was supposed to be old enough to help them. It was not fair, for this year I was not there to help bring them in. This year I had so much more work, work my yeyo did, that us children were not ever expected to do. Rather than making me feel more grownup it made me feel even more homesick for home. There would be no special dessert or a feast for dinner with my family.
Those that lived in that long house were my family now. The older woman who had helped me in the wagon, became like a grandmother to me, and many of the other younger children. There were 7 of us in all. Me being the third youngest. I looked at the two younger children as my brother and sister and the older four as my brothers and sister as well. The young teenagers and younger adults I looked as my aunts and uncles and the elderly as my grandparents. It was not much, but we were like a family. I still missed Isina, and wondered where she had been taken to. I wondered if I would ever see her again. But I had found friends now and did not feel as alone as I once had. None of them became as close as Isina and I had. As we were on the ship together and became as sisters. No one could replace that. Just like Mae could not replace my little friend Mae back on the ship. White girl Mae, and I started meeting in secret. She showed me her books and read to me from them. If her mama or pa ever heard her reading those books to me, or even caught her with me behind the old woodshed, I would have likely got a whipping. But that fear did not stop us from meeting. Those books opened a whole new world to me! I looked forward to those meetings! She started showing me how to read from those books and I learned what letters were and how they sounded. Just like when I learned the white people’s language, it was an entirely new language to me, and sounded weird coming from my lips and tongue. Forming sounds that were foreign to me to form words that I saw on the paper.
At night, the others and I would sit outside around a small fire behind our building. We would sing some of the songs that we sang on the ship, and even so many more songs that I had not ever heard of. I taught them songs from my village, and learned songs from other villages. None of them ever were in English, they were all from our mother tongues. We would learn each other’s languages. Then in the house and out by the fire we would sit and speak in those languages. Putting together almost an entirely new language all from the words that we remembered from our own homes across the sea. We all missed our families, and would tell stories there telling each other of back home. Telling of legends that existed. Once or twice I could have sworn Mae was hiding in the shadows or even one of the other white people, but they never showed themselves, nor did they ever stop our gatherings. They never punished us for having the fire nor for talking and singing in another language. For that we were all grateful. We needed that. We needed to be able to keep our memories alive from where we used to live. That spring we got another group of people from Africa. Not a single one that I recognized, and none from my village that I could tell. Again we were struggling to be able to fit more people into the house that we were in. We were crammed in there like animals to be slaughtered. In some ways it really felt like it too. The close quarters were hard to get around but it made us feel cozy. To me though it felt even more like home. With my five siblings, yeyo, papa and coco we were a close tight fit in that small hut back home. It was tight but it was comfortable to us. To have all those we loved all in one room.
One day a farmer from a few miles away came with five niggers as he called them. He needed some help for his house, as his cook had died in the night and needed more girls to take care of the running of the house. He argued with my master, when my master wanted to give Lucinda, the grandmotherly woman from the wagon, to the other farmer in exchange for two of the black men, he’d brought. I did not understand why they argued. The black men just stood there staring straight ahead not showing any sign of emotion as to being sold to another farmer. They did not have anything more than the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet. They just stood there silently as my master and the other farmer argued. I did not understand why they argued but knew in the end Lucinda was sold to the other man. I hid around the corner in the kitchen pantry. Listening and peering out at them, and watched as Lucinda was taken out to his wagon. My master sent two other girls not much older than I was out to join her in the wagon and kept two of the black men the farmer had brought. The other two men got back in the wagon. This was what we were, just prizes for people to buy and sell. Nothing more than a piece of property. I did not understand then, and even now have a hard time understanding why, but learned from the start never to question, just to do as I was told.
I set my notebook aside as I hear my name called from downstairs. My story could wait, I had not barely had even a peaceful moment, since the word of war possibly starting, to get my thoughts figured out in my head let alone do as Master Franklin said and write my story of my life down on paper. He said one day everyone might wish to read what happened to me when I was 7 years old til the time I was freed by the Davison’s in 1754. I still called him my master though, though he assures me I did not need to because I was a free person. It did not feel like I was free. Not with the red coats nosing around and demanding that I give them the information they need, or do as they say. Nor with many of the people here in Philadelphia. It was not safe for me to go out without my papers saying I was free. Even then many people had tried to take me, but I will tell you about that when I get to that point. My hands go to my hair as I pass a mirror leaving my bedroom. It is short once again, as it was when I was in Kenya. I never had liked the long hair I had had to have for over 36 years. Now that I have a choice, I wear my hair short again. I have just had my 43rd birthday and live in the attic of Benjamin Franklin’s home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The year is now 1771 and we may be at peace at the moment but a war is already brewing once again.
I made my way down the stairs to the first floor where a group of red coats stood demanding us to give them homage, there in our home. Master Franklyn was in London, though it would not have mattered, as the red coats were there and either we allowed them into the home or we found ourselves prisoners and maybe even executed. I once again felt as if I was a slave, doing as I was told, feeding these men with what food I had and giving them beds and anything else they demanded of me. They expected it from me, not bothering to try and understand that I was a free woman and had every right as they did. I was not a free person, not in their eyes. To them I was still owned by none other than Benjamin Franklin himself. Though he declared that he owned no slaves, many did not believe him though he was an important man to many at that time.
I fed the men and made sure that they were all comfortable or at least as comfortable as I could make them. I did not feel comfortable enough to sleep in the attic above them, and made myself a bed out in the stable, where no one had as yet chosen to find homage. Finally, once again I lit a candle and began writing.
When I was ten years old, two years after I last left this story, I was taken many miles from the place I had learned to call home. I had been in southwestern Virginia and was now taken south to 50 miles west of Charleston, South Carolina.
With each day that passed I learned to trust to a point the people I called my master and mistress. They lived in a large house, and had a total of almost 50 slaves that they used, to care for the crops. I never realized how cruel a master could be until I was sold to a manor house in South Carolina. Yes they whipped us in my childhood home in Virginia, when we disobeyed. But that was nothing compared to the cruelty I ended up having to endure in the home in South Carolina.
One day in early fall I was taken with 5 other girls, younger and older than myself. We were told to take up what clothing and personal items we wanted to bring. There was no saying good bye to anyone, just get our things and time to leave. I had only a few small items that I had collected or been given over the past two years and I put them inside my clothing and bundled it up getting ready to leave. I had no idea where we were going or why. But I did as my master told of me. The blank faces of those who were there when I left with those 5 other girls. We looked young, some of us were barely teenagers, I myself only 10. We were loaded onto a wagon, with nothing but the things we’d been brought with us, and travelled over the road for many days. I gave up counting how many days we had gone. One girl drowned in a river on that trip. She had fallen overboard when the wagon tipped, the rest of us just barely able to hang on and the man driving the wagon never bothered to stop and try and help, even with us screaming to him. I saw the poor girl’s face go under three times before she never emerged again. The only thing that happened was the man shouted for us to shut up and kept urging the horses to get us to the other side. There remained, five of us, continuing our way in the wagon to some unknown place.
We huddled together in the back of the wagon, not able to join him by his fire, because it was not appropriate unless we were invited. We prepared and fed him the rations he had brought with to eat. Leaving only what remained for the five of us to share. It was not all that bad, other than the cold nights. We were hungry but did not argue lest we be punished. Back at the home of my master we at least were fed fairly well, though it was never enough. Especially not for the growing children, and young teenage boys. We had no idea what was to come, were we to be separated as well? Or were we all going to the same place? Our hearts were heavy with missing those we had left behind, and could only hope and pray that the place we were going to would be as good as the place we had just left. We had heard horror stories of houses and plantations that people had come from. Places where they whipped you til you fell unconscious, hung those who disobeyed or tried to run away. Where would we run? We did not know of anything in this land except the slavery we had come to live under once we were off the boats. Stories came from outsiders about going north but to me they were just stories and nothing more. Words passed on from one family to another, from one black person to another black person. Hopes and dreams of a better life. Being free from slavery. All a myth. A few girls talked of perhaps that was where we were headed. Fear gripped me, I did not believe it for a minute. I worried, that that place where we were going was going to be one of those plantations that you never came back from and were never heard from again. Death, despair, fear and doubt were in my mind, even coming to me in my dreams, nightmares really. Ones that woke me, with fear shaking me right to the core, and waking me with a gasp.
After almost 2 weeks of travelling with the wagon, we were about to emerge from huge crops of mostly cotton. We could see hundreds of workers in the fields, all black, with a few white men throughout as the horses pulled our wagon past the fields. A towering mansion grew larger as we got closer. A shiver had gone through me as we approached. Those men in the fields looked thin and some appeared even in pain. What was the treatment that these men had to endure? What was I going to have to endure, or even the four other girls there in the wagon with me? We looked at each other there in the wagon a hint of fear in our faces, and clung to each other’s hands. Each of us sensed something was going to happen and we were all worried but never voiced our worries out loud.
As we drove up to the mansion a young black girl ran into the mansion, through a side door. Even I knew, that we were not allowed to go in the front door of the house. I knew there would be punishment if we did. The wagon pulled around the mansion close to that very door the girl had gone in, and our driver dropped down and moved to open the back of the wagon. Not bothering to help any of us down, we each climbed down and stood there as a few white people appeared from around the side of the house. Just as we were not allowed to go in through the front door, they left the ‘help’ to go through the side door. We would not find them going in and out those side doors as well. It was if we had a disease and they were afraid that they might catch it from us. The older woman, whom we found out later was to be our mistress came over, looking each of us girls over. Demanding to know where the sixth girl was. She had a different accent, but it was not too hard to understand her. Anger filtered her voice, demanding to know why we had allowed the other girl to fall from the wagon. None of us spoke, remaining silent, which seemed to only anger the woman more. We knew no matter what we said, we would be punished regardless. This was the way we were treated, we just had no idea to what extent our punishment would exceed to. Most of us were lucky, but the two older girls’ were punished severely and it wasn’t til later that we found out how severely.
The woman proceeded to check our teeth and lift our dresses to see our legs. She checked our arms, and see how strong we appeared. Telling us the rules of her house. No speaking to any of them unless spoken to. No going in the front door. Never eating a single bit of food from the kitchens or in the kitchens. All food would be provided by them but was to be cooked in our quarters and nowhere else. And so many more rules that we were expected to follow. Our eyes stared straight ahead, listening but not asking any questions nor giving any sign of acknowledgement. She knew that we were listening, and would follow every word and rule that she gave us. There was no reason to respond. It was either we followed those rules or we were punished. She sent the two oldest girls of our group with a man that had joined her. Telling the rest of us, that they were to be punished, as they were the two that were the oldest and knew better than to let a child fall out of the wagon. I let my eyes drift after the girls momentarily and earned a cuff upside the head and told to keep my eyes forward. I closed my eyes briefly and kept my eyes straight ahead from that moment on.
After being told to go into the side door and find Remi who would give us our instructions and chores that we were to do, we were excused. We went into the kitchen and found Remi and all three of us were set to work, with barely an acknowledgement of being added to the group of black women working around the kitchens and inside the mansion. We were set right to work, no introductions, no greeting. Just given the work orders we were expected to do. The work was similar to our old, and it was not that hard to follow. I received even more difficult assignments, ones I would expect work a child of 13 or 14 to be expected to do, but I did not complain. I just went on with it. The only difficulty I found during those first few days was having to find my way around the mansion and the grounds. A group of ten of us made our way to the fields to bring their dinner out to them. In the summer, the men worked in the fields for up to 15 hours a day, in summer, and up to 14 hours a day in winter. Not even the cold or heat kept them from working. It was expected for us to work whether we were hot, cold, sick or tired. No excuses were ever allowed. We woke up, 6 days a week to do just as we had the day before. Each day doing our jobs, from early in the morning to late into the night. Sundays were our only day of rest. We would prepare the white people’s meals and have them ready to go in their own kitchen, not the kitchen that we worked in. A house that was so large it had two kitchens? A set of living quarters was above the black people’s kitchens. Some of us lived in those quarters, especially those of us working in the kitchens and the mansion. The remainder of our people lived in quarters out on the grounds.
We learned quickly what was tolerated and what was not. The new home was nothing compared to what I had lived in for the last two years. It was horrific, the very thing all of us had feared from the moment we had left Virginia. Disobedience rarely happened. The two girls’ punishment was being shackled with spikes around the neck, to keep them from being able to sleep without being pierced by the spike, for three days. When they were finally let free, they were weak from hunger, dehydration and lack of sleep. We helped them to their bunk and given food and water in small doses to keep them from getting sick from too much at once, and then let them sleep. We covered them and made sure their chores and assignments were done so they would not get further punishment until they were back on their feet and able to carry their own load again. They spoke of brutal beatings while being shackled and their voices trembled with fear. Their bruises and injuries were bad indications of how cruel the punishments could be. It showed all of us how bad it could really be. Putting fear in each of our minds even further. How could these people do this and get away with it? One word. Slavery. It was not fair, and it was disgusting but it was our life. It was who we had become from the moment we had been taken from our homes. The only day that we really got a break was on Sundays. We took those days to get to know one another more, find out where everyone was from, and who had been taken from what age. Many of them had been taken even younger than Millie and I. And had been there since they were just babies. There had not been any children younger than age 3 on my ship that had survived. But there were so many ships, though every ship had nearly the same story. Men and women shackled to one another in the bowels of the ship, dead taken every few days. No water, very little food, disease, even people killing one another so they could eat. That made me sick to hear. To kill another just for food? I could not imagine! It disgusted me and quite often brought up any food I had eaten back behind the building. Our ship had not been as bad as that, but had it lasted a few more days or even weeks? Would that have been the case as well? We sang songs again, as we worked in our quarters, and even if we had the chance to have a fire. Which was not very often. If the master decided we should not have a fire, someone would be taken and beaten for lighting a fire. It was not every time, and most often when he had had too much to drink. Which was quite often. We never knew when to expect punishment, even on Sundays they would punish us if they felt the urge. Whippings and beatings most often, when we had been there three months, we saw some of the extent of their punishments and how bad it could really be. One night two men and one woman tried to escape. They were seen by someone at the mansion going into the woods and dogs were sent out to go after them, which were followed by all the white men of the house. We heard the noise of the dogs and peered out the windows of the mansion watching them go after the three escapees. It was not long before the three were dragged from the woods and tied to fence posts in the yard. One person remained with a gun pointed at escapees for the remainder of the night. No one dared to try and free them, and a shiver went through me as I looked at the three outside. It was dark out but I could see the silhouettes of them as they were tied there.
The next morning, every black person who was not cooking and preparing food or out in the fields were lined up in the yard in a circle around the two men and one woman. A gallows had been brought out and were set up for the three escapees. Running away was punished severely here. Back in Virginia, there were tales of people escaping and going north. Here, those people were hung, for even attempting. I stood there watching as each man was hung and then carried off dumped in a pile to be burned. Finally, the woman, who stood there crying as her brother and husband were both killed, was led to the rope. I did not cry as I watched her be hanged. I showed no fear, pain or tears. I knew then, that this is where I would likely die of old age. I would be a slave the rest of my life and see man, woman and child, be hanged, beaten, whipped, and die at the hands of these white people. I saw how children were ripped from their mother’s arms and sold to other white people. I knew I would never have a child. I would not. I could not put myself or another child through what I was going through. I had learned long ago not to become close to another person, because that person would only hurt you when they either died or was taken away from me. I would not allow myself to feel that pain again. This kind of life was no life for a child to be brought up in. This world was no longer the world of love that I had been raised in til I was 7. The life I had in Africa might seem to be small and poor. But it was a life that I would not ever have hesitated to one day raise a child of my own. Where they would feel nothing but love and affection. Be entrusted with chores that a child their age could handle. Here, I would not ever put a child through this kind of life.
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