Friday, September 2, 2016

Frederick Douglass -- Nigger-Breaker
 
… Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him.  It enabled him to get his farm tilled with much less expense to himself than he could have had it done without such a reputation.  Some slaveholders thought it not much loss to allow Mr. Covey to have their slaves one year, for the sake of the training.  … Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion-a pious soul-a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church.  All of this added weight to his reputation as a “nigger-breaker.” …
 
I left Master Thomas’s house, and went to live with Mr. Covey, on the 1st of January, 1833.  I was now for the first time in my life, a field hand.  In my new employment, I found myself even more awkward than a country boy appeared to be in a large city.  I had been at my new home but one week before Mr. Covey … sent me, very early in the morning of one of our coldest days in the month of January, to the woods, to get a load of wood.  He gave me a team of unbroken oxen.  He told me which was the in-hand ox, and which the off-hand one.  He then tied the end of a large rope around the horns of the in-hand ox, and gave me the other end of it, and told me, if the oxen started to run, that I must hold on upon the rope.  I had never driven oxen before, and of course I was very awkward.  I, however, succeeded in getting to the edge of the woods with little difficulty; but I had got a very few rods into the woods, when the oxen took fright, and started full tilt, carrying the cart against trees, and over stumps, in the most frightful manner.  I expected every moment that my brains would be dashed out against the trees.  After running thus for a considerable distance, they finally upset the cart, dashing it with great force against a tree, and threw themselves into a dense thicket.  How I escaped death, I do not know.  There I was, entirely alone, in a thick wood, in a place new to me.  My cart was upset and shattered, my oxen were entangled among the young trees, and there was none to help me.  After a long spell of effort, I succeeded in getting my cart righted, my oxen disentangled, and again yoked to the cart.  I now proceeded with my team to the place where I had, the day before, been chopping wood and loaded my cart pretty heavily, thinking in this way to tame my oxen.  I then proceeded on my way home.  I had now consumed one half of the day.  I got out of the woods safely, and now felt out of danger.  I stopped my oxen to open the woods gate; and just as I did so, before I could get hold of my ox-rope, the oxen again started,  rushed through the gate, catching it between the wheel and the body of the cart, tearing it to pieces, and coming within a few inches of crushing me against the gate-post.  Thus twice, in one short day, I escaped death by the merest chance.  On my return, I told Mr. Covey what had happened, and how it happened.  He ordered me to return to the woods again immediately.  I did so, and he followed on after me.  Just as I got into the woods, he came up and told me to stop my cart, and that he would teach me how to trifle away my time, and break gates.  He then went to a large gum-tree, and with his axe cut three large switches, and, after trimming them up neatly with his pocket-knife, he ordered me to take off my clothes.  I made him no answer, but stood with my clothes on.  He repeated his order.  I still made him no answer, nor did I move to strip myself.  Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes, and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave the marks visible for a long time.  This whipping was the first of a number just like it, and for similar offenses (Douglass 70, 71-72).
 
During the first six months that Frederick lived with Covey he was whipped at least once almost every week.  “My awkwardness was almost always his excuse for whipping me.” Frederick was seldom free from a sore back.
 
Although Covey fed his slaves well enough, he gave them the briefest of times to eat, often but five minutes before they were forced to continue their work.  They worked in the fields “by the first approach of day … till its last lingering ray had left us,” and they worked hard.
 
Covey would be out with us.  … He would spend the most of his afternoons in bed.  He would then come out fresh in the evening, ready to urge us on with his words, example, and frequently with the whip.  Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands.  He was a hard-working man.  He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do.  There was no deceiving him.  His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us.  This he did by surprising us.  He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly.  He always aimed at taking us by surprise.  Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.”  When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out. “Ha, ha!  Come, come!  Dash on, dash on!”  This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute.  His comings were like a thief in the night.  He appeared to us as being ever at hand.  He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation.  He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St, Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves.  He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods.  Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as thought he was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun (Douglass 73-74).
 
Frederick was contemptuous of Covey in another respect.  Covey, a poor man, owned but one slave, a large, strong twenty-year-old woman named Caroline.  Covey had bought her to breed children.  He planned to increase his slave-holdings in this manner.  Before Frederick was rented to him, Covey had hired another black worker, a married slave, for one year, and had forced him to spend each night with Caroline.  At the end of the year Caroline gave birth to twins.  Frederick witnessed the deferential treatment she received from Covey and his wife during her pregnancy: “nothing they could do for Caroline during her confinement was too good, or too hard, to be done.  The children were regarded as being quite an addition to his wealth.”
 
Frederick’s work continued, unrelentingly.  He and his slave companions worked in all kinds of weather.  Heat, bitter cold, harsh rain, nothing kept them from the fields.  “The longest days were too short” for Covey, “the shortest nights too long.”  The beatings, the psychological stress, the unending hard work took its toll on Frederick.  In but a few months “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.  I was broken in body, soul, and spirit.  My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed into a brute!
 
Sunday was my only leisure time.  I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.  At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished.  I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition.  I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear (Douglass 75).
 
 
Work Cited:
 
Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.  Print.