Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Dismal Swamp

I could not resist visiting a place called "The Dismal Swamp State Park".  Was it really dismal?  And how did it get its name? First of all I found that is has a canal that connects the Pasquotank River in N. Carolina to the Elizabeth River in Virginia and learned that it is the oldest continuously operating canal in the U.S.  In 1764 The swamp was purchased by George Washington and 5 other investors with the idea of building a canal through the swamp and harvesting the hardwood timber from it.  A canal would also open trade between the two colonies.  Construction began on the canal in 1784 and the digging was done with slave labor. (I was sorry to learn that George Washington was part of this) And the work was so grueling and took such a toll on the workers that the 'Dismal Swamp' continues to bear the name. The canal is, today, a part of the Intercoastal Waterway and upwards of 20 boats per day pass through it.

While wandering around the visitor's center I came across an excerpt from a book by Moses Grandy, a slave from the mid-1800's, who worked in the swamp to buy his freedom.  His narration is so compelling, and heart-wrenching, that I recommend it for anyone who still thinks the slaves were not mistreated before the war.

Be forewarned, the following is very violent and very graphic....

Excerpt from: The Life and Times of Moses Grandy:

M'Pherson was an overseer where slaves were employed in cutting canals. The labour there is very severe. The ground is often very boggy: the negroes are up to the middle or much deeper in mud and water, cutting away roots and baling out mud: if they can keep their heads above water, they work on. 
They lodge in huts, or as they are called camps, made of shingles or boards. They lie down in the mud which has adhered to them, making a great fire to dry themselves, and keep off the cold. No bedding whatever is allowed them; it is only by work done over his task, that any of them can get a blanket. They are paid nothing except for this overwork. Their masters come once a month to receive the money for their labour: then perhaps some few very good masters will give them two dollars each, some others one dollar, some a pound of tobacco, and some nothing at all. 
The food is more abundant than that of field slaves; indeed it is the best allowance in America: it consists of a peck of meal, and six pounds of pork per week; the pork is commonly not good, it is damaged, and is bought as cheap as possible at auctions. 
M'Pherson gave the same task to each slave; of course the weak ones often failed to do it. I have often seen him tie up persons and flog them in the morning, only because they were unable to get the previous day's task done: after they were flogged, pork or beef brine was put on their bleeding backs, to increase the pain; he sitting by resting himself, and seeing it done. After being thus flogged and pickled, the sufferers often remained tied up all day, the feet just touching the ground, the legs tied, and pieces of wood put between the legs. All the motion allowed was a slight turn of the neck. Thus exposed and helpless, the yellow flies and musquitoes in great numbers would settle on the bleeding and smarting back, and put the sufferer to extreme torture. This continued all day, for they were not taken down till night. 
In flogging, he would sometimes tie the slave's shirt over his head, that he might not flinch when the blow was coming: sometimes he would increase his misery, by blustering and calling out that he was coming to flog again, which he did or did not, as happened. I have seen him flog slaves with his own hands, till their entrails were visible; and I have seen the sufferers dead when they were taken down. He never was called to account in any way for it. 
It is not uncommon for flies to blow the sores made by flogging. In that case, we get a strong weed growing in those parts, called the Oak of Jerusalem; we boil it at night, and wash the sores with the liquor, which is extremely bitter: on this, the creepers or maggots come out. To relieve them in some degree after severe flogging, their fellow-slaves rub their backs with part of their little allowance of fat meat. 
For fear the slaves should run away, while unable to work from flogging, He kept them chained till they could work again. This man had from 500 to 700 men under his control.

The entire book is at the following website:

Now the swamp feels like a sanctuary with wonderful bird sounds and rustling leaves.  It is hard to imagine the brutality that occurred here.

"Slavery is a mass, a system of enormities, which incontrovertably bids defiance to every regulation which ingenuity can devise, or power effect, but a Total Extinction. Why ought slavery be abolished? Because it is incurable injustice. Why is injustice to remain for a single hour?"
 ~William Pitt.

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