Me and Miss Fanny

Miss Fanny walks the dusty path atop the levee surrounding the rice fields on her husband – Pierce Butler’s – plantation near Darien, Georgia. She fingers and smells the astonishing palmetto, vine and fragrant flowers growing dense along the bank. A successful British actress, independent and headstrong, accustomed to the sophisticated parlors and manicured gardens of London and Philadelphia; she revels in the plantation’s wild, untrimmed profundity. She is an irrepressible intellect, and spent her pre-marital days in the company of artists, writers, actors, politicians and other ne’er do wells. Visiting the family plantation in Georgia with Butler this winter, Miss Fanny misses the stimulation of the diverse company they know in their Philadelphia home. A flock of ducks whirs up and away into the blue December sky and she wishes for a shotgun. This afternoon, she will don her “Arab” trousers and row out to fish the broad, slow Altamaha river for sturgeon and perch. Ragamuffin kids run to her calling “Missis…..Missis….Missis” and tug at her skirts. She hands them pennies and bits of bright fabric, caresses the dirty faces of babies held by children.

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180 years behind her, I drop the bicycle down a gear and splash fast and muddy atop the levee. The marsh is a fine, wild place, reclaimed from its rice-growing past by inexorable natural dissolution. Huge dragonflies buzz either side of the bike. Ponderous blue herons lift off spooked, awking like pterodactyls. Feral pigs use this path at night and their tracks flash below the front tire. An Osprey chitters from his perch in a bald cypress and lazy green-black turtles sun themselves on old semi-submerged logs and branches. A few feet ahead, a startled alligator leaps and slides down the bank; submerges. He is magnificent and scary fast. I slide to a stop, take a deep breath to calm my hammering heart, see his snout surface 20 yards away. It was here, where a cross dike intersects the main levee, that the Butler slave camp was located.

Miss Fanny Slave

Miss Fanny walks down the slave “Street”. It is noon – time for the first meal of the day. Field slaves must eat in the fields where they work, best as they can. But these slaves toil in the nearby steam-powered rice mill and threshing floor and are permitted to return to the camp for their hominy and grits. They squat in the doorways or on the ground and slurp the gruel from cedar tubs or iron pots with wood implements or fingers. Smoke from smoldering wood fires smudges the air and dirty children wrestle or nap in the sunshine. There is no running water, and a ditch behind the huts serves as a latrine, emptied twice daily by the immense tide. In spite of this, a foul stench persists. Miss Fanny swirls down the street, imploring the inhabitants to kindle their fires, sweep their floors and expel the pecking, clucking chickens from inside – INSIDE – the tabby houses. She castigates the young for playing, romping and screeching while their parents toil and their homes fall deeper into squalor. They are dumbstruck as “Massas” wife kindles the fires and sweeps the floors; then, laughing, warming to the game, they imitate her. She watches, hopeful that by her example they will know that someone has sympathy for their condition and respect for their nature. Miss Fanny aims to repulse the stench and stain of slavery armed with nothing but good intention.

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Today, the old plantation is managed for habitat and sport, the property of all. It is a beautiful, quiet, hallowed place. I ride its blood-stained ground on a modern whirring mechanical marvel of aluminum, carbon and steel, ghosts in my head. The bicycle spins along the levee road, splashes the puddled slave street flinging mud and water over me, Miss Fanny, and the slave kids. The little ones turn and laugh, Miss Fanny, vexed, stamps her foot smiling. The tabbies dissolve into the marsh; muscadine and kudzu cover the ruined mills. Beneath my wheels Old Toby, Psyche, Venus, Jack and thousands more lived, loved, toiled and died enslaved; the crime expunged by years of vines, flowers, cypress, ducks, snakes, turtles and alligators.
Miss Fanny’s heart broke here. Unable to enlighten her husband, and shamed that his wealth relied on slavery, she divorced Butler and moved back to England. It was not amicable. In the 1840’s she was as much Butler’s property as was the plantation and its slaves. As such, he was awarded custody of their two girls and she a pittance. It would be years before she was allowed to reunite with them.
Long after the divorce, Butler fell indebted to northern banks. They forced him to sell 450 slaves in the largest auction of human beings on the North American continent. Known as “The Weeping Time” by slaves, the value of Butler’s human property exceeded the value of the land they worked and the crops they raised. In effect, he farmed slaves. After the sale he vacationed in Europe.
Just off hiway 99, a mile north of Darien Georgia, in Butler Cemetery, lies this monument:
Of Mr Butler there is not a sign or relic. Miss Fanny approves.

 

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