I founded the United States
Excerpt from chapter: IMPORT AND EXPORT (Alexander Hamilton, St. Croix, 1769)
(by Hilde Susan Jægtnes)
On my way up the stairs to Beekman and Cruger, I glanced towards the port where the slave ship was docking. The stench from the cargo hit me in waves. Cruger was waiting at the door. He asked me to run down and do an inventory. I was also charged with preparing the human cargo for inspection at the slave market. This was the first time I was to perform these tasks unsupervised, and Cruger’s trust in me made me feel giddy and nervous.
The port was only a brief downhill stroll away. Church Street had already come to life: A wheelwright was attaching a new wheel to a carriage. Two goats banged their foreheads together in a hot-blooded duel while a gang of young boys cheered them on. The morning breeze lifted my curls and whipped them into my eyes like a swarm of insects; I tried to tie my hair with a velvet ribbon, but small locks escaped the knot. It was a swelteringly hot month of June, but I was slim as a sugar cane and less bothered by the heat than Beekman and Cruger.
The slave drivers were already waiting impatiently outside the storage building; the sugar plantations had an insatiable need for labor, and the human loss was steep. One would think that those who survived the voyage from Africa had proven their strength, but many perished shortly after arrival from diseases or exhaustion.
The stench grew stronger the closer to the ship I got. I braced myself.
Captain Abrahamsen lifted his bushy eyebrows, surprised to be met by a youth. I quickly introduced myself and presented documents authorizing me to act on behalf of Beekman and Cruger. Dockhands had already started unloading the goods in neat rows: barrels of flour, rice, port wine and cider, bundles of rope, lampblack and a flock of mules.
I spotted at once that the thirty or so mules were in a bad condition, with gaping wounds on their flanks. I asked the captain if he had stowed them in a cargo hold with unsecured barrels.
The towering Norwegian’s face grew red. – How old are you, he hissed.
– Fourteen, I said. – But I’ll be happy to fetch Cruger if you want to discuss the matter with him, our office is just up the hill.
The captain mumbled an apology even though he could have crushed my face with a single blow. I said that we expected a 10 percent discount on the beasts, and told him to lead the slaves into Scale House. My task was to count them and make note of their sex, estimated age and condition before they were taken to the storage building. During the unloading, local merchants arrived with barrels of sugar, rum and molasses to be shipped to New York.
They arrived shuffling in two rows with their hands and feet chained. At first sight, there appeared to be around 250. Those who had perished en route and hadn’t been dumped over board were left in the hold; the grim task of disposing of the bodies was delegated to the island slaves. The strongest men walked in front, the women in the back. All of them cast fearful glances at their new surroundings. None had any idea of what lay ahead.
The port was buzzing with male voices commenting on the human cargo. I tried to examine them with Cruger’s and Beekman’s experienced eyes to estimate the potential for labor latent in the flesh beneath their dark skin; but my attempt at professional distance was interrupted when I noticed the open, infected wounds on their necks, wrists and ankles caused by the chains. Flies buzzed arond the yellow discharge in their wounds, and the slaves were unable to lift their hands to wave them off; many were too tired to even shake their heads. Lack of hygiene had given them rashes, scabies and boils. Some of them had eye infections so bad that their eyes were sealed shut from the pus. The men had thick beards from the weeks spent on board. Many had deep cuts in their back skin from whippings. The women were trembling, and some of them whimpered from the burning sun. The pungent stink of feces, blood and decay filled the entire port. These people had suffered the smell of their compatriots’ slow death for many weeks.
I struggled hard not to throw up, not wanting to betray any weakness in front of my employers’ trading partners. But the sight of the pitiful creatures made my stomach turn. The slaves were treated much worse than the mules; they were stowed in numbers so great that they could barely move. Was this level of degradation really necessary? Whatever the company saved in expenses for higher levels of comfort was lost in the depreciation of the cargo. In addition, I was convinced that such brutality increased the risk of insurrection.
Two of the Africans marched close to each other. Although none of them lifted their gaze, they had a way of communicating that made words or gestures redundant, as if their movements sprung from the same will, as if their syncronicity gave them strength and comfort.
I couldn’t help picturing that James and I marched among them, united by a silent, unbreakable bond. Our bodies weren’t as similar as those of the two Africans, but we would have supported each other in the same manner; we would have died for each other, chained together by the memories of Mother’s warm breath and cool hands.
What if things were the other way round, if the Danes harvested slaves among the bastards of St. Croix and shipped us to the Gold Coast? My slender fingers butting against the quarry, canes beating the vertebrae sharply protruding from my spine, a mountain range in porcelain.