If you stand up and be counted, from time to time you may get yourself knocked down. But remember this: A man flattened by an opponent can get up again. A man flattened by conformity stays down for good – Thomas J. Watson
I never heard of Fanny Kemble until I recently read a devotion, The Unlikely in Our Daily Bread which mentions her work as an Abolitionist. She was a British actress in the 19th century who married Pierce Butler, an American fan. Fanny didn’t know that he was soon to inherit two plantations. Had she known, most probably she would not have married him. Little did she know that she would soon be fighting her own civil war.
Fanny Kemble was born in England in 1809 into a prominent family of actors. Although she was very accomplished in her acting, it was not her true love. Writing was her passion and throughout her she would write plays, journals, poetry, letters and memoirs. Her most famous authorship would be that of Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation which many consider to be the closest, most detailed account of the harsh conditions of plantation slavery.
Fanny was a strong, spirited woman with no formal training in acting but she managed to captivate audiences. She had what were considered to be masculine traits: she was independent, physically strong and highly intelligent. She was talented, spoke French fluently and was accomplished in music. She embraced life and enjoyed exercise, specifically riding. To her the best way to was to break “my neck off the back of my horse at a full gallop on a fine day”. This reminds me of my former boss whose wish was to die being mauled to death by a polar bear. Whatever happened to wanting to die peacefully in one’s sleep?
Fanny met her future husband Pierce when she and her father went on a two-year theatre tour in America. It wasn’t her desire to experience life in America but she did it to please her father. She was well received by the Americans and captured the ardent attention of Pierce Butler, a man born into wealthy and prominent family from Philadelphia. His grandfather was Revolutionary War veteran Major Pierce Butler. Major Butler was a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and the author of the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause. He owned two plantations in Georgia, one was on St. Simon’s Island where sea-island cotton was grown and the other was on Butler Island where rice was grown. One day, his grandson would inherit this mass fortune, making history as one of the largest slaveholders in the nation.
Pierce, infatuated with Fanny, followed her while she toured and she fell in love with this charming and attentive man. She married him as a way of escaping life in the theatre which was beset with her family’s unstable financial future. She was marrying into wealth but didn’t find out what the source of that wealth was until after they got married.
It was a marriage that was doomed from the beginning. She believed that he would always be devoted to her and he believed that he could control her. And their differences on slavery did not help matters. He thought he could get her to see the benefits of the institution while she thought she could get him to free his slaves. When she tried to publish an antislavery treatise she had written, Pierce forbade her to do so. After he and his brother John inherited the Georgia plantations, Fanny wanted to see the plantation and begged but Pierce to take her with him but he refused. Then in December of 1838 he took her and their two daughters and their Irish nurse to Butler Island. Nothing could have prepared Fanny for what she witnessed at this place. Inspite of the beautiful surroundings, she could not escape the ugly presence of slavery. She said, “I should like the wild savage loneliness of the far away existence extremely if it were not for the one small item of the slavery.”
Fanny and Pierce clashed over their views of slavery and their marriage began to deteriorate. In 1845 Fanny left Pierce and children and returned to England where she resumed her stage career. Pierce sued for divorce, claiming that she had “willfully, maliciously, and without due cause, deserted him on September 11, 1845”. Three years later, on April 7, 1848, he filed for divorce. Fanny returned to America to defend herself against his charges and after a long and painful court battle, the divorce was granted a year later with Pierce having full custody of the girls. Fanny was allowed to spend two months very summer with them and receive $1500 yearly in alimony.
While Fanny was able to support herself in the U.S. and Europe with her Shakespearean readings, Pierce fell into financial ruin, gambling away his fortune. He ended up in huge debt which led to the selling of the mansion in Philadelphia and the liquidation of other properties. Unfortunately, this was not enough so the trustees turned their focus on the property in Georgia where the slaves were. This led to the largest single sale of human beings in United States history and the event known as “the weeping time” as slaves were separated from their families.
After the war Pierce and his daughter Frances returned to Butler Island where he arranged for former slaves to work for him as sharecroppers. He later contracted malaria and died. Fanny moved to Philadelphia where she continued to perform dramatic readings. She travelled and published her journals. On January 15, 1893, Fanny died peacefully in London.
Notes to Women want to acknowledge this woman who spoke out against an institution and practice which violated the rights of people based on their race. Moved with compassion and a sense of decency, Fanny set out to reform the plantations. She set up a hostel and nursery for those in need and paid the slaves who personally tended to her. She improved the hygiene of the slave children by rewarding cleanliness with small prizes. Her critics saw her efforts at reform as foolish and sided with her husband but we applaud Fanny for the stance she took against slavery and her resolve to do what she could to help the slaves and for raising awareness through her firsthand observations. If you are interested in reading about her experiences, you can read them in her diary here.
In Fanny’s eyes, acquiring wealth from the forced labor and enslavement of others is unconscionable. She was convinced that slavery was wrong and inhumane and refused to be silenced on the matter. She stuck to her convictions and today, her journal continues to be a primary source of education on the reality of slavery.
[On disagreeing with her husband about his slave-holding:] I cannot give my conscience into the keeping of another human being or submit the actions dictated by my conscience to their will.
I have sometimes been haunted with the idea that it was an imperative duty, knowing what I know, and having seen what I have seen, to do all that lies in my power to show the dangers and the evils of this frightful institution.
In the north we could not hope to keep the worst and poorest servant for a single day in the wretched discomfort in which our negro servants are forced habitually to live.
I said I thought female labour of the sort exacted from these slaves, and corporal chastisement such as they endure, must be abhorrent to any manly or humane man.
The Southern newspapers, with their advertisements of negro sales and personal descriptions of fugitive slaves, supply details of misery that it would be difficult for imagination to exceed. Scorn, derision, insult, menace – the handcuff, the last – the tearing away of children from parents, of husbands from wives – the weary trudging in droves along the common highways, the labor of body, the despair of mind, the sickness of heart – these are the realities which belong to the system, and form the rule, rather that the exception, in the slave’s experience.
A good many causes tend to make good masters and mistresses quite as rare as good servants…. The large and rapid fortunes by which vulgar and ignorant people become possessed of splendid houses, splendidly furnished, do not, of course, give them the feelings and manners of gentle folks, or in any way really raise them above the servants they employ, who are quite aware of this fact, and that the possession of wealth is literally the only superiority their employers have over them.
Though the Negroes are fed, clothed, and housed, and though the Irish peasant is starved, naked, and roofless, the bare name of freemen-the lordship over his own person, the power to choose and will-are blessings beyond food, raiment, or shelter; possessing which, the want of every comfort of life is yet more tolerable than their fullest enjoyment without them.
When marriage is what it ought to be, it is indeed the very happiest condition of existence.