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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Oldport Wharves

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A sterner tradition clings around an old building on a remoter wharf; for men have but lately died who had seen slaves pass within its doors for confinement. The wharf in those days appertained to a distillery, an establishment then constantly connected with the slave-trade, rum being sent to Africa, and human beings brought back. Occasionally a cargo was landed here, instead of being sent to the West Indies or to South Carolina, and this building was fitted up for their temporary quarters. It is but some twenty-five feet square, and must be less than thirty feet in height, yet it is divided into three stories, of which the lowest was used for other purposes, and the two upper were reserved for slaves. There are still to be seen the barred partitions and latticed door, making half the second floor into a sort of cage, while the agent's room appears to have occupied the other half. A similar latticed door--just such as I have seen in Southern slave-pens--secures the foot of the upper stairway. The whole small attic constitutes a single room, with a couple of windows, and two additional breathing-holes, two feet square, opening on the yard. It makes one sick to think of the poor creatures who may once have gripped those bars with their hands, or have glared with eager eyes between them; and it makes me recall with delight the day when I once wrenched away the stocks and chains from the floor of a pen like this, on the St. Mary's River in Florida. It is almost forty years since this distillery became a mill, and sixty since the slave-trade was abolished. The date "1803" is scrawled upon the door of the cage,--the very year when the port of Charleston was reopened for slaves, just before the traffic ceased. A few years more, and such horrors will seem as remote a memory in South Carolina, thank God! as in Rhode Island.

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Other wharves are occupied by mast-yards, places that seem like play-rooms for grown men, crammed fuller than any old garret with those odds and ends in which the youthful soul delights. There are planks and spars and timber, broken rudders, rusty anchors, coils of rope, bales of sail-cloth, heaps of blocks, piles of chain-cable, great iron tar-kettles like antique helmets, strange machines for steaming planks, inexplicable little chimneys, engines that seem like dwarf-locomotives, windlasses that apparently turn nothing, and incipient canals that lead nowhere. For in these yards there seems no particular difference between land and water; the tide comes and goes anywhere, and nobody minds it; boats are drawn up among burdocks and ambrosia, and the platform on which you stand suddenly proves to be something afloat. Vessels are hauled upon the ways, each side of the wharf, their poor ribs pitiably unclothed, ready for a cumbrous mantua-making of oak and iron. On one side, within a floating boom, lies a fleet of masts and unhewn logs, tethered uneasily, like a herd of captive sea-monsters, rocking in the ripples. A vast shed, that has doubtless looked ready to fall for these dozen years spreads over, half the entrance to the wharf, and is filled with spars, knee-timber, and planks of fragrant wood; its uprights are festooned with all manner of great hawsers and smaller ropes, and its dim loft is piled with empty casks and idle sails. The sun always seems to shine in a ship-yard; there are apt to be more loungers than laborers, and this gives a pleasant air of repose; the neighboring water softens all harsher sounds, the foot treads upon an elastic carpet of embedded chips, and pleasant resinous odors are in the air.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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