A Roving Commission: or, Through the Black Insurrection at Hayti
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The next morning the brigantine arrived at Cape Fran?ois. The news she brought of the destruction of Port-au-Prince caused great excitement, as it was felt that the fate that had befallen one town might well happen to another. Monsieur Pickard at once went to the bank, where he found that the greater portion of the specie and all valuable documents had already been sent for safety to Jamaica, and he received an order upon the bank there for the payment to him of the money he had placed on deposit in the bank, and of the various securities and documents that had been held in safe-keeping for him. He then went to pay a visit to Monsieur Duchesne, to whose house Nat, who had landed with him, had gone direct. The family were delighted to see him.
"You may expect another visitor shortly," he said. "Monsieur Pickard has come on shore with me; he has gone to the bank now, but said that he would come on here later."
"Then he has escaped," Madame Duchesne exclaimed. "We had hardly even hoped that he and his family had done so, for we knew that the blacks had risen everywhere in that part of the island."
"Yes, I am happy to say that he, Madame Pickard, and his two daughters, all got safely away; in fact, they all came off to my craft – not the Agile, you know, but to the Arrow; and I had the pleasure of taking them as passengers to Jamaica, where the ladies still are."
"That is good news indeed," Myra said. "Valerie is a great friend of mine. Of course Louise is younger, but I was very fond of her too. The year before last I spent a couple of months with them at their plantation; and, as I daresay they told you, they are always here for three or four months in the winter season."
Nat then told them what had taken place at Port-au-Prince, and how he and his men had taken part in the fight.
"It is terrible news indeed," said M. Duchesne; "and one can scarcely feel safe here. Port-au-Prince is the largest town in Hayti, with the exception only of this, which is quite as open to the danger of fire. I think this will decide us on leaving. Matters seem going from bad to worse. I don't know whether you know that three commissioners have arrived from France. So far from improving the state of things, they are making them worse every day. As far as can be seen, they are occupied solely in filling their own pockets; they have enormously increased the taxation, and that at a time when everyone is on the verge of ruin. No account is given of the sums they collect, and certainly the money has not been spent in taking any measures either for the safety of the town or for the suppression of the insurrection. I have wound up all my affairs here, and have disposed of our plantations. There are many who still believe that in time everything will come right again; I have myself no hope. Even if we got peaceful possession of our estates, there would be no hands to work them. The freedom of all the blacks has been voted by that mad assembly in Paris; and if there is one thing more certain than another, it is that the negroes will not work until they are obliged to, so the estates will be practically worthless.Therefore I have accepted an offer for a sum which is about a quarter of what the estate was worth before, and consider that it is so much saved out of the fire."
"Monsieur Pickard is of exactly the same opinion as you are," Nat said, "and has come here principally for the purpose of disposing of his estate on any terms that he can obtain."
"Well, I do not think he will find any difficulty in getting about the same proportion of value as we have done. The rich mulattoes are buying freely, and, as I say, some of the whites are doing the same. Ah, here he is!
"Ah, my dear Pickard, we are glad indeed to see you, and to learn from our friend here that your wife and daughters are safe in Jamaica."
"We have been very anxious about you," Madame Duchesne said; "and Myra has been constantly talking of your family."
"It was the same with us, I can assure you, madame; and it is strange that we should first have obtained tidings of your safety from Monsieur Glover, and that you should also have obtained news of ours from him. Still more so that while he has, as he said to us, been of some little service to you – but which, we learnt from one of his officers, seems to have been considerable – it is to him that we also owe our lives."
"Little service!" Madame Duchesne repeated indignantly. "However, we know Monsieur Glover of old. First of all he saved Myra's life from that dog, and certainly he saved both our lives from the negroes. And did he save yours? He has just told us that you came on board with him, and that he took you to Jamaica. Still, that is not like what he did for us."
"That is one way of putting it, madame," Monsieur Pickard said with a smile; "but as you say you know him of old, you will not be surprised at the little story that I have to tell you."
"Not now, Monsieur Pickard," Nat said hastily, "or if you do I shall say good-bye to Madame Duchesne at once, and go straight on board."
"You must not do that," Madame Duchesne said as he rose to his feet; "you have only just arrived, and we are not going to let you off so easily."
"We will compromise," her husband said. "Now, Monsieur Glover, you know that my wife and daughter will be dying of curiosity until they hear this story. Suppose you take a turn down the town with me. I will go and enquire whether there is any ship likely to sail in the course of a few days or so for Jamaica. Then Monsieur Pickard can tell his story, and my wife can retail it to me later on. You see, Monsieur Pickard's wife and daughters are great friends of ours, and madame and Myra naturally wish to hear what has happened to them during this terrible time."
"Very well," Nat said with a laugh, "I don't mind accepting that compromise; but really I do hate hearing things talked over which were just ordinary affairs. But remember that Monsieur Pickard naturally will make a great deal more of them than they are worth, since, no doubt, the outcome of them was that he and his family did get out of the hands of the blacks in consequence. Now, Monsieur Duchesne, I will start with you at once, so that madame and Myra's curiosity may be satisfied as soon as possible."
Monsieur Duchesne took Nat first to call upon the three commissioners, who happened to be gathered in council. The commandant at Port-au-Prince had asked him to convey the report he had hastily drawn up of the attack on the town. This he had sent ashore as soon as he anchored; and the commissioners were discussing the news when Nat and Monsieur Duchesne were shown in.
"I thought, gentlemen," Nat said, "that you might perhaps like to ask me questions upon any point that was not explained in the commandant's report, which was, as he told me, drawn up in great haste; for with four-fifths of the town laid in ashes, and the population homeless and unprovided with food, his hands were full indeed."
"Thank you, Lieutenant Glover. The report does full justice to your interposition in our favour, and indeed states that had it not been for the assistance rendered by yourself and the ship of war you command, the town would unquestionably have been carried by the insurgents, and that the whole of the whites, including the troops, would probably have been massacred. Had this been done, it would undoubtedly have so greatly encouraged the rioters that we could hardly have hoped to maintain our hold even of this city."
"I was only carrying out the orders that I received in landing to protect the white inhabitants from massacre, gentlemen."
"In your opinion, is anyone to blame for the course events took?"
"Even had I that opinion," Nat said, "I should certainly not consider myself justified in criticising the action of the officers and authorities of a foreign power. However, the circle of the town was too large to be defended by the force available, of whom half were volunteers, ready to fight most gallantly, as I can testify, but not possessing the discipline of trained troops. I do not think, however, that even had batteries been erected all round the town, the insurgents could have been prevented from effecting an entrance at some points, and setting fire to the houses. They advanced with great determination, in spite of the destructive grape fire maintained by the three guns of the battery. Undoubtedly had the batteries been placed together on that side, as on the one at which it was thought probable that the attack would be made, the insurgents might have been repulsed, but it would have needed a much larger force than that in the town to man all those batteries. And I think it is by no means improbable that even in that case the town might have been burnt; for there were still a large number of negroes employed on the wharves and in the warehouses, and you may take it as certain that some of these were in close communication with the insurgents, and probably agreed to fire the town should their friends fail to effect an entrance. I can only say, sir, that the citizens enrolled for defence fought most gallantly, as did the small party of soldiers manning the battery on that side, and that when the fighting was over all laboured nobly to check the progress of the flames."
Several questions were put to him concerning the details of the fighting, and the measures that had been taken for the safety of the women and children, the part his own men played, and the manner in which the insurgents, after gaining a footing in the town, had been prevented from obtaining entire possession of it. At the conclusion of the interview, which had lasted for upwards of two hours, the commissioners thanked Nat very cordially.
"You see," Monsieur Duchesne said, when they left the governor's house, "they asked no single question as to whether you thought there was any danger of a similar catastrophe taking place here."
"Yes, I noticed they did not. If they had, I could have told them very plainly that, although the negroes suffered very heavily, yet the news that the second town in Hayti had been almost destroyed would be sure to raise their hopes, and that I consider it extremely probable that some day or other this town will also be attacked, and no time should be lost in putting it into a state of thorough defence. I can't say that they impressed me at all favourably."
"Short as is the time that they have been here, they have managed to excite all parties against them. They have issued an amnesty, pardoning even those who have committed the most frightful atrocities upon us. They have infuriated a portion of the mulattoes by announcing the repeal of the decree in their favour. Without a shadow of legal authority they have extorted large sums of money from those mulattoes who have remained quiet and are resident here, and seem bent upon extracting all that remains of their late fortune from the whites. One of them is frequently drunk and leads a scandalous life; another appears bent solely upon enriching himself; the third seems to be a well-meaning man, but he is wholly under the control of his drunken companion. If this is the sort of aid we are to receive from France, our future is hopeless indeed. And, indeed, no small portion of my friends begin to see that unless England takes possession of the island the future is altogether hopeless. The general opinion here is that it is impossible that peace can much longer be maintained between England and France, and they hope that one of the first steps England will take after war is declared will be to land an army here."
"If the English government were persuaded that the mulattoes and negroes as well as the whites were favourable, I should think that the island might be annexed without difficulty; but unless all parties are agreed I cannot think that a force could be spared that could even hope for success. It would have been an easy task before the mulattoes and the slaves learned their own strength, but it is a very different thing now; and I should say that it would need at least five-and-twenty thousand men, and perhaps even twice that number, to reduce the island to submission and to restore peace and order. I cannot think that, engaged in a war with France, England would be able to spare anything like that force for a difficult and almost certainly a long series of operations here."
By this time they had arrived at Monsieur Duchesne's house.
"Our friend has only just finished his story," Madame Duchesne said, as he entered. "What a story! what frightful sufferings! what horrors! and," she added with a smile, though her eyes were full of tears – "what 'little' service rendered by you and your brave crew! He has told it all, and of your fight afterwards with that terrible pirate, and how you have added to the list of those you have saved from terrible deaths some eighteen or twenty Spanish gentlemen and ladies, and twice as many sailors."
"Yes, I have had wonderful luck," Nat said; "and you see I have been well rewarded. I am only just out of my time as a midshipman, and I am in command of a fine ship, which, in the ordinary course of things, I could not have hoped for for another eight or ten years. I have gained a considerable amount of prize-money, and best of all, the friendship of yourselves and the family of Monsieur Pickard. And the real author of all this is Mademoiselle Myra, who was good enough to have that little quarrel with her aunt's dog just at the time that I happened to be passing."
This raised a laugh, which in Myra's case became almost hysterical, and her mother had to take her out of the room.
"Now, Monsieur Duchesne, I will take this opportunity of returning on board. I promised you that I would come ashore and dine with you this evening, but I must really make its fulfilment conditional upon your assuring me that there shall be no allusion to any of my adventures."
"At any rate, I will impress upon my wife and daughter that the subject must be tabooed, and I have no doubt that they will do their best to avoid it, if they can keep away from the topic that cannot but be present in their minds. After hearing Monsieur Pickard's story – of which, as you must remember, I am at present wholly ignorant – you see that, intimate as the two families have been, it is not surprising that they should have been greatly affected by it, especially as for the last month they have been mourning for them as dead."