Friday, September 10, 2010

Uncle Aristarchus

In 1775 22-year-old Deborah Champion traveled from Westchester, Connecticut to Boston carrying a secret message sent by her father to General George Washington. She first carried the message under her bodice (corset) and later hidden under some food in a saddle-bag. I have this from a letter from a treasure house of letters referenced below. She managed to get through the British lines in the pre-dawn hours; she was taken for an old woman because she wore a calash. Reading eighteenth century letters is educational. A calash was a hood, a word that came from the French calèche.

Now, apart from the war-time tensions and the employment of young virgins to carry messages hidden on their bodies, something else left the most vivid impression on me reading this letter. Deborah traveled in company of an elderly slave named Aristarchus. Slaves in Connecticut? Yes. Learning about the relationships between slave owners’ children and slaves is also educational. Here is a quote from the letter Deborah wrote to a friend named Patience:

You remember Uncle Aristarchus; he has been devoted to me since my childhood, and particularly since I made a huge cask to grace his second marriage, and found a name for the dusky baby, which we call Sophranieta.
Deborah also refers to the slave’s wife as Aunt Chloe. On the trip itself she also encounters blood relatives—Uncle Jerry, Uncle Starkey, and Aunt Faith.

I got to thinking about Deborah and Uncle Aristarchus after reading this fascinating letter—and tried to internalize what it might have been like for a child, in those days, growing up in a household with slaves—and how that might have shaped a child’s the views of that wretched institution, especially under circumstances where the slaves were, as here they seemed to be, almost members of the family and addressed with honorifics children in those days, and in my own childhood too, used when talking or referring to elders. Regarding honorifics, I’ve had occasion to mention that subject tracing the Mma in Mma Ramotswe a while ago here.

Women’s Letters, America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler. Dial Press, 2005.

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