The "Black Warrior"

The steamship Black Warrior.
(Copyright-free image)

Page 2 of Ben Howe's letter to Nathaniel.

One of the joys and challenges of working on this book of history is the unexpected information that comes up when I search topics related to the letters. In this case, the ship Ben took from New Orleans to New York turned out to be famous. He mentioned its name, Black Warrior, at the end of line 13. Ben took his trip in June of 1856. The Black Warrior was built in 1852. Had Ben taken the same trip in 1854, he might have been aboard on the day the Black Warrior nearly became the catalyst for war with Spain as it lay moored off of Havana, Cuba. Had he taken the trip in 1859, he might have been among the last passengers on the fateful ship when it grounded on Rockaway Bar near modern day JFK Airport. There are a number of web pages about the Black Warrior, and this one combines most of the historical information along with notes on the wreckage. If you scroll down the page you can even see eating utensils from the ship, giving us some idea of what Ben's place setting must have looked like.

It's fascinating to find this kind of stuff, and the challenge comes in sorting out how much to include in an already-very-long draft. But it's exactly this type of material that gives clues about how the people in the letters lived and what they thought about. Certainly both Nathaniel and Ben knew the history of the near-war sparked when the Black Warrior's captain had failed in February 1854 to declare to Spanish Customs that he was carrying a load of cotton from Alabama. He failed to declare because the law didn't require it, as the cotton was not intended for offloading in Havana. However, the new Governor of Cuba seized the ship and provoked an international incident. War was only averted because England, France, and Russia were about to become embroiled in Crimean War and did not want the added burden of backing Spain. The war was forestalled, and would eventually take place in 1898 as the Spanish-American War, the famous war in which Teddy Roosevelt commanded Rough Riders at San Juan Hill - a war with history-changing repercussions as far away as the Philippines.

There are any number of interesting points in Ben's letter. He had his own style that expressed itself in simple things such as the "double comma" look of his periods and the already-mostly-outdated use of "f" instead of some of the "s's" in his text. He writes "pafs" instead of "pass," for instance, and it took me a minute to figure out that "lef" was "less," because he didn't include the second "s" (or else it's barely there, see line 10).

Ben's exuberance comes through in passages such as, "Now Friend H. Tis not fair no t’isn’t by any means when I talk so freely to you & just to think you should keep such a matter of . . . grand importance for me who give you all my confidence entire. Oh, Ho Ho. Don’t get vexed don’t." This was Ben's response when he learned in Vermont that Nathaniel was contemplating marriage and had not mentioned it to his old friend.

I find myself curious when I read, " . . . we stopped at Havana for a while & I just got my pass ["pafs" in each case] and went ashore for awhile to see the sights at Havana. Well after getting my pass (just like any other nigger) I approached the officer, Pass in hand & was permitted to enter the old city of Havana. . . ." First, let me say, I actually shudder to use the "N word," even here, as I was brought up to find racial slurs abhorrent. (I don't mind swearing, that is a whole "nother" thing, but I cringe to hear racial slurs, much less perpetuate them - and that is the crux here.) But "first" again, I do not change the words used by the writers of the letters. These are their thoughts and the language of their times. In the publication of All Eight Went, a 1910 travelogue, I did change "Chinaman" to "Chinese man" for the sake of what I thought was propriety, and I've always regretted it. The flavor of the time and the character of the people left the sentence, and I had written a lie. Second, I don't believe that the word "nigger" was here intended as a racial slur by Ben against black people. Again, it was the language of the times, and it conveys a particular attitude and complex relationship to his environment that I can only begin to understand by keeping the word in its context. Until his early 20s Ben had lived in the North among abolitionists and those who, while not in favor of human bondage, had only tolerated slavery because it was constitutionally the law of the land. At twenty-something he had traveled south to teach school and had lived in slave-holding communities and perhaps in slave-holding households in Georgia and Louisiana by the the time he wrote this letter at the age of almost 27. His Northern roots had become tempered by sympathy for how the Southerners lived. He was also conscious that he was writing to a Northern friend, but one who had also spent time teaching in the South. While Nathaniel had not adopted the South as fully as Ben had, he had come to love his Southern family and understand their ways and reasons.

Returning to the line used by Ben, I conclude that while not showing contempt for blacks, he is taking into account their status as less than that of respected citizens and expressing his own sense of humiliation at needing to be approved and monitored in order to go ashore in Havana. I find this interesting, as Havana was not part of the United States, and we are so used to the formalities and even the invasive procedures at border crossings and domestic airports. In any case, Ben appears to have been miffed, or perhaps he was only making an observation. His inclusion of himself along with the black race ("any other nigger") erases boundary lines and plants both Ben and the "niggers" within the same human family, not a universal thought in his day, but also not entirely unique.

These are only a few of the intricacies found in such a letter, and just a hint of why I am enjoying this project so much. I look forward to the day it becomes a book to be shared with others. For some reason I was unequipped to bring it to a conclusion 30 years ago - no doubt because I had not found the right vision for it, and no doubt also because I lacked some necessary aspect of life experience or judgement. In any case, I feel grateful today that I can enjoy the journey, and for these insights into what life was like in Ben's world. I am grateful that he wrote to Nathaniel, that Nathaniel saved the letter, and that I was led to find it among a treasure trove of writings well over a century later.

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