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Sex, Slavery And A Father’s Rotting Corpse: The Secret of Diary William Byrd II, Gentlemen And Planter (1907 – 1912)

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William Byrd II (1674-1744) kept a diary. Byrd was a British-educated lawyer, a member of the Royal Society, leader of Virginia council, credited with founding Richmond, Virginia (he was born Henrico County, Virginia, but soon left the colonies for the Motherland ) and leader the surveying party that set the Virginia-North Carolina border in 1728.

 

William_Byrd_II

 

On his father’s death in 1705, Byrd II inherited 1,200 acres of Virginia land. On May 4, 1706, he married Lucy Parke, 18-year-old daughter to Colonel Daniel Parke II, governor of the Leeward Islands.

Things were prosperous for the new Establishment in their Westover pile. Byrd ran a large household of servants and slaves, including a houseboy named Eugene, aged around 11 or 12, and a teenaged maid, Jenn (both of whom feature later in this story), and assembled a 3,500-volume library. He was – and you may not be surprised to learn this – a sexual predator.

 

Westover House beside the James River, Virginia

Westover House beside the James River, Virginia

 

We will focus on his diaries, the first of which runs from 1709 to 1712 and wasn’t published until the 1940s. As we shall see, Mr Byrd had a few issues. For instance, he dug up his father’s remains to look his sire in the face. “I had my father’s grave open to see him,” Byrd wrote, “but he was so wasted there was not anything to be distinguished.  I ate fish for dinner.”

The private man and the public figure are not always aligned. The diary stands as witness to Byrd’s experience, reflecting his inner life. Why did he keep it, often writing in a coded shorthand? Susan Sontag wrote in On Keeping a Journal:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts – like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.

 

 

This is an undated photo of a poster warning "Colored People" in Boston, Mass., of sanctioned kidnappers and slave catchers which was dated April 24, 1851. Ref #: PA.2690723 Date: 24/04/1851

This is an undated photo of a poster warning “Colored People” in Boston, Mass., of sanctioned kidnappers and slave catchers which was dated April 24, 1851.

 

The passages on the slaves are striking and painful. We read them through modern eyes and recoil at the gruesome and grotesque images. But back then, as Mark Twain (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910) wrote long after Byrd had died, for most non-slaves, slavery was not a problem:

In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.

Before lengthier entries, here are Byrd’s words on Jenn and Eugene:

June 10th 1709 … In the evening I took a walk around the plantation. Eugene was whipped for running away and had the bit put on him. I said my prayers and had good health, good thought and good humour…

September 3rd 1709 … I ate roast chicken for dinner. In the afternoon I beat Jenny for throwing water on the couch…

December 3rd 1709 … Eugene pissed abed again for which I made him drink a pint of piss…

December 10th 1709 … Eugene had pissed in bed for which I gave him a pint of piss to drink…

It would be a long time until Hannah Arendt, confronted with the Holocaust and its perpetrators, wrote on the “banality of evil”.

(Times change. The Freedmen’s Bureau Project has digitised 1.5 million historical documents to help African-Americans learn about their family roots. The Freedmen’s Bureau was created to help newly-freed slaves. It “opened schools to educate the illiterate, managed hospitals, rationed food and clothing for the destitute”. And all the while it recorded the people’s stories.)

So hereunder are selections from William Byrd’s diary, in which he “dances his dance (?), gives his wife a “flourish”, gropes women, disciplines the staff and says his prayers.

April 9, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and 150 verses in Homer. I said my prayers devoutly and ate milk for breakfast. My wife and I had another scold about mending my shoes but it was soon over by her submission. I settled my accounts and read Dutch. I ate nothing but cold roast beef and asparagus for dinner. In the afternoon Mr. Custis complained of a pain in his side for which he took a sweat of snakeroot. I read more Dutch and took a little nap. In the evening we took a walk about the plantation. My people made an end of planting the corn field. I had an account from Rappahannock that the same distemper began to rage there that had been so fatal on the Eastern Shore. I had good health, good thoughts and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty. I said my prayers.

July 9, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Josephus. I said my prayers and ate milk and apples for breakfast with Captain Wilcox who called here this morning. I danced my dance. I wrote a letter to England and read some Latin. I ate roast chicken for dinner. In the afternoon I saluted my wife and took a nap. I read more Latin and Greek in Homer. Then I took a walk about the plantation. I neglected to say my prayers. I had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

July 31, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and some Greek in Josephus. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I threatened Moll with a good whipping again tomorrow for her many faults. Old Ben grew better and better. I read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson. I took a little nap before dinner. I ate roast pork for dinner. In the afternoon I read some geometry. In the evening Mr. C-s came to see me and we drank a syllabub. We walked in the garden till late. I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

September 19, 1709. I rose at 4 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and some Greek in Josephus. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. I beat Anaka for letting the child piss in bed. I wrote a letter to England for the government of Maryland. I read some law. I ate blue wing for dinner. In the afternoon I wrote another letter to England and then took a walk about the plantation. My wife was something better, thank God. I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty. I read some Greek in Homer.

October 6, 1709. I rose at 6 o’clock and said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. Then I proceeded to Williamsburg, where I found all well. I went to the capitol where I sent for the wench to clean my room and when I came I kissed her and felt her, for which God forgive me. Then I went to see the President, whom I found indisposed in his ears. I dined with him on beef on beef [sic]. Then we went to his house and played at piquet where Mr. Clayton came to us. We had much to do to get a bottle of French wine. About 10 o’clock I went to my lodgings. I had good health but wicked thoughts, God forgive me.

November 2, 1709. I rose at 6 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and some Greek in Lucian. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast, and settled some accounts, and then went to court where we made an end of the business. We went to dinner about 4 o’clock and I ate boiled beef again. In the evening I went to Dr. [Barret’s] where my wife came this afternoon. Here I found Mrs. Chiswell, my sister Custis, and other ladies. We sat and talked till about 11 o’clock and then retired to our chambers. I played at [r-m] with Mrs. Chiswell and kissed her on the bed till she was angry and my wife also was uneasy about it, and cried as soon as the company was gone. I neglected to say my prayers, which I should not have done, because I ought to beg pardon for the lust I had for another man’s wife. However I had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

December 3, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Cassius. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. Eugene pissed abed again for which I made him drink a pint of piss. I settled some accounts and read some news. About 12 o’clock I went to court where I found little good company. However I persuaded Mr. Anderson and Colonel Eppes to come and dine with me. I ate a venison pasty for dinner. In the evening Mr. Anderson and I walked to Mr. Harrison’s where we found Frank W-l-s and James Burwell and Isham Randolph. Here I ate custard and was merry. I stayed till 9 o’clock and when I came home my wife was in bed. I neglected to say my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

December 13, 1709. I rose at 5 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and some Greek in Cassius. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. Last night I gave my wife a flourish and this morning I quarreled with her about her neglect of the family. I settled some accounts. About 12 o’clock Mr. J– came and dined with me. He told me the Doctor was extremely ill, which made me resolve to go there in the afternoon. I ate fish for dinner and as soon as I had dined I rode with Mr. J– to Captain Stith’s where I found the Doctor in a very weak condition. We prayed by him and I took my leave, committing him to God, before whom he was likely to appear very soon. Then I returned home with Mr. Harrison, and Mr. Anderson, and Mr. Cocke who had all been to take leave of the poor Doctor. In the evening I read some Latin. I neglected to say my prayers, but had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

January 7, 1710. I rose at 7 o’clock and read a chapter in Hebrew and some Greek in Cassius. I said my prayers and ate milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. I gave a vomit to my negro children to prevent the distemper. I settled some accounts and prepared some accounts to send to England. I ate roast pork for dinner. In the afternoon I played at cards with my wife. Then I took a walk about the plantation to see what the people were doing. In the evening I gave the rest of the servants a vomit to prevent the distemper which is come as far as G-l-s Ordinary. I read some Latin in Terence with which I was very much pleased. I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God Almighty.

July, 30, 1710. I rose at 5 o’clock and wrote a letter to Major Burwell about his boat which Captain Broadwater’s people had brought round and sent Tom with it. I read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Thucydides. I said my prayers and ate boiled milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. I read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson and then took a little [nap]. I ate fish for dinner. In the afternoon my wife and I had a little quarrel which I reconciled with a flourish. Then she read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson to me. It is to be observed that the flourish was performed on the billiard table. I read a little Latin. In the evening we took a walk about the plantation. I neglected to say my prayers, but had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thanks be to God. This month there were many people sick of fever and pain in their heads; perhaps this might be caused by the cold weather which we had this month, which was indeed the coldest that ever was known in July in this country. Several of my people have been sick, but none died, thank God.

November 13, 1710. I rose at 7 o’clock and said a short prayer. Then I took a little walk about the plantation. I ate toast and cider for breakfast. Colonel Digges sent for a white negro for us to see who except the color was featured like other negroes. She told us that in her country, which is called Aboh near Calabar, there were many whites as well as blacks. We played at dice till about 12 o’clock and then we [went] to Williamsburg, but I was so dusted with dirt that I was forced to change my clothes. Yesterday Mr. Ingles had a child burnt to death by fire taking hold of its clothes. We went to the capitol and stayed there about two hours and then I went and dined with the Governor where I ate roast mutton. I had a letter from home which told me all was well except a negro woman who ran away and was found dead. I said my prayers and had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thank God Almighty.

February 27, 1711. I rose at 6 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Lucian. I said my prayers and ate boiled milk for breakfast. I danced my dance and then went to the brick house to see my people pile the plants and found them all idle for which I threatened them soundly but did not whip them. The weather was cold and the wind at northeast. I wrote a letter to England. Then I read some English till 12 o’clock when Mr. Dunn and his wife came. I ate boiled beef for dinner. In the afternoon Mr. Dunn and I played at billiards. Then we took a long walk about the plantation and looked over all my business. In the evening my wife and little Jenny had a great quarrel in which my wife got the worst but at last by the help of the family Jenny was overcome and soundly whipped. At night I ate some bread and cheese. I said my prayers and good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thank God Almighty.

March 20, 1711. I rose at 6 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Lucian. I said my prayers and ate boiled milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. Captain Isham Eppes sent for rights but I sent him none because he sent no money. I took a walk to see my people at work. The weather was cold, the wind being northeast. My negro boy was better, thank God. I wrote another long letter to England, about increasing my salary to 400 a year, in which I hope to succeed because I have some friends in the Treasury. I took a walk to see my people at work. Captain Posford sent some of my things up. I made an indifferent dinner this day because Moll had not boiled the bacon half enough, for which I gave her some stripes under which she [b-s-t] herself. I wrote another letter to England in the afternoon. In the evening I took a walk about the plantation with my wife. At night I read in the Tatler and ate some bread and new butter. I said my prayers and good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thank God Almighty.

October 21, 1711. I rose about 6 o’clock and we began to pack up our baggage in order to return. We drank chocolate with the Governor and about 10 o’clock we took leave of the Nottoway town and the Indian boys went away with us that were designed for the College. The Governor made three proposals to the Tuscaroras: that they would join with the English to cut off those Indians that had killed the people of Carolina, that they should have 40 shillings for every head they brought in of those guilty Indians and be paid the price of a slave for all they brought in alive, and that they should send one of the chief men’s sons out of every town to the College. I waited on the Governor about ten miles and then took leave of him and he went to Mr. Cargill’s and I with Colonel Hill, Mr. Platt, and John Hardiman to Colonel Harrison’s where we got about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. About 4 we dined and I ate some boiled beef. My man’s horse was lame for which he was let blood. At night I asked a negro girl to kiss me, and when I went to bed I was very cold because I pulled off my clothes and after lying in them so long. I neglected to say my prayers but had good health, good thoughts, and good humor, thank God Almighty.

Oct 29, 1711. I rose about 7 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Homer. I said my prayers and ate boiled milk for breakfast. About 9 o’clock I went to wait on the Governor but he was not at home and I walked after him to the new house and found him there and saw several of the Governor’s contrivances, and particularly that for hanging the arms. About 11 o’clock I came with the Governor to court where we sat till about 3 and then I went up stairs and danced my dance and wrote a letter to England. Then I returned to court where we stayed till about 5 and then I went home with the Governor and ate venison for dinner and then drank a bottle till 8 o’clock. Then we went to the coffeehouse, where we played at cards till 10 and I won 25 shillings. Then I returned home and I committed manual uncleanness, for which God forgive me. I neglected to say my prayers, but had good health, good humor, but indifferent thoughts.

May 22, 1712. I rose about 6 o’clock and read two chapters in Hebrew and some Greek in Lucian. I said my prayers and ate boiled milk for breakfast. I danced my dance. It rained a little this morning. My wife caused Prue to be whipped violently notwithstanding I desired not, which provoked me to have Anaka whipped likewise who had deserved it much more, on which my wife flew into such a passion that she hoped she would be revenged of me. I was moved very much at this but only thanked her for the present lest I should say things foolish in my passion. I wrote more accounts to go to England. My wife was sorry for what she had said and came to ask my pardon and I forgave her in my heart but seemed to resent, that she might be the more sorry for her folly. She ate no dinner nor appeared the whole day. I ate some bacon for dinner. In the afternoon I wrote two more accounts till the evening and then took a walk in the garden. I said my prayers and was reconciled to my wife and gave her a flourish in token of it. I had good health, good thoughts, but was a little out of humor, for which God forgive me.

Amen.

  • Tim

    Stunning!