Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Last week (January 19, 1861)


What was the most marked feature in the week ending on the 10th of January, 1861? Clearly—The Frost! There is some mysterious and overruling power which provides for the ever-recurring necessities of our editors, and of the public for whom they in their turn spread the daily banquet. Even with the battles, murders, crimes, intrigues, revolutions of the world to draw upon—with all the new books, and new plays, and new operas, and new pictures open to their criticism, it must be a hard matter for the conductors of our public journals to find matter for 313 “issues” in the course of every year. When Parliament, and the Law Courts—especially the Courts of Chancery—are sitting, there is much balm for the editorial soul, a sober certainty of waking consciousness that for twenty-four columns at least—barring the labour of “cutting down”—they are safe. No daring reader—with the exception, perhaps, of the Chancery client more immediately interested, or the eloquent member who has made the telling speech—will risk himself into that arctic region of frozen print. No one will run the risk of being closed up for an indefinite time amidst those icebergs of the intellect. So far it is well; but when the British Parliament passes away like a dream of the night, or a tale which is told, and Chancery judges, and Chancery lawyers relapse into the normal conditions of humanity, the fate of our editors is less endurable. Were it not that some gentle influence from above sends from time to time a Horsman to Stroud, or permits that large gooseberries—in the Scottish vernacular, “blobs”—should flourish during the autumnal months in the distant county of Caithness, what would become of him? For six months of the year a daily newspaper is a bolter, and will scarce yield obedience to the restraining hand of the editorial Chifney—for six other months it is a slug, and requires the soft incentives of whip and spur to keep it in its place. That task of weaving of the daily leaders out of one’s own bowels—as one may say—is a hard one indeed. It is difficult to conceive a more appalling destiny for a journalist of untidy moral character, than that he should be condemned to produce a leading article every day throughout eternity, even when intelligence is slack, and fashionable arrivals rare in the regions where it has been appointed that he should take up his final dwelling-place. The autumnal months—and the weeks of early winter which immediately precede the meeting of parliament—usually give our editors a foretaste of this form of bliss. But for this year the Frost has come to their assistance, and carried them triumphantly through what sailors would term the “doldrums” of their harassing occupation.

In truth it has been a rare frost, and even whilst these lines are committed to paper the Thames is frozen over at Battersea, and by the time they are given to the public, unless a thaw should intervene, of the fairway, even at London Bridge, there will be an end. As you look from the bridges down upon what is usually the great water thoroughfare of London, you see it choked with masses of ice of such size, that the navigation is already well-nigh stopped. At Rochester amateurs are getting their skates ready, and as one of the events of Last Week it may be reported that the Medway was frozen over at Rochester Bridge. Very many years have elapsed since such a sight has been seen. In the southern counties of England the reporters tell us of 38 degrees of frost; and in the eastern counties, of 40 degrees. The ice on the Trent is of great thickness, and the great Yorkshire rivers are quite frozen over.

A very curious phenomenon—which illustrates the severity of this season in a very striking manner—has been recorded by naturalists as having been witnessed in the neighbourhood of Pontefract and Doncaster. It is said that the intensity of the frost has affected the plumage of the birds in that district, and that several which have been shot have proved quite pie-bald. Every one who has dabbled in arctic travels—pleasant reading by a bright fireside in latitude 52!—will remember that the plumage of the birds of the arctic regions is naturally colourless and white. It requires the genial warmth of sunnier climes to provide the humming-bird with its irridescent court-dress, and to clothe the parrot—that harlequin of the woods—in its brilliant motley. Just now it is Northward-Ho with our poor little English birds, and it is to be feared that as far as they are concerned the frost will finish the task of destruction which the floods of last year in the breeding time had too effectually begun. If so, we shall miss them next season, and discover to our loss that they have another use in the economy of nature than merely to make our hedgerows and coverts delightful with song.

But what a strange scene was witnessed in our London Parks Last Week. Why this was to be at Moscow, or St. Petersburgh, or to enjoy ourselves after the fashion of men about town at Nishni-Novgorod. Night after night there were very many hundreds—nay, thousands—of persons skating by torch-light. During these icy Saturnalia you might have seen crowds—many women amongst them—weaving fantastic dances; each one with skate on foot, and torch in hand, as merrily as though the floor had been chalked for their use in some pleasant ball-room “during the season.” The quicksilver in the thermometer stood at very many degrees below freezing point, but the intensity of the cold seemed only to give additional fervour to the amusement. The objects of human ambition had become changed. Happy was the mortal whose proficiency on the “outside edge” was unquestioned—happier still the adept who could cut you the figure 8 backwards in a careless and easy manner, as though such were the natural fashion of locomotion in this slippery world. Then there were games of nine-pins played out upon the ice, with a vigour which would have put the champions of our American bowling alleys to the blush. It was delightful to witness the effect of one’s own puny prowess as the ball darted over the ice as though impelled by the arm of a stalwart champion in this kind. Nor were bands of music wanting, nor displays of fireworks, to give glory to this strange scene; while amidst this strange medley of sights and sounds—the ‘Express Skating Train’ would flash past, giving one the idea of how locomotives might enjoy themselves when out for the holidays.

Alas! however, for the Poor during these hard times! There is another, and far less delightful side to this strange fantastic picture. This pitiful subject has been more than once touched upon in these brief notices of the chief events of each week, as it takes rank as the Last Week to the readers of this publication. There is something here at stake of far more importance than a mere literary interest. Would that any word of ours could carry such weight with our readers as should induce them to give a little more thought than usual to the sufferings of their poor fellow-countrymen and country-women, who are just now enduring very terrible privations. The pity should not be so much for those who are driven to take refuge in the unions and workhouses. For them, at least, there is food—such as it is—and warmth, and shelter. The helping hand should be for such as are just struggling to keep clear of the House, and who are parting, day after day, with one little article of furniture and clothing after another, in the hope that the frost may break up, and the work, as they say, may “come back.” Day after day they struggle on, and nothing but the instant apprehension of death—not always that!—will induce them to retire from their bare walls, and dissolve the fellowship of suffering which stands to them in place of the happiness of a family. The one consideration which appears to keep them out of the workhouse, more than bolt or bar, is the stern rule which enjoins separation during their sojourn within the walls of the Union between husband and wife, parent and child. It is probable that, as their means of procuring daily food of the roughest kind decrease, and the vital powers are lowered, the suffering has so become a habit that they look upon the realities of their situation with duller apprehension. They are content to starve to-day as they starved yesterday. To-day they are alive—why should they not be alive to-morrow? The problem is solved one way or another, and, on the First of May, most of them will be alive; but at what expense of human suffering—at what expenditure of vital power and energy which might have been profitably employed in taming the sea, and drawing nourishment from the earth, it would be hard to say. We are apt to think “they are alive—all is well.” There are worse things than death. To live on with abated energy, and forces sadly unequal to the daily task;—to bring into the world an offspring of stunted power and growth;—in the day to wish it were night, and at night to say, “would God it were morning!”—all this is worse than the long rest, and the realisation of the eternal hope which is in man’s nature. Is it not strange that there should be too many Englishmen and Englishwomen in this world? Is it not stranger still that we should have so much pity and sympathy for starving and distressed persons in other lands, whilst our own people—those of our own flesh and blood—are undergoing equal privations of food and of the necessaries of life, in addition to the miseries caused not merely by a rigorous climate, but by a climate whose rigour comes by fits and starts, and is therefore all the more distressing? Our pity always travels South. No one subscribes for the Esquimaux, and yet as long as the skies are bright, and the sun is warm above, human suffering is shorn of half its bitterness.

The intelligence received Last Week from the United States has been of the most astonishing kind. It would seem that in South Carolina there has been a convention, or State gathering, and that by the persons present it has been decided that this State shall no longer form part of the North American Union. Other slave-holding states have been invited to join this glorious conspiracy against the freedom of a large section of the human race in the name of freedom. Botanists tell us that the rose is a very foul feeder—no flower consumes so much dung as the garden’s queen. This seems to be the case with freedom in the Southern States of the North American Union. Freedom in South Carolina, and in the other planting states must be well manured with slavery, that its petals may be bright and its leaves vigorous, and that the plant may flourish in a satisfactory way. It is difficult to believe even now that the true statesmen of the United States will not find a way out of the difficulty, for as the matter strikes upon one’s intelligence at the first blush, the disruption of the Union is a heavy blow to the prosperity of that great confederation—which, with all its faults, was so useful an ally to the Liberals of Europe. We want a counterbalance to the vast military despotisms of Europe—for France, Spain, Russia, and Germany are still despotically governed by military power. Like “a good deed in a naughty world,” the lamp of freedom shines with faint glimmer here and there upon the European continent—in Holland, in Belgium, in Switzerland, in Piedmont—but as yet it sends forth but an uncertain beam. Were the British islands once subjected to military power, there would soon be an end of freedom in the Old World. The Liberals of Europe live by virtue of British freedom, and we in our turn rely for sympathy and support upon the various gatherings of the Anglo-Saxon race which have established themselves at this or that point of the habitable globe. The Australian continent, with its adjacent islands, and still more, at the present period of the world’s history, the continent of North America, constitute our two great supports. There does not exist any nation, save our own, which has cast its roots so deeply and so firmly into the earth at distant points of its surface, as our own. The power of Russia, of France, of Germany, respectively, is concentrated into a comparatively narrow space; but on the other side of the Atlantic there is another England; in the far Southern Ocean, an England again. These great offshoots have drawn their vigour from the parent trunk, but they have well repaid the debt. The progress which has been made in turning Liberal ideas into facts, during the last thirty years, even here at home, is greatly the result of the existence elsewhere of British communities, which had broken off all connection with feudal forms of thought. How, then, can we do otherwise than wish well to the United States of North America, and pray that they may not diverge from the paths which would lead them to permanent greatness and prosperity?

It seems incredible that we of this generation should live to see so important an event as a disruption of the great Confederation. By the last advices from the States we are informed that there is a general idea throughout the Union that at the last moment the North will give way, and consent to receive conditions from the South. Such a result, although perhaps it would afford a momentary solution of the difficulty, would, in the long run, prove the direst calamity both to the States and to the world. It would mean nothing less than the extension, at a period more or less remote, of the system of slavery over the larger portion of the North American continent—over Mexico and Central America—and probably over Cuba, and certain others of the Antilles. The Southerners mean nothing more nor less than that this large and fertile section of the globe should be cultivated by enforced negro labour for the benefit of white masters. Is this the best arrangement which can be made? We are bound to admit that in the present condition of human labour, the cultivation of cotton, sugar, and tobacco, and perhaps, coffee, is mainly performed by the negro. They tell us that the constitution of the white man is incapable of continued toil under the burning sun of the tropics, and in the unwholesome swamps where the cotton plant is grown. They add that experience has shown that the negro will not cultivate the earth in obedience to the same impulses which drive the white man to his daily toil. He is an inferior animal—a half-way something between the white man and the horse; he must be put in harness and driven along the road, or he will not perform that daily amount of work which the white man’s Providence, and the white man’s system of Political Economy tell us is required of all human beings, as the condition of their existence.

Now, we are certainly not of those who would advocate the doctrine that the extinction of Slavery is to be purchased at such a price as would be involved in the confiscation of the property of the Southern planters—which, for the matter of that, would carry with it confiscation to our own Manchester magnates as well. But the doctrine, if carried into effect, would do something more than this—it would inflict sudden and enormous misery upon the slaves themselves. The very commonest suggestions of Justice, of Prudence, of Humanity, forbid such a conclusion. The question rather is, whether at this critical period of the world’s history, and looking forward, as we are bound to do, to the advantage of those who are to come after us, we are doing the wisest thing in entrusting the cultivation of the great staples named to the hands of the negro? We may now adopt one of two courses. We may work down to the conclusion that in a generation or two the culture of cotton, sugar, &c., is to be carried out by white labour aided by machinery, and availing itself of the improvements in mechanical and agricultural science. If this be not well, then we must look forward to negro labour as our sole resource, and to an indefinite increase in its amount, for certainly the demand for the great tropical staples is annually on the increase. In half a century, if the same rate of progress is maintained, it will be something very enormous.

If the Northern view were to prevail in this dispute which is now dividing the Disunited, rather than the United States—at least the rational Northern view, not the view of the extreme zealots and fanatics, slavery would be confined within its actual limits, and within them it would be suffered to die out in a few generations. On the Southern suggestion, slavery is to be indefinitely extended, and to become the very basis upon which the New Southern Confederation—to be formed by the secession of the planting States and territories—is to repose. Let this be carried out, and in a few generations what will be the numerical amount of the slave population?—what its proportion to the whites? As matters stand at present in the United States, it must not be forgotten that the Northern States have always offered a most important guarantee to the Southern in case of a servile war, or any disturbance of that kind. Whatever the views of the Northerns might have been upon the subject of slavery, there is no doubt that they would have marched as a man to the defence of their Southern brethren in case of a rising amongst the negroes. But let the Southern idea be carried out, and before long the whites will stand amongst the negroes scarcely as thousands amongst millions. The negro population will be enormous—the white population, as fortunes become more and more concentrated into a few hands, will proportionably decrease. To be sure we hold British India upon such terms; but, commercially speaking, that is not the most profitable speculation we have taken in hand. It may be added that, were we to attempt to govern India in such a spirit, one of two results would surely follow,—our expulsion within the next twenty years, or the bankruptcy of the mother-country.

Every person who has made himself practically familiar with the planting system as it actually exists in the southern states has told us that one of the great blots upon it is, that white and black labour cannot be brought to bear upon the soil within the same district. Agricultural industry, the black man’s merit, is therefore the white man’s reproach. To take a turn at the sugar-canes or the cotton-plants is to be degraded to the negro’s level. This is a great danger, for it shuts out all hope of a modification of the system by the introduction of white labour upon any considerable scale. It should also be considered that the negro is not an apt workman where machinery is used. You can supplement the powers of the white man—the thews and sinews of the black man are all that can be called into action. If, as the advocates of slavery say, the negro is an inferior animal, why should we be at such pains to perpetuate an inferior race? Why not machinery of iron instead of negro muscle? If, on the other hand, the negro is not an inferior animal—although one of a branch of the human race which is not gifted with faculties very susceptible of development—what right have we to keep him in slavery?