Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Elizabeth's Mother, part 4: Never Knowing

My hypothesis about Elizabeth's mother is that she died without ever having made a mark on a contemporary record. This is not a provable hypothesis, so it might not even merit the term "hypothesis." Yet, it should still be among the potentialities that outline the space in the past that she occupied. 

Let's start with Elizabeth's birth in 1735. Madison indicates that Elizabeth was born in Virginia, therefore her mother was in Virginia in 1735. Where was she nine month earlier?

If her mother was Parthenia or Sarah, as listed in the 1733 and 1746 Eppes documents, then she was right there in Virginia. If you put that together with Madison's story about bringing her into the house when Hemings planned to kidnap Elizabeth, then she was working in the fields at Bermuda Hundred or one of the other Eppes plantations.

Except none of those pieces fit together very well. (Not that they have to, given that we could use so many more pieces; but still...) When planters bequeathed property to their heirs, the slaves working that property went along in the bargain. The slaves that they bequeathed to their daughters, the ones usually named in wills, tended to be those who labored in the house, those who did the "women's work" to allow the daughters to be "ladies." Named in both the 1733 will and the 1746 marriage settlement, neither Sarah nor Parthenia worked in the fields, whereas Madison's account would have Elizabeth's mother in the fields in 1733. Also, Elizabeth seems to have no siblings associated with her. That doesn't mean she did not have any brothers or sisters, but no one has that clear connection to her.

Let's go about this puzzle another way. Where was Elizabeth's mother nine months before Elizabeth's birth? Wherever the father was, of course. Since Captain Hemings claimed paternity, then where was he? To answer that question, we need to know something about him.

Madison conveyed four relevant pieces of information about Hemings: his name, his occupation, his nationality, and that his ship went back and forth between Virginia and England. In other words, the Hemings family seems to have taken care to preserve a fact that their forefather did not captain a slaving vessel from Africa. If he did not captain a slaving vessel, then he did not impregnate (that's the most neutral language I could settle on) Elizabeth's mother before she arrived if she came directly from Africa.

Of course, that brings us to her manner of arrival. Elizabeth's mother could have come to Virginia in one of three ways, all three of which took her from Africa through the hell of the Middle Passage. The first brought her directly to Virginia, the second to Virginia after ports-of-call and transfers in the Caribbean, and the third as part of a mixed cargo on a vessel not specific to the slave trade. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database has two transatlantic voyages for 1734 and two for 1735, and three voyages from the Caribbean in 1734 and two in 1735 as arriving in the Upper James River. Maybe Elizabeth's mother arrived on one of them. None of them, by the way, had a captain named Hemings nor phonetically similar to Hemings. That doesn't rule out the possibility that Hemings was another crew member, misremembered as a captain.

Once she had arrived at, let's say, Bermuda Hundred, then she waited in a sort of quarantine. Philip Morgan did a lot of number crunching -- Cliometrics they called it, back in the day -- for his massive Slave Counterpoint and the little data that he found for Virginia in the 1730s on this showed that the quarantine lasted for 8 to 15 days. This was during the peak of the trade for Virginia, and the peak of the peak occurred right there in Bermuda Hundred as the planters in the Piedmont demanded more and more laboring bodies from Africa, while those in the Chesapeake had an enslaved population that reproduced itself (although not quite to the point where they wanted to offload them in numbers to meet the demand elsewhere, as would begin happening in 50 years time).

So, consider this very contingent scenario: If Elizabeth's mother arrived in Bermuda Hundred on a boat not captained by Hemings, and if she then went to field work, then the only chance that they had for contact and conception (again, the most neutral way to configure what happened between them to create Elizabeth Hemings) would have been there during her quarantine while she was confined in a port city.

Frankly, this scenario gives me a very bad feeling about Elizabeth's conception, not made any better by Madison's account in which Hemings seems to have cast off any concern about Elizabeth's mother thereafter, not offering to purchase her freedom and trying to separate her from her daughter. No, I don't trust him at all. The reality for her situation favors an interpretation of rape, even if it does not exclude a range of other possibilities.

Enter yet another contingency. Here we have Elizabeth's mother having undergone one of the most dehumanizing experiences in human history, her body violated, broken, malnourished, and barely able to hang on to its own life, much less grow another. Although not as grim as a century earlier, the first year for most new arrivals in Virginia remained deadly, more so for Africans. I'm trying to find mortality rates for the area in which she lived to have an accurate picture, but what I have found is that there was a reason that the enslaved population did not replace itself beyond more men arriving than women. Add on top of that the fact that pregnancy tended to inflate the mortality rates of most women and the odds were pretty steep for a young, African woman surviving long past the birth of her first child if that birth took place in the first year after arrival.

This is one possible fate of Elizabeth's mother: A weakened body, pregnant, hard physical labor, all in a seasoning year, death in childbirth. Elizabeth's mother may not have been brought to the Big House. Only Elizabeth the baby may have been carried there to be cared for by one of the enslaved women, such as Parthenia or Sarah, who served as an adopted mother. That may account for how little survived about this "full blooded African" woman in America, including her name. She did not live long enough to tell her child, so the other women told Elizabeth what they knew, and she told her daughter, who told her children, one of whom told a reporter, who  printed it up for us.

But, of course, this is just one possible scenario pieced together from a number of contingencies and contextual information. Shift one piece and, like a kaleidoscope, the whole thing changes. The most painful thing is in that cliche, "we will never know." Yet, I find value and importance in trying because the search for this one woman's experience forces me -- and by extension anyone else who tries, such as the readers of the chapter and their teachers who will lead discussions -- to step into that world and ask questions about it, sometimes very practical questions, and try to understand it.

I won't know exactly what came to pass in Elizabeth's mother's life, how she went from her own mother's arms somewhere in the continent of Africa to some now-lost grave in Virginia, but in considering all of the different contingencies, I think about the lives of women who did experience this one or that one. Those women did not even have the record of being the "full blooded African" in a memoir, but they existed and became part of this -- our, black and white and all -- collective history.

So, the never knowing, it's like the destination that you never reach on a trip where the journey becomes just as important.

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