Today's Reading

No, Bliven was content to let other officers climb up each other's backs in quest of better commands like iguanas seeking the sunniest rock. He found himself satisfied to have been placed once more over his dear old Rappahannock. Having taken her on her first cruises, to the Caribbean and the Pacific, it seemed poetic, or symmetrical, that he should take her home to Boston from her last cruise. After Malaya and the Sandwich Islands, the ship was assigned to the Mediterranean Squadron, while he was given command of a light frigate and returned to the Caribbean. The Navy wished to take advantage of his experience with the games of pirates, privateers, and newly independent countries. Upon the Rappahannock's return from the Mediterranean, the combined judgment of the Navy was that her hybrid design was not a success, except on the point of her diagonal knee riders that supported the berth deck. That feature was continued into the newer sloops of war, but as the first of her species her list of needed improvements was too long to justify a rebuilding. With her replacement still abuilding, Bliven was given command of her a final time, for a routine patrol of the West Indies, for what should have been the most placid voyage of his career, showing the flag amicably in the British and French islands. Instead, this cruise had transformed itself into an intense and scarifying education on the human condition.

At home, the issue of slavery had become so contentious, so divisive, that he endeavored not to think on it at all. Clarity's abolitionist sentiment had become so militant that she gave him almost no peace, while his renewed correspondence with Sam Bandy, now nearly fifteen years in Texas after his ruin in South Carolina, pummeled him with the opposite considerations: the ruin of the South's economy if slaves were liberated, the desperation that hundreds of thousands of freed men and women must face if they were turned out with no land or employment or skills and, as Sam phrased it, no one to take care of them. While Bliven loved Clarity as fiercely as ever, and missed her, he had looked forward to six months back in the Caribbean as a rest from the issue of slavery as a daily topic.

* * *

What he discovered there came as a shock, however, and as their three longboats pulled slowly up their Florida river, there was ample time for him to digest the onslaught of unwanted realizations from the previous two months. On every British island it seemed the only topic of conversation was the impending law to take effect on August 1, 1834, that would outlaw slavery throughout the empire. And then discussion would turn in amazement to the almost prophetic tragedy that William Wilberforce, who was the driving engine of emancipation, who had utilized his forty-five years in Parliament to win that day, had died like Moses just short of reaching the Promised Land—but, like Moses, he had been permitted to see it, for he lived long enough to learn that the passage of his bill could not be stopped.

Bliven's next-to-last port of call in the Caribbean was at Jamaica. Kingston Harbour was a hidden labyrinth of shallows, with the first narrowing of its entrance passing beneath the Twelve Apostles battery off to port, a dozen guns whose firing, if an enemy approached, gave ample notice to the sixty-six big guns in the fortification at Mosquito Point, a mile farther in. Those ramparts overlooked a safe channel barely seventy yards wide, through which no hostile ship could survive to approach the city. It was the most brilliant defensive scheme that he could imagine.

Bliven took equal interest in the shallows to starboard, beneath which lay the remains of Port Royal, the infamous pirates' nest that a vengeful God had drowned in an earthquake in 1692, and then suffered the remnant to burn to the ground a decade later. Kingston, on the north shore, was founded by Port Royal survivors and now was a convenient place to hire a carriage for an easy ride to the capital at Spanish Town, fifteen miles to the west, where Bliven would make a courtesy call on the colonial governor. Much of the land along that road was reclaimed marsh, now given to plantations, and between that sight and animated conversation with his driver he learned that sugar was to this colony of Jamaica what cotton was to the American South, the cash crop upon which they depended, and which faced a bleak future without the forced labor of slaves. In the rolling miles between Kingston and Spanish Town, the vast cane fields were yet worked by an unending line of bent black laborers, glared at by overseers armed with whips and muskets and sidearms. Did they truly think that this way of life could be transformed in the darkness that would separate July 31 from August 1? What exactly did they believe it would change into? Of even greater consequence, in Kingston he was told that only one person in four was white and that of the blacks two persons in three were slaves, who would gain their freedom in another two months. What their society would look like in a year's time, after emancipation, God only knew. But their premonitions sounded very much like Sam Bandy's.
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