SHORTLY AFTER THE BUNCHES’ ARRIVAL in Charleston, they took up residence in a three-story house at 58 Tradd Street. It had been built in the 1730s on the long, narrow road that cut all the way across the little peninsula on which Charleston sits, and it was pleasant enough, with a small garden, and what seemed respectable neighbors.
As Her Majesty’s consul set out on his errands each morning, the streets bustled with black laborers and servants, pink-cheeked ladies, rugged Irish and German workmen, and the strapping sons of plantation owners, most of them of English descent. Consul Bunch slipped past them or, tipping his hat, stopped to chat about nothing at all. Bunch was unassuming but amusing, a man well met but easily forgotten. In his demeanor and discourse he had perfected his mask as a perfectly English Englishman looking after obvious English interests.
The purely consular part of a consul’s job was never done. George Mathew had left an office on the Central Wharf at the end of Broad Street from which Bunch could keep close watch on the British vessels in the port. The consul was expected to know to the letter the treaty obligations governing commerce and to make sure that local authorities observed them. If there was a problem with a channel in the harbor, or the flame was burning none too brightly in a lighthouse, he would tell the British captains about it and notify London. A consul could estimate the value of a ship’s cargo for U.S. customs officials. He represented the interests of all British sailors and citizens when they got into trouble. He notarized documents, embossing them with the lion and unicorn seal. He issued passports to British citizens, and he recorded their marriages, births, and deaths in the wide expanse of territory that fell under his jurisdiction. One of Bunch’s colleagues wrote that “With the exception of the administration of the sacrament of baptism and exercising the business of executioner, it would be difficult to say what duties I cannot be called on to perform.”
Bunch visited the newspaper offices and the jails, the harbor-master, the postmaster, the Federal prosecutors, and private attorneys. He would keep careful track of transatlantic trade and any impediments to it, from cotton supplies to quarantines (always a big issue on a coast plagued with yellow fever), to legislation by the Federal and state governments and litigation in the courts. His work kept him in constant contact with Carolinians of every stripe. His agreeable mien helped him win the trust of people who had an innate suspicion of outsiders.
A consul supplied the signature on paperwork for British ships entering and leaving the port. He attended formal functions among the ladies and gentlemen of the town, and he dealt with drunken British thugs who wound up in jail, including, occasionally, those accused of murder. But the most important part of Consul Bunch’s work would be undertaken in private and, very often, in secret.
Britain posted fourteen consuls in the United States, including seven in slave states, and these men—along with the minister in Washington—comprised the backbone of the system that kept Britain informed about what was happening on the ground. Many of the British consuls in the United States were part-timers who mixed their private business with their unpaid official duties, but Bunch in Charleston in the South and the consul in New York City in the North were salaried professionals. Their business often included quasi-diplomatic functions and always involved the gathering of intelligence—political and military as well as commercial—for Her Majesty’s government. The best consuls, and Bunch would soon number among them, sent dispatches to the Foreign Office tracking everything from shifting public sentiment on tariffs to the gritty details of slavery.
Mathew had not left the Charleston consular office in good order, and when Bunch arrived in late November, he discovered that the consulate’s only employee was a paragon of Low Country decadence. “Old Davis, my vice consul, has delirium tremens and the pox alternately, as his life fluctuates between the barroom and the brothel,” Bunch wrote to John Crampton, the British minister in Washington.* At the same time, Bunch said hopefully, “Nothing can exceed the civility of these good people. Everybody calls, and there are teas and dinners ‘looming in the future.’ ”
But, still, the newlywed Bunches were having a hard time settling in. A city more different from the New York they’d left behind would be hard to imagine. The sun poured down on the sandy avenues. The branches of the live oaks hung heavy with Spanish moss. The grander houses had an elegant simplicity, with wide verandas that sheltered the windows both upstairs and down. Many homes had small gardens filled with lush growth. But when the wind blew, the dust off the streets covered one’s clothes and filled one’s eyes. Alleys that were homes to the slaves crisscrossed the city. In the markets near the port, amid the sickly scent of decay, Negro vendors sold colorful fruits and the daily catch of mullets and crabs while the butchers threw discarded fat and offal to tribes of lumbering vultures that waited restlessly nearby, protected by law as the winged collectors of refuse.
Bunch quickly found that Charleston society was small, rich, and spoiled. Rice and cotton had made the upper classes as wealthy as any in America, North or South, and the climate had made them, of necessity, an idle aristocracy. For much of the year, when their plantations were plagued by yellow fever and malaria, those Charlestonians who could retire to the mountains, to the outer islands, to the North, or to Europe did so, and, partly as a result, many spent their fortunes elsewhere. The population had been declining slowly for a decade as many people moved west to the new lands of opportunity. In 1820 Charleston had been the sixth largest city in the United States. But New Orleans soon surpassed Charleston’s port traffic, and many of the old rich, and those who had depended on them, instead of adapting to change took every opportunity to fight it. National power was slipping from their hands, and South Carolinians came to see the Federal government as the enemy, blaming the tariffs it imposed as a reason for their declining fortunes. By the early 1830s Carolinians were claiming they could nullify Federal laws they deemed threatening, and they almost started a war to make that point before President Andrew Jackson—the “American Lion” always ready enough for a fight—forced them to back down. The city’s decline continued, and by the time Bunch arrived, the population of Charleston was down to about forty thousand, not one-twentieth the size of New York City. And about half of those Charleston residents were slaves or free men and free women of color.
Visitors remarked that the people of Charleston—the white people from the old families, anyway—were conspicuously tall and handsome. The Charlestonians said, and in some cases it was true, that they were descended from English gentlemen, and long before the phrase “master race” was coined, they saw themselves, literally, as a race of masters. Charleston photographer C. J. Quinby took pictures of many leading lights, and even in his sepia images one can see that most of his subjects had strikingly pale, sometimes almost wolflike, blue eyes. They “live in the open air and work like Trojans at all manly sports, riding hard, hunting, playing at being soldiers,” wrote one proud matron.
But a palpable undercurrent of fear and mistrust filled what could seem at first a languorous city with a grating, omnipresent tension. From the first weeks of what eventually became a decade spent in Charleston, Bunch was deeply disturbed by the mixtures of arrogance and fear, cruelty and luxury, piety and hypocrisy that were so deeply ingrained in Southern culture. He tried to look on it all with detached irony, but even in his private letters to his superiors—indeed, even in his official dispatches to London—there were times when the irony, which he could not show publicly, became very bitter indeed on the pages of correspondence marked private and confidential.
Bunch learned quickly, as anyone learned who spent more than a few days in Charleston, that the Denmark Vesey conspiracy to launch a vast slave uprising in 1822, a rebellion that never actually happened, was a critical moment in the minds of the white people in the city. The fear of the slaves, docile though they seemed, had always lingered in the background. But after the hysterical revelations and allegations that surrounded Vesey’s plot, they grew much worse, as if people living in a house they believed might be haunted had discovered, suddenly, that malevolent ghosts really were watching them day and night.
Vesey had been brought from the British West Indies as a young slave, a point often made by those who told the story. He managed to buy his freedom with money won in the lottery in 1799, and for decades he was a popular preacher with slave congregations at Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. White preachers often invoked fire and brimstone to keep the slaves in line, but Vesey used the righteousness of the Old Testament to inspire rebellion. “The city shall be taken, and the women ravished,” he would tell his flock, quoting the book of Zechariah. According to the Charleston prosecutors who interrogated him, Vesey meant to seize the arsenal and the ships in the harbor. House servants recruited to the cause allegedly were tasked to murder the governor of South Carolina and other officials in their sleep. Vesey was said to have prepared six infantry companies to roam the streets, slaughtering every white man, woman, and child.
On the night rumored to have been set as the date for the uprising, nothing happened. But after mass arrests, Vesey and thirty of his supposed co-conspirators were tried in secret courts. When he and the others were executed, their bodies were left hanging in the Carolina sun, picked over by crows and the protected vultures day after day until all semblance of humanness was gone. That many of the alleged conspirators were free blacks and others the household slaves for rich and powerful Carolina families made even the most benevolent owners feel threatened and vulnerable, fueling their rage.
And yet the whites of Charleston continued to live surrounded by blacks. “You see, even in the main streets, two or even three of these to every white man, and in the back streets you see no one else,” reported a British lieutenant who traveled to Charleston in 1853. You were not supposed to see Negroes on the sidewalk—that was forbidden—but often you did. And you were not supposed to see them at all late at night, but often they were there in the shadows, moving easily enough, because they knew the city better than anyone. Quite a few had been manumitted and lived on their own. (The census had a category for them, f.p.c., for “free person of color.”) Others were hired out and did not live with their masters. They met, they talked, and that fact alone convinced many Charlestonians that they might conspire.
In response, the city fathers funded the City Guard, with almost three hundred paid patrolmen, including twenty-five on horseback. It was one of the most efficient police forces in the country, garrisoned in an enormous building on the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets that appeared part fortress, part temple. At the same intersection stood the courthouse, city hall, and St. Michael’s Church. These were the military, legal, political, and spiritual bastions of Charleston’s slave-owning order, and every night at nine o’clock in the winter and ten in the summer the bells of St. Michael’s would peal, followed by the beating of drums at the guardhouse for a full quarter of an hour. The rattling tympani were intended to send blacks running back to their masters and their homes, and the drumbeat became the soundtrack of every evening, ignored by those who did not need to hear it, but a subliminal reminder to all of fear as much as of security. The British consul’s new home on Tradd Street was only a block away from the bell tower and the drummer; the music of martial authority rang loudly through his rooms every night.
The same year that Robert Bunch arrived in Charleston, the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray passed through town with a small party on a lucrative American lecture tour. The sale of people on the auction block was a common public spectacle, and Thackeray and his friends watched the tableau with mixed feelings. It took place, as always, just outside the elegant Old Exchange building, and about ninety people were on sale that day.
A young British lieutenant remembered the scene emotionally. “The gang was to be sold in families,” he wrote. “The Negroes, with their wives and little ones, were standing huddled together in a crowd behind the platform on which each family was exposed for sale in turn, according to a printed program.” Many of the slaves “seemed indifferent, and a stout Negress or two looked, occasionally, even defiant; but there were several mothers with their babies at their breasts (and even black innocence and helplessness are pretty and interesting) sobbing bitterly.” He continued: “The auctioneer explained the conditions of sale to the company, and stated that all the niggers were to be considered sound, unless anything was said to the contrary. There was no degrading exhibition to ascertain physical efficiency, but all the Negroes were in decent clothing. The slaves were arranged in families according to their nearest relationship, and sold in lots at so much a head. The competition was tolerably brisk, and several lots—old men, babies, and all—sold very well. The scene, of course, was most painful, humiliating and degrading. I became quite affected myself, and was obliged to hurry away, for fear ofshowing what I felt.”
These were, precisely, the sights of Charleston that welcomed Bunch and began to change him. The ambitious young consul who had referred so casually to the “nigger question” now found that wherever he walked, and, indeed, wherever he looked, the weight of slavery bore down on him. Bunch had seen plenty of inhumanity and suffering in his life, from the plantations of Peru to the gang-ridden slums of Five Points in New York City. He had seen servants abused countless times in countless ways. But he had never seen or heard anything quite like what he saw and heard in this city to which he had brought his wife and where he hoped to have his children. In this new position with new responsibilities, and in this place, the young consul quickly grew bitter, even desperate. His initial comments on “the civility of these good people” soon gave way to a much darker view.
BUNCH HAD BEEN in touch with members of the South Carolina legislature before his arrival, and, according to the plans he’d worked out with Crampton in Washington and with Clarendon in London, he kept his correspondence and contacts as calm and congenial as possible, although every hour of the day he felt he was dealing with a society almost devoid of sanity. Clarendon had given a speech in Parliament over the summer that recognized South Carolina’s concerns about its security and that was intended to help, but Bunch did his best to keep it out of circulation, because sensitivities about British interference ran so high. He was told that even those who thought the Negro Seamen Act was “useless” vowed to oppose any change to it “if the British Consul so much as stirred a finger in the matter, or asked it in the civilest manner as a favor!”
“I have been extremely cautious to avoid the slightest appearance of intemperance in this question,” Bunch assured Clarendon. “I have addressed no letters to the governor, no representations to the legislature, and have not even paid a visit to the capital, for fear of my motives being misrepresented. I have not seemed even to seek interviews with persons of influence, but have availed myself of such opportunities as were presented by social intercourse, of which there is an abundance of a certain description.”
When Bunch met the imposing, white-bearded William Aiken, a former governor and state senator and soon to be a member of the U.S. Congress, Bunch followed the agreed-upon script to the letter, “dwelling especially on our desire to avoid anything like insidious interference with the right of South Carolina to consult her own safety.” Bunch said he knew what a “kindly feeling” the Southern states had for Great Britain, and he was sure they wouldn’t put laws on their books that would be offensive to her unless they really felt the need, but that need no longer existed. Anyone could see how docile and content the Negro population had become, and how immune to outside agitation, Bunch said, playing to the commonplace hubris of the Charleston elite. Aiken seemed pleased and said the law would be changed, if not during the current session, then the next. Bunch had a similar conversation with Nelson Mitchell, a Charleston attorney who served, at the time, as chairman of the Committee on the Colored Population in the South Carolina House of Representatives. Mitchell claimed he was “very anxious for a change.”
These were not the kinds of men Bunch trusted. But one class of people in Charleston seemed “more enlightened and less bigoted” than the rest, Bunch told Clarendon. And at that early date, there’s no question he had James L. Petigru in mind. The former state attorney general was an aging bear of a man with long hair, heavy jowls, and penetrating eyes. He was like a paterfamilias to the South Carolina legal community and soon adopted an avuncular, if not paternal, role toward Bunch. Petigru was the man who had codified South Carolina’s laws. Many of the state’s most notable attorneys and politicians had worked in his law offices. Such was his personal prestige that he could say whatever he wanted and often did, knowing that his opinions would be tolerated even if they went unheeded. He famously said of secession, a notion raised often over cigars and brandy, that “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” But Petrigru’s Unionist sentiments did not mean that he or any of the other Charleston intellectuals seriously questioned slavery or, if they did, knew how to be done with it.
Another of Bunch’s early acquaintances was the Princeton-educated postmaster, Alfred Huger, who was a former state senator and the owner of a large plantation on the Cooper River. Like Petigru, Huger had been an opponent of nullification, a state’s supposed right to nullify or declare void within its borders any Federal law or tariff detrimental to its sovereign interests. Huger would stand out as one of the more thoughtful, and conflicted, men in Charleston: a partisan of Union in the heartland of secession; an owner of slaves who despised the institution and feared its effect on society. He was one of many Charlestonians descended from Huguenot refugees who had fled persecution in the Old World, and he felt keenly the painful contradictions of a luxurious society built on the backs of human chattel. Another potential Bunch ally was Huger’s brother-in-law, Col. John Harleston Read, owner of Rice Hope Plantation, who eventually became chairman of the House Committee on the Colored Population in the state legislature.
Such men were open to discussion, at least, about the specific problem Bunch had been assigned to fix, and he assured them all that the suggestions he was making privately, socially, in the friendliest possible manner, were no part of any grand plot concocted in London to “advance the interests of emancipation and abolitionism.” He had a dry wit that seemed to Carolinians very British, and he could tell tales he’d heard about politicians in Washington and up North. (He was, generally, careful not to tell tales about his British superiors.) Soon the tensions that had greeted him upon his arrival seemed to dissipate.
Already by the end of November Bunch thought his strategy was working. The new governor, John Manning, opened the legislative session in Columbia, the state capital, with a speech that seemed to lay to rest all the bad feelings created by George Mathew. The court cases brought by the previous consul had been decided in South Carolina’s favor, said the governor, and “the laws of the State upon this subject [had] been fully vindicated.” As a result, the governor added, “the question of modification of them is relieved of all its embarrassment, and may with entire propriety come before you for consideration as a new question.”
When Bunch read those words, he could hardly contain his excitement. But the speech got better still. Manning told the legislature that “the course adopted by the British government in the latter stages of the proceeding” had been “entirely proper and respectful,” and the legislature should take that into account.
Bunch wrote to Clarendon that he hoped he would be able to report good news soon about changes to the law.
But that didn’t happen. The legislature, which met for only a few weeks at the end of each year, adjourned just before Christmas without taking any action on the black-seamen issue. And while Bunch expressed restrained disappointment in his dispatch to Clarendon, he exploded in a private letter to Crampton.
“It is rather hard that we are to dance to the fiddle of this dirty little abortion of an imperium,” he wrote. Bunch started by describing the defeat of his efforts to amend the seamen’s law, then switched abruptly to a description of the scene a day before when a steamboat at the Charleston wharf blew up, sending the boiler on “a voyage of discovery” through the crowds and cotton bales that left thirteen of “the fine and enlightened” people of Charleston dead. Then Bunch concluded by saying, “My wife unites with me in wishing you a merry Xmas.”
Already, only weeks into his assignment, Robert Bunch wanted out of Charleston. “You must, of course, be aware that I only look upon this consulate as a pis aller,” a stopgap, a last resort, he wrote in another note to Crampton. “I hate the U.S. and am most anxious to get away.” He started pleading again for a posting in Bogotá, where he had spent much of his youth, where he knew people, where he could take care of his sickly father (and where he could secure his inheritance after his father’s recent marriage to a younger woman). But Clarendon wanted Bunch right where he was.
Bunch had not intended to lead a double life when he took the assignment in Charleston, but he quickly realized that he had little choice. He found himself mingling with men and women who held frightful opinions and committed atrocious acts. He wanted them to think him a sympathetic friend, yet in his letters to Crampton and Clarendon marked private and confidential, and meant for their eyes only, he continued to write of the Carolinians with undisguised loathing.
*Note that the men who served as envoys in Washington did not have the title “ambassador,” which was very rare. They were called “ministers.” Great Britain had consuls at Portland, Maine; Boston; New York City; Buffalo; Philadelphia; Chicago; St. Louis; San Francisco; Richmond; Charleston; Savannah; Mobile; New Orleans; and Galveston.