Chapter 4

DURING THOSE FIRST MONTHS IN Charleston, Robert and Emma Bunch were introduced to the cream of Low Country society, which fancied itself, without apology, an Anglo aristocracy. Rigidly hierarchical and deeply intermarried, it based prestige on the wealth of plantations and the pretensions of bloodlines. Bunch, as Her Majesty’s consul, although no aristocrat, was invited into exalted company as an honorary member of the upper crust. He was asked to speak at the Royal Society of St. George, of course, and then to preside. The city was full of more or less benevolent associations that traced their roots to the British Isles and that welcomed Bunch into their precincts. Many of them had grand edifices, such as St. Andrew’s Hall on Broad Street, with its dazzling Thomas Sully portrait of the young and voluptuous Queen Victoria. (The Hibernian Hall on Meeting Street, with its Irish roots, was not always such friendly territory for the consul.) The city now boasted two relatively respectable hotels for informal gatherings, the Charleston Hotel and the Mills House, both on Meeting Street. There were endless dinners and balls and soirées. As dreary as the winter weather could be, it was the height of the social season, and that culminated in February during Race Week, when it seemed that all the South, and certainly all of South Carolina’s aristocrats, converged on the city to watch their horses compete, to see and be seen by the city’s most beautiful belles, and to trade notes on the future of their plantations, their politics, and the American Republic. The Charleston Jockey Club, the most exclusive fraternity in the city, organized the show. And the Jockey Club invited Bunch to attend its functions as well.

It did not take Bunch very long, amid the politicking and the revelry, to discover the darker side of life in Charleston’s homes. “The frightful atrocities of slaveholding must be seen to be described,” he wrote in a private letter that wound up prominently positioned in the official slave-trade correspondence of the Foreign Office. “My next-door neighbor, a lawyer of the first distinction and a member of the Southern Aristocracy, told me himself that he flogged all his own people—men and women—when they misbehaved. I hear also that he makes them strip, and after telling them that they were to consider it as a great condescension on his part to touch them, gives them a certain number of lashes with a cow-hide. The frightful evil of the system is that it debases the whole tone of society—for the people talk calmly of horrors which would not be mentioned in civilized society. It is literally no more to kill a slave than to shoot a dog.”

Bunch sent that letter in the middle of January 1854, a month of cold and storms, when Charleston’s rich green tropical allure turned gray and battered and depressing. Flecks of white foam drifted off the whitecaps visible from East Bay Street. Waves crashed against the Charleston Bar, a series of submerged shoals. And a British brig called the Charlotte ran up on a reef near the entrance to the harbor. The crew survived, among them a fourteen-year-old black seaman named John Hayes, an apprentice from Barbados, and Bunch knew by then exactly what would happen if the boy didn’t get some protection. He’d be thrown into jail “among the outcasts of society” and subjected to the kind of treatment that the young and the weak often suffered in prison. Bunch did not use the indelicate term rape, but when he wrote about fearing “an atrocity at which my nature revolted,” it was hard to mistake his meaning.

Bunch acted quickly. He sent word to the Charlotte’s officers instructing that Hayes be kept away from Charleston. He arranged for the boy to be taken in by the keeper of the lighthouse on Charleston Bar, a few miles from the city near the dilapidated outpost known as Fort Moultrie. For more than two weeks Hayes holed up there with a man kept silent by the friendly, and probably the pecuniary, persuasion of Her Majesty’s consul. Finally, Bunch managed to arrange passage for the timorous boy on a British ship about to embark for Liverpool. But to get him aboard, Bunch had to bring Hayes to the city.

Charleston Harbor in midwinter opened onto rough waters, and small steam-powered launches often lurched precariously close to disaster among the waves. As Bunch and Hayes approached the city’s wharf, they must have felt relieved that their ordeal was almost over. But waiting for them was one of Charleston’s “constables,” as Bunch called him, a member of the City Guard who grabbed Hayes as soon as he came ashore.

Bunch stepped in front of the guardsman, demanding that Hayes be released because he was due to leave on the next boat out. The guardsman paid no attention, dragging Hayes toward the jail. Bunch shouted, asserting his authority, only to realize how little he really had. The guardsman was acting in accordance with South Carolina’s laws, which Bunch knew at least as well as the constable. Bystanders watched as Her Majesty’s consul undiplomatically risked the fatal appearance of impotence. Still, he would not give way, mustering as much imperial authority as he could, invoking the names of his acquaintances among the good and great in South Carolina until, finally, the constable relented. He would not jail Hayes, and he would allow him to leave on the next ship out, but the captain would have to pay a heavy fine.

Bunch, realizing that his bold move to save one young man could imperil his larger goal of changing the Negro Seamen Act, accepted the deal and agreed to pay the fee himself. But he knew he would have to be more careful in the future. And when he wrote to Lord Clarendon, recounting this “flagrant case of extortion” by the constable, he made it clear that he had mentioned nothing about it to the mayor or any other city authorities, not even in private. With the example of George Mathew’s failure in mind, he assured the Foreign Secretary that if it proved impossible to change the “abominable injustice of the law of South Carolina,” then he didn’t want anyone to blame “the indiscreet zeal of Her Majesty’s Consul.” Clarendon thoroughly approved.

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