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Malem Boo. The Brazilian Slave

by Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880)

Text from The Oasis, edited by Mrs. Child

(Boston: Benjamin C. Bacon, 1834), 21-40.

[The following story is founded on fact. A friend of the editor, who visited Brazil in 1832, frequently saw the slave at his work, with a little boy forever at his side. His sedate demeanor, so different from the other slaves, and the thoughtful earnestness with which he pursued his avocations, excited her curiosity, and led her to inquire into his history.]

On the eastern coast of Africa, near the river Zambese, lived Malem-Boo, renowned among his people for the vigor of his frame, and the graceful agility of his motions. His bravery and handsome person found great favor in th eyes of his countrywomen. The belles of Mozambique stood by the clear water, and arranged with studious care their feathered coronets, and bracelets of beads and shells, in hopes of gaining the heart of Malem-Boo. But this conquest was reserved for one who came from distant Caffraria. Malem-Boo saw her for the first time, in the midst of a lion-hunt. He and his warlike companions had chased the powerful beast into a


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neighboring jungle, when suddenly a young woman, with a little boy upon her shoulders, started up from behind the thick shrubbery. The lion was just about to spring upon her, when the spear of Malem-Boo entered his forehead and laid him dead at her feet. The stranger's eyes sparkled with exultation; for the women of her country loved brave deeds, and often went out with the young warriors to hunt the lion and the panther. Yet Yarrima was modest, gentle and affectionate. Her expressive eyes, which glory so easily kindled, could melt at once into mildness and love.

The Caffres are remarkable among the tribes of Africa, for their majestic figures, graceful motions and proud deportment. They have short curly black hair; and in this respect, as well as the iron gray of their complexions, they appear to be a mixture of the Arab and the negro. Yarrima had been regarded as the most beautiful of her tribe; and the consciousness of this imparted a kind of quiet, queenly dignity, which was extremely pleasing. As she stood before them, with no other ornament than a leopard skin, and a string of red berries among her hair, the young hunters thought they had never seen anything half so charming. They eagerly crowded around her, to ascertain her history. She spoke a dialect different from their own, but they understood many of the words; and these, aided by her expressive gestures, enabled them to understand that she was the widow of a young Caffre chief,--that she had been taken by kidnappers,--had escaped from their hands,--and wandered through the woods for many days, until


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she met them. Malem-Boo listened with his whole soul in his eyes; and from that moment he seemed to forget that the world contained any other woman than Yarrima.

Among those primitive people, courtship is not a tedious process. The rules of civilized life have not as yet taught them to divorce their words and actions from the true affections of the heart. When Malem-Boo asked the handsome Caffrarian to become his wife, she answered by a timid glance, so expressive, that he needed not the imperfect medium of language to interpret it.

Yarrima's first marriage had been managed by her friends, when she was too young to have a preference; but the hunter of Mozambique was the chosen of her heart.

It is difficult to imagine human happiness more perfect than that enjoyed by these untaught children of nature. Their hut, plastered with clay, and thatched with Palms, might have seemed rude to one accustomed to European luxury; but Yarrima knew nothing of this. Her husband was doatingly fond of her; and little Yazoo, her infant son, grew every day more intelligent and interesting. Then nature herself was so beautiful in that sunny clime! The Palm trees waved over their humble dwelling in silent love, as if rejoicing in the blessed shade they gave; the happy little palm squirrels glided up and down their tall stems, or frolicked among the leaves, delighting Yazoo with their graceful gambols; from the neighboring groves the gaudy parrots screamed aloud to each other; at sunrise, the superb Creeper, its feathers


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glittering with blue, and crimson, and gold, filled the air with melody; and often the sonorous voice of the beautiful Pauline-touraco, was heard from the topmost boughs of the cocoa trees. One of these birds became so tame, that it frequently perched on the thatched edges of the hut, and ate berries from Yazoo's little hand.

The boy loved dearly to run in the woods, to chase butterflies, and pelt the beautiful green monkeys, that continually threw down branches on his head, while he was unable to distinguish their bright rich fur from the foliage among which they hid themselves. But Malem-Boo never allowed him to go out of sight of the hut, unless he was with him; for in the night time the loud roar of the lion thundered through the air--and none could tell where the savage beast might be lurking for his prey. Sometimes poisonous scorpions crept forth from under the stones; and, worse than all, the cruel slave-trader might get sight of him, and be led to suspect that there was a defenceless dwelling near. The heart of the poor African sunk within him, whenever he thought that they might possibly penetrate even to this secluded nest, and leave it desolate.

Yazoo was an active child; and in order to gratify his love of variety, Malem-Boo often took him to the precipitous rocks, among which he laboriously gathered particles of gold, for the market of Mozambique. Many a happy hour did the boy spend watching the klipspringer antelopes, as they bounded from ledge to ledge, sometimes stopping to scratch their ears on precipices where Yazoo could not have found room


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for one of his own little feet. Once in a great while he spied a large flock of the springer antelopes, or showy-bocks, trooping away in the distance; and he loved dearly to watch and see how, ever and anon, some one of the herd sprung high in the air, and showed the beautiful white spot upon his breast.

But what Yazoo liked better than all this, was to accompany his father, when he went in search of wild-honey, guided by the sagacious maroc. Every few moments the little bird would cry cher, cher, as if to let them know where he was; and when he came within sight of a wild bee's hive, he would flutter round it, and keep up a great outcry, till some one came to his assistance. Malem-Boo always gave the friendly creatures a portion of the honey they had helped to find; and Yazoo was taught never to fire his little arrows at them. When Yarrima joined in these pleasant excursions, their cup of joy was full.

Thus two or three years passed away in perfect content. Yarrima's second marriage was not blessed with children; and Malem-Boo's affections seemed to centre the more strongly on her infant son. His tenderness was returned with all the exuberance of childish love. Yazoo was never willing to close his eyes until his father had returned home, and spoken to him with his accustomed kindness; and if Malem-Boo missed his merry little voice, and the joyful, jumping step, with which he was wont to run and meet him, he always quickened his pace, and eagerly inquired, "Is the child well?" If, by chance, he found him sleeping, he never partook his evening


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meal till he had stooped over him, and kissed his cheek,or touched his little hand. It seemed strange that one so strong and warlike could be capable of such womanly tenderness: but Malem-Boo, like most brave and generous natures, had a heart very susceptible of love for all young and innocent things; and this sentiment was deepened by Yazoo's marked resemblance to his mother. Uncultivated as Yarrima was, she felt that her husband's love for the boy was a part and portion of his true affection for her; and she was more deeply grateful for it, than for all the beads, and shells, and golden bracelets, with which it was his pride to decorate her.

One day, when Malem-Boo departed early in the morning to pursue his occupation among the mountains, he repeated his usual charge to Yazoo to keep within sight of the hut; and particularly not to go near the beach, lest white men should discover his tracks in the sand. Only the day previous, the young hunter, in full chase of an ostrich, had been suddenly startled, and turned back, by the marks of shoes upon the beach; but his little hut was several miles from the sea, in such a hidden nook, that he felt as if danger at his very door was nearly impossible.

As Malem-Boo passed along, he patted his boy upon the head, and promised to return before dark. The child capered a few steps toward him, and then stopped, looking after him with smiling love. Yarrima, fearful that he might wander too far, called to him and bade him play near the door. With a few sticks, an empty gourd, and some ostrich feathers, he was happier than princes often are, with their golden and


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jewelled toys. Presently his mother heard a merry shout; and going to inquire athe cause, she found that three or four children, whose parents lived nearer to the sea, had wandered there, and joined Yazoo in his sports. One of them had been on the beach, and brought a palm leaf full of shells, with which Yazoo immediately proposed to build a hut. His anxious mother renewed her commands that he should keep within sight of the door; and the children readily promised to obey. From time to time, she looked out, and saw them dancing and playing in the shadow of the Palms. She was very busy weaving a garment for her husband, and satisfied with hearing their merry voices, she gradually looked out less and less frequently.

Suddenly the idea darted into her mind that she had heard nothing from them for many minutes. "Surely," thought she, "they would have screamed if danger had been near." She hastened to the spot where she had last seen them, calling, "Yazoo! Yazoo!" but no sound, save the occasional twittering of insects, was heard amid the sultry silence of approaching noon.

Yarrima almost flew over the ground, in hopes of discovering her child in the huts of her distant neighbors. Something like anger at his supposed disobedience was mingling with her terror, when among a cluster of infant foot-prints, she discoverd the steps of a white man! Then the wretched mother tossed her arms wildly in the air, and shrieked aloud in the extremity of hopeless anguish. She hurried onward to the beach; and still those horrid foot-prints


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were ever in her path. Heedless of her own danger, she screamed,"Yazoo! Yazoo!" and the lonely rocks echoed "Yazoo! Yazoo!"

Suddenly the tracks ceased. Here and there, between the [shelving?] ledges, the sea was visible; its waters sparkling quietly, all unconscious of the wickedness of man.

Yarrima clambered to the highest rock, and saw the white man's boat moving rapidly over the waves to a vessel just visible in the distance, She saw a child stretch forth its arms, and thought a faint scream reached her ear; but perhaps that sound was only heard by a mother's heart, throbbing in its utmost agony.

How Yarrima reached her desolate home, I know not. Malem-Boo returned early from the mountains, oppressed by an undefined apprehension of some evil awaiting him. He found his wife lying with her face upon the ground, exhausted, and stupified. With trembling eagerness, he asked, "Where is Yazoo?" She answered with a shriek, that pierced through his brain like an arrow. And then her whole frame was convulsed, till a torrent of tears gushed forth, to save her bursting heart.

Malem-Boo clasped his hands hard over his forehead; for a suspicion of the dreadful truth worked like fire in his brain. As soon as his fears were confirmed by Yarrima's broken sentences, he started upon his feet, saying, "I will offer them all my gold; and they will give us back our child." With half delirious eagerness, he gathered together all his treasures; and his wife, trembling with the excitement of


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renewed hope, brought forth her golden bracelets, beads, and ostrich plumes. Malem-Boo smiled upon her, saying, "My boat will move over the waters like the bird of the desert, when he hears the voice of his mate from afar. Trust me, I will soon bring back our boy." He turned to kiss Yarrima before he parted, and with a look full of love, he bade her keep up good courage till his return.

Alas, for the kind and simple hearted ones! How could they estimate the extent of Christian avarice, and civilized cruelty?

With a strong arm, and a strong heart, Malem-Boo urged his canoe over the waters. He reached the vessel, which still lay waiting to complete its miserable cargo. He displayed his treasures, and assured them the gold would bring ten times more than they could obtain for his child. Such was the language man was compelled to hold to his brother man!

The white men accepted the gold; and the father's eyes glistened with joy when they promised that the boy should go with him. He did not understand their cruel jest. While he waited, eagerly watching for a glimpse of his darling Yazoo, four strong sailors suddenly seized him, and bound him hand and foot. They thrust him down under the hatches, in a place so low that he could not sit upright. There he found the child of his beloved Yarrima, chained hand and foot to the children who had been playing with him under the Palm trees. The poor boy uttered a wild cry of delight; for to his guileless little heart the presence of his father seemed a sufficient protection from all the evil in the world. But the driver struck him a blow


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with the butt end of his whip, which made the blood stream over his face, and effectually checked the ebullitions of his childish joy. Malem-Boo's eyes gleamed with a fierce expression of revenge; but feeling that he was powerless in the hands of his tormentors, he offered no resistance. He earnestly begged to have the boy placed by his side. To this they consented; saying, however, that if more captives were brought on board, they could not suffer the little brat to take up room that might be filled by a slave four times his value.

Malem-Boo glanced over the miserable creatures packed around him, as close as bales of cotton, and he could not understand how any more could be stowed in that place.

The next day passed slowly away. Only two more captives were brought in; and they were young lovers. The kidnappers seized them as they sat beside a heap of yams they had been digging, sharing the milk and fruit of a cocoa.

At midnight the accursed vessel proceeded on its way. Long before light dawned upon the poor slaves, the shores of Africa were lost in the distance. When they were brought on deck, chained and hand-cuffed, to breathe the fresh air for a few moments, and receive their daily allowance of water, it was a heart-breaking sight to see the looks of deep dejection and fixed despair, with which they gazed toward their native land.

They were allowed a very brief time to breathe the pure air, and look on the pleasant heavens. They were soon ordered back to their den; and those who


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lingered, were quickened by a merciless cut from the driver's whip. shut up day after day, without the power of changing their posture, diseases soon came among them. Then were heard the gasping screams of those who were suffocating in the close, pestilential, filthy atmosphere--the howling of rage--and the groans of despair. Sometimes, the fierce visage of the driver showed itself at the gratings, and the cracking of his whip restored silence for awhile;--but half stifled exclamations of bodily pain and mental anguish soon burst forth anew.

Every day some among them was consigned to the merciful deep; and often, through an entire day and night, the dead and the dying sat upright, chained, to each other. Among these wretched beings the two young lovers seemed most dejected. The girl drooped and died, before they had been at sea twelve days. She expired about noon; and, during the remainder of that day and the following night, her lifeless body fell cold and heavy upon the shoulders of her to whom she was chained. The next morning, when the slaves were turned on deck, and compelled by the touch of the whip to dance for exercise, the girl was loosened from her companion, and carelessly tumbled into the sea. The young African, with an intense expression of grief, gazed on the body of her he had loved, as it rose to the surface of the waters; then, with sudden desperation, he gave one high leap, and plunged into the waves.

The captain ordered a boat out after him, with many curses upon the refractory scoundrel, who thus wantonly risked a white man's property; but luckily for


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the poor slave the weight of his chains carried him down, before the boat could reach him. For an instant Malem-Boo was tempted to share his fate; but while Yazoo lived, he could not break the tie that bound him to a wretched existence.

The boy soon grew feverish, and would no more eat the yam, which his hungry father had been accustomed to deny himself, in order to satisfy the cravings of his childish appetite. There was a fearful struggle in the parent's heart. He earnestly wished Yazoo were dead; yet he dreaded to lose the only object he had on earth to love. The child continually cried for water, of which a very small portion was allowed the slaves. Malem-Boo, though with a parched lip and a burning tongue, cheerfully gave up his own share to the little sufferer; but still the fever devoured him, and his cry was forever, "Water! Water!"

One day, the driver sternly commanded Malem-Boo to drink the portion of water assigned to him, lest he too should be on the sick list. "No matter if the boy does die," said he: "He a'n't worth much. But we can't afford to lose a lusty fellow, like you." As he finished this speech, he turned and whistled to a monkey, that was jumping about among the rigging. The African father gave him a look which betrayed the feelings struggling in his bosom; but who thought, or cared, for what was passing in a negro's breaking heart? The next day, five more bodies were tossed into the sea; and three among them were children. Malem-Boo gazed upon Yazoo's parched lips and glaring eyes, and for the first time,


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in all his miseries, a deep groan escaped. The driver turned toward them, and observed the boy eagerly grasping at his father's draught of water, after he had drank his own. He snatched it from him, and with a loud oath, struck the poor feverish child over the head, with the butt of his whip. This was more than human nature could endure. Malem-Boo seized the tyrant by his throat, with the ferocity of a wounded panther.

Alas, the momentary vengeance cost him dear! He was immediately bound to the mast, and lashed till his blood flowed freely on the deck. Yazoo, being still chained to his unfortunate parent, now and then received a stroke of the whip, on purpose that it might cut deep into his father's soul. Not a groan, or a sigh, escaped from the sufferer, until they separated his child from him, and carried him away: then he clenched his hands upon his forehead, with an expression of mortal agony.

For several days Yazoo was chained with some other boys in a room smaller than that where Malem-Boo was confined. They could not see each other; but sometimes the parent's watchful ear heard his voice, in the delirium of fever, calling, "Father! Father! Yazoo sick. Yazoo die." Then the spirit of that strong-hearted man was broken with misery. He refused sustenance, and resolved to die. The captain ordered his mouth to be forced open with an iron instument, often used for that purpose on board slave ships; but he crowded his tongue upon his throat in such a manner, that the liquid flowed out as fast as it was poured in. Whip-


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ping was again and again tried; but to no purpose. At last, they restored his child, with a curse upon his stubborn will.

I gladly pass over the multiplied scenes of misery, which each succeeding day renewed. At length the deep blue color of the sea changing to light green, announced the vicinity of land, and soon the harbor of Rio de Janeiro, in the clear morning light, was spread before them, in all its magnificence of beauty. Rugged mountains, towering into the sky, stretched far away in the distance. Beneath tremendous precipices, richly cultivated valleys were seen, with their white cottages and orange groves, winding away in sweeping crescents to the mountains. Picturesque hills were crowned with the broad-leaved Banana and the feathery Palm; among which churches, convents, and aqueducts, rose in airy, graceful proportions. The shipping of all nations was spread over the broad surface of the bay. The verdant islands, so still and bright, seemed the favorite abode of angels. Nature smiled at her sunny face in the waters, as if in childlike joy at her own surpassing beauty. Over the whole scene there rested an atmosphere of innocence, tranquillity, and love. Amid all this quiet grandeur, this romantic, varied loveliness, that dark and bloody ship sat brooding on the waters, like Satan lurking among the groves of Paradise.

The poor Africans, ignorant of the fate which awaited them, joyfully greeted the Palm trees, that reminded them of their own beloved home. Everything in the prospect was bright and cheering. Cramped, emaciated, diseased, and filthy as they


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were, any change of situation appeared desirable. When they scrambled on shore, their faces actually beamed with delight. The advocates of slavery have urged this circumstance as a sufficient proof that negroes have no feeling; and that shipping, starvation, and irons, are of much less consequence to them than we imagine.

On landing, the beauty of Rio suddenly vanishes from the imagination--as if the sooty wings of some gigantic spectre overshadowed it.

Around the Alfandega, or Custom House, were groups of dirty negroes, almost naked, accustomed to drag on shore the cargoes of newly arrived vessels. "Some yoked to drays; some chained together by the neck and legs; some carrying heavy weights on their heads, singing in a most inarticulate and dismal tone, as they moved along; some munching young sugar-canes, like cattle eating green provender; and some lying on the bare ground, coiled up among filth and offal, seeming neither to expect, or require, any better accommodation. The horses and mules, pampered, spirited, and richly caparisoned, looked proudly down on these poor fettered wretches, as if conscious they were passing beings of an inferior rank in creation."*

Malem-Boo glanced around him, with a heavy eye and a sinking heart. This scene of splendid wealth and excessive misery, contrasted strangely with his own rude but peaceful hut, under the shadow of the


*CHILD'S NOTE: The English made an effort to have teams introduced into use

at the Custom House of Rio; but it was violently opposed by the clerks of the

establishment, who made money by letting out their slaves for this purpose.


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Palms; and the dismal cadence of those mournful chants was painfully unlike the merry rattling of the saka-saka,* which Yarrima was wont to shake above her head, when they danced together among the Mimosa groves.

Where was his beautiful and beloved Yarrima, now? Had her heart died with its slow agony, as lingering hope changed to cold despair? Had she already gone to that "better land," that other Africa, where all the poor wanderers would meet at last in joy?

He looked at the skeleton of poor Yazoo, in which the spark of life seemed almost extinct, and God gave him comfort in the hope that the mother and her child would be soon united.

But why do I endeavor to paint feelings, which no language can describe? His love and his misery were hidden deep in the recesses of his own bosom. The proud freedom of his glance was already exchanged for an expression of hopeless resignation. He was willing to live, for the sake of his boy; and when he died, he determined no human power should longer keep him from those shady African valleys, which he believed awaited him in heaven.

Fresh water and cooling fruit were offered to the captives; not from motives of humanity, but because their price depended on cleanliness and apparent strength. When brief repose and wholesome food had somewhat renovated their appearance, the whole cargo were driven to the slave-market.


*CHILD'S NOTE: The saka-saka is a kind of African castanet made of a gourd,

with a handle passed through the centre, and filled with pebbles, or dried peas.


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Here the driver's whip compelled them to go through their paces, like horses offered for sale; while the purchasers, with many a coarse jest, turned them round, felt of their limbs, and ordered them to shout, to test the soundness of their lungs.

Some, who lay about the ground, drooping and dying, were bought at a venture by speculators, for something less than the price of a hog.

Malem-Boo offered no resistance: for Yazoo's sake, he obeyed all commands implicitly. He merely broke silence to signify to one, who understood the dialect of his country, that he would work well if they allowed his son to remain with him; but if they were separated, he vowed no earthly power should compel him to raise a hand in his master's service. This threat occasioned a smile, and was forgotten. Yazoo was purchased by a woman, whose husband kept a venda several leagues from Rio. With the most imploring gestures, Malem-Boo stretched forth his arms to protect the boy, who clung trembling to his knee, and could not be forced from his hold by the whip of the driver. The woman ordered one of her stout negroes to pull him away; and the command was promptly obeyed. Malem-Boo looked after his darling child, with an expression of stupefied agony; and when he could no longer see those little arms stretched toward him, no longer hear the scream of "Father! Father!" which grew fainter and fainter in the distance--he ground his teeth together, and sent forth one loud, unearthly yell of mingled rage and despair.

"That fellow has good lungs," coolly observed one of the Custom House clerks: "He is strong-limbed


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too. If they don't put him up too high, he will be a good bargain." Others seemed to have the same opinion; for large sums were bid for him. The clerk finally obtained possession of sinews, which promised well to perform the labor of a cart-horse; and having caused the initials of his own name to be branded just below the shoulder, with red-hot iron, he gave the slave his appointed task. But Malem-Boo fulfilled his threat. He would not work. In vain they lashed him, till he fainted with pain and loss of blood--in vain they refused him food, till nature began to yield to death--in vain they tortured with with pointed irons--in vain they exhausted upon him the whole infernal machinery of slavery. He did not utter a groan, and he remained stubborn in his purpose. At last tyranny grew weary of useless efforts, and avarice conquered rage.

Having had time to recover [?] from his wounds, Malem-Boo was again put into the market. Again he renewed his protestations that he would not work, unless they retored his child. A man, who had formerly resided at New Orleans, bought him, regardless of his threats. The same process of ships, and chains, and tortures, was again tried, without producing any effect. The soul of the slave seemed about to leave his exhausted and mutilated frame; but still his resolution remained firm.

In order to avoid a loss, it became necessary to allow some respite from punishment, to prepare him for a third sale.

A Portuguese merchant bought him, and renewed the same shocking process. Being soon convinced that it would prove ineffectual, Malem-Boo was, for the fourth time, put up at auction.


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The story began to produce some sensation in Rio. Such an exhibition of strong affection in a slave was by many deemed equally strange and ridiculous.

The particulars happened to reach the ears of Mr B----, a merchant originally from the United States. He resolved to purchase the father, and restore his child. He went to the slave-market, and signified to Malem-Boo that his son should be bought and remain with him, if he would promise to be faithful and industrious. It was enough to make one weep, to see the sudden ray of hope which flashed over that dark, dejected countenance!

He followed his new master, like a child returning to his beloved home. His eyes beamed with gratitude and his limbs once more moved with something like the elasticity of freedom. Mr B---- easily ascertained the residence of Yazoo, and bought him, at a higher price than would have been demanded under other circumstances. When the African clasped the child to his long-suffering heart, the tears, which manifold tortures had not been able to force from him, flowed freely down his cheeks. From that hour, nothing could surpass his willing industry. He worked as if he had a frame of iron.

Mr B----, with a degree of benevolence rare among slsave-owners, toward their slaves, assigned moderate tasks to the father and son, and allowed all the surplus time for their own use. He like wise promised them freedom, as soon as they had earned money enough to pay the price of their own bones and sinews.

Mr B---- was a wealthy bachelor. He lavished thousands in matters of taste, or pleasure; but it never occurred to him that he could well afford to send


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Malem-Boo and his child to Africa, without receiving any ransom. Perhaps this was too much to expect of one accustomed to the sight of slavery.

Hope completed the change that gratitude began. While the other slaves might be seen leaning on their hoes, or stretched out lazily in the sunshine, Malem-Boo and his son toiled like those with whom exertion is a matter of life and death. From earliest dawn till latest twilight, the vigorous African might be seen at work, with his boy close by his side. No sounds of merriment tempted him to look up, or changed for a moment the thoughtful earnestness of his countnenance. With the hope of freedom were mingled fond thoughts of Yarrima, and his distant home.

But what had she to sustain her sinking heart? Merely a lively faith in that better Africa, beyond the sky, where she should once more meet here beloved husband, and see Yazoo frolicking beneath the Palm trees.

I trust the heart-stricken wife and mother has long since gone to her rest;--for should Malem-Boo regain his freedom, there is great danger that the avarice of white men will again enslave him, before he can reach his native shore.

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