Last spring, on my way from my home in Central Florida to visit a friend in Savannah, I took a little detour off I-95N at Georgia Exit 42.
There was what looked to be a promising little outlet mall (Shoes!) on the west side of the highway , but turned out to be a pock-marked stretch of blacktop surrounding a largely deserted strip mall (Not!). I found a Visitor’s Center around on the back side, and decided to inquire about some of the local landmarks. The carefully coiffed Southern belles were very hospitable and were happy to sell me some over-priced souvenirs and provide some rudimentary directions toward the main part of town.
When I asked about Butler Island, their eyes lit up: apparently it is a source of pride in the area. When I explained I wanted to visit the site because my ancestors had been enslaved there, the woman who appeared to be in charge of the operation lead me into a back hall lined with pictures and proudly pointed to a montage from the old Butler Island Plantation, including one of a barn. As the women continued to cluck over this treasure, I stared at the picture of that barn. Unremarkable, really: it was an old double barn on an old agricultural reservation. Except, above one entrance was painted “Cows” and above the other, “Infirmary.” Subtleties of a situation totally lost on this group.
Still a little stunned by that sight, I traveled down GA Highway 99 into Darien, proper. Like so many small southern towns, it was little more than a wide spot in the road during its heyday and now, in decline, is less than that. It seemed that every other storefront that wasn’t empty housed some type of discount business, and the streets were oddly devoid of people. The “Central Business District” is all of two blocks long, the main features of which are a totally Yupped-up “mall” offering the wares of local artisans and the town hardware store which sells, among other things, crabs and Georgia Department of Natural Resources licenses. I dropped in because I needed a pass to go on the grounds of what is now the Altamaha Wildlife Management Area.
It wasn’t difficult to locate my chosen destination, just a couple of miles south of town. The old rice mill chimney stands tall above all else in the sleepy little burg. I parked beside the big white house that is now a DNR Office: a replica of the old plantation house. It was a still, hot afternoon, and I was immediately attacked by swarms of flying insects the size of the A4s I worked on while I was in the Navy. Even when the wind blows on Butler Island there is a sinister stillness about the place. A harshness and hatefulness Fanny Kemble so graphically described in the journal she kept during the 15 weeks she spent on her husband’s, Pierce M. Butler, plantations.
I thought a lot about that book as I walked those grounds. How Fanny started that infirmary – as crude as it was – so the enslaved women would have a decent place to give birth and recover. How so many enslaved died from Malaria spread by the ancestors of the dive-bombers currently attacking me. I stood in front of the DNR office and wondered if Betsey had been one of the women who had lifted their skirts and horrified Fanny with their fallen wombs. You see, in order to maintain the slave stock, every slave woman of childbearing age was expected to produce at least one offspring per year. Those who did not were punished, most commonly through the withholding of food and/or clothing provisions for themselves, but – more importantly – their families. These women were given no relief from their duties during their pregnancy or afterward, and the strain on their bodies eventually took its toll. Their wombs would sag progressively under the strain of each pregnancy and the grueling labor that was their reality until it literally fell, exhausted,from their bodies, where it remained indefinitely. The infirmary records chronicle, indifferently, the times when this condition overwhelmed and afforded them – perhaps – a few hours of respite from their toils.
I spent a couple of hours that day, walking and driving the expanse that had been the Butler Island Plantation, trying to imagine what it would have been like three centuries ago when conditions were crude and there was no air conditioned Jetta or Calgon-filled bathtub to whisk one away from all this.
I momentarily considered swinging back by the hardware store for a couple of dozen crabs to share with my friend in Savannah, but decided I just needed to leave this place. They most likely would have tasted quite bitter in the end.