Freedom for the Planter
To nine-year-old Robert Smalls , Beaufort Sea , South Carolina, was the best place in the world. It lay off the Carolina coast in the midst of a maze of islands. Rich oak, pine, and cedar trees stood as guardians over what were known as the Sea Islands.
Robert and his mother, Lydia, belonged to rice planter Henry McKee.Within sight of the slave quarters was McKee's great mansion, flanked by magnolia trees.
Because he was both bright and kind, Robert became a favored slave. His life was carefree and comfortable, but Lydia began to worry that her son did not understand his true status. To show him what slavery really meant,she brought him to a slave auction . It was a scene that Robert never forgot.
In 1851 Henry McKee sold the plantation in Beaufort and bought another less than fifty miles away, near Charleston. Twelve-year-old Robert was sent to Charleston to be hired out. He worked as a waiter and then as a lamplighter. In his free hours he went to the waterfront, where he could watch the schooners and the graceful clipper ships.
With Henry McKee's consent, he quit his job as a lamplighter and took any work he could find on the waterfront. As a teenager, Robert loaded and unloaded ships. He painted hulls and cabins and learned the trade of sailmaker. Working on a schooner as a sailor, he watched how the boat pilots handled their vessels. He began to study maps of the region, including the currents and tides. Before long he could pilot boats skillfully.
In 1860 bitter emotions about slavery divided the country. By late December, South Carolina had withdrawn from the Union. Ten more southern states soon followed. They called themselves the Confederate States of America. At dawn on April 12th, 1861, the Civil War began when Confederates fired on and captured Fort Sumter, one of many Union forts scattered throughout Charleston's harbor.
Robert was forced into the Confederate Navy as a sailor on a paddle- wheel steamer called the Planter. It was ideal for river work, because it could travel in shallow coastal waters without running aground . By then Robert had mastered navigation, and he soon became the ship's helmsman . He learned the signals necessary to pass by the forts, as well as the locations of hidden underwater explosives.
The great Union fleet could be seen poised off the South Carolina coast. From a safe distance, Robert watched the Union attack and capture the Sea Islands, including his native Beaufort Sea. He heard that the Union set the Sea Islands slaves free. For months he brooded over his continuing slavery and the freedom that was visible just a few miles away.
In the spring of 1862, the Planter's slave crew gathered in Robert's room to listen to an escape plan. With them were their wives and children. It was decided that the women and children would hide in a merchant boat. The Planter would pick them up and then head for the Union fleet. It was a simple plan. But success depended on choosing just the right moment.
1862年春天的某一天，“种植者号”上的奴隶船员在罗伯特的房间里集会，听他说明逃跑计划。跟这些船员们一起准备逃跑的还有他们的妻子和孩子。他们商量决定，让女人和孩子事先藏在一艘商船里， 等“种植者号”把他们接上船后，就驶向北方联邦的舰队。计划很简 单，但要想成功还得选对时机。
On May 12th, that moment came. The captain, chief engineer, and mate went ashore for the night, leaving the slave crew on board. Robert alerted the women. At 3 a.m. on May 13th, the Planter eased into the channel and picked up the women and children. The harbor was ringed with armed forts on constant alert, and the Planter would have to pass each of these forts before reaching the Union fleet.
Robert sailed the ship at its normal speed. Wearing the captain's hat and jacket, he stood in the pilot house with the steam whistle's cord in his hand. He gave the correct signal for the first fort. The sentry waved him on. Gradually the Planter made its way until it approached Fort Sumter, the last fort that stood between the slaves and their freedom.
The pace was slow and easy. Robert looked into the muzzles of Sumter's guns and gave the singnal - two long whistles and one short. The Planter was passed again. Once outside the range of the guns, Robert shouted for more steam, and the ship sped out to sea.
At 5:45 a.m., Captain F. J. Nichols of the Union fleet saw a craft steaming out of the harbor. Because of its lowered guns and its white flag of surrender , he allowed the Planter to anchor near the fleet.
News of the ship's abduction spread. Newspapers declared the deed "daring and heroic". The loss of the Planter was a blow to the Confederate government, and the unknown slave was hailed as a courageous hero. But this incident was only the beginning of a life dedicated to fighting for freedom.
In 1871 Robert Smalls was elected to the South Carolina legislature . Later, he served as a member of the U.S. Congress. He worked hard for free public education, and he fought for equal rights for all citizens.
Robert spoke eloquently on behalf of his people. "My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life."