First Starving Person, and Means of Preserving him

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter II (6) | Start of Chapter

The first starving person that I saw was a few days after the story of the woman and dog had been related. A servant in the house where I was stopping, at Kingstown, said that the milk woman wished me to see a man near by, that was in a state of actual starvation; and he was going out to attempt to work on the Queen's highway; a little labor was beginning opposite the house, and fifteen-pence a-day stimulated this poor man, who had seven to support, his rent to pay, and fuel to buy. He had been sick with fever; the clothes of his family that would fetch any price, had been pawned or sold, and all were starving together. He staggered with his spade to the work; the overseer objected; but he entreated to be allowed to try. The servant went out and asked him to step into the kitchen; and, reader, if you have never seen a starving human being, may you never! In my childhood I had been frightened with the stories of ghosts, and had seen actual skeletons; but imagination had come short of the sight of this man. And here, to those who have never watched the progress of protracted hunger, it might be proper to say, that persons will live for months, and pass through different stages, and life will struggle on to maintain her lawful hold, if occasional scanty supplies are given, till the walking skeleton is reduced to a state of inanity—he sees you not, he heeds you not, neither does he beg.

The first stage is somewhat clamorous—will not easily be put off; the next is patient, passive stupidity; and the last is idiocy. In the second stage they will stand at a window for hours, without asking charity, giving a vacant stare, and not until peremptorily driven away will they move. In the last state, the head bends forward, and they walk with long strides, and pass you unheedingly. The man before mentioned was emaciated to the last degree; he was tall, his eyes prominent, his skin shriveled, his manner cringing and childlike; and the impression then and there made never has nor never can be effaced; it was the first, and the beginning of these dreadful days yet in reserve. He had a breakfast, and was told to come in at four and get his dinner. The family were from home; the servant had an Irish heart, consequently my endeavors were all seconded. Often has she taken the loaf allowed for her board-wages, (that is, so much allowed weekly for food,) and sliced nearly the whole away—denying herself for the suffering around her. It must be mentioned that laborers for the public, on roads, seldom or never ate more than twice a day, at ten and four; their food was the potato and oatmeal stirabout, and buttermilk, the luxury which was seldom enjoyed. This man was fed on Indian meal, gruel, buttermilk or new milk and bread in the morning; stirabout, buttermilk and bread at four. Workmen are not paid at night on the public works, they must wait a week; and if they commence labor in a state of hunger, they often die before the week expires; many have been carried home to their wretched cabins, some dead and others dying, who had fallen down with the spade in their hands. The next day after this wretched man was fed, another, in like condition, at work in the same place, was called in and fed; he afterward died, when the labor was finished, and he could get no more work. The first man gradually gained strength, and all for him was encouraging; when my purse became low—so many had been fed at the door that a pot was kept continually boiling, from seven in the morning till seven at night; Indian meal was then dear; the Americans had not sent their supplies; and much did my heart shrink at the thought that my means must be exhausted.

Let me here speak of the virtues of Indian meal; though always having been accustomed to it, more or less, not till December, 1846, in the famine of Ireland, did I know its value. It was made into gruel, boiled till it became a jelly; and once a day from twenty-five to thirty were fed—some who walked miles to get it; and every one who had this privilege recovered without tasting anything but that, once a day—they always took it till they wanted no more; and this too without bread. One old man daily walked three miles, on his staff, for this, and he grew cheerful; always most courteously thanking me, saying, "It nourishes my ould heart, so that it keeps me warm all the night."

I had told these two laborers that when they found the gate locked they must know that I had no more to give them, and they must go home. The sad hour arrived; the overseer sent me word that he thanked me for feeding them so long; they must otherwise have died at their work. The gate was shut, and long and tedious were the next two days. One child of the poor man died, and he buried it in the morning before light, because if he took an hour from labor he would be dismissed. When the poor creatures that had daily been fed with the gruel came, and were told there was no more for them, I felt that I had sealed their doom. They turned away, blessing me again and again, but "we must die of the hunger, God be praised."

I would not say that I actually murmured, but the question did arise, "Why was I brought to see a famine, and be the humble instrument of saving some few alive, and then see these few die, because I had no more to give them?"

Two days and nights dragged on. News was constantly arriving of the fearful state of the people, and the specters that had been before my eyes constantly haunted me. My bedroom overlooked the burying-ground. I could fancy, as I often arose to look into it, that some haggard father was bringing a dead child, lashed to his back, and laying him on some tombstone, as had been done, and leaving it to the mercy of whoever might find it a grave!