Thursday, April 14, 2011

Spelunking Slaves at Mammoth Cave

Geologically, Mammoth Cave is a network of underground caverns in central Kentucky believed to be the world's largest cave system. Understanding Mammoth Cave as a social and political space, however, means grappling with its singular place in the history of American slavery. During the War of 1812, the cave was an important source of saltpeter (used in the manufacturing of gunpowder), and African American slaves provided the principal labor for its mining and extraction. Following the war, when the price of saltpeter dropped dramatically, mining became inviable. In the decades that followed, as the cave emerged as a popular tourist destination for U.S. and European travelers, its economic value continued to depend on slave labor.1 ("Trying the Dark: Mammoth Cave and the Racial Imagination, 1839-1869," by Peter West, 9 February 2010)

Though it was by no means unusual that male and female slaves worked as cooks, laundresses, porters, and chambermaids in the hotel located near the cave entrance, Mammoth Cave slavery was noteworthy: the guides who led visitors on tours of the cave during the antebellum era were black men either owned by the cave's proprietor or leased out by a neighboring slaveholder. In a compelling racial scenario largely overlooked by historians, these slaves were responsible for the conduct and well-being of the many white men and women who journeyed through the cave in the decades leading up to the Civil War. ("Trying the Dark: Mammoth Cave and the Racial Imagination, 1839-1869," by Peter West, 9 February 2010)

By far the most famous of these cave guides was Stephen Bishop, who began working at Mammoth Cave when his owner, Franklin Gorin, purchased the property above the cave in 1838. The next year, in 1839, Gorin sold the property, along with Bishop and another slave, to Louisville physician Dr. John Croghan.3 Until his death in 1857, Bishop accompanied thousands of visitors on cave tours, explored miles of the cave's passages and chambers, and produced detailed maps of the caverns still lauded for their accuracy. In the dozens of first-hand cave narratives that appeared in the 1840s and 50s, Bishop was often celebrated for his handsome and exotic appearance, his extensive knowledge of the cave's topography and history, and his bravery and winsome personality. Today, Bishop continues to capture the imagination, appearing as a central figure in a 2000 Yale Younger Poets volume of poetry, a 2004 children's novel, and a work of historical fiction. ("Trying the Dark: Mammoth Cave and the Racial Imagination, 1839-1869," by Peter West, 9 February 2010)

"Trying the Dark":

Drawing of Stephen Bishop, enslaved cave guide and cave explorer

The cave also offered a participatory form of tourism shaped by the racial dynamics of the visitor/guide relationship and the reality of slavery as a defining presence. As Child's 1843 narrative moves deeper into the caverns, she describes the rivers — first the "Styx," then the "Lethe," and finally the "Jordan." While the first two names are borrowed from classical mythology, the Old Testament "Jordan" invokes slavery.22 "The guide usually sings while crossing the Jordan," writes Child, "and his voice is reverberated by a choir of sweet echoes" (415). We know that Bishop and his fellow guides would often sing spirituals while rowing visitors on the river Bishop named the "River Jordan." At one spot along the Jordan, the cave ceiling hung so low that "[p]assengers are obliged to double up, and lie on each other's shoulders, till this gap is passed" (414).

The River Styx in Mammoth Cave

On the far shores of the Jordan, Bishop would play a notorious trick. As Bullitt describes in Rambles, Bishop set up the long-awaited supper for travelers along the river shore.23 When some among the group of exhausted and well-fed (and often, slightly inebriated) visitors inevitably resisted the suggestion of heading back to the cave entrance, Bishop would casually comment, "we had as well be going, for the river might take a rise and shut us up here" (99). The risk was real, but guides had a supply of boats stowed within easy reach. Travelers, as described by Bullitt, had no knowledge of this: "In a second we were all in motion, and hurrying past beautiful incrustations, through galleries long and tortuous, down one hill and up another" until they finally reach the Jordan, "which we found to our great relief had not risen" (99-100). When they realize that they have been tricked by Bishop, "we were too happy in having our fears relieved, to fall out with him" (100).

Given that Child's one explicit mention of slavery — in the final line of her article she hopes that Bishop's "last breath may be a free one" (419) — is removed by every writer who borrowed liberally (sometimes without attribution) from her, we might read the "Jordan" River as a site where Bishop and his fellow guides attempted to bring the vocabulary of slavery into a place that its proprietor sought to depoliticize. It was known among visitors that Bishop had named most of the underground chambers, hallways, and rivers. And it is on the "Jordan" that visitors were forced to pile on top of one another in positions evoking the Middle Passage, while Bishop would sing to them. Some accounts describe boatfuls of tourists joining in the singing of slave spirituals and minstrel songs.
Eyeless Fish found in the rivers inside of Mammoth Cave
Whatever Bishop intended by christening the waterway the "Jordan", it was apparently the only name to trouble Croghan. For even though Bishop's other names would survive, in Bullitt's 1845 Rambles (which was either ghost-written or commissioned by Croghan himself, and is still available today in cave souvenir shops) the "Jordan" has been renamed the "Echo" River. Perhaps the name was seen as a transgression by those who wanted to place the cave beyond the whiff of political controversy.

Inside of Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

Racial power and its reversibility is a motif in cave accounts. Charles Peterson's 1852 "Two Days in Mammoth Cave" evokes a nightmare in which the white mind is subjected to the presence of dark power.24 Using second-person voice, he invites readers to identify with the narrator's perspective, when he describes the cave's nihilistic solitude. "Suddenly you see before you a huge sarcophagus, apparently hewn from the solid rock. It is a size to suggest thoughts of the Titans who warred against Saturn, or those mysterious giants who are said to have lived before the flood. Yes pause with strange awe before it. . . . [the] "imagination whispers that, within this mighty tomb, reposes perhaps some wizard of colossal race" who might, if properly provoked, "drag you down to darkness and death" (156).

Mammoth Cave Map by the slave Stephen Bishop

One oft-repeated story from the realm of white nightmare involved a region of the cave called the "Haunted Chamber." As told by the Rev. Horace Martin, a young miner wanders off alone to dig up some underground salts. When he fails to reappear, six black miners were formed into a company to go in search of the miner (who is presumably white).25 "They were Negroes," Martin writes, "and previous to starting on their errand of mercy were stripped half naked. It may, therefore, be imagined how extraordinary was their appearance" (33). Here Martin switches back to the perspective of the lost miner, describing the terror and madness of his solitude: "He thought that he had quitted earth — was disembodied — in fact, that he was in the place of torments said to be reserved for sinners" (33). Seeing the black bodies of the six miners in the rescue company, he imagines they are demons: "He had never seen anything like them. They were spirits, sent to drag him to his punishment. He hears their yells. [. . .] Nearer and nearer they come. He is conscious of their hot and hissing breath" (34).

Many Mammoth Cave writers described "trying the dark," a trial that involved the cave guide leaving a visitor deprived of any lamplight for a few minutes of tortuous solitude.
In William Lyman Fawcett's account of a trip to the cave soon after the Civil War, he describes a conversation with the guide Nick Bransford about what Fawcett calls the "ordeal of darkness" (678).26 "Is there any danger," Fawcett asks, "and from what?" At the only moment in the entire piece where Nick's voice appears, the guide replies, "Nobody knows, massa . . . only some people's nerve can't stan' it, dat's all" (678).

Nick Bransford

"The mention of that odious word, 'nerve,'" writes Fawcett, "sounded so much like the familiar solicitation, 'Try your nerves, gentlemen?' from the electrical-machine man, — who is found on the curb-stone of some thoroughfare in every city, — that for one brief instant the prestige of the great cave was gone" (678). Urged on by the soft-spoken Nick (who calls the author "massa"), Fawcett decides that perhaps the experience of total darkness is "only claptrap after all" — an underground version of some cheap carnival gimmick.

After Nick leaves him alone, Fawcett describes visions before him, those "subjective creations of the brain, outlined in the dark" (678). The terror of perfect blindness and solitude is overwhelming, heightened by a sense of reversed racial power: "It began to be terrifying to think that release from this hell of silence was dependent upon one man's will, and he too a man I had never seen until within a few hours. Where was he now, my dark-faced guide?" (679) Finally, Fawcett hears "the firm, substantial sound of a mortal footstep," and the closing words capture his relief: "There he is at last! Blessed be his black face! how unlike the pale, phosphorescent forms I fancied just a little while ago! How foolish seem all those dreadful fancies now, so terribly real then!" (679).

The gothic terrors of the cave are experienced by the white author entangled with racialized power. If the white tourist is at the mercy of a black man he has only met hours earlier, how does white identity remain coextensive with superior authority? Fawcett blesses the appearance of Nick's "black face" because its "firm, substantial" reality allows him to duck the darker question. The nihilistic implications of "total darkness" are more suggestively captured in other accounts. Barnwell melodramatically laments, "White and black were, as some philosophers prove, all the same. How little could I ever before conceive of blindness! Oh! the oppressive stunning weight! The feeling of unknown, unavoidable, invisible danger! — utter inability to defend one's-self, entire subjection to those who possess this invaluable gift!" (309). As his group waits in darkness for Stephen's return, Barnwell concedes the utter dependence on their guide: "Our feelings were getting somewhat unpleasantly excited, and our conversation, for some time forced, had dwindled away to silence, ere Stephen appeared. The light displayed three pale countenances and three pairs of eyes that had rather more than a natural brilliancy; and yet in daylight danger there could perhaps scarcely be found three more reckless fellows. Stephen laughed when he saw us stretched along the rocks, and withal so doleful, and walking to one side, covered his lamp in a measure with his cap, and told us to look above us" (309).

Here Bishop played his famous trick in the hall known as the "Star Chamber," the most famous of the cave's many illusions. "[W]hat was our astonishment," Barnwell writes, "on seeing the stars shining brightly in the dark heavens" (309). These "stars" are the embedded pieces of polished mica on the cave ceiling that give the "Star Chamber" its name. That this experience immediately followed the ordeal of "total darkness" suggests that the cave's illusions were, like its darkness, fraught with questions of dependence and power. When the guide walked away, visitors were left to despair; when he returned they enjoyed the beauty of a virtual night sky. Without Bishop scripting their experience the white tourists have no way of knowing who or where they are.

While these accounts highlight the role of the guide, the illustrations of the "Star Chamber" in Martin's and Bullitt's books portray an effect produced without the aid of the guide's manipulations and tricks. Though tourists, under the sway of the guide's authority, playfully imagined themselves in an underground drama, the pictorial representations elide the guide's role.

The experiences of "trying the dark" and the "Star Chamber" appear more wrapped up in antebellum racial politics when one considers the brief description of Mammoth Cave in Russell Lant Carpenter's Observations on American Slavery [1852].27 Carpenter, an anti-slavery British Unitarian Minister, devotes a long paragraph to Stephen Bishop, whom he describes as "[t]he most intelligent slave that I ever met" (46). Framing his own experience of "total darkness" within a book-length critique of American slavery, Carpenter is explicit about what is at stake when the white tourist is left alone by the black guide: "The confidence which we repose in one another flashed vividly on my mind, when I found myself several miles from the entrance alone with him, a complete stranger. I was of course completely in his power — yet I felt no fear. The solitude was very awful in that immense cavern, especially when he left me for a few minutes to arrange some lights" (47).

Instead of following through on what other writers portray as a moment of gothic terror, Carpenter uses the remainder of the paragraph to praise Bishop for the unique model of autonomy he represents:
"I was conscious of some reverence for a man who raised himself from the degradation to which human laws and prejudices would consign him. How much more enviably free is such a bondsman than those who are burdened with nothing — no bonds of affection, no weight of knowledge" (47). While the vast majority of antebellum writers portray "total darkness" as a scene of white racial anxiety, Carpenter renders it as a symbol of a rare model of black "freedom" under the degrading institution. "Free," I have suggested, is a problematic way of describing any slave, and yet Carpenter's characterization brings to the surface the political undertones of the other portrayals we have encountered. That a British abolitionist would see the slave guide as an embodiment of agency suggests that the many American commentators sensed these guides as symbols that threatened traditional racial hierarchies.

Materson Bransford

American writers were careful to depict moments where guides lowered themselves — both literally and figuratively — for reasons of cave etiquette and visitor well-being. Only a few paragraphs before celebrating Bishop as a "Christopher Columbus" of the underworld, Bayard Taylor describes a boat journey down the Echo River: "Mat waded out and turned the craft, which was moored to a projecting rock, as near to us as the water would allow, after which he and Stephen carried us one by one upon their shoulders and deposited us in it" (209). Upon arriving at the Echo River, Taylor reports, "Twice again were the guides obliged to carry us on their shoulders through the shallows, and once we succeeded in passing along a narrow ledge of rock overhanging a deep pool, only by using Stephen's foot as a stepping-stone" (210). Other narratives make clear that in addition to carrying cave visitors on their shoulders, Stephen and his fellow guides would routinely lie down on their backs in mud, offering up the bottoms of their feet to allow men and women safe and clean passage through challenging sections of the cave. These scenes offer a symbolic reconciliation of the paradox of the guide's combined authority and subjection.

A related example of the paradoxical nature of guide authority centered on the meals that visiting groups enjoyed while underground. Willis repeatedly expresses a desire to peek inside of Stephen's basket, which was filled with various provisions; he jokingly writes that "at Stephen's request" he "duly recognized" the noteworthy sites as they passed and identified by the guide — "hoping, all the while, that the next announcement would be the kindly rock on which we were to dine" (176). The nominal power that Bishop held over the appetites of cave visitors was answered, in Willis's text and elsewhere, by the guide's status as a racial inferior. During their meal, Willis reports, "Our guide modestly remembered that he was a slave, and, after spreading the repast under the weight of which he had toiled so far, he seated himself at a distance; but remembering his merits and all the geology and history he had given us on the way, we voted him to 'the first table,' by an immediate and general remonstrance" (178). Such is the idiosyncratic balancing act between Willis's playful subjection before the tyranny of Stephen's basket, and the authority that the tourists held over the slave.28

Ultimately, cave visitors were invited to "try the dark" not only by testing themselves in the face of total blackness, but by playing dependent to the slave's staged authority. Bishop's naming of the "River Jordan" and the various games that were staged on or beside the river — the flooding hoax, the stacking of tourist bodies, the singing of slave spirituals — suggests that cave visits involved the contained reversal of traditional racial roles.

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