Lecture #16: Slave and Free

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Peter J. Parish, Slavery: History and Historians (1989).

Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery & Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013).

James Walvin, Atlas of Slavery (2006).

James Ciment, Atlas of African-American History (2001).

Jonathan Earle, The Routledge Atlas of African American History (2000).

Howard Dodson, Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture (2002).

Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853): available online at http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/northup/northup.html

Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr., The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record: an extraordinary online collections of images relating to all aspects of the Atlantic slave trade: http://slaveryimages.org

I. Introduction

The geography of slavery: this will be the topic of today's lecture. This is a course on American landscape history, and slavery has its fingerprints on so many elements of the American landscape.

There are a number of categories that scholars often appeal to when trying to make sense of slavery:

  • Master-Slave Relationship
  • White Supremacy
  • Resistance
  • Accommodation
  • Agency
  • Commodity chains and networks
  • Empire, Imperialism, Colonialism
  • Abolitionism
  • Emancipation

Relative to landscapes of slavery and freedom, key elements I’ll stress today include:

  • Far-reaching, world-wide geographies in which American slavery was embedded: slavery was worldwide.
  • Slavery as a system of labor in which enslaved bodies were forced to perform essential work
  • Slavery dependent on definitions of property, boundaries defining what can and cannot be owned
  • Articulation of those boundaries—between the owned and the unownable—fell along lines of race
  • The enforcement of boundaries by spatial separation at all scales using systemic violence (private and public)
  • Institutionalization of white supremacy, deeply embedded in cultural values and perceptions as well as law
  • Persistent struggles of enslaved peoples to enact their humanity in the face of oppression
  • Boundary between “slave” and“free” pervaded the 19th-century American landscape
  • Slavery's racial consequences are with us still

One other point I want to make today: I am drawn to things in the landscape I can represent visually. There are problems with a bias towards the use of visual evidence. Here are some of the challenges of illustrating slavery:

  • At least 400 years of history, much of it not well recorded visually until the 19th century
  • Slavery was largely from pre-photographic era (daguerreotype invented 1839)
  • Slave-owners had vested interest in not documenting many aspects of system from which they benefitted
  • Slaves themselves had little access to the means of visual representation while still enslaved
  • Many of subtlest aspects of slave relationships and institutions not easy to document visually (for example: how does one visually represent coercive sexual relationships between master and slave?)
  • Growth of written and visual records with rise of abolitionism in late 18th and 19th centuries
  • Dangers of anachronism: using earlier or later images to illustrate otherwise unrecorded historical moments. Much of what you'll see today in lecture will rely on anachronistic images.
  • Even today, the market for illustrated books on the subject of slavery is rather different from many other topics in this course

So how can we visualize the geography or institution of slavery? Here is one astonishing resource that I encourage you to explore if you are interested in the history of the Atlantic slave trade: http://slaveryimages.org. You might also watch the film "Twelve Years a Slave," based on the account written by reenslaved free Black man Solomon Northrup. You might also read this recent work: Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery & Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013).

II. Factors of Production

In England, labor was abundant and land was scarce. In America, land was abundant and labor was scarce. Using these two seemingly simple observations, the scholar H.J. Habakkuk argued in 1962 that the difference between British and U.S. labor systems explained the relatively rapid adoption, in the 19th century, of labor-saving technologies in the U.S. versus in Britain. One other result of this difference was an American investment in slavery—akin along a certain economic logic to buying a machine.

We can look to another scholar to help us think about the institution of slavery. In American Slavery, American Freedom, (1975) Edmund S. Morgan posed this paradox: how could the bulk of the authors of a new American Constitution and the founding Declaration of Independence, documents affirming notions of individual human freedom, be Virginia plantation who enslaved human beings? Morgan offered the same argument as Habakkuk to explain this contradiction: that whereas British gentry had depended on a large peasant population, a dearth of a peasantry in Colonial New England to provide cheap labor made slavery an economically desirable system for these white landed men.

If there's one theme that runs through this lecture, it is separation: power being the power to separate people from where they want to be and the people they wish to be around. The power to separate is one of the defining features of slavery.

For Thomas Jefferson, one of these founding Virginia landowners, small independent property holders were at the core of Jefferson's economic and democratic vision. An "Empire of Liberty," according to Jefferson, would be attainable with these characteristics:

  • Abundant free land
  • Preponderance of small property-owning freeholders
  • Avoidance of landed aristocracy
  • Absence of large cities
  • Freedom from debtor-creditor relationships
  • Avoidance of large aggregations of wealth
  • Avoidance of wage work in factories

So recall that if and when you visit Jefferson's home at Monticello, that landscape was almost entirely constructed and maintained by slave labor. To bring this back to us in Wisconsin: the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Eston Hemings, is buried in Madison's Forest Hills Ceremony.

So that is the preamble. What I want to do is start with slavery as a worldwide phenomenon, and then zoom into the antebellum (pre-Civil War 19th century) U.S.

III. Global Slave Trade

Servile relationships prior to the 17th-century rise of the European slave trade in sub-Saharan Africa moved bodies around through Africa and the Middle East.

The Portuguese explorations and beginning of slave trade along the Gold Coast of West Africa was in part enabled by ocean currents. Places like Cape Verde and the Canary Islands were the origin places of a slave trade that would begin to be moved to parts of the Caribbean and West Indies. Notice this geography: the isolation of islands helps explain how slaveholders could control slaves in these landscapes.

Some of the earliest colonies established by the Portuguese and many other European nations were sugar plantations. Strikingly, we might call many of the crops produced by slave-enabled colonies "addictive:" coffee, sugar, and tobacco. Sugar started in the eastern Mediterranean, moved out to the Canaries and Azures, then leapt to the islands of the Caribbean. Recall that sugar, molasses, and rum were all features of this trade.

Where would the workforce for this production of sugar come from? Slaves. There was a rigidification of certain racial hierarchies as the need for enslaved labor becomes greater. The control of the human body became crucial to the slave owner, yielding a microgeography of control: the African body in chains.

African traders met the European traders on the Gold Coast, and a series of trading relationships develop. Cape Coast Castle in Ghana stands as one symbol of slavery built into the landscape. Notice that we've seen this structure before: it is military, and it is also a prison. There are dozens of these fortifications built along the Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, and Slave Coast and built by the Portuguese, English, French, Dutch, Swedish—virtually all of the European powers.

From these fortifications holding bound slaves, enslaved African peoples were forced through "the Middle Passage," the journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, features exhibits that help us visualize the Middle Passage: a diagram of ships making the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, and street names—place names—in Liverpool named for prominent slave owners. The mortality rates along the Middle Passage were high, and the conditions were brutal.

Occasionally slaves attempted revolts, and occasionally successfully revolted—as in the celebrated case of the 1840 Amistad ship. If you look at where slaves went, you'd see that North America was not where most enslaved bodies were being shipped. Instead, the vast majority were going to the Caribbean, where mortality rates are staggering. By 1690-1730, the largest number were going to Brazil. By the 1730-1770 period, a vast majority of enslaved people were again going to the Caribbean.

Working on a sugar cane plantation has its own geography, and was horrifically brutal work. The United States had a very small sugar trade; instead, in the U.S. most enslaved peoples were put to work processing rice, indigo, and tobacco.

What I want to do now is talk about domestic slave markets and a few other crops that would be central to how slavery changed across the middle of the 19th century.

What is the geography of a slave market?

Recall that the international trade of slaves was banned in 1807-1808, so most slave traders in the 19th-century U.S. were trading domestically-born human beings. Control, separation, and the threat of violence were central to the built form of the slave market: slaves were held in holding pens and cells when awaiting sale; physical inspection and branding of human bodies further create bodies as property. Slave trading blocks were constructed in many city squares in Southern cities. The process of a slave auction was also brutal. Slave auction houses kept detailed records of their sales.

Where were slaves working? The areas in green on this map are areas of cotton-growing in the 1820s. [Insert map from slide 103?] It was this cotton market that would increase from 1820-1860 and reinforce as well as exacerbate a growing demand of slaves. Notice the paradox here: despite the flourishing of abolitionist sentiment in parts of the U.S. north, no other part of the country was buying so much of that commodity as the textile mills of the U.S. north.

One of the reasons that the Carolinas became a leading area of resistence leading up to the Civil War was because of the prevalence of malaria in the lowlying and wet areas of the tidewater. Because of the threat of disease, white slaveholders often stayed in Charleston, leaving black field managers in charge in this region.

The techniques of rice production in the South Carolina lowlands were not European techniques, but brought from West Africa—we can see this in the irrigation and cropping of rice that was identical to what was seen in parts of West Africa.

Though I have rightly emphasizing systems of control and oppression under which slaves labored in this lecture, I also want to emphasize that enslaved labor found small opportunities for autonomy. We can see this in the gardens slaves tended for their own consumption, where slaves would often grow West African crops. The Sea Islands off the coast of Geogia were an interesting example of a hybrid cultural landscape.

The movement of cotton agriculture to the Black Belt of Mississippi and Alabama from the Carolina coasts brought an influx of enslaved humanity to the interior of the continent. By the eve of the Civil War, a tremendous amount of cotton was moving north to mills.

Cotton is a very different crop than tobacco or rice. By the time it was being cultivated in Mississippi, massive plantations relying on hundreds of slaves had emerged. Small, poor white landholders who were increasingly unable to compete—a politics we are arguably still seeing today.

The cotton gin, invented in Eli Whitney in 1794, revolutionized the production of cotton, just as the mechanization of cotton spinning revolutioned its consumption. Both of these technologies created the conditions for massive numbers of slaves to be centralized by large capital holders on massive plantations. One other technological revolution also changes the interior cotton trade: the invention of the steamship moving cotton bales and food up and down the Mississippi River. Notice that these cotton plantations, unlike the rice plantations we looked at in Georgia, were monocropping: they were not producing their own food.

Sent from the docks of New Orleans, cotton moved into the industrial economy. Take this as a set of themes throughout this lecture: change in scale, continuity of enslavement, changes in transportation, industrialization, all knitted into a complicated set of relationships and dependent on the backs of enslaved human beings.

Recall the themes of enslavement and resistance. To leave a plantation, an individual needed a signed letter or a metal tag, and private police forces enforced expectations of enslavement. The incarceration and physical punishment of bodies are further racial phenomena that are with us today.

What were slaves to do? There are some famous examples of revolts, with Turner's Rebellion in Virginia as perhaps the best-known example. This was a token of white fear: the U.S. South is full of anxiety that their system of control will fail. The poster child of white fear iswasthe Haitian Rebellion (1971-1804), where formerly enslaved peoples successfully retook political power.

Another form of resistance was fleeing. Notice the difficulty of this, however. Many slaves had families and children that tied them to a place. So the survival of and defense of the Black family was itself a form of resistence. So was the building of cultural practices—churches, songs—that could give voice to such violence. William Francis Allen collected songs into the published volume Slave Songs of the United States, and was the teacher of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner.

We'll give the last word to Annette Gordon-Reed, the historian and legal scholar at Harvard University:

"To the dominant culture, absolutely nothing about black life was sacred. And yet, I know many things were sacred to enslaved people. They were human beings, and the desire for personal integrity, the impulse to create and maintain a family life, to build and be a part of a community, and to express spirituality in some manner, were as present within the community of slaves as they have been in all human societies.

Although the humanity of slaves is universal—it speaks to all who choose to recognize it—it draws me in in a very specific way.

Because I am black, the connection I feel to American slaves is particular in that it is racial. I simply cannot read about slave children, or see photographs or depictions of them, without at some point thinking of my own daughter and son."