The international slave-trade from Africa to the New World was banned by England in 1807, America in 1808, Spain, Sweden and France followed, and Portugal by 1836. By then some 12.5 million Africans had been stolen from their homes and transported, almost 18% dying enroute. Of these, the vast majority went to Caribbean islands, in possession of England, France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic; enormous numbers went to Brazil, under control of the Portuguese. Only 338,000, according to modern reckoning, were landed in the United States, the enormous majority in Virginia, North, and South Carolina.
Prohibiting the slave trade, however, was not the same as ending slavery itself; the buying and selling of human beings within nations, continued and grew in many nations including, enormously, the United States.
As the tobacco and cane growing soil in the original slave-holding colonies was exhausted, and “the west” opened up beyond the Alleghenies and Appalachians –today’s Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi– and particularly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the rich soil and new strains of cotton created a tidal wave of land speculation, planting, and harvesting; all depending on slave labor.
Some one million slaves were force-marched in coffles, necks and wrists chained, from the southern coastal American states to the interior, between 1809 and 1865. This second middle passage, as it is now called, and the wealth it brought to great cotton plantation owners, professional slave-traders, and all the trade that depended on it –sailing ship, river boats, guards, store owners– is the story told by Edward E Baptist in his excruciating and vitally important The Half Has Never Been Told (2014) . In fact, it might have been titled, the one millionth that’s never been told.
To read it is to be astounded, and shamed; shamed because it makes the contemporary feeling that slavery was a crime seem like a pleasant camouflage against the actual reality. I had no idea of the details. Inside the monster of American Slavery were so many moving parts, so much cruelty, in so many forms, so much greed and self-serving behavior, extending from south to north, all scuttling under the cloak of Christianity that, even with Baptist’s help it is hard to conceive. Further, as it seems to this reader, while slavery in its historical form is unlikely to reappear, the same forces which brought it into being continue in strength: greed, self-interest above all, the willingness to force labor by punishment, the manipulation of laws and morals to confound their intentions.
The Half Has Never Been Told is astounding not only for the research into economic archives and slave stories but for its construction. Using the parts of the body as his chapter titles – Feet, Hands, Breath, Blood– he organizes the material into not only a history of the expansion of slavery but a course in economics with many, concise, useful and appalling tables.
- Cotton Production in the United States 1791 – 1860
- Comparative Infant Death Rates
- The Average Price of Slaves
- Slaves Imported to Louisiana, 1809-1811
We get a short course in financial tools: calculations made by enslavers as to return-on-investment for a young field hand; the use of slaves as collateral for loans; the creation of bonds backed by the full “faith and credit” of the State of Louisiana; securitized bonds very similar to those which led to the 2008 financial collapse, except the 1830 bonds were based on slave-backed mortgages, bought and sold in stock markets around the world.
“Thus … even as Britain was liberating the slaves of its empire, a British bank could now sell an investor an completely commodified slave…”
American history, so often told from the ramparts of courage, intelligence, inventiveness and good intentions (if only sometimes gone astray,) grows in Baptist’s hands from the deeper roots of what actually went on, excavated from the documents and testimonies of the times.
|Messrs. C. C. Whitehead, and R. A. Evans, Marion, Georgia, in the Milledgeville (Ga.) “Standard of Union,” June 26, 1838.||“Ranaway, negro fellow John–from being whipped, has scars on his back, arms, and thighs.”|
|Mr. Samuel Stewart, Greensboro’, Ala., in the “Southern Advocate,” Huntsville, Jan. 6, 1838.||
|Mr. John Walker, No. 6, Banks’ Arcade, New Orleans, in the “Bulletin,” August 11, 1838.||“Ranaway, the mulatto boy Quash–considerably marked on the back and other places with the lash.”|
President Andrew Jackson’s veto of the renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States was central to slave territory expansion. It infuriated those who believed the bank had brought stability to the raucously fragile U.S. economy, and delighted slave-expansionists as opening financing opportunities for land and slaves from any source whatsoever, including any local bank that would print its own money.
Of course when wildcat financing schemes fell apart, as cotton prices fell and rose, it was to the government they hated to which they turned. In the Compromise of 1850 Henry Clay proposed, and Steven Douglas eventually delivered,
“The United States would fund the outstanding debts of the Republic of Texas. This would make New Orleans investors happy, fourteen unpaid years after they had financed the enslavers’ war against Santa Anna.
Expansion was the driving force of Southern belief: more land, more slaves, more financing, more profits. The former Mexican territory known as Texas was a particular draw for expansionist slavers, and for those who had failed in Mississippi and Alabama and were fleeing their debts, first to Mexico and then to the sovereign nation of Texas, beyond U.S. collectors. The term “GTT’ (Gone to Texas) was commonly used to refer to friends and relatives who had disappeared.
With Santa Anna’s defeat at San Jacinto in 1836 and the war with Mexico’s end apparent, entrepreneurs of the domestic slave trade jockeyed to send “the tide of emigration . . . flowing rapidly to Texas,” as a North Carolina enslaver put it.
Never far from the expansionist enslavers plans was the island of Cuba, bigger than England and Wales combined, with a continuing supply of African slaves through 1867. Not only could plantations and slaves bring wealth there, but it could be divided into four or more southern states, pushing back on growing northern political dominance in Congress.
It turns out that not only are our high school recollections of the Gadsden purchase and the Wilmot Proviso hazy, but were likely not taught very well. James Gadsden¹, a slave trader, proposed the acquisition of said land, as well as all of Baja California, to bring the transcontinental railroad along the southern route. His idea was not simply more land, or possible railroad riches but to extend slavery all the way to the west coast. He proposed that California, when admitted to the Union, would be half-slave, and half-free, divided along the 35th parallel, somewhere between present day Los Angels and Fresno. His opponent in this was Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s 1860 opponent, not because of opposition to slavery, but because his preferred northern route would benefit himself enormously.
Though the Civil War was still a decade or so away, the warning flags raised leading into the 1787 Constitutional Convention, of Southern intransigence over the right to build their wealth on the back of slaves, began to flap more ominously in the 1830s. Nullification arguments as formulated by John C Calhoun, were made all over the South, that if territories and states didn’t like Federal laws, they could nullify them — a situation we still find reverberating in the South today. His argument of “substantive due process,’ extracted from the Fifth Amendment, that no person could be deprived of his “property” without court determination –no Federal, or even State emancipation orders — continues to reverberate in legal arguments.
All of this data is employed by Baptist to argue forcefully against the idea, too long in circulation, that the South was an agricultural backwater to the vibrant, industrializing North (as argued by Northern politicians and business men, by travelers to the South such as Frederick Law Olmstead and by well known gentlemanly Southern writers in the 1930s, Robert Penn Warren among them.
Historians up through Woodrow Wilson’s time (himself a historian ) claimed that slavery was not profit seeking, that slave labor was inefficient. Not so, Baptist shows:
“… in fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation — not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually dividing us politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping make civil war possible.”
As Baptist points out, throughout the 1850s the world financial market continued to invest in cotton, “revealing its continued faith in the long-term profitability of slavery.”
What made slave labor so productive? Torture.
Not only were Black men, women and children denied autonomy, selfhood and even their names, they were whipped, mercilessly, one lash for every pound under quota picked, which quota was increased daily. Even the best pickers were whipped: if they could pick two hundred pounds a day, when the norm was one hundred, why could they not pick more? Whipping for being late, whipping for answering too softly, whipping for answering too strongly, whipping for visiting a woman or man without an owner’s permission, whipping for not acquiescing to the owners sexual demands
“Under the whip, people could not speak in sentences or think coherently. They ‘danced,’ trembled, babbled, lost control of their bodies. … enslavers downplayed the damage inflicted by the overseer’s whip. Sure, it might etch deep gashes in the skin of its victim, make them ‘tremble’ or ‘dance,’ as enslavers said, but it did not disable them. Whites were open with those whom they beat about the whip’s purpose. Its point was the way it asserted dominance so ‘educationally’ that the enslaved would abandon hope of successful resistance to the pushing system’s demands.
As one man wrote to a friend:
“They are very difficult Negroes to make pick cotton. I have flogged this day, you would think if you had seen it, without mercy.”
And whipping was not the half of it. Slaves were tortured, as Baptist finds in the records.
“…almost every product sold in New Orleans stores converted into an instrument of torture: carpenters’ tools, chains, cotton presses, hackles, handsaws, hoe handles, irons for branding livestock, nails, pokers, smoothing irons, singletrees, steelyards, tongs. Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another: sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in “stress positions,” burning, even waterboarding. And descriptions of runaways posted by enslavers were festooned with descriptions of scars, burns, mutilations, brands, and wounds.”
Though replete with facts, figures, tables, economics Baptist never forgets that this is a story of people – not Napoleons or Lincolns, but ordinary men and women, slaves, slave owners, slave traders, economic speculators, Northern and British bankers The Andrew Jacksons, Henry Clays, (Stephen) Douglases, Calhouns figure as well, and many other politicians and commercial figures who bet their lives, their fortunes and sacred honors to keep and extend the ownership of other human beings. Every chapter opens with a story of an enslaved man or a woman, with names — William, Rachel, Charles, Lucy; in some condition of slavery – property of Hugh Young hung around a neck; on a particular day — freezing mud, sun-high southern heat; with personal worries – a child stripped from them, a new owner to face, a chance of escape; often bound to named owners or overseers, in actual places: New Orleans, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina
Especially groundbreaking is his historical account of the centrality of sexual slavery, from opportunistic abuse to selling slave women explicitly for sex, lightly camouflaged as “fancy girls. The trade, while known in the original colonial slave colonies exploded in the expansion to the west, where sexual risk taking and risk in land purchase, business creation, and even male challenge and response made up a syndrome of large proportions. Baptist cites from letters between purchasers, and sellers, or just friends boasting about a particularly nice “acquisition.”
“I sold your fancy maid Alice for $800 … I do believe that a likely Girl & a good seamstress could be sold for $1100.” (equivalent to $33,231 today)
It would certainly seem that the loudly shouted fears of white men, for hundreds of years, that rapacious Blacks were a danger to white women was projected full-flower out of white men’s rapine of black slave women.
Though there are, as there must be, many stories of deprivation and want — the story of a woman who came home from a day picking cotton to find her young daughter had been sold and taken from her home particularly sticks with me– Baptist ensures other stories are told: of resilience, of the use of music and dance to lift-up, create bonds, overcome the strangeness on speech and custom of Africans, and African Americans with some 600 dialects and place origins.
He reminds the reader that while today we prefer stories of the Harriet Tubmans and Frederick Douglasses who escaped and helped others, or the Denmark Veseys and Nat Turners who rebelled with arms, there were hundreds of thousands who could not, would not, or did not escape – with families, or friends to look out for, too weak from hunger or age to try, to sure of being caught, and mauled, by enslavers bloodhounds.. To ignore their stories is to suggest, he says, if only by omission, that they are somehow of less worth than the bold and the strong. From Tvetzan Todorov’s essays on the slave labor and extermination camps of the 20th century, he finds another kind of courage and honor.
“Heroes deal out vengeance, wiping out insults, and in an existential sense denying their own death. In twentieth-century camps, however, Todorov found, some people instead found transcendence by displaying kindness toward other people. Through small, everyday acts that committed them to the survival of other human beings—even at the cost of lowering their own chances—they demonstrated their own commitment to an abstract yet personal value.
A lovely story of an enslaved man raising a foundling child to adulthood anchors the point.
Slave owners and traders are named and identified
Let’s start with the Presidents of the United States. Of the first 18 Presidents, twelve were slave owners, Grant the last, with one. Jackson, who not only owned hundreds of slaves at the “Hermitage”, was perhaps the one who did most to ensure its continuance into the west. Others, too, all named in Baptist’s book:
William Turnstall, an owner;
John Breckenridge, VA, 1792 enslaver
David Rice, KY ~ 1790, Presbyterian minister and enslaver,
James Stille, MS, 1819, (near Hampton )
Clement Jameson, MS Yazoo Region
William McCutcheon, slave labor camp , 1819
Edward Barnes, 1828, MS cotton labor camp
Belfer, MS – Irish born
Robert Beverly, AL
Edwin Epps, LA
Joseph Shepherd, MS
Slave owners: we know who they were.
In this age of enthusiasm for finding one’s ancestors, perhaps a few courageous souls will go back to these men, and women and trace their family lines forward. Finding the connections between slave-trading great-great grandparents and ourselves might draw our attention more closely to the not insignificant remnants of such ownership attitudes today.
(Chris Tomlinson, one of several authors of Forget the Alamo: The True Story of the Myth That Made Texas, which adds even more to the Texas slavery expansion story, has provided an example. His ancestors moved from Alabama to Texas with 200 slaves in the 1840s, the years described in The Half Has Never Been Told. Tomlinson has found ancestors of those slaves and has written about the two families in Tomlinson Hill: Sons of Slaves, Sons of Slaveholders. )
The closing chapter of the book has accounts of slaves as the Union Armies pressed into the south. Black men joined in droves, not just the fabled Massachusetts 52nd, but some 200,000 men — “becoming the increment that helped the war-wear Union to persist … through to 1865.”
The importance of reading history, and folding it into our sense of ourselves and the world we live in, it seems to me, is not simply to have isolated baubles of knowledge to display to friends or admire in ourselves, but because, as James Baldwin never tired of saying,
“All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history . . . which is not your past, but your present,” Baldwin said. “Your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history.”
The human impulses, and organizational capacity and drive that created and sustained slavery for centuries are still with us. Perhaps we don’t hold slaves, but we have created an economic system — as Baptist shows- which depends on the same belief: work does not coming from willing individuals in joint enterprise, to care for self and family and community, but must be extracted by punitive means. No longer do the water-soaked leather straps scar backs but the lash of fear, want, privation, illness is wielded as a primary tool in driving required behavior. Religious claims about justice and equity are turned upside down, or ignored as convenient. Legal and political standards are shaped unremittingly by those with power to retain and grow that power.
There is much learn, and The Half Has Never Been Told is a terrific way to begin.
Chris Tomlinson, Bryan Burrough, and Jason Stanford‘s, Forget the Alamo: The True Story of the Myth That Made Texas, is a portion of, and addition to, Baptist’s story. Written by journalists specifically for a popular audience, it might be a slightly easier way to begin.
Here Tomlinson is being interviewed on the podcast “The Dirt About History.
A Texas oriented history, from 2018, is Seeds of Empire, Cotton, Slavery and the Transformation of the Texas Borderland, Andrew Andrew J. Torget
Or, you could read one of the original abolitionist documents, Slavery As it Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, 1839, Theodore D. Weld