“Solomon Northup and Present-Day Slavery,” in Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, ed., Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kevin M. Burke (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017), 346-52.
Solomon Northup’s twelve-year nightmare odyssey through the American South seems to be an artifact of a bygone era. The Civil War and Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, and 150 years after ratification, the U.S. Congress updated a series of anti-slavery statues with the “Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015.” But Northup’s ordeal bears striking resemblance to current practices, and there is an eerie similarity between the cotton and sugar he was forced to make and the produce of today’s captives: slavery’s evils are hidden in global supply chains, its fruits leaving little trace of the brutality involved in their production. Then as now, captives are made through the cunning of traffickers who use geographic distance as leverage, exploit vulnerabilities, and employ would-be slaves’ good will as weapons against them. More here.
“Faulkner and the Freedom Writers: Slavery’s Narrative in Business Records from Nineteenth Century Abolitionism to Twenty-first-Century Neo-Abolitionism,” in Faulkner and History, ed. Jay Watson (Oxford, Ms.: University of Mississippi Press, 2017), 67-84.
In Go Down, Moses (1942) William Faulkner dramatizes a central contradiction of American slavery—turning people into property—and the culture of impunity that arose from it. Faulkner engaged seriously with historical debates and the theories of race and culture that underlay them, influencing a conversation about the American past and racial slavery. In “The Bear,” Ike McCaslin discovers in a ledger that his inheritance was born of a brutal business, one that made the family estate a landscape of sexual violence. He repudiates his legacy and denounces the Slave South. Though wrapped in humor and irony and conveyed using the author’s peculiar accent and language, Faulkner’s novel draws from a rich narrative tradition composed of competing strands or scripts which he used to critique not only the prevailing historiography but a celebration of the Old South most evident in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936; screenplay, 1939). More here.
“The Coastwise Slave Trade and a Mercantile Community of Interest,” in Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development, ed., Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 209-223.
What is a slave ship? Such vessels are among the most emblematic features of slavery’s Atlantic history. Transatlantic slaving vessels were floating dungeons whose names evoke a “way of death,” illustrated by the iconic Brooks, the Zong massacre, and the Amistad uprising. That “vast machine” was a race-making technology, a site of demonic cruelty, and an instrument of violence. Yet the slave ship looks different when viewed in its coastal U.S. configuration. Like their transatlantic and riverine counterparts, U.S. coastal slave ships were “floating engines of capitalism,” but in the 1810s and 1820s most ships plying the domestic saltwater slave trade carried the miseries of captives alongside a cornucopia of consumer goods. They were floating jails whose owners and operators scooped up revenues from the commercial transport of slaves as part of competitive strategies.
This chapter offers a new perspective on the question, “What is a slave ship?,” by investigating the financial stakeholders in the slave system itself. It details the slaving passages of several wooden sailing ships in terms of the enterprises that owned and operated them and the supply chains they served. The underlying process of enslaving was no less morally repugnant in American ports than it was in Liverpool, England, or Whydah, on the West Coast of Africa. As in the transatlantic trade, African-descended captives were investments. More here.
“Chained Sentiment: United States Slavery and the Emerging African American Novel, 1850-1862,” New Literary Observer (Moscow: Winter 2016-17), 82-93, Igor Gorkov trans.
In the United States in the 1850s, Americans created a narrative of slavery composed of conflicting scripts. African American autobiographers insisted slavery was violent, immoral, and destructive of families. White southern regional writers disagreed, arguing that slavery was benevolent, moral, and part of an organic society, in contrast to the capitalist North. Proslavery novelists contended that slavery benefited inferior African-descended people. White antislavery novelists took elements of both scripts, arguing that African-descended people were unfairly taken advantage of and yet slavery was morally reprehensible. The literary contests over public understandings of slavery between 1850 and the onset of Civil war set ablaze smoldering social tensions over the meaning and future of the United States republic. That discourse involved a dynamic hybridization of genres, a literary process that had developed over the previous quarter century in which ex-slave autobiographers appropriated elements of southern regionalism and antislavery novelists seized features of ex-slave autobiographies to frame their sentimental appeals. Because of such borrowings, African-descended writers found themselves in the ironic position of having to argue against what amounts to white ventriloquism of black voices, sometimes even their own. African American writers responded by culminating a process of hybridization, sentimentalizing and fictionalizing their autobiographies. As black authors increasingly argued slavery’s narrative on the discursive ground of their adversaries’ choosing they gave birth to the African American novel. Article here in Russian.
“‘The Time is Now Just Arriving when Many Capitalists Will Make Fortunes’: Indian Removal, Finance, and Slavery in the Making of the American Cotton South,” Linking the Histories of Slavery in North America and Its Borderlands, ed. James F. Brooks and Bonnie Martin (Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2015), 151-170.
The forced removal of southeastern Indians and the forced relocation of African-descended enslaved people helped to develop the political economy of the early United States republic. Euro-Americans’ forced movement of nonwhite peoples across the landscape of the American South was integral to the process of nation building and economic growth. This chapter investigates two microcosms of that anguished history, juxtaposing two stories illustrating the tragedy of ambition in the early republic. It details land speculation and Indian removal through the eyes of an upstart speculator
and removal agent from Vermont and the interstate slave trade through one of the largest slave-trading firms of the 1830s. Together their stories put into view two processes that seem at first glance to be unrelated. Southeastern Indians occupied lands that promised great agricultural wealth, primarily from slave-grown cotton, in an age when great transatlantic chains of cotton and credit accounted for the largest financial interests in the republic. The timing of Indian removal in the 1830s coincided with the apex of the US interstate slave trade, and both took place during a time of unprecedented economic expansion. The federal government forced out Indians on lands unavailable to slaveholders, but the bonanza in Indian lands in the southeastern region of North America is exceptional in that Euro-Americans pushed out nonwhite inhabitants and forcibly relocated other nonwhites, most of whom were enslaved agricultural workers. The development of finance accelerated the process of expropriating Indian lands, converting them to private ownership, and putting enslaved African-descended Americans to work growing export staples. Ghastly outcomes for the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Cherokees, and Seminoles appeared as glittering opportunities for Euro-Americans. More here.
“Commodity Chains and Chained Commodities: The United States Coastwise Slave Trade and an Atlantic Business Network,” in New Directions in Slavery Studies: Commodification, Community, and Comparison, ed. Jeff Forret and Christine E. Sears (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015), 11-29.
In the decade after the War of 1812, commerce in cotton linked the American South to northwest England. The American republic’s fortunes rose on a tide of cotton lint, while agents of the British Industrial Revolution sped cloth and debt instruments through global arteries of commerce. The resulting cotton chain included cotton fibers, textiles, and conveyances such as ships, along with manufacturers, mariners, merchants, planters, and workers. Credit, knowledge, and trust formed the links. They were capitalist constructions, magnificently creative yet monumentally destructive. Enslaved people were a hidden but central component, and their commercial transport from the eastern seaboard of North America to the Lower South was vital to the process.
Scholars investigating slavery and capitalism have disagreed sharply over capitalism’s historical characteristics and how directly slavery was involved in modern commercial development. This chapter takes a microhistorical approach to a world system, investigating concrete connections within the broad processes of Atlantic world commerce and the expansion of slavery in the early United States. An analysis of merchant voyages connects the bondpersons who shouldered the burdens of unpaid labor to the businessmen who orchestrated and financed the larger system. Systems of money and credit that made possible the rise of the transatlantic cotton economy of the 1820s were also part of the infrastructure of the interstate slave trade. More here
“Slave Trading in a Republic of Credit: Financial Architecture of the United States Slave Market, 1815-1840,” Slavery & Abolition 36.4 (December, 2015): 586-602.
Credit facilitated the intra-US slave trade’s growth between 1815 and the financial crisis of the late 1830s. Movement of money across geographic space was the enslavers’ chief challenge, and this article details the process of slaving firms’ building credit and remitting funds with which they constructed supply chains in bondspersons. Slave market development was dependent on US and North Atlantic financial integration and comprised three stages. These included use of the Second Bank of the USA, supplemented by domestic bills of exchange, and culminating in the use of southern state banks with northern correspondent ties, which the financial crisis severed.
Credit and banking facilities were essential to the growth and development of the US domestic slave trade, and the same network of creditors that financed cotton and sugar production also financed slave traders. This essay analyzes that process historically using business records of individual firms. Traffic in chained laborers rose following peace with Britain in 1815 and reached its apex in the half-decade before the financial panic of 1837. It was big business. Enslaved people as a proportion of total US wealth nearly doubled in the first four decades of the nineteenth century, representing 10% in 1800, over 15% in 1830, and over 19% in 1840. And those human chattels were on the move. One in 12 enslaved Americans counted in 1820 was moved across state lines in 10 years. And one in seven counted in 1830 was forcibly taken across state lines in that decade. Besides the violence, anguish, and social costs of forced relocation, commerce in people across geographic regions posed financial difficulties.
The mobility of money and access to credit were slave traders’ chief challenges. In those respects, the long-distance trade posed problems for American traders not dissimilar to those faced by eighteenth-century British slave traders in the Atlantic basin. Sellers demanded liquid assets. In the Chesapeake, slave traders routinely advertised ‘cash for negroes’. But buyers demanded financing. When selling bondspersons in the lower Mississippi Valley, traders were forced to extend credit and accept bills or promissory notes that had little interregional mobility. To offer banknotes to sellers in Maryland and Virginia and financing to buyers in Louisiana and Mississippi, slave-trading firms required external financing and remittance procedures that lowered costs. More here.
“Capitalism’s Captives: The Maritime United States Slave Trade, 1807-1850,” Journal of Social History 47.4 (Summer, 2014): 897-921.
The maritime interstate trade in bondspersons illustrates the contours of United States capitalism of the early nineteenth century as it developed between 1807 and midcentury. The saltwater trade between the Chesapeake and New Orleans comprised four stages corresponding to larger economic developments. An incidental slave trade rose in the context of the US ban on imported slaves, embargoes, and the growth of domestic commerce. An essential trade followed, growing in the post-War of 1812 transatlantic market for agricultural staples. It was carried on aboard vessels plying the so-called cotton triangle and also ships carrying regionally-specific goods and commodities between domestic ports. The 1830s witnessed a vertical trade exemplified by one slaving firm that responded to the swift expansion of credit and surging demand. Following the panic of 1837, market fragmentation led to a mechanical trade, which was also dependent on robust exports of slave-produced crops. Financial technologies propelled that development, and the maritime slave trade was nearly seamlessly integrated into the broader coastal trade. More here.
“Arguing Slavery’s Narrative: Southern Regionalists, Ex-Slave Autobiographers, and the Contested Literary Representations of the Peculiar Institution, 1824-1849,” Journal of American Studies 46.4 (November, 2012): 1009-1033.
In the twenty-five years before 1850, southern writers of regional literature and ex-slave autobiographers constructed a narrative of United States slavery that was mutually contradictory and yet mutually influential. That process involved a dynamic hybridization of genres in which authors contested meanings of slavery, arriving at opposing conclusions. They nevertheless focussed on family and the South’s distinctive culture. This article explores the dialectic of that argument and contends that white regionalists created a plantation-paternalist romance to which African American ex-slaves responded with depictions of slavery’s cruelty and immorality. However, by the 1840s, ex-slaves had domesticated their narratives in part to sell their works in a literary marketplace in which their adversaries’ sentimental fiction sold well. Scholars have not examined white southern literature and ex-slave autobiography in comparative context, and this article shows how both labored to construct a peculiar institution in readers’ imagination. Southern regionalists supplied the elements of a pro-slavery argument and ex-slave autobiographers infused their narratives with abolitionist rhetoric at a time in which stories Americans told about themselves became increasingly important in the national political crisis over slavery extension and fugitive slaves. It was on that discursive ground that the debates of the 1850s were carried forth. More here.
“Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery: The Freedom Narrative of Henry Goings,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 119.4 (Winter, 2011): 214-49.
The formerly enslaved Virginian who took the name Henry Goings when he emancipated himself in Alabama in 1839 witnessed key moments in the creation of the cotton kingdom of the nineteenth-century South. His rambles illuminate the experience of non-autonomous migration to the southern frontier and the restless mobility of the architects of that society. He peered over their shoulders and listened to their conversations, encountering some even after he fled to the North. Goings left a rare first-person account of how enslaved people were implicated in a process usually understood in terms of planter migration and the geopolitics of slavery, which further contextualizes the experience of African Americans from the Upper South who sojourned or sought refuge outside the United States. Goings wrote and published Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery while a resident of Ontario, composing it over a span of years, from the early 1850s to the late 1860s.
Joining a distinguished company of African American critics abroad, Goings unfolded an appraisal of his homeland as well as a narrative of his life. He urged emancipation on a nation so that his children might realize their full potential despite their African descent. During the Civil War, he commented on the progress of African American freedom, and during Reconstruction he urged other blacks to seize theirs through steeliness and self-sufficiency. His Rambles was an independent project, created without the sponsorship of white abolitionists or interpretation through an amanuensis.
Consisting of three chapters covering his life before the Civil War, two chapters during and immediately after it, and including a lengthy appendix containing reports of antiblack violence, speeches from Freedmen’s Bureau officials, and memories of Goings’s travels with his erstwhile owner, Rambles unfolds a life and the views of an expatriate African American during a critical time in United States history. The resulting manuscript was published as a pamphlet by a Stratford, Ontario, printer likely as a job ordered by its author. To date, one copy is extant. In later chapters, the author addressed his audience as “My colored Brethren,” indicating that he wrote for an African American audience. From that perspective, Goings positioned himself within a set of African-descended transnational commentators whose ideas and criticisms resounded across oceans, not merely sectional or national borders.
“Left Behind but Getting Ahead: Antebellum Slavery’s Orphans in the Chesapeake,” Children in Slavery through the Ages, ed. Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, and Joseph C. Miller (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009), 204-224.
Enslaved children left behind in the antebellum Chesapeake faced an unforgiving landscape of challenges as their parents were sold off to the cotton plantations of the Deep South. Forced separations orphaned countless youngsters, as slaveholders broke up, through sales, one in three marriages among the people they owned each decade between 1820 and the onset of the American Civil War in 1861. Slaveholders hired other spouses away at considerable distances and converted one in five enslaved people of any age into cash. Children witnessed thefts of fathers, dislocations of mothers, and the scattering of siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins. In one of the largest forced migrations in modern history the market prized the fit and the fertile, which left children behind, bereft, but-as children-also innocent to the systemic implications of their losses. More here.
“The Everyday Life of Enslaved People in the Antebellum South,” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, 23.2 (April, 2009), 31-36.
Coming of age in a nation that hungered for black labor, antebellum America’s slaves were driven relentlessly to toil in fields and factories. Their bodies weakened by fatigue and hunger, wracked by chronic illnesses and injury, and, in the case of women of childbearing age, strained by near constant pregnancy, daily existence often came down to an endless struggle of will and endurance. Yet that was not the sum of the challenges and tribulations that burdened black people’s lives, for they lived in the shadow of an agricultural revolution. Beginning in the 1790s, short-staple cotton became a profitable commodity owing to the introduction of efficient cotton gins (which separated the sticky seeds from the valuable lint) and a growing demand from British textile mills. To take advantage of new economic opportunities, migrating masters forcibly moved hundreds of thousands of enslaved women, children, and men from the Upper South onto the cotton and sugar frontiers of Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama. This agricultural revolution rapidly changed the shape and face of a young nation. It also profoundly altered the lives of America’s slaves as owners and traders separated families, parted friends, and orphaned children. Though enslaved women and men worked as hard to repair the damage done to their families and friendships as they worked for their owners—meeting, marrying, raising babies, and forming all sorts of social institutions—few could escape the human cost of agricultural and national expansion. As Virginia native Madison Jefferson later recalled, “we [had] dread constantly on our minds,” never knowing “how long master” might keep us, “nor into whose hands we may fall.” More here.