In many ways, Baptist's book brings to mind Dee Brown's "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee" in that it makes every attempt to put the African and African American experience right at the heart of the story. Each chapter for example begins and ends with the story of one or more people who were brought into slavery. The chapters in the book follow the different aspects of the slave body (hands, feet, heads, hearts, blood etc.) and the impact of slavery on each. The tale is both powerful and full of anger at the mistreatment of human beings, but also with the sanitized way in which the history of this period has been told. As such, the line of narrative is sometimes a bit harder to follow than in a standard history of slavery and its abolition. I have therefore decided to split this report on the book into a number of sections.
In this first section I want to explore Baptist's main lines of argument of how and why slavery, especially cotton slavery, expanded in the new southern and western territories of the USA after the Revolutionary War. Here Baptist argues, a whole new variety of slavery was born, a modern form of slavery, driven by capitalism and its flows of money, goods and people. I will return at another point to focus on the lives of the enslaved...
- Sets out to reject key orthodoxies in the historiography of the expansion of cotton industry
- Baptist believes that the whole of American society was built on the metaphorical as well as physical bodies of slaves: "Enslaved African Americans built the modern United States, and indeed the entire modern world, in ways both obvious and hidden." Baptist, Edward E. (2014-09-09). The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Kindle Locations 299-300). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
- Argues that the capitalism slavery was not an outdated and inefficient practice, as has been previously suggested, but that it was a growing industry, although one whose innovations were based on violent exploitation of humans.
- Argues that the cotton industry not only fueled northern trade and commerce, but was also the building block on which the economies of the modern world were built.
- Argues that the traditional telling of the story of the cotton industry removes black slaves from the story of the growth of the United States.
- Argues that there is little distinction between the "modern" America with its focus on buying and selling goods, and the cotton economy which bought and sold people.
- Makes the case that slavery was not a static institution and that the slavery of the new south was one which innovated and changed. Baptist believes that slavery was both modernising and modern in the way that it was employed in the southern states.
- Finally argues that the key aspect of the story of slavery is not necessarily the move towards emancipation, but how enslaved people found ways to survive, resist or endure. He makes a particular point of this last one, noting that too much emphasis has been placed on those slaves who openly resisted, rather than accepting that most did not have this option.
Slavery was already an issue of contention on the founding of the USA. Jefferson argued that slavery turned whites into despots not dissimilar to the British, however Jefferson himself owned slaves. Jefferson's master-plan was a gradual emancipation to allow America to focus on the ideal of the Yeoman Farmer. In the end it was the Slave Trade which was phased out and a time limit of 20 years put on its continuance. The South therefore needed to shift its focus from slave import to the internal trading and movement of slaves. This ultimately created something unique in the USA.
Could investigate this issue in some depth by exploring the USA in 1789 using the question "Why was the USA only a land of freedom for some?" Could pursue a decision making activity looking at Jefferson's desires to abolish slavery but the risks he ran in doing so. Could also explore the limited power of the government to control these issues before the Constitution. Would also be worth exploring the significant wealth which slavery brought to the USA through exports to world markets.
1789/90 the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in new territories in the northwest. The Southwest Ordinance allowed slavery in southern territories. This decision had an immediate impact as slaves from northern states were force marched down to the new southern territories such as Georgia to begin farming. Southern "boosters" promoted investments in these new southern lands, suggesting that slaves might be used to turn a profit on the lands. Such profits could then be invested in more lands and more slaves.
Story of Charles Ball is particularly good for illustrating how the opening of the cotton frontier in the south affected black lives. Ball was given to a "Georgia Man" in the early 1800s whose job was to transport slaves to new investment lands in the south. Ball was chained around his neck and wrists and force marched in a coffle to the new territories in Georgia. Slaves were force marched day and night. Ball was transported by a man named Thompson. Thompson kept the slaves moving through violence and threats, but also by using whisky as an incentive drug on cold, dark nights. Most had little chance of escape as their families were often held back home. Ball for instance had a wife in Maryland who would suffer if he had tried to flee. His despair is evident in his writing as he laments that he cannot even kill himself because of the chains.
Slaves like Ball were often seized unawares so there was less chance they would resist. Once chained they were less of a threat. Those in chains had to learn to work together. However they did not always get along and often there were fallings out. It is also worth noting that slaves such as Ball did not simply accept their fate because they had little agency. Ball spent every night looking for loose links in his chains. He also learned the nature of the land he was walking through so that he might remember his way back if ever he got the chance.
Could use the story of expansion into the south to explore the motives for the mass transportation of slaves to the new southern territories. The forced migration story of Ball and others could then be used to explore the ways in which white slave owners asserted control over their slaves. Could phrase around the question (and misconception) "Why didn't more slaves escape their captors?" This gets at the issue of agency and forces students to accept that slaves had very little agency at all due to the restrictions of their particular situation. I envisage having an image of Ball with a number of thought bubbles above his head outlining the barriers to his escape. It would be worth telling the full story of Ball which can be found online easily.
Baptist makes the case that the slavery experienced by those who were taken south was fundamentally different to the slavery in the north. In the old form of slavery, men like Charles Ball had been chattels - property to be used, but also cared for to an extent. The south by contrast was populated by speculators seeking to extract profits using slaves as a commodity. All restraints were removed. Baptist argues that it was the turning of the slave into a commodity which made US slavery different to the slavery of the sugar islands, and by turn connected it with the capitalist economy it fed. Men like Ball were marched to be sold in slave markets to feed the expansion of key farming industries.
1788 Jefferson had suggested Emancipation needed - by 1814 he argued that it was too late. Too many were seeking profits from the new territories. Jefferson's wolf held by the ears. By 1814 the new nation had also survived threats from the British and had secured access to new lands in the south, including Louisiana. New Orleans was fast becoming the hub of cotton trade and exports, as well as the centre of the slave trade
The trade in southern slaves was driven by speculators who bought slaves for say $800 in northern states, then sold them for $1200 or more in the new southern states, where they could be turned to making profit for the plantation owners. The bigger the market grew, the more investors and banks were willing to place money behind the institution, driving it forwards again. By 1820 some 200,000 slaves had been brought to the Southwestern frontier
Before the explosion in cotton in the south most people had bought slaves in proportion to their demographics. By 1819 most slaves bought in the New Orleans region were aged 18-25 - separated from their families. Less than 8 in 2,500 slaves were sold with their husbands and children. This separation was key to asserting power over slaves. Between 1815 and 1820 over 2,600 children under 13 were sold. 1,001 were sold without any family: the average age of these was just 9. Here again were ways to assert dominance. The conditions Ball found on the cotton plantations were appalling - men and women wearing rags and children completely naked. Evidence of malnutrition and disease were rife - something which can be seen in many contemporary images.
Slaves attempted to resist such dominance by working slowly or breaking tools. However, slavers ratcheted up pressure using the "pushing system." The methods used on the cotton plantations showed the efficiency drive. Captains were appointed from the slaves. The Captains then began working at a high pace which everyone else had to maintain. The white overseer only had to keep the captains working to keep the whole operation moving along. The fastest workers were chosen to the Captains, thereby pushing the pace ever upwards. This work method was very different to the task system used in much of the north where slaves were given a specific task or set of tasks to complete in a day. The time needed for planting a rice field for example was agreed by custom. If a slave finished early in this system they might have time to tend their own crops or home. The "pushing system" offered no such reward. Indeed, the drive for ever higher production led to earlier starts, shorter breaks and later finishes. The amount of cotton picked increased up to 6x between 1805 and 1860. The growth was around 2.1% per person per year. If Britain wanted to replace the cotton it imported it would need to farm 23 million acres of sheep for wool. This was more land than Britain had.
The slavers also ensured high productivity through the use of what Baptist terms "the whipping machine." Punishments were public and brutal. Those who did not meet their daily picking targets were punished by a number of lashes for every pound of cotton they were short. Charles Ball picked 38 pounds of cotton on his first day. This became his minimum and was ratcheted up each day. Meeting quotas was hard - some were asked to meet a much as 250 pounds or more a day. Women found themselves most at the mercy of the whips, especially when they were torn between picking and caring for young children. The averages moved from 100 pounds per person per day at the start of the period to 200 pounds average by the end.
Baptist notes that historians have used the term "discipline" to refer to the punishment of slaves: the slavers language. Nobody, he argues, uses the real term: "torture" - a violence used to exact a truth - in this case the truth of how much cotton they could pick. This was also another process of trying to dominate the spirit. One overseer named his whip "the Dominator" and used it to this effect, beating one man until he was too brain damaged to walk. Such punishments were ignored by slave owners and investors who were only interested in the gains being made in cotton exports. The system of torture allowed the southern whites to turn slaves into hands -> hands into bales -> bales into money -> money back to hands (slaves).
Here it might be worth exploring the ways in which the hands of slaves helped to create the economic boom in America which was built on cotton. A possible question might be "How were slave hands turned to the profit of white America?" This could be done through an exploration of the three main ways in which slaves were turned to the profit of the United States: through the sale of their persons, through the torture of their bodies, and through the use of their hands to become human machines. A range of stories might fit in to illustrate these points, however Charles Ball fits best again.
A possible opening for this might be to explore Eli Whitney's cotton gin - a piece of technology widely regarded by historians to have enabled the cotton boom and then note that this provides a very sanitised view of how the cotton industry expanded. Students could compare the technological advance with the labour of the human technology which the "whipping machine" forced slaves to become.
Another opening might be to connect a local industrial building or town to an image of slaves working the cotton fields in the 1820s-40s. Alternatively students might be asked what parts of their own town were built by slaves, drawing this link afterwards. Essentially - most industrial money will have connections to the trade as do large banks such as Barings or Lloyds.
Baptist phrases the whole process as the right hand (the power of the slavers) being used to turn the left hand (the creative hands of the slaves) against itself. Slaves were forced ultimately to impose self torture - to detach their minds from the arduous tasks given them - in order to survive. Not entirely sure how this might be brought in yet, but I think it needs to come in somehow.