The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
Baptist, Edward E.
Contemporary popular commentators on slavery often tell its story with benign concern, but with little reference to its true viciousness, to the “massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire.” So, today, “millions of people visit plantation homes where guides blather on about silverware and furniture . . . Meanwhile, at other points we tell slavery’s story by heaping praise on those who escaped it through flight or death in rebellion, leaving the listener to wonder if those who didn’t flee or die somehow ‘accepted’ slavery. And everyone who teaches about slavery knows a dirty little secret that reveals historians’ collective failure: many African-American students struggle with a sense of shame that most of their ancestors could not escape the suffering they experienced.”
Baptist writes against those accounts of slavery that say it was economically deficient, inefficient (didn’t slaves purposely break tools and let mules wander off?), and weak. Just to the contrary. From the end of the American Revolution to the beginning of the Civil War the number of slaves in the US quintupled because slavery was an extraordinarily powerful engine of growth, both for the South and the North (think of textile mills hungrily devouring Southern cotton). American slavery, in fact, made cotton the most-traded commodity in the world and the South “the dominant force in the global cotton markets.” The South fought so hard to retain slavery in large part because it made the South rich. Once again, the love of money proved to be the root of evil. Also for the textile-rich Northerners, many of whom viewed abolition as a threat to their prosperity. Americans have generally resisted the story that in the nineteenth century “suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich.” Alas, the story is true.
American slavers had to move slaves from eastern sites to western and southern ones. Options for transport were limited. So slavers would bind slaves into “coffles,” which were lines of them designed for long-distance travel. They would walk while chained together, often for many days to cover hundreds of miles. Children in villages would stop their play to watch the shuffling, footsore slaves clink along together through the village and on toward their destination (often an auction). “Men of the chain couldn’t act as individuals; nor could they act as a collective, except by moving forward in one direction. Even this took some learning. Stumble, and one dragged someone else lurching down by the padlock dangling from his throat. Many bruised legs and bruised tempers later, they would become one long file moving at the same speed, the same rhythm, no longer swinging linked hands in the wrong direction.”
Slaves in a “coffle,” a line of slaves chained together for travel in a line, were a unit, but “not completely united. Relationships between the enslaved could play out as conflict, or alliance, or both. People were angry, depressed, despairing, sick of each other’s smell and the noises they made, how they walked too fast or too slow, how no one could even p*ss or sh*t by themselves. At night, lying too close, raw wrists and sore feet aching, men in chains or women in ropes argued, pushed, tried to enforce their wills.” Slavery corrupted slavers, legislatures, cotton merchants, textile owners, auctioneers, newspaper editors, and so many others. A tragedy is that it inevitably corrupted slaves, and all the rest of the players in the diabolical trade were the corrupters.
American slavery was absolutely as brutal as its reputation. Slaves were flogged. “Under the whip, people could not speak in sentences or think coherently. They ‘danced,’ trembled, babbled, lost control of their bodies. Talking to the rest of the white world, 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 they beat about the whip’s purpose. Its point was the way it asserted dominance so ‘educationally’ that the slave would abandon hope of successful resistance to the punishing system’s demands. ‘Their plan of getting quantities of cotton,’ recalled the slave Henry Bibb of the people who drove him to labor on the Red River, ‘is to extort it by the lash.’
Slaves were assigned pound quotas of picked cotton each day. If they made their quota they were OK at the end of the day. If they did not, they were flogged. “’So many pounds short,’ cries the overseer, and takes up his whip, exclaiming, ‘Step this way, you damn lazy scoundrel,’ or ‘Short pounds, you b*tch.’”
Slavers assigned brutal and increasing daily quotas of pounds of cotton picked. Not only the slavers’ living, but their wealth and luxury, depended on it. Quotas kept ratcheting up until slaves went crazy trying vainly to meet them. They would sneak rocks, pumpkins, small rocks into their baskets. They would help each other in the fields. They would distract the overseer as he read the scale. Slavers called the slaves “hands,” as in “field hands.” Pickers cam to disembody themselves. It was only their hands in the row. “Picking all day long until late at night, even by candlelight, they had to dissociate their minds from the pain that racked stooping backs; from blood running down pricked fingertips; from hands that gnarled into claws over a few short years; from thirst, hunger, blurred vision, and anxiety about the whip before and behind them.” To meet their quota some slaves adopted a lightning-quick two handed picking motion, working opposing sides of the rows with a hand each. Weren’t they “field hands?” The two-handed technique was called the “sleight” of cotton picking. It was a knack almost too fast to see.
Few historians have used the word “torture” to “describe the violence applied by enslavers. Some historians have called lashings ‘discipline,’ the term offered by slavery’s lawgivers and the laws they wrote, which pretended that the masters who whipped were calmly administering ‘punishment’ to correct ‘lazy’ subordinates’ reluctance to work. Even white abolitionists . . . were reluctant to say that it was torture to beat a bound victim with a weapon until the victim bled profusely, did what was wanted or both. “ Why? Slavery was immensely profitable because slaves made a lot of product. “No one was willing . . . to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”