Tag Archives: Slavery

The Logic of the Antislavery Movement

The following is the text of a presentation I gave at the Antislavery Usable Past workshop at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation. For more information about the conference and the paper, please click here.

I would like to talk about two things today: capitalism and abolitionist missionaries in Africa in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. I am interested in both of these things, and I think they are related in an important way. First, I want to dwell for a bit on capitalism as an interpretive lens for understanding the problem of slavery and abolition. And that leads me to this quote:

Whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep silent about fascism.

– Max Horkheimer (1939)

This is a famous quote. We can call it the Horkheimer thesis. It’s quite controversial, but it’s also very true, and most of the controversy is about the extent of its true-ness. There also seems to be a nineteenth century parallel to the Horkheimer thesis. There is no direct quote, but it might be paraphrased as follows:

Whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep silent about slavery.

-Edward Baptist
Sven Beckert
Seth Rockman
Caitlin Rosenthal
Walter Johnson
Dale Tomich
etc., etc.

We might call this the new synthesis in slavery studies, which has emerged rather quickly over the past two or three years (although it’s rooted in earlier work and much older debates in the field).

While earlier work tended to focus on individual slaveholding economies and the extent to which they were capitalist, or pre-capitalist, or feudal (or whatever Eugene Genovese thought slavery was about), this new work sidesteps those questions by exploring how African chattel slavery was integral to the entire process of capitalist globalization. Although they did not have all of the benefit of hindsight, contemporaries recognized this curious phenomenon as it was unfolding, and this brings me to the following quote from Marx:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry…Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.

-Karl Marx (1846)

This is a great quote to use with students in classroom discussions, or as an essay prompt (Do you agree with Marx? Why or why not?). In a way, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is an extremely elaborate answer to this question. The new synthesis on nineteenth-century chattel slavery also helps to explain, at least in part, why slavery continues to persist in the modern global economy. If slavery is integral to capitalism, at least in some sense, and if we are living in an age of unprecedented capitalist hegemony, as pretty much everyone seems to agree, then of course slavery will continue to be a problem. And it will continue to be a problem, I would like to suggest, until we fully acknowledge and understand the central role that various forms of unfree labor play in capitalist economies. And this brings me to the topic of abolitionism.

If, as the new synthesis suggests, one cannot talk about slavery without talking about capitalism, then the same must be true, at least to some extent, about abolitionism. If slavery is integral to capitalism, then antislavery must, at least in some way, be about anti-capitalism. Now, I don’t want to suggest that abolitionists were running around in Che Guevara t-shirts, waving AK-47s, and talking about the dictatorship of the proletariat (although a minority of abolitionists, I think, did stuff that could be considered roughly equivalent). Many, if not most, abolitionists sought a limited form of capitalism, without excess greed, or excess wealth, or excess exploitation. In that sense, their views were very similar to those recently articulated by Pope Francis, and they can be traced, in part, to the same egalitarian traditions in the New Testament (in its Catholic form, it’s known as Distributism).

As most of you folks probably know, there is an extensive literature on the relationship between capitalism and abolitionism, stretching back to Eric Williams, who set the terms of the debate, for better or for worse, back in the 1940s. But it’s been relatively quiet over the past few decades, and it remains to be seen how the new synthesis in slavery studies will challenge what we know about abolitionism. Even if the answers are not clear at this point, however, it should not stop us from asking the questions.

George JulianIn thinking about the lessons of antislavery (the question of this conference), it occurred to me to investigate what the original abolitionists had to say about this. What lessons did they see in their movement? As it turns out, they said quite a bit, and some of them even said stuff about capitalism. One of the most important moments, when abolitionists gathered to collectively reflect on their movement, was the big “Antislavery Reunion” in Chicago in the summer of 1874. And one of the featured speakers at this reunion was George Julian. A congressman from Indiana, Julian was an old-school abolitionist, a lawyer who had helped organize both the Free Soil and the Republican parties. His long involvement in the movement had led him to some of the same conclusions that Marx had reached earlier, and he also anticipated some of the conclusions of the new synthesis in slavery studies.

Julian’s speech in Chicago was aptly titled: “The Lessons of the Anti-Slavery Conflict.” And in this speech he devoted a large amount of time to what he called “the slavery question in other forms.” One of the most important lessons of antislavery, Julian argued, was women’s rights. This will come as no surprise to students of first-wave feminism and its deep roots in abolitionist political culture. But equally, if not more important, according to Julian, was the struggle against capitalism. “African slavery was simply one form of the domination of capital over the poor,” he argued.

The system of Southern slavery was the natural outgrowth of that generally accepted political philosophy which makes the protection of property the chief end of Government. It was only the strongly-emphasized expression of the maxim that ‘capital should own labor’…The labor question, as I have often said, is the natural successor and logical sequence of the slavery question. It is the slavery question, renewed in other forms and generalized. The abolition of poverty is the next work in order after converting the African chattel into a man, and the Abolitionist who does not see this fails to grasp the logic of the Anti-Slavery movement.

-George Julian (1874)

Not long after Julian gave his speech about capital and the persistence of different forms of enslavement, the abolitionist conventioneers gathered to celebrate the American Missionary Association. “It alone of all the earlier Anti-Slavery organizations retains a vigorous existence,” read their report. “It embodies much of the old Abolition feeling,” they continued, “now happily turned toward the intellectual and moral culture of the freedmen.” So, in other words, here was another antislavery lesson.

Founded in 1846, but with roots reaching back a decade earlier, the AMA was the largest, the longest-running, and the most wide-reaching abolitionist organization in the United States. Although best known for its educational work among former slaves, the AMA supported similar efforts among Chinese immigrants, Native Americans, and the white working class. And its foreign department included stations in Canada, Egypt, Haiti, Hawaii, Jamaica, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Thailand, and the Marquesas Islands, among other places.

The AMA’s Mendi Mission, located in what is now southern Sierra Leone, was its flagship project for almost four decades, running between 1842 and 1882. Established as an extension of the Amistad slave revolt, the mission was a transatlantic branch of the Underground Railroad and a key frontier of action and imagination in the global contest over slavery. The mission also challenges conventional interpretations of the Civil War era. Well over one hundred ministers and teachers of different genders, colors, and backgrounds served as a bridge linking religion and politics across two continents, and their attempts to reconstruct Africa prefigured and complimented postwar southern reconstruction. There is a lot more that needs to be said about the AMA and the Mendi Mission, but in the time that I have remaining, I will limit myself to some of the missionaries’ experiments in free labor and labor discipline, because this is where I think the African-American story of the Mendi Mission intersects with the big, macro-level, global capitalism story that I mentioned at the beginning of my talk.

I should point out that by “free labor,” abolitionists meant free as in speech, not free as in beer. (Although I think there are some interesting tensions in that language.) There is a modest body of literature on the free produce and free labor movements, but surprisingly little on the movements’ African dimensions. As it turns out, agricultural production was a longstanding project at the Mendi Mission. As early as 1839, mission founder Augustus Hanson had suggested farm work as a path to racial uplift. Abolitionist missionary William Raymond concurred. “The slave trade will not be stopped,” he prophesied, “and the people raised from their degradation, until their attention is directed to the cultivation of the soil.” By the 1850s, the mission’s geographic headquarters at Kaw Mendi boasted a small field, which supplied root vegetables and other staples for local consumption. The African men who worked on the farm were intended as living advertisements for the free labor system, and the missionaries kept meticulous records of their attendance, productivity, and wages. Although the mission was never self-sustaining, manual labor of this sort was considered important. Working on the land would encourage discipline and “manly independence.” By occupying idle hands and minds, it would prevent the cycle of civil war that fed the slave trade. Most importantly, it would provide an economic alternative to mercantile networks in tobacco, rum, weapons, and slaves.

The Mendi missionaries made several attempts to introduce an export economy in free labor cotton and sugar. Although cotton grew naturally in the region and Mende weavers carried on an extensive clothing trade, the missionaries’ goal was to increase output on a global scale. Henry Miles, a leader in the Free Labor movement in the United States, encouraged these efforts. It was, he wrote to his African colleagues, “useless to attempt to put down slavery by argument or even by legislation while we persist in upholding the slaveholder by acting the part of agents in commerce for his benefit.” After his son, Richard, signed up for the Mendi Mission, Miles sent cottonseeds and facilitated contact with free labor manufacturers in Manchester, England.

With the start of the Civil War in 1861, the missionaries saw a golden opportunity to enter the global marketplace. Since “American Slavery owes its continued existence and power to the great and increasing demand for cotton,” they reasoned, a new supply from African workers would put the entire system out of business. Although retired from the mission by this time, abolitionist celebrity George Thompson proposed a 500-acre cotton plantation on the West African littoral, complete with its own city, over which he would “have just as full control, as any king.”

So that gives you a sense of some of the stakes involved in this project, and the big plans that American abolitionists had in store for the African economy. And it’s worth pointing out that it was not only the Mendi Missionaries doing this. The missionaries maintained active links with the African Civilization Society, the British Freedmen’s Aid Society, Liberian settlers, the Basel mission on the Gold Coast, and other groups attempting similar free labor experiments. Pro-slavery apologists even floated fanciful ideas in the 1850s and 1860s to send southern American slaveholders and overseers to Africa to teach labor discipline to the allegedly “lazy” inhabitants. To these men, the entire continent was “only a great wilderness of loungers.” Abolitionists sometimes fell into similar rhetoric, but unlike their opponents, they placed the blame for African “degradation” on the slave trade and its legacies within the global economy.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of the Mendi Mission was the John Brown steamship. Named after the militant abolitionist, who had led an ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, the ship was a symbol of the bustling economic transition that the missionaries hoped to accomplish in Africa. In fact, it was the first mercantile vessel of its kind in that part of the continent. As a representative of the mission, it refused to transport spirituous liquors or other material considered harmful to African industry and progress. Constructed in the early 1880s, as the memory of John Brown began to be supplanted in the United States by the defeat of Reconstruction and the culture of reconciliation, the John Brown steamship also sent a message that the memory of radical abolitionism would live on, outside the borders of the United States.

Of course, all of these utopian schemes for the economic transformation of Africa were no match for reality. Most free labor projects failed miserably due to a lack of funds, poor organization, or tropical disease. Where it took hold, an increase in legitimate commercial activity actually tended to bolster indigenous forms of slavery. At the same time, the Mendi missionaries faced strikes, desertions, theft, and a general lack of interest in their strict labor regime. Although the missionaries eventually established a moderately successful lumber mill at Avery station, near what is now Mano on the Bagru River, the settlement was never self-supporting, and the mill was eventually destroyed during the anti-colonial “Hut Tax” Revolt of 1898.

It would be easy to conclude that the Mendi missionaries did not learn the lessons of Marx, or George Julian, or the new synthesis in slavery studies. But that is not really true. Most of the missionaries were at least vaguely aware of these issues. And most missionaries realized that economic transformation alone would not be enough to completely abolish slavery. All of the missionaries recognized the central role of warfare in the perpetuation of African slavery (and slavery more generally). In fact, we can still see this today, in places like Iraq and Syria. “Put an end to war,” wrote missionary James Tefft in 1854, “and the slave-trade cannot be carried on. Stop the slave-trade, and there remains no cause for war.” Of course, exactly how to go about stopping war, or exactly how to go about stopping the slave trade, were complicated strategic questions.

Barnabas RootThere was an interesting split among the Mendi missionaries on this issue. Some of them, perhaps the majority, felt that British, or American, or French imperial forces were necessary allies of the mission. Providing the secular stick to the mission’s cultural carrot, these forces would pacify the African landscape and create a more business-friendly environment for foreign investment and trade. Others felt that such efforts were counter-productive, merely replacing one form of warfare with another. And they tended to support the rights of indigenous African communities to determine their own fate. Missionary Barnabas Root, who was educated by American abolitionists in Africa, and who led a church in Reconstruction-era Alabama before returning to his home, made this point clear. Rather than forcing foreign cultural norms on West African people, he wrote in 1876: “I am strongly in favor of going half way to meet the people in these respects when it can be done…I would prefer that Christianity come unattended by that officious hand-maiden modern civilization.”

So what can the experience of abolitionist missionaries in Africa in the nineteenth century teach us about eliminating slavery in the twenty-first century? It is difficult to summarize such an extremely complex and important history in a short talk. But, even with this very cursory overview, I think we can discern two broad lessons. First, if we want to fight slavery effectively, we need to develop a more robust critique of global capitalism. Campaigns such as Slavery Footprint, which are a positive development, are not sufficient. No movement for free labor or fair trade, by itself, has ever succeeded in abolishing slavery. If we remain silent about capitalism, then we cannot talk about abolitionism. Secondly, if slavery is rooted in, and feeds off of warfare, then anyone interested in the abolition of slavery should be working alongside groups seeking an end to war – especially the culture of war that favors quick solutions by throwing guns and missiles at a problem, rather than long-term structural change. Without a more sophisticated appreciation of the intimate relationship between capitalism and slavery, and without participating in larger coalitions with groups working for a culture of peace, the movement against modern-day slavery will not succeed.

Elihu Yale was a Slave Trader

anonslaveNext week, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and the Yale Center for British Art are co-hosting a major international conference on slavery and British culture in the eighteenth century. The art exhibit associated with the conference is remarkable for many reasons, not least because it features a portrait of Elihu Yale being waited upon by a collared slave (euphemized as a “page” in the original listing). The painting is related to one held by the University Art Gallery, showing the same scene from a different perspective. And it is similar to another portrait of Yale with yet another collared slave (this time euphemized as a “servant”). This latter portrait, even more ominous and imperial than the first, is not a part of the exhibit. And that is a shame, because these paintings, and the larger conference of which they are a part, offer an opportunity to revisit the controversial and entangled history of slavery and universities.

Historians have long pointed out that Yale (the University) is deeply implicated in the institution of slavery. Many of its prominent buildings are named after slaveholders or slavery apologists. It housed so many southern students that it briefly seceded from the Union at the start of the Civil War. 1 Craig Wilder’s wonderful book Ebony & Ivy, published last year, shows that Yale is not alone in this regard. All of early America’s leading universities, both north and south, promoted and profited from slavery, racism, and colonialism. 2 At the same time, college campuses were battlegrounds where antislavery students and faculty engaged in dramatic confrontations with their opponents and developed new political movements. 3 Oddly enough, none of the scholarship on these issues mentions that Elihu Yale, the namesake of this august and venerable institution, was himself an active and successful slave trader.

As an official for the East India Company in Madras (present-day Chennai), Yale presided over an important node of the Indian Ocean slave trade. Much larger in duration and scope than its Atlantic counterpart, the Indian Ocean trade linked southeast Asia with the Middle East, the Indonesian archipelago, and the African littoral. On the subcontinent, it connected with and drew upon traditions of slavery and servitude that had flourished for generations. 4 In the 1680s, when Yale served on the governing council at Fort St. George on the Madras coast, a devastating famine led to an uptick in the local slave trade. As more and more bodies became available on the open market, Yale and other company officials took advantage of the labor surplus, buying hundreds of slaves and shipping them to the English colony on Saint Helena. Yale participated in a meeting that ordered a minimum of ten slaves sent on every outbound European ship. 5 In just one month in 1687, Fort St. George exported at least 665 individuals. 6 As governor and president of the Madras settlement, Yale enforced the ten-slaves-per-vessel rule. On two separate occasions, he sentenced “black Criminalls” accused of burglary to suffer whipping, branding, and foreign enslavement. 7 Although he probably did not own any of these people – the majority were held as the property of the East India Company – he certainly profited both directly and indirectly from their sale.

Some sources (including Wikipedia) portray Elihu Yale as an heroic abolitionist, almost single-handedly ending the slave trade in Madras. 8 This is incredibly misleading. During his tenure as governor, Yale made an effort to curb the stealing of children and others for the purpose of export. But a close reading of company documents reveals that it was anything but an act of humanitarian altruism. It was, in fact, the local Mughal government, which held more power than the tenuous English merchants, that insisted on abolition. Yale’s decree of May 1688 curbing the transport of slaves from Madras argued that the trade had become more trouble than it was worth. The surfeit of slaves from the previous year’s famine had dried up, and the indigenous government had “brought great complaints & troubles…for the loss of their Children & Servants Sperited and Stoln from them.” 9 With no profit left for the company and a hostile Mughal overlord demanding abolition, Yale was happy to comply.

Only one year later, in October 1689, Yale had no problem issuing orders for a company ship to travel to Madagascar, buy slaves, and transport them to the English colony on Sumatra. When they arrived by the hundreds, these unfortunate individuals were put to work as masons, carpenters, smiths, cooks, maids, gardeners, and porters. A select few even served as soldiers. In addition to free labor, they provided a strategic buffer against European rivals and further consolidated the company’s political and economic power. 10 African slaves in India and Indonesia, Indian slaves on St. Helena, rival empires jostling for control – the Indian Ocean trade was a complicated and convoluted melange. And Elihu Yale was right in the thick of it, directing it, turning it to his own advantage, and growing fat and rich from its spoils. This wealth, in the form of diamonds, textiles, and other luxury goods, enticed the founders of Yale College to pursue the famous merchant and to name their school in his honor. 11

Apologists might counter that Yale was a man of his time. Slavery was impossible to avoid, nobody opposed it, and most rich and successful people had a hand in it. None of that is true. In April 1688, less than a year after Yale became governor of Madras, a group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, issued a statement condemning slavery in the colony: “There is a saying that we shall doe to all men licke as we will be done ourselves; macking no difference of what generation, descent or Colour they are. and those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alicke?” Quakers shed their ties to slavery during the eighteenth century while building a reputation as profitable and successful merchants. And they were hardly the only ones to protest the institution. In 1712, a major slave rebellion erupted in New York City, in which at least nine Europeans and twenty-seven Africans lost their lives. Several years later, when Yale College took its present name, opposition to slavery was endemic across the British Empire. 12 This was the broader world in which Elihu Yale worked, schemed, and built his fortune.

The evidence establishing Yale’s involvement in the slave trade is clear and compelling. Thanks to the Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and Duke University, almost all of the official records of Fort St. George are available online, and even more documents await future researchers. Those looking for further information can follow my footnotes. Hopefully other scholars will build on this record to paint a more complete picture of the stoic British gentleman and his dark, diminutive servants, forever bound together in those disturbing oil portraits.



  1. Antony Dugdale, J.J. Fueser, and J. Celso de Castro Alves, Yale, Slavery and Abolition (New Haven: The Amistad Committee, 2001); Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Feb. 2, 1861. See also http://www.yaleslavery.org.
  2. Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013). See also http://slavery-and-universities.wikispaces.com.
  3. Wilder touches on this subject briefly in his final chapter, and I have been working on an article that will (hopefully) expand the narrative.
  4. Gwyn Campbell (ed.), The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2004); Indrani Chatterjee and Richard M. Eaton (eds.), Slavery and South Asian History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); Richard B. Allen, European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500–1850 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2015).
  5. Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1686 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1913), 48; Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1687 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1916), 8.
  6. Henry Davison Love, Vestiges of Old Madras, 1640-1800: Traced from the East India Company’s Records Preserved at Fort St. George and the India Office, and from Other Sources, vol. 1 (London: John Murray, 1913), 545.
  7. Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1688 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1916), 30, 137; Records of Fort St. George: Diary and Consultation Book of 1689 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1916), 99.
  8. See, for example, Hiram Bingham, Elihu Yale: The American Nabob of Queen Square (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1939), 167.
  9. Diary and Consultation Book of 1688, 19, 78-79.
  10. Records of Fort St. George: Letters from Fort St. George for 1689 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1916), 58-59; Records of Fort St. George: Letters from Fort St. George for 1693-94 (Madras: Superintendent Government Press, 1921), 12. On imperial rivalry, especially as it developed over the next century, see Andrea Major, Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India, 1772-1843 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012), 49-84.
  11. Gauri Viswanathan, “The Naming of Yale College: British Imperialism and American Higher Education,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 85-108.
  12. Maurice Jackson, Let This Voice Be Heard: Anthony Benezet, Father of Atlantic Abolitionism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Kenneth Scott, “The Slave Insurrection in New York in 1712,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly, 45 (Jan. 1961), 43-74; Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

Follow the Money

This Wednesday, the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University released a new study showing that the wealth gap between white and black households has nearly tripled over the past 25 years. From 1984 to 2009, the median net worth of white families rose to $265,000, while that of black families remained at just $28,500. This widening disparity is not due to individual choices, the authors discovered, but to the cumulative effect of “historical wealth advantages” as well as past and ongoing discrimination. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that wealth generates more wealth and that centuries of unpaid labor – from chattel slavery to the chain gang – have given white families a greater reserve of inherited equity.

The very same day, 3,000 miles to the east, a team of researchers at University College London launched a major new database entitled Legacies of British Slave-ownership. At its heart is an encyclopedia “containing information about every slave-owner in the British Caribbean, Mauritius or the Cape at the moment of abolition in 1833.” Not only this, the database includes information about how much individual slaveholders received as compensation for their human property and hints as to what they did with their money. The results illustrate the tremendous significance of slave-generated wealth for the British economic and political elite. The families of former Prime Minister William Gladstone and current Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, were direct beneficiaries. At the same time, the site makes it possible to trace many of the smaller-scale slaveholders scattered throughout the empire and to speculate about the impact of all that capital accumulation. Although still in its early stages, the site promises to be an outstanding resource for digital research and teaching.

In part because it is so new, the level of detail in the database can be uneven. Some individuals have elaborate biographies and reams of supporting material. Others have an outline sketch or a placeholder. To help correct this, the authors welcome new information from the public. All of the biographies must have taken a tremendous amount of time and effort to compile, and all claims are meticulously documented with links to both traditional and online sources. While there are few images and maps at this stage, the site features an excellent short essay that helps to place the project and its raw data in historical context. The focus is almost entirely on metropolitan Britain, and there is good reason for this. Nearly half of the £20 million paid to former slaveholders went directly to absentee planters residing in the homeland. Still, it might be useful to place this information in wider perspective.

A significant number of nineteenth-century emancipations involved some sort of compensation to erstwhile slaveholders or their agents. Throughout the Atlantic World, abolitionists occasionally raised funds to liberate individual slaves. This was how celebrity authors, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Juan Francisco Manzano, acquired their free papers. In some cases, enslaved families were required to pay slaveholders directly. Under Connecticut’s gradual emancipation law, for example, male slaves born after a certain date were mandated to work for free until their 25th birthday (unless, of course, their enslavers attempted to smuggle them to the South beforehand). Even Haiti, which successfully abolished slavery while fighting off multiple European invasions, was extorted into a massive reparations payment to its former colonial masters, helping to generate a cycle of debt and poverty that continues to this day.

The United States Civil War is somewhat unique in this regard. Although slaveholders in Washington D.C. received government compensation when the District eliminated slavery in 1862, thanks to the logic of the war, the actions of abolitionists, and above all the determination of the enslaved, rebel slaveholders received little in exchange for the loss of their human property. According to recent estimates, that property was among the most valuable investments in the nation. By 1860, the aggregate value of all slaves was in the neighborhood of $10 trillion (in 2011 dollars), or 70% of current GDP. The sudden loss of this wealth represents what is very likely the most radical and widespread seizure of private capital until the Russian Revolution of 1917. But even in this case, emancipated slaves were left to fend for themselves, their pleas for land largely unanswered.

Although there have been a number of successful attempts to trace the influence of slavery within American institutions, especially universities and financial firms, the haphazard and piecemeal nature of emancipation left no comprehensive record. And this is what makes the compensation windfall included in the British Abolition Act of 1833 so fascinating. By scouring government records, researchers have been able to construct a fairly accurate picture of slavery beneficiaries and to trace their influence across a range of activities – commercial, cultural, historical, imperial, physical, and political. A cursory glance at the data reveals 222 politicians and 459 commercial firms among the recipients. A targeted search for railway investments yields over 500 individual entries totaling hundreds of thousands of pounds. According to the database, over 150 history books and pamphlets were made possible, at least in part, by slavery profits. That a sizable chunk of nineteenth-century historiography, as well as its modern heirs, owes its existence to the blood, sweat, and tears of millions of slaves is extremely consequential. And this fact alone deserves careful attention by every practicing historian.

Slaveholder compensation, which equals about £16.5 billion or $25 billion in present terms, was seen as a necessary measure for social stability. The British planter class was deemed, in short, too big to fail. The funds, as Nicholas Draper explains, were provided by a government loan. And it is worth noting that this loan was paid in large part by sugar duties – protectionist tariffs that drove up the price of imported goods. Since the poorest Britons relied on the cheap calories provided by sugar, they bore a disproportionate share of the cost. Meanwhile, former slaves were coerced into an “apprenticeship” system for a limited number of years, during which they would provide additional free labor for their erstwhile owners. So the wealth generated by this event, if you’ll pardon the dry economic jargon, was concentrated and regressive, taking from the poor and the enslaved and giving to the rich.

As its authors point out, the encyclopedia of British slaveholders carries interesting implications for the reparations debate. Although it does not dwell on this aspect, the site also carries significance for the ongoing historical debate about the relationship between capitalism and slavery. Recent work by Dale Tomich, Anthony Kaye, and Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman has placed nineteenth-century slavery squarely at the center of modern capitalism. While historians may quibble about the specifics, it is clear that the profits of slavery fueled large swaths of what we now call the Industrial Revolution and helped propel Great Britain and the United States into the forefront of global economic development. The database makes it possible to glimpse the full extent of that impact, really, for the first time.

Legacies of British Slave-ownership is refreshingly honest about the limitations of its data. Unlike most digital history projects of which I am aware, the authors have engaged their critics directly. One critique is that the project team is white and focused largely on the identities of white slaveholders. Yet, as the authors point out, it is difficult to relate the experience of the enslaved in a vacuum, hermetically sealed and separate from the actions and reactions of their oppressors. If I have learned anything from my study of the subject, it is that it is impossible to understand the history of slavery apart from the history of abolition, and it is impossible to understand the history of abolition apart from the history of slavery. The two are fundamentally intertwined.

So what about the other side to this story? What about all the slaves and abolitionists who called for immediate, uncompensated emancipation? What about the alternative visions they called into being through their actions and their imaginations? What about the different models they offered, however flawed or fleeting, for a world without slaveholders?

Writing to his “Old Master” in the summer of 1865, in one of the great masterworks of world literature, Jordan Anderson gave his thoughts on the matter:

I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio.

Anderson’s descendants, in Ohio and elsewhere, are still waiting.

The Rail Splitter Awakes

I wonder what bell hooks would say about Michonne’s “oppositional gaze?”

Longtime readers will remember that last year I pondered the connection between zombies and the slave trade. So it was pleasing to see the New York Times following a similar thread this week. As the author points out, though rooted in African tradition, zombies are a distinctly New World development, and the relationship between the undead and the enslaved is almost too obvious to mention. The evidence is ubiquitous, lurking just below the surface of our mass cultural consciousness. The wildly popular TV adaptation of The Walking Dead now stars Michonne, a ninja warrior who, among other things, sports her own zombie slave coffle. The two black men she pulls behind her are defanged and controlled by large metal collars and long metal chains that clank and clatter as they stumble along. Whether intentional or not, the echoes of racial slavery are conspicuous and searing – the show itself takes place in the Deep South. And the image of a powerful black woman dragging docile, neutered, and chained zombies across the southern landscape is stunningly poetic.

The living dead are more than just a metaphor for slavery and alienation. As I tried to suggest in my earlier post, they are an enduring artifact of the slave trade, a trade steeped in violence and death, whose legacies continue to haunt us to this day. Zombie folklore is complex and malleable. The ghostly return of the “Zombi” terrified New World slave societies as early as the eighteenth-century. As Francine Saillant and Ana Araujo show, the zombie myth can even serve as a form of empowerment. The seventeenth-century maroon warrior Zumbi is remembered in modern Brazil as a hero, a figure whose quest for autonomy transcends death itself. I’m still waiting for a long form treatment of this pressing and endlessly fascinating topic. In the meantime, the undead continue to beckon.

The 2012 blockbuster Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, based on the equally-popular mashup novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, does not attempt to present itself as serious history, which is probably a good thing. Like the forthcoming Tarantino flick Django Unchained, it eschews documentary realism in favor of highly stylized violence (Vampire Hunter director Timur Bekmambetov also directed the underrated minor masterpiece Night Watch). Still, there is something oddly compelling about the film’s portrayal of southern slaveholders as voracious vampires who literally drain the life force from their human property. As W. Scott Poole points out in his delightful review, there was “at least one case in Louisiana [in] which newly imported slaves became convinced that [their purported] masters were witches and vampires (after watching them drink red wine).” Although the real Lincoln was hardly a staunch egalitarian, the film offers up a more soothing alternate reality in which (SPOILER ALERT) Harriet Tubman rescues an axe-wielding Abe on the Underground Railroad and the two work together to save the entire Union cause. Despite her pivotal role in the story I would have liked to see more of Tubman, who was among the first American action heroes (just compare this sketch of her in battle fatigues to this image of Michonne). But I guess Harriet Tubman: Vampire Hunter would have been a little too transgressive.

There have been a spate of Lincoln-related movies lately, including The Conspirator, Saving Lincoln, and the forthcoming Spielberg epic Lincoln, which is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. It will be interesting to see how the emotionally earnest realism of the Spielberg film compares with Django, a spaghetti-western-inspired revenge story with shades of the Murrell Conspiracy. Grahame-Smith’s interpretation of the Civil War era offers something different insofar as it openly parodies Lincoln’s heroic mythology. At the same time, it could be read as reinforcing the image of the sainted leader. Whether slaying vampires or emancipating slaves, Honest Abe is always at the center of the action.

“The Great Man,” wrote historian Thomas Carlyle, “is a Force of Nature.” Caryle probably hated Lincoln. The only thing he despised more than elective democracy was slave emancipation, and he was a Confederate partisan. Even so, the nature analogy may be apt.  Abraham Lincoln is something like the black hole of nineteenth-century American history, an irresistible gravitational force pulling in anything and everything around it. Once you cross the event horizon of 1861, the beginning of the United States Civil War, it is nearly impossible to escape. Many of the giants in my field began their careers studying slaveholders or abolitionists and ended up writing Big Books on Lincoln and/or the Civil War. While these are certainly worthy topics, I have never found them particularly enthralling. The real war, I would argue, began in the 1770s and seethed for nearly a century, sometimes expressing itself culturally, sometimes politically, sometimes breaking out into open violence. The events of 1861-65 were important, but they were also the manifest symptom of a more extensive conflict, the final breaking out into the open of an ongoing, decades-long war over slavery.

The cult of Lincoln conceals the extent to which he was controlled by events running much deeper in the national and international political landscape and how his own deft strategizing intersected with those events to shape the outcome of the struggle. Although politicians and generals played a crucial role in the Civil War, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that grassroots developments were just as significant in determining the logic and pace of the radical changes sweeping the country. Data from the Visualizing Emancipation project, for example, clearly show that emancipation events – especially events classified as “African Americans Helping the Union” and “Fugitive Slaves/Runaways” – drastically increased in the ten months prior to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation cemented this momentum and allowed it to expand. Lincoln’s fictional alliance with Tubman in Vampire Hunter hints at this dynamic. Ultimately, however, the depiction of the sixteenth president as a flawless force of nature, almost single-handedly responsible for the Union victory, obscures a lot more than it reveals.

Abraham Lincoln as the Rail Splitter, a campaign newspaper published in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 3, 1860.

The larger-than-life image of Lincoln as a world-historical figure, as the “Great Emancipator,”as the free laboring “Rail Splitter,” which provides the grist for Grahame-Smith’s revision, did not just appear out of thin air following his martyrdom. It was actively disseminated during his lifetime by editors, politicians, and paramilitary organizations such as the Wide Awakes. The latter group, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands, saturated the northern and border states with Lincoln’s image and served as shock troops for the Union cause. In other words, Lincoln had a pretty efficient public relations machine. And this brings me to the digital humanities (how’s that for an overwrought segue?)

In a classic post on the Social Contract of Scholarly Publishing, Dan Cohen argues, among other things, that academic authors need to do a better job cultivating an audience for their work. This can be done in the digital realm, he suggests, by pioneering new curatorial frameworks, by developing new ways to disseminate, promote, and review scholarship online. Common-Place, Digital Humanities Now, and the American Historical Review prize for Best Digital Article represent promising steps in this direction. The last of these seems especially significant, since it will only accept work that is “impossible in print.” But offering up innovative work in a trusted and easily accessible format, carving out new spaces for the play of ideas, is only half the battle. As any Hollywood producer will tell you, films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Lincoln, and Django Unchained are only as successful as their attempts to present a recognizable brand, stimulate public interest, and build an audience. Hollywood marketing is notoriously bloated and avaricious – sometimes far exceeding the size of a film’s actual budget. So I do not think academics would benefit from this model. But I wonder what would happen if professional historians had that kind of publicity? It might make the inevitable sequel, in which Frederick Douglass teams up with Frankenstein’s Monster to fight the Wolf Man, somewhat more palatable.

Archival Fragment of the Amistad Revolt

Sometimes the best cure for archive fever is to share it with the world.

“Pa Raymond,” Sierra Leone Mission Album, box 2, p. 122, Records of the United Brethren in Christ Foreign Missionary Society, United Methodist Archives, Drew University.
I was reminded of the mundane joys of the archive again several months ago when, thanks to a tip from a colleague, I located an extremely rare photograph of one of the survivors of the Amistad slave revolt in the United Methodist Archives in New Jersey. It is difficult to tell whether the old man, called “Pa Raymond” on the reverse of the photo, is the real deal, but circumstantial evidence suggests that he might be Kale Walu, or “Little Kale,” who was just a boy when he was abducted and enslaved in West Africa in 1839. Kale (also spelled Kali or Carly) was the author of the famous “crazy dolts” letter, addressed to John Quincy Adams on the eve of their trial in the United States Supreme Court. He assumed the name George Lewis when he returned to Africa in 1842, part of an ongoing project to reinvent former slaves as anglicized Christians. As one of the youngest among the returning group, he was something of a surrogate son for abolitionist missionary William Raymond and may have taken his surname later in life. Pa is Krio for “father,” an honorific title for village elders.

The photo was probably taken sometime in the early 20th century by the United Brethren in Christ, who had inherited an abolitionist outpost, called the “Mendi Mission,” in what is now southwestern Sierra Leone. Almost all of the photos in the collection date from after the rebellion of 1898. When Canadian missionary Alexander Banfield encountered a man claiming to be an Amistad veteran during a tour of Sierra Leone in 1917 (likely the same man in this photo), he estimated the man was about 100 years old. Although my work does not really focus on the Amistad captives (I’m interested in the larger story of American abolitionists in Africa), it is bracing to look into the eyes of this man. Sole survivor. Adopted son of the missionary, traveling barefoot through the bush. White-haired patriarch, holding something mysterious with his right hand. What have those eyes seen? Where are they looking now?

Thanks to the generous (and underpaid and understaffed) archivists in New Jersey and the embattled public domain laws of the United States, I am able to share this treasure with the world (I think) for the first time. It belongs to the world. I am just returning it.