Growing up, I never learned much about American history. The event I can most easily recall is probably that we burned down their White House during the War of 1812. I know that a civil war happened. I know that it had something to do with slavery, and that Abraham Lincoln ended slavery.
I had a thin veneer of knowledge — just enough historical backdrop to not seem totally ignorant.
I have relatives in the US. I remember visiting Harpers Ferry (beautiful landscape, great for hiking) and Gettysburg (not as beautiful, but I guess people died here so I’ll be respectful). The whole mess of slavery and colonialism and battles just seemed so archaic and faded.
For the longest time, I thought of slavery in abstract, textbook terms. It happened. It was wrong. In university, I took an Introduction to Jazz course that taught me the earliest blues and jazz music came from songs on the cotton plantations.
That was my passive, disconnected view of slavery: black men in straw hats, out in the beating sun, picking cotton from dawn until dusk, slowly. Whistling, singing, calling-and-answering with each other. I viewed it as dull, agrarian work. It seemed logical that the twin arcs of social progress and industrial innovation would steadily erase this phenomenon. Slavery was clearly unethical, but it came from a simpler time.
I’m reflecting on this because I recently finished reading The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist, an academic at Cornell University. It’s a burning indictment of the assumptions a lot of Americans (and myself, clearly) have about slavery.
If you’ve read this book, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, or frankly any account of slavery that describes what it was actually like, you probably know what I’m about to tell you: slavery was neither dull, nor agrarian, nor destined to fade away in the march of progress.
We were all complicit
Baptist uses an economic lens to show how ruthlessly enslavers used their power to turn people into commodities, leverage credit, and shape world markets. Slavery fed the world’s demand for cotton, so textile mills in Connecticut and Manchester were just as complicit in slavery as plantation owners in Georgia or Louisiana.
Low-wage factory work in the 1800s, which employed mainly women and children in sweatshop conditions, has its own history of labour struggle. But it’s important to acknowledge that even these workers made what little gains they could off the backs of enslaved people.
In 1832 in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, alone, 47 different palm-hat-making firms reported a total of 863,000 hats made, costing 28 cents each wholesale, employing 2,500 women year-round. Although they were paid 30 cents or less a day, these women all earned over a quarter of a million dollars — which, measured differently, was in turn paid by 50,000 person-days of cotton-picking.
— The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 320
Baptist goes on to explain that the ongoing fight for higher wages and better conditions for white workers in the Northeastern United States was possible thanks to efficiencies on the cotton frontier. Southern enslavers found ever more cruel and effective ways to make enslaved people pick cotton faster, and translated those gains into lower cotton prices. Northern factories, then, had more room in their budgets to compensate workers.
Disruption, innovation, torture
The picture of slavery I had before reading this book was almost pastoral, a dusty scene of cotton fields and horse-drawn carts. However, enslavers were not farmers. They were the front-line enforcers of global industrial capitalism, and their main goal was to seek higher and higher production.
To achieve this, they innovated. Just like Europe’s industrial revolution, or Silicon Valley’s techbro-disruption economy, enslavers were just trying to optimise labour and maximise profit. As it happened, nineteenth-century enslavers’ innovation centred on manipulation, intimidation, and torture.
On the cotton frontier, each person was given a unique, individual quota, rather than a limit of work fixed by general custom. […] Learning how to meet one’s quota was difficult, and those who met it before sunset still had to keep picking. (p. 133)
Perhaps one unspoken reason why many have been so reluctant to apply the term “torture” to slavery is that even though they denied slavery’s economic dynamism, they knew that slavery on the cotton frontier made a lot of product. No one was willing, in other words, to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture. (p. 139)
Using torture, slavery’s entrepreneurs extracted an amount of innovation virtually equal in numerical measure to all the mechanical ingenuity in all the textile mills in the Western world. (p. 140)
— The Half Has Never Been Told
And when mechanical innovation did come along, enslavers were happy to make use of it, too.
Once enslavers had the cotton gin, how then did enslavers produce (or have produced, by other hands) as much as the gin could clean? For once the gin shattered the processing bottleneck, other limits on production and expansion were cast into new relief.
— The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 116
Slavery allowed the United States to ramp up production and keep a firm grip on the world market for cotton, edging out competing industries in Brazil and Egypt. It invited investment from British and Northern US banks, who funded the continual westward expansion of slavery.
Cotton bales were the cheap oil of the nineteenth century. Here their outflow met the influx of credit to yield a new thing: ever-increasing production and thus ever-increasing economic growth.
As hands, Rachel and William were also credit: promissory notes on their sellers’ and buyers’ future possession and use of right-handed power.
— The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 108
Commodified and dehumanised for profit
Not only were enslaved people the foundation for the whole industrial supply chain, they were used as financial assets, collateral for enslavers to borrow more and more money to expand faster and faster.
As debts and mortgages got repackaged and recirculated around the global economy, slave-backed securities played much the same role as the bad mortgages that led to the 2008 financial crisis. And just like the American bank bailouts of 2008, the 1830s saw collusion between enslavers, banks, and governments to prop up slavery’s shaky financial foundations.
What if, Moussier wondered, planters used slaves as collateral to raise capital overseas, from people who needed American cotton and sugar, and then used the capital to build a lending institution that enslavers themselves could control?
If loan repayments from planters failed and the bank could not pay off the bonds, the taxpayers of Louisiana were now obligated to do so. The state’s commitment convinced the European securities market.
— The Half Has Never Been Told, pp. 245-246
Kudos & critique
I could go on about the rest of Baptist’s book, but suffice it to say that this is just the tip of the iceberg and I highly recommend reading it. He may be a white professor from Cornell, but he references a lot of original material from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — including first-hand accounts from enslaved people.
I also appreciate his decision to use the terms “enslavers” and “enslaved people” throughout the book. This choice of words brings power dynamics into sharp focus, and recognizes that enslaved people still had individual lives and experiences, and shouldn’t be treated by history as a homogenous group.
That said, there are a couple things that rubbed me the wrong way. The first is a short passage describing the plight of people who managed to escape the cotton plantations, often lost in the great American wilderness:
And in between stood thousands of armed white people who would not be their friends. As for the free states, they were even farther away. The number of enslaved migrants who made it from the depths of the cotton and sugar frontiers all the way to the free states probably numbered under a thousand during all the years of slavery. That amounts to one-tenth of 1 percent of all forced migrants. Most of those who did make it got away by hiding on steamboats, oceangoing ships, and later, on railways.
— The Half Has Never Been Told, p. 168
Maybe Baptist is being very careful with his words here, but it’s misleading to ignore the 30,000 enslaved people that came to Canada through the underground railroad.
Baptist’s treatment of aboriginal communities, too, is almost non-existent. He acknowledges that the United States occupied indigenous land, and pushed its inhabitants further west through military conquest. All this was done to facilitate the expansion of slavery. Having acknowledged this fact, Baptist goes through most of the book with nothing more than a passing reference to native people. This seems odd for an account of history on America’s settler frontier.
I recently listened to a This American Life Podcast about the Dakota War of 1862, which explores the dirty, complex politics of native-settler relations on the frontier. It sheds light on a mass execution that has been whitewashed from history textbooks. (Go listen to it.)
So I’m disappointed that Baptist didn’t give more attention to stories like this and how they intersect with nineteenth-century America’s quest for more land, more slaves, more money. Even the anti-slavery northern states were guilty of running roughshod over native people’s rights. It would have been great to see this dimension explored more fully.
As a final note, I’ll mention that before reading Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, I read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A novel drawn from real-life experiences and written as slavery was still happening, this book does a good job of framing the context and culture around slavery. It ignited debate at the time, and seems to be a good representation of the debates people were having in different classes of society.
Getting an appreciation for the people, scenes, and attitudes of the time was a really great starting point. It helped me understand the examples in Baptist’s book on a more human level. If you’re like me, and never really got a good education about American history, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a great place to start. Then read The Half Has Never Been Told, and prepare to be blown away.Sam Nabi