Friday, April 17, 2015

New Orleans Slavery Exhibit At The Williams Research Center

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As reported in the Insurance Journal, in an article entitled, "Insurance Policy Included in Harrowing New Orleans Slavery Exhibit," by John Pope, on 15 April 2015 -- The cool, soothing exhibit rooms at the Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Research Center are a stark contrast to what’s shown: every wall and exhibit case documents the horrors of slavery.

There are inventories and illustrations of the auction of human beings, as well as reward notices for the return of slaves who escaped from plantations. An 1821 insurance policy taken out by William Kenner, the plantation owner whose family gave its name to the East Jefferson municipality, covered a shipment of slaves for the voyage from Savannah, Georgia, to New Orleans.

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An 1849 map shows more than 50 slave markets all around the city. An engraving depicts a slave auction in the rotunda of the St. Louis Hotel, which occupied the French Quarter site where the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel stands.

“Under this dome, in this atmosphere of grandeur, paintings, furniture, property and people were bought and sold,” said Erin Greenwald, the curator of “Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade,” on view at 410 Chartres St. through July 18. Admission is free.

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“Slave auctions were on the list of must-see sights,” she said.

Because the St. Louis Hotel wasn’t demolished until 1916, the auction block not only stood for a half-century after emancipation but attracted people who posed next to it in what Greenwald described as “fetishization.”

The people who posed weren’t just tourists. Greenwald said a recently acquired postcard from 1914, destined for the exhibit once it was catalogued, shows a black woman who had been asked to stand on the block where she had been sold into slavery for $1,500.
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“It is deeply, deeply creepy,” Greenwald said.

A ship’s manifest showing slaves bound for New Orleans includes Plat Hamilton, the slave name imposed on Solomon Northup after he was kidnapped and sold into bondage. His memoir, “12 Years a Slave,” was the basis of an Oscar-winning movie.

The exhibit also shows a page from the diary of the Marksville lawyer whom Northup’s family hired to sue for his freedom. On Jan. 4, 1853, three days after John Pamplin Waddill wrote that he had been hired, he said that Northup had been freed and that he had collected his fee: $50.

“That’s an extraordinary document,” Greenwald said.

When Northup arrived in New Orleans, he had smallpox, Greenwald said, and was treated at Charity Hospital.

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Treating slaves before they were sold was common, she said, adding that a Touro Infirmary patient register in the exhibit shows that about 45 percent of the hospital’s patients between 1855 and 1860 were slaves.

“They were trying to get their human property well so that they could sell them for a higher price,” Greenwald said. “They got a new set of clothes, they were fattened up, and they were made to exercise to build and tone muscles. They were given lessons on how to look lively so they didn’t look downcast or somber when buyers came in.”

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In the exhibit are a livery coat for a slave who worked indoors, and a greatcoat, designed for outdoor work such as driving carriages, that Dr. William Newton Mercer provided for his slaves. The garments, with his family crest on silver and pewter buttons, came from Brooks Brothers.

Mercer had plantations in Mississippi and a New Orleans town house, which, Greenwald said, is now the Boston Club.

“If you were a resident of the city of New Orleans in the 1840s, you couldn’t go anywhere without encountering slavery,” she said. “It was just a part of life _ the cooks in hotels, the waiters in hotels, carters and draymen bringing goods back and forth, seamstresses and market women. All these people were people who were enslaved.”

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There’s more to the exhibit than paperwork, pictures and garments. One case holds an iron collar, just big enough to encircle someone’s neck, with two tall prongs, each hanging a bell at ear level.

The 4-pound collar would be clamped onto a slave who had tried to escape. It’s “possibly the most viscerally disturbing object in the exhibition,” Greenwald said.

“It was worn 24/7,” she said. “Overseers and plantation owners would use them as a method of punishing and tracking runaway slaves because every time you move, the bell rings.”

Next to the collar is a classified advertisement asking the owners of a 20-year-old slave named William to take him home from the jail where he had been confined as an escapee.

“He is black and has a down look,” the advertisement reads. “When committed, he had around his neck an iron collar with three prongs extending upward; has many scars on his back and shoulders from the whip.”

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While slavery was horrible, emancipation didn’t help much, aside from the fact that these men, women and children were no longer property, Greenwald said.

They had nothing, she said, and often had to work as tenant farmers on the land where they had been enslaved. A stereopticon slide in the exhibit shows people wearing rags and, with a few exceptions, barefoot.

Although the Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1865 to help the formerly enslaved adjust to their new status, it provided no money to people who wanted to reconnect with families that had been torn apart by sales to different slave-owners.

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Consequently, they resorted to placing classified advertisements seeking information. A wall is full of these heartbreaking appeals.

Jacob Stewart, who lived in Yazoo City, Miss., placed such an ad trying to find his mother, sister and brother. He hadn’t seen them since 1856, when he was sold in New Orleans.

There is no way to tell how many of these appeals were successful, Greenwald said, but she didn’t offer much hope.

“Some people found their families,” she said, “but the vast majority did not.” (source: Insurance Journal; Copyright 2015 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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Monday, March 16, 2015

Freedom Summer in Mississippi 1964

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As reviewed in the New York Times, "A Few Hot Months of Solidarity and Violence: ‘Freedom Summer’ on PBS Looks Back at 1964," by Mike Hale, on 23 June 2014  -- The PBS documentary “Freedom Summer” won’t make many lists of the top television programs of the year, but it’s hard to imagine two hours better spent in front of a screen.

It continues the filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s commemoration of crucial moments in the civil rights movement under the auspices of “American Experience,” which gives it its premiere Tuesday [June 2014]. Following his “Freedom Riders” in 2011, Mr. Nelson celebrates the 50th anniversary of what was known as the Mississippi Summer Project, another instance in which blacks and whites came together to battle racism.

Mr. Nelson works in the talking-heads-and-archival-film style of Ken Burns, but he uses the similar techniques to make films that are more alive, more propulsive, combining Mr. Burns’s Olympian authority with an insistent rhythm and a clear current of emotion. Staying within standard feature-film time limits, he tells big stories with coherent, seamless elegance.

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Such is the case with “Freedom Summer,” a compressed, complex history of the campaign for voter registration and education in Mississippi led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The film lays out the unbelievable realities of black life in the state and the slow progress of SNCC toward the decision to bus in around 1,000 volunteers, many of them white college students, to generate attention and force a change.

It’s an awe-inspiring story, but Mr. Nelson keeps his focus close up on the details of organization and crisis management, and he is resolutely cleareyed, dispelling any notions about romantic young firebrands boarding buses for adventure. Organizers speak of the care with which the student volunteers were chosen, and the many who were rejected; for the safety of everyone involved, the project needed people “as together as it was possible to be at 19.”

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But there is romance and tremendous poignancy in the story, and Mr. Nelson evokes it quietly. Unlabeled cuts juxtapose black-and-white images of the young activists and residents and scenes of them now, talking about the greatest moment in their lives. Rita Schwerner, the widow of one of the three men murdered in the summer’s most notorious incident of violence, speaks calmly about her husband’s death.

And the film quotes from a letter that Andrew Goodman, another of the victims, wrote to his parents, reassuring them upon his arrival in Mississippi, not far from where he would die: “I have arrived safely in Meridian, Miss. This is a wonderful town, and the weather is fine.”  (source: The New York Times)

PBS American Experience: Freedom Summer

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp

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The Slave in the Dismal Swamp
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse's tramp
And a bloodhound's distant bay.

Where will-o'-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.
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A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

All things above were bright and fair,
All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
With songs of Liberty!

On him alone was the doom of pain,
From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
And struck him to the earth!

[Source: Longfellow, H.W. (1866) The Complete Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Boston, Massachusetts: Ticknor & Fields]

Friday, February 27, 2015

Unholy: The Slaves Bible by David Charles Mills

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Unholy: The Slaves Bible by David Charles Mills

Watch David Charles Mills, author of "Unholy: The Slaves Bible," read excerpts from his book 14 October 2009 at the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt University.

Mills book explores a relatively unknown work a more than 200-year-old Bible planned, prepared and published in London for the purpose of convincing slaves in the British West Indies that their status was ordained by God.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

An Account of Post Civil War Reconstruction

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A Book review from the Providence Journal, “'The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era,' by Douglas R. Egerton," reviewed by Erik J. Chaput, 6 April 2014  --  In early October 1864, a convention of more than 140 African-Americans from 18 states met in Syracuse, N.Y., to discuss the future of American freedom. The convention was chaired by Frederick Douglass.

With the reelection of Abraham Lincoln secure, thanks in large part to the fall of Atlanta, the delegates turned to what postwar America would look like. They demanded the “complete abolition” of slavery and “political equality.” Shall “we toil with you to win the prize of free government, while you alone shall monopolize all its valued privileges?” asked the delegates of the war-torn country. In his magisterial new book, Douglas R. Egerton chronicles the Syracuse meeting, along with others that were organized throughout the South after the Civil War, in order “to establish a network of activism designed” to bring a reform agenda to the attention of Congress and a recalcitrant president.
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Egerton, the author of the definitive account of the election of 1860, “Year of Meteors,” has written the most important book on Reconstruction since the publication of Eric Foner’s 1988 classic, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.”

“The Wars of Reconstructions” tells the story of “black veterans, activists, ministers, assemblymen, registrars, poll workers, editors, and handful of dedicated white allies” who set out to make the decades after the Civil War the “most democratic” in the 19th century. They ultimately lost their fight due to the violence of white Southerners who were determined to restore the old order. Students of Rhode Island history will enjoy the treatment of Newport restaurateur George T. Downing, who helped to found the Colored National Labor Union.

Egerton provides a concise overview of the Freedmen’s Bureau, along with the American Missionary Association. The Freedmen’s Bureau was tapped with numerous tasks, including education and land distribution. Prior to 1865, no Southern state had a system of public education. As the editor of the “Anglo-African” newspaper wrote as early as November 1861, land owned by Southern slaveholders should be “immediately bestow[ed]” upon the “freedmen.”

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The freedmen, however, did not find an ally in President Andrew Johnson, who took office after Lincoln was assassinated and serves as the villain in Egerton’s narrative. Johnson’s racist policies allowed white supremacists to commit “arson and murder,” along with targeted “assassinations” of reformers such as Octavius Catto.

Though often a tragic story, Egerton convincingly argues that Reconstruction was a progressive period, with many policies, even if they resembled a flickering flame, surviving on. As Egerton notes, “black literacy increased four hundred percent in the thirty-five years after Appomattox.” Black churches continued to grow. The black conventions continued to meet in the 1870s and ’80s. Pushed by the efforts of Congressman James O’Hara, a black Republican from North Carolina, African-Americans filed lawsuits against railroads that denied them access and sometimes won.
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Clearly written, engaging, meticulously researched, and often moving, Egerton’s “The Wars of Reconstruction,” is simply a must-read for anyone looking to understand what is without a doubt the most misunderstood period in our nation’s history.

Erik J. Chaput teaches at Providence College and The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. He is the author of “The People’s Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion.”  (source: Providence Journal)

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Professor William Pettigrew: How to Place Slavery into British Identity


From Gresham College on 14 May 2014, "How to Place Slavery into British Identity," by Professor William Pettigrew, University of Kent -- In September 2013, at the G20 summit in St Petersburg, a rumour emerged of a Russian jibe about Britain. A Russian official was reported as dismissing Britain as a ‘small island that no one pays any attention to’. Thinking it a suitable response, David Cameron offered a menu of Britain’s historic achievements to bolster British national pride. Britain, so Cameron informed the audience of world leaders and diplomats, had invented sport, rid Europe of fascism, and abolished slavery and ought, therefore, to be taken more seriously as a nation. This certainly gathered some attention, but perhaps not in the way it was designed to.

British Prime Ministers of recent years have turned with remarkable consistency to the abolition of slavery as a prop for Britain’s self-defined greatness. Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown, also privileged the abolition of slavery in a speech as Chancellor of the Exchequer at the Labour party conference in 2005. Rather than being a source of national distinctiveness as it was for Cameron, Brown used the abolition as an example of how great nations overcome internal challenges. For Brown, the abolition of slavery was proof that good could conquer evil, and that the British people and the state could overcome the Tory pessimists, who Brown called ‘reactionaries’, to build a brighter future.
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It is hard to know where to start when pointing out the limitations of these observations. Let me start with four. First, the Russians, Britain is actually quite a big island as islands go and comes in at a respectable ninth in the world’s league table of islands listed by size. Second, the Russians are certainly the wrong nation to compete with when trying to monopolise responsibility for ridding Europe of fascism. Third, Britain cannot claim to be the pioneering and distinctive abolitionist nation – that honour belongs to Denmark. Fourth, much of the leadership of Britain’s abolitionist movement associated itself with the Tory party – a fact that Brown’s call to action against Tory reactionaries ignores.

More important for present purposes, in neither Brown’s nor Cameron’s account of Britain’s relationship to slavery do we hear anything about Britain’s perfecting of slave trading and slavery prior to the abolition. Nor do we hear anything of the distinctive role slavery played in generating political and economic capital in Britain. The English (then the British) were late starters in the slave trade, but became its supreme contributors during the trade’s eighteenth century zenith, transporting more slaves during that century – almost three million – than all of the rest of the European competition prior to abolition. Slavery plays a more important part than abolition in forging British distinctiveness. Indeed, slavery and Britishness enjoy an intimate and mutually formative relationship in the British national story that belies contemporary fixation with abolition. Isolating abolition from slavery in the context of national chest beating is therefore profoundly problematic.

Binding the abolition to British identity was a tactical aim of the abolitionists themselves. It helped gather a national constituency for their cause. But it involved the collective forgetting of the importance of Britishness and Britain to the development of slavery. The abolitionists’ distortion of history confirms that in the eighteenth and nineteenth as much as in the twenty-first centuries, politics has been the greatest enemy of balanced story telling about the past. Skilful politicians and master propagandists, the abolitionist set about writing a history of the political movement to end the slave trade almost as soon as the ink was dry on the royal assent to the statute to end the trade. Chief among these was Thomas Clarkson. Clarkson was a leading light of the abolition struggle and its most committed and energetic organiser. In 1808 Clarkson published: the History of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British parliament. This history argued that the abolition was the achievement of a herculean political struggle and a disinterested, compassionate Christian morality. Such a narrative needed to depict slavery itself as a formidable foe. But slavery also needed to be amorphous, ubiquitous, anonymous, and primordial and its rise needed to be obscured from the story to protect the abolitionists’ aims as nation builders.

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The abolitionists history of their own movement depicted the campaign in such a way therefore, as to redeem and re-invigorate Britain’s political system, its political institutions, and its empire as part of an upsurge of morally restorative evangelical fervor within British Christianity. It proved that Britain’s politics and religion could rise above greed and avarice to lead the world in a bold crusade against inhumanity. These accounts left out the central ways in which the development of slavery expressed distinctive features of Britishness. They skipped over the political aspects of the development of slavery and its relationship to the development of Britain. We have no political account of the development of the transatlantic slave trade or of slavery. Unlike the story of abolition, there is no corresponding “intentionalist” account describing the protagonists, analyzing the ideas, the disputes, the compromises—in short, the politics—that established Britain’s involvement in and later dominance of the transatlantic slave trade. Nor do we have an account of the ways in which British identity emerged cheek-by-jowl with slavery.

I offer you that account today. I do so not to downplay the admirable achievements of the abolitionists, but to qualify and challenge some of the ways in which abolition has been used as the purest expression of British identity. I also hope to show how slavery – broadly conceived – has a central explanatory role to play in the formulation of British identity throughout the centuries. This explains why slavery and freedom have been such important polarities for the British experience. Both slavery and the British have been mutually constitutive in a number of ignored or misunderstood ways. You need only listen to James Thomson’s Rule Britannia to appreciate how a national concern with being enslaved helped bind the British people together at precisely the same time (the early eighteenth century) as they were shipping more enslaved Africans across the Atlantic than any of their European rivals. For Thomson and for many others in this period – slavery provided a capacious metaphor to dramatize the contingency of national freedom. This freedom was not the fig leaf to obscure the embarrassing brutality of the nation’s involvement in slave trading on an unprecedented scale. It was - in multiple ways - the explanation for that scale and the cause of that brutality.

In telling this story, I hope to suggest that making the abolition of slavery the foundation stone of multi-cultural, multi-racial British identity, is therefore untenable bearing in mind how central slavery has been to the development of British identity, the British economy, British industry, and British politics. You might say that perfecting the slave trade makes Britain’s abolition all the more remarkable and laudable and a worthy platform for national pride. That view might be arguable if two things are true: first, if the hallmarks of British identity were not connected to the perfection of the trade and second: if the injustices of historic and modern slavery were not apparent in Britain at the present time. These criteria are not satisfied. For British freedom created the slave trade, as we shall see, and Britain is a multiracial society in which pockets of racial discrimination remain and in which human trafficking is rearing its ugly head again.

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Sure enough, neither the coffee break at the G20 summit nor the labour party conference, are the best places to do justice to all the intricacies of Britain’s long and complex relationship with slavery. And detailed accounts of the horrors of slavery make unlikely resources for triumphal, rousing national narratives. But history (and the history of slavery especially) is too important to the present and future to be a pick and mix from which to select the inspirational at the expense of the very real lessons taught by history’s more depressing moments. If politicians are going to base national appeals on historic examples, they must do so in such a way that is sensitive to the contemporary ramifications of those histories.

Slavery is in one sense an historic problem. But it has an inherent connection with one of the main tasks which politicians expect history to perform – the formation of group (and especially national) identity. Slavery has occurred in most historical periods and all societies up to abolition and is sadly escalating around the world at the present time. You find slavery where and when three criteria are satisfied: first, where you find the prospect of material gain deriving from not paying people for their labour; second, where labour supplies are short, and third where there exists a population who are deemed to be culturally suitable for enslavement. The first of these two criteria can be satisfied in pretty much any time and place: people have always been motivated by material gain and the human population of the earth is not evenly scattered across its surface. The last of these criteria: cultural eligibility - is more historically contingent and has often been bound up with the determinants of national identity. The history of slavery is therefore conceptually similar to the history of identity formation. In the special case of Britain, cultural eligibility for slavery and national freedom are inextricably linked

Why is Britain a special case? To answer this we need to look into the distant British past. Slavery and freedom are elastic opposites that run very deep in the British experience. This depth helps to explain their continued political resonance and utility as props for British identity. Their vitality in British history has, I think, much to do with the frequency of conquest early in British history and the frequency of conquering others later in our history. Some of the earliest descriptions of the British people depict them as defined by their enslavement (real and cultural) to the Roman Empire. For the Roman historian Tacitus, the British expressed their distinctiveness in their willingness to ape the cultural practices of their conquerors. In the process of submission to a larger, international, and imperial identity, the British people were born. As Tacitus saw it:

‘the Britons went astray into alluring vices: to the promenade, the bath, the well-appointed dinner table. The simple natives gave the name of 'culture' to this factor of their slavery.’
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By the eleventh century, however, long after the decline of the Roman Empire, slavery within Europe had declined as an internal social structure and became the definition of what could only be done to religious outsiders. As such, freedom became associated with being Christian and, increasingly, with being European. Pope Gregory the VII set the scene for Urban II’s abolition of slavery within Christendom in the eleventh century. As such Europeans looked to the Eastern fringes of Europe – to the Slavic territories for new resources of slaves, - hence the word slave. And Europeans would often experience capture and sale into slavery by Barbary Muslim pirates or corsairs until the era of abolition. Being Christian and being European meant being free from slavery.

By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, historians depicted the Anglo-Saxon and then Norman conquests of Britain as enslavements of a native, free, Britain. The hope of emancipation through the legend of King Arthur was a device developed by Geoffrey of Monmouth and then co-opted by Gerald of Wales to resist the Norman encroachment upon Celtic peoples. The voice of the enslaved - and therefore instinctively free - British came from the Celtic peoples rather than from Saxon or Norman outsiders.

The switch from being a conquered enslaved people to becoming a conquering and free people presented an obvious challenge to slavery as a national metaphor. The conscious rebranding of the Norman rulers into a vernacular English in the thirteenth century came with attempts to blend the political traditions of the Norman and Anglo-Saxons. This involved revivifying (and inventing) pre-Norman and therefore ‘free’ political traditions and devices including the Common Law and establish new ones – like Magna Carta and Parliament - that expressed the free political traditions of the Anglo Saxons. Freedom began to have a constitutional definition. These processes occurred alongside the English conquest of Wales. The English constitution was tested and defined in the process of being exported to the peripheries of Britain. British freedom was therefore transmuted into English freedom as the English (who were actually Norman) conquered Britain. In the process of enslaving others, and not for the last time, the English would define themselves as free.

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This tradition of the conquering constitutional freedom of a pre-Norman provenance was taken up in the fifteenth century by Sir John Fortescue. Fortescue came to associate a supposedly indigenous legal tradition –the English Common Law – with freedom and saw rival, reified continental legal codes like the Roman or Civil Law as badges of slavery. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this nationalist rhetoric of slavery echoed through the reformation as Catholicism and European absolutism became joined in the English nation’s assessment of the causes of slavery. To be protestant was to be free and Catholic a slave. These distinctions mapped onto the constitutional and legal exceptionalisms of English freedom to allow John Locke to famously denounce slavery ‘as a vile and miserable state’ with reference to absolutist Catholic modes of government on the continent (at the same time, famously, as investing his own money in the Atlantic slave trade and writing slavery into the constitutions he authored for the English American colonies).

But just as slavery proper (as opposed to avoidance of slavery as a glue for national togetherness) retreated from Europe, it began to entrench in the Americas. The sixteenth and seventeenth century European penetration of the Americas initially intensified this confessional rhetoric of slavery as protestant nations claimed to develop less brutal societies in the Americas than their Catholic antecedents and associated the Spanish empires with the enslavement of indigenous peoples. The English Empire in Ireland and in the Americas would be, famously, empires of protestant liberty. But by the second half of the seventeenth century, the protestant alliance between the Dutch and English had fractured as economic competition in America and Asia intensified. Combined with population shortages in America and an expanding, labour-hungry economy at home, the English began to use enslaved Africans to people the American colonies. The home grown and long-established conception of a distinctively English liberty would now become conducive to enslavement on an unprecedented scale.
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There was a problem, though. The English initially relied on a state-sponsored monopolistic corporation – the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa – to develop the nation’s slave trade. Founded in 1660 (and renamed as the Royal African Company in 1672), this organisation helped to marginalise the Dutch and Portuguese in the slave trade. The company would become the largest human trafficking organisation during the period of the trade – shipping almost 150,000 enslaved Africans mostly to Barbados during the 1670s and 80s. From its headquarters on Leadenhall Street in the heart of the City of London, it managed a vast capital stock, a network of international trading posts around the Atlantic world, importing gold – to be minted into Guineas stamped with the profile of Charles II, redwood die for the British army uniforms, and ivory for English cutlery, and shipping large numbers of enslaved Africans to the new world. It did so as a national public utility with the support of the state, royal family, and the Royal Navy. But as a monopoly supported by the Crown and not the people, it appeared to offend aspects of the emerging English national identity I have been talking about: the right to trade, the portability of national birth rights and the indigenous constitutional traditions of old. Earlier in the century, this version of Englishness had targeted and executed Charles I. In the 1680s it began to turn on the company itself. The Royal African Company became the victim of a political campaign that used as its banner a distinctively British conception of freedom. This campaign succeeded in escalating the British slave trade to new greatly enlarged capacities. It did so on behalf of national freedom.

This public campaign, known at the time as the Africa Trade debates lasted from 1689 to 1712. The results of the campaign clarified important features of Britishness but also provided the foundation for British slave trading supremacy. The formation of the British nation state in 1707 became embroiled in it. The Scots decided to join with England because of the failure of their own slave trading company and to enjoy access to England’s greatest public good – its enslaving empire overseas. The Scots therefore railed against a monopolistic organisation of the trade in England alongside many thousands of English men and women. By 1712, the African Company’s monopoly was dead in the water. Britain’s transatlantic slave trade had become supreme in capacity, increasing by three hundred per cent as a result of the deregulation. Its centre of gravity had shifted away from London and towards the provincial outports of Bristol and Liverpool. And the destinations for the slaves had shifted northwards from the Caribbean to mainland America, while embarkation points for the enslaved shifted West and South from the company’s heartlands at Cape Coast in modern day Ghana.
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In these political disputes between the African Company and the independent slave traders – who were a motley crew of provincials, colonists, London grandees, and Huguenot social climbers, - an old version of Englishness was buttressed and Britishness itself – emergent alongside these debates – was forged. It is worth examining some of these connexions between the formation of Britishness and the development of slavery in greater depth. What was at stake in the debate? How did slavery depend on Britishness? How did these debates about slavery assist in the formulation of what it meant to be British? Answers to these questions can be discerned through examinations of the ways in which these debates about slavery disputed the following: first, the meaning of the national interest, second, the workings of the English constitution and the common law, and third, the role of parliament. All of these have been celebrated as distinctive features of Britishness at the time and since.

Both sides in the debates disagreed about the best way to manage the slave trade. But they agreed that it represented a national project of critical importance and expressed cherished British values. Both sides sought to satisfy the national interest. But differed on what that meant. For the African Company the national interest was the interest of the British state. For the independent slave traders, it was the interest of the British population at large. As such, the slave trade developed as the result of a national, popular will. And the British erected the slave system as part of a national project to eclipse their European rivals. In this, they succeeded.

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The English constitution supported slave trade expansion. In the spring of 1689, during the constitutional shifts of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, a leading barrister in the court of King’s Bench, Bartholomew Shower, made a successful argument in favour of slave trade expansion before the famous liberal judge, Sir John Holt. Shower placed great importance upon the right of parliament to regulate the trade and viewed parliamentary approval as expressive of national consent. Shower formulated a common law manifesto for independent slave trading. In so doing he fastened a basic ingredient of national identity to the establishment of the slave trade. Shower explained why the parliamentary management of the trade was preferable to management by the monarchical company: “Each subject’s vote is included in whatsoever is there done: an Act of Parliament hath the consent of many men, both past, present, and to come”, he explained. English common law, as a result, “distinguishes between bondmen, whose estates are at their lord’s will and pleasure, and freemen, whose property none can invade, charge, or take away, but by their own consent.” Free from slavery themselves, so Shower reasoned, the English were protected in their right to develop their property in other human beings.

There it was: the full scale, supreme British slave trade was the result of a national constitutional propensity for freedom. Without their consent, Englishmen could not be deprived of their freedom to prosper from slavery. The future of the slave trade would hinge on the will of the British majority. The right to trade in slaves, then, became equivalent with such sacred British rights as the right to political representation and the right to habeas corpus. A free trade in the enslaved became emblematic of the liberties of the people. Slave trade escalation, despite what abolitionists like Granville Sharp later claimed about the Common Law’s inherent antagonism to slavery, proved instrumental to the huge expansion of slavery.

Such arguments routinely appeared in Parliament, which became the great national institutional support for the expanded slave trade (as it would later be for the abolition and emancipation of slaves). The company’s opponents formed a highly effective lobby that marshaled more petitions, developed a more appealing ideology that celebrated the role of the public’s consent in deregulating the slave trade. They implemented a political strategy that reflected the effects that constitutional change had brought to the mechanics of regulating overseas trade especially Parliament’s monopoly over the state’s regulation of the national economy. These slave trade ‘escalationists’ also made use of the recently freed press by gathering the support of public opinion in their quest for a nationally constituted slave trade. They celebrated the right of the outports throughout Britain to participate in the slave trade to prevent the African Company from engrossing slave trading in London. They looked forward to a time when all social classes could enjoy the benefits of slave trading and not just the privileged plutocrats of the company. Here again, they connected an expanded slave trade to national need and to jingoistic conceptions of national birthrights.
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With supreme irony to our eyes, the campaign to liberalize the slave trade became a cause that championed British freedom over slavery. To rally their cause, slave traders celebrated the right to trade as an inherent feature of the national character. One wrote, “Freedoms of trade . . . [are] the fundamental point of English liberty.” More than a third of the parliamentary petitions seeking to deregulate the slave trade referred to the desire to have the trade “freed” or to the inherent right to “freedom” of trade. Independent slave traders depicted trading monopolies – like that of the Royal African Company, as a result, as stains on the national character. Without any appreciation of the irony of the language, one pamphlet asserted that monopolies are “the Badges of a slavish People. . . . If this so beneficial a Trade was but freed from that Nest of Drones, the African Company, and Industry left at liberty farther to improve it, the Nation would quickly be convinced that nothing hitherto but an English Freedom has been wanting to extend the Trade.” Few lobbies examined and used the connections between these various expressions of freedom at the beginning of the eighteenth century more than the slave traders. Fewer still deployed arguments for freedom with such sophistication to achieve an enlargement of unfreedom on this scale.

All this appears replete with perverse irony to us. Only in the remit of national interest could such contradictions be sustained. It took the continued pressures of national jealousy to translate contradiction into hypocrisy and rebuild British identity around a freedom that could be extended to the enslaved Africans themselves for the first time. Half a century after the Africa trade debates, in the 1760s, an independence movement developed among the elite of the British American colonies – many of who were slave owners - including Thomas Jefferson – the author of the Declaration of Independence and George Washington, as well as James Madison – the father of the slavery-sustaining US constitution. These men and others like them characterized what the British Empire did to the Americans as a form of slavery. This inconsistency did not go unnoticed by perspicacious English observers – of whom few were more clear-sighted than Samuel Johnson: “Why is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroe slaves’, he famously quipped.


A generation earlier, during the debates about the best way to manage the slave trade, not a single commentator had complained that slave traders cited their freedom to enslave as a point of national interest. But once the colonists sought their own slave-owning nation state, the British began to respond by rebuilding their national image with reference to a purer, more sincere liberty – a freedom that actually meant freedom for all – and then set about using precisely the same nationalist political and constitutional motifs to campaign to end slavery as they had used to establish it. The abolitionist movement owes much to this attempt at national redefinition. In this way, slavery, so the late eighteenth century nationalist mantra went, was something that happened in America and had nothing to do with Britain. This was, of course, a profound lie. Throughout the eighteenth century (and beyond), enslaved Africans had come to generate huge wealth for Britain, had helped to expand the Royal navy, and established capital for that other great bond of the British experience – the industrial revolution. No other subject of the period featured in the British DNA - rhetorically, constitutionally, materially, as much as slavery.

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The abolition statutes of the early nineteenth century were profound national achievements. But the ways in which the same determinants of British identity: constitutional, parliamentary, common law, free press, free trade, social mobility, military victory, - all connected to freedom – were deployed in developing the slave system as were enacted to dismantle it makes both freedom and abolitionism inadequate calling cards for the British people. But these events – slavery and its abolition – as well as Britain’s proud history of correcting social injustice – are too important to national integrity to suppress from the national story. Important features of our own time would be gravely obscured by such suppression. Of course, the story of Britain’s involvement in slavery did not end with abolition. The compensation payments to slave owners at the time of emancipation in the early 1830s, which amounted to twenty per cent of the national budget, set new standards of state largesse and also allowed the wealth that so many accrued from the exploitation of enslaved Africans to endure through the generations. The bureaucracy required to assist in the suppression of other nation’s slave trades did much to help in the institutional development of the Foreign Office. Abolition also came to play an important part in softening the image of a rapacious empire – especially as it developed its territorial holdings in Africa and India. Abolitionists also helped to promote the reputation of new alternative forms of exploitation at home and abroad as the factory system placed unprecedented social burdens on large proportions of the British people.

But the principal and more profoundly stubborn legacy of slavery is race. It was the creation of racial identities that justified the continued use of African peoples for enslavement by Europeans over almost four centuries. And abolition did remarkably little to end the racial prejudice that had been developed to justify the slave trade and slavery – either in America or Britain. The economic costs of being born black are considerable throughout many of the areas involved in slave trading in Europe and the Americas. Alongside the national amnesia about the role of freedom in establishing slavery, these are the principal challenges posed by the abolitionists’ legacy.

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With this in mind, I’d like to end by bringing the last of the three immediate past Prime Ministers into my discussion. In a much-anticipated speech to the House of Commons that was designed to set the tone for the British government’s celebration of the bicentennial of the abolition statute in 2007, Tony Blair expressed “deep sorrow” about British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. Blair famously stopped short of a full apology for slavery to avoid accepting official responsibility and opening up the British state to a claim for reparations. He deployed, however, a modicum of reflection to begin the long process of atonement. He wondered why it was that the slave trade emerged at a time when “the capitals of Europe and America championed the enlightenment of man.” Rather than confront this well-posed conundrum head on, however, Blair was quick to retreat into a familiar truism and rush to the defense of modernity: “Racism, not the rights of man, drove the horrors of the triangular trade.”

But was this the case? Racism was as much an effect of slavery as it was a cause. And modernity and the liberal political institutions and ideologies that define it belie this defense as we have seen – especially those features of modernity connected to British self-definition. The “rights of man,” or their more elastic substitute “freedom,” contributed much to the escalation of the slave trade. And these, as we have seen, operated in a distinctive way within the project to develop British national identity.
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Britain escalated and expanded the slave trade and slavery in the name of British liberty. With each new year of the political campaign to expand the slave trade, British people, ideals, institutions, and identity became more and more inseparable from the desire to celebrate the trafficking of enslaved Africans. The campaign’s length, the number of people involved, the scale of petitioning, the number of pamphlets, justifications, arguments, and counterarguments that derived from the campaign provide enough information to show that British society, values, and venerated political institutions promoted slavery long before the abolitionists began to criticize it. As much as Prime Minister Blair would have wished to deny it in 2007, the development of the slave trade and the establishment of American slavery cannot be separated from the development of modern British society, its creeds, and its institutions. The hallmarks of modern British society—representative democracy, civil society, and individual interests—all bear the responsibility for slavery. In helping to expand slavery, British freedom has incurred a debt.

How can these acknowledgements of the selective national memory of slavery and the inconsistency of contemporary values help us reflect on a constructive view of the future? Freedom’s role in helping to end the slave trade and slavery is only the beginning of the long process of repaying freedom’s debt. That process continues and is not assisted by historically selective political celebrations of British identity that focus on the abolition of the slave trade. Placing freedom’s debt into the story of the emergence of modern liberal society represents another part of the continuing reconciliation and reckoning.

Understanding the selective application of liberty to slave traders, but not, until the late eighteenth century, to enslaved Africans, confirms the prevalence of what we would call racial thinking. It also offers a new means of connecting the intention to develop the slave trade and slavery to the precise workings of politics in this period and suggests ways to imagine how contemporary politicians ought to manage slavery’s legacy. The historic tendency for freedom to veneer the justification for victimising minorities and for democratic societies to bind themselves together by vilifying and often brutalising their national rivals ought also to be a pressing task for today’s politicians. Freedom is best rehabilitated from its racist history by confronting the racist legacies of slavery. The struggle to end racial inequality offers one of many pressing challenge for liberal institutions and ideas and represents the only way to establish the sincere appeal for ideas of liberty in the twenty first century – not only as a means to set the national historical record straight, not just as a matter of restorative justice, but also as a pressing requirement to do justice to the power and utility of such ideas into the future.
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Dr William Pettigrew’s Freedom’s Debt : The Royal African Company and the Politices of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752.
Ideas serve different purposes in different historical contexts. But they – like states and like corporations - also have culpability across generations and ought to be invoked as processes that focus new movements to repair the contemporary damage their historic ancestors have caused. Politicians use history to build British identity. But triumphalist and misleading accounts of history prevent politics from forming an inspirational, hopeful bridge between the sins of the past and the restoration of the damaging legacies of those sins in the present. Freedom should be a part of British national pride, but before it can be so, it needs to pay the debt to the black victims of slavery by ensuring that racial discrimination has no part to play in British life. This is a contemporary political crusade for truth and reconciliation that is worthy of comparison with the abolitionists. The promotion and celebration of a multiracial, multicultural British future is surely the best celebrator of British identity on the international stage as the world continues to be beset by racial tension and ingrained prejudices of many other forms. It offers the chance for racial atonement as a step towards ending the significance of race in the world. As a contemporary work-in-progress rather than an incomplete and conflicted historic triumph, it also represents a better riposte to the Russian federation’s jibes about the British people than the one that David Cameron offered.  (source: Gresham College (UK) -- © Professor William Pettigrew, 2014, Transcript for "How to Place Slavery into British Identity")


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cotton's Global History

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Cotton Pickers, oil painting on panel by William Aiken Walker
Adam Hochschild reviewed Sven Beckert's new book entitled The Empire of Cotton, in the New York Times, on 31 December 2014  --  The history of an era often seems defined by a particular commodity. The 18th century certainly belonged to sugar. The race to cultivate it in the West Indies was, in the words of the French Enlightenment writer Guillaume-Thomas de Raynal, “the principal cause of the rapid movement which stirs the Universe.” In the 20th century and beyond, the commodity has been oil: determining events from the Allied partitioning of the Middle East after World War I to Hitler’s drive for Balkan and Caspian wells to the forging of our own fateful ties to the regimes of the Persian Gulf.

In his important new book, the Harvard historian Sven Beckert makes the case that in the 19th century what most stirred the universe was cotton. “Empire of Cotton” is not casual airplane reading. Heavy going at times, it is crowded with many more details and statistics (a few of them repeated) than the nonspecialist needs. But it is a major work of scholarship that will not be soon surpassed as the definitive account of the product that was, as Beckert puts it, the Industrial Revolution’s “launching pad.”
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Cotton Pickers, oil painting on panel by William Aiken Walker
More than that, “Empire of Cotton” is laced with compassion for the millions of miserably treated slaves, sharecroppers and mill workers whose labors, over hundreds of years, have gone into the clothes we wear and the surprising variety of other products containing cotton, from coffee filters to gunpowder. Today some 350 million people are involved in growing, transporting, weaving, stitching or otherwise processing the fibers of this plant.

“Until the 19th century,” Beckert explains, “the overwhelming bulk of raw cotton was spun and woven within a few miles from where it was grown.” Nothing changed that more dramatically than the slave plantations that spread across the American South, a form of outsourcing before the word was invented. These showed that cotton could be lucratively cultivated in bulk for consumers as far afield as another continent, and that realization turned the world upside down. Without slavery, he says, there would have been no Industrial Revolution.

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Cotton Pickers, oil painting on panel by William Aiken Walker
Beckert’s most significant contribution is to show how every stage of the industrialization of cotton rested on violence. As soon as the profit potential of those Southern cotton fields became clear in the late 1780s, the transport of slaves across the Atlantic rapidly increased. Cotton cloth itself had become the most important merchandise European traders used to buy slaves in Africa. Then planters discovered that climate and rainfall made the Deep South better cotton territory than the border states. Nearly a million American slaves were forcibly moved to Georgia, Mississippi and elsewhere, shattering many families in the process.

The search for more good cotton-­growing soil in areas that today are such states as Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma was a powerful incentive to force Native Americans off their traditional lands and onto reservations, another form of violence by the “military-cotton complex.” Beckert’s coinage seems not far-fetched when he points out that by 1850, two-thirds of American cotton was grown on land that had been taken over by the United States since the beginning of the century. And who structured the bond deal for the Louisiana Purchase, which made so much of that possible? Thomas Baring of Britain, one of the world’s leading cotton merchants.

Beckert practices what is known as global or world history: the study of events not limited to one country or continent. The perspective serves him well. For it was not just in the United States that planters’ thirst to sow large tracts with cotton pushed indigenous peoples and self-sufficient farmers off their land; colonial armies did the same thing in India, West Africa and elsewhere. When he talks about the rise of late-19th-century American Populism (driven in part by the grievances of small cotton farmers), he also mentions parallel movements in India, Egypt and Mexico. And it was not only white Southerners who were responsible for the harsh regime of slave-grown cotton: merchants and bankers in the North and in Britain lent them money and were investors as well. With sons strategically stationed in cities on both sides of the Atlantic, the Brown family — patrons of the Museum of Natural History in New York and the corporate ancestors of Brown Brothers Harriman — owned more than a dozen Southern cotton plantations ­outright.

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Cotton Pickers, oil painting on panel by William Aiken Walker
Beyond violence, another major theme of “Empire of Cotton” is that, contrary to the myth of untrammeled free enterprise, this expanding industry was fueled at every stage by government intervention. From Denmark to Mexico to Russia, states lent large sums to early clothing manufacturers. Whether it was canals and railways in Europe or levees on the Mississippi, governments jumped in to build or finance the infrastructure that big cotton growers and mills demanded. Britain forced Egypt and other territories to lower or eliminate their import duties on British cotton.

Beckert has a larger ambition, however, than just telling the story of cotton; he wants to use that commodity as a lens on the development of the modern world itself. This he divides into two overlapping phases: “war capitalism” for the stage when slavery and colonial conquest prepared the ground for the cotton industry, and “industrial capitalism” for the period when states intervened to protect and help the business in other ways. This makes “Empire of Cotton” read a bit like two books combined, with one of them incomplete. Cotton’s story Beckert more than fully tells, but his analysis of capitalism really requires a bigger-picture scrutiny of other industries as well. And here, his two categories are not so easily separated. For example, we no longer go to war over cotton, but would America have spent hundreds of billions of dollars fighting in Iraq if that country had no oil?

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About the history of cotton itself, Beckert is on firmer ground. Today, a “giant race to the bottom” by an industry always looking for cheaper labor has shifted most cotton growing and the work of turning it into clothing back to Asia, the continent where it was first widely used several centuries ago. And violence in different forms is still all too present. In Uzbekistan, up to two million children under 15 are put to work harvesting cotton each year — just as the mills of St. Petersburg, Manchester and Alsace once heavily depended on child labor from poorhouses and orphanages. In China, the Communist Party’s suppression of free trade unions keeps cotton workers’ wages down, just as British law in the early 1800s saw to it that men and women who abandoned their ill-paid jobs and ran away could be jailed for breach of contract. And in Bangladesh, the more than 1,100 people killed in the notorious collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 were mostly female clothing workers, whose employers were as careless about their safety as those who enforced 14- or 16-hour workdays in German and Spanish weaving mills a century before. A long thread of tragedy is woven through the story of the puffy white substance that clothes us all.  (source: The New York Times)


A Rare 18th-Century Ship's Diary -- Up For Auction In Derbyshire, England

A sketch of the ship in the diary

As reported by the Leicester Mercury, "Ship's diary from 1769 found at Glenfield home tells of scurvy, lashings and drownings," by Tom_Mack, on 18 February 2015 --The 240-year-old diary of a ship’s captain has been unearthed in a dusty old box at a home in Glenfield.

The box had been destined for the skip when the owner realised the diary, charting a journey by the East Indies trade ship Bridgewater from London to China via India, might have some value.

It contains insights about life on the seas, what the crew ate, how they were punished and various illnesses and accidents that struck the ship.

The diary was taken, along with some other books, to Hansons Auctioneers in Derbyshire.

There, Charles Hanson, who is a regular valuer on the BBC’s Bargain Hunt, immediately realised its value.

He said: “The book is incredibly special since it records the life and times on board the ship Bridgewater which set sail from London in 1769 to Madeira, Madras and China.

The Book's Cover

“We discovered the book amongst a collection of books which our client was going to throw out but I knew when I first saw the book it was important, since it was covered in pig skin and was well worn .

“On opening the book it was like going back in time since each page is beautifully handwritten by the captain’s hand with entries for each day from December 1769 to July 1771.”

The book is written by Captain Skottowes, who had previously worked in the slave trade.

Research by Charles has found that Bridgewater was launched in September 1769 - the year the diary begins - and saw service until 1781.

It would have been used as a cargo vessel by the East India Company and it had three decks and weighed 840 tonnes.

Cargo noted in the diary includes cotton, tin, tar, red wood and pepper.

Charles said: “Essentially such an East Indies ship was responsible for carrying valuable cargo, returning from the East, richly laden with exotic goods which found a ready and profitable market in Europe such as tea and Chinese porcelain.

“Life on board was certainly not plain sailing and Captain Skottowes diary makes plain the task faced by all those on board.”

The diary will be sold by Hansons Auctioneers tomorrow and has a guide price of £300 to £500.
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Charles Hanson holding the diary.

Entries from the diary:

On December 20, 1769, a crew member called William Fisher was “in irons for being riotous”.

On Janaury 5, 1770, wages were raised to 26 shillings a month.

On the February 1, of the same year, supplies were taken on board including 20 pipes of wine, 16 hogsheads and one quarter cask of brandy.

On Tuesday, February 27, “Thomas Hitchins run the gauntlet for stealing silk stockings, a beaver hat and several other things, the property of Major Grant”.

On March 24 a crewmember received “150 lashes with a cat of nine tails upon his bare back”.

The following day seaman Joseph Simpson was confined for drunkeness, disobedience and “being very abusive”

On November 25 "Vincent Smith and John Singeon fell overboard, the former was drowned, the latter got hold of a rope and was saved”.

On May 29, 1771, Captain Skottowe noted “a very sickly ship in general” due to scurvy.

Morale was lifted a few days later on June 4 when 21 guns were fired “it being his Majesty's birthday”, referring to George III. (source: The Leicester Mercury)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

New England Slavery

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From the Opinion Pages of the Boston Globe, "New England’s scarlet ‘S’ for slavery," by C. S. Manegold, a former reporter with The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, is the author of “Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North.’, published on 18 January 2010.

ALMOST HALF a century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. captured a problem that still plagues us today. Cautioning his flock against the complacent embrace of incomplete knowledge, he warned: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’’

I have thought of those words often in the last few years as I worked to unearth the history of a century and a half of slavery on a Massachusetts farm first owned by the famous Puritan, Governor John Winthrop, whose “Model of Christian Charity’’ is often quoted even now.

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John Winthrop (1587-1649), The First Governor of Massachusetts
In the several times I have presented these unpleasant truths in talks at major universities, I have inquired afterwards - who knew this history of slavery in the North? Usually only about three hands go up of 30. And most of these people are professors. Among non-professors the void is even deeper. Students, stumbling on this news, tend to ask with some aggression: “Why didn’t they teach us this?’’ Why didn’t I know?

I am older, and I grew up in a different time, but I said these words myself not long ago. Now that I know better, I realize there are many answers to the question. But the best perhaps are these: Easier not to. More comfortable not to.

Yet as King suggested, responsible dialogue can not move forward with half-truths and willful ignorance. In this regard, the North has work to do. It lags behind the South in stepping up to ugly truths.

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Let me share a simple primer: The first men, women and children to be enslaved by whites in New England were Native American prisoners of war doled out as favors to other tribes who had allied themselves with the settlers’ cause, or to white soldiers who fought with some distinction in those wars. “There is a little Squa that Steward Calacot desireth,’’ wrote one hopeful recipient to Winthrop. “Lieutenant Damport also desireth one, to witt, a tall one with three strokes upon her stomach. . ..’’

Among these enslaved Indians, some were shipped off to the Caribbean where they were traded for “cotton, and tobacco and Negroes,’’ as Winthrop noted in his famous journal. The year was 1638. On October 3, 1639, the Massachusetts Court of Assistants ruled “the Governor had leave to keep a Narragansett Indian and his wife.’’ Other Northern settlers had already chosen blacks; and those first African slaves to reach New England were followed by a constant and accelerating flow. The pattern would repeat until black slavery in the North became a common fact of life transcending social class.

Nor was this slavery somehow “soft.’’ One of the first published accounts of life in New England tells of a man who lived near what today is Logan Airport. That man, Samuel Maverick, ordered one slave to rape another, that he might have a “breed of Negroes.’’ Other tragic stories abound. Many more are lost forever.

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Slavery, though, was legal. Winthrop, the author of the notion of America as a “city upon a hill,’’ helped to make it so. Three years after the first shipment of enslaved Africans arrived on Massachusetts soil, he helped to write the first law in North America officially sanctioning the practice. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties in 1641 decreed there “shall never be any bond slavery’’ (good enough so far. . .) “unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us.’’ [italics added]

Who could this formulation possibly leave out?

Follow the money. Find the families. Together they will tell the story. In the case of slavery in the North, they tell a story of enslavement stretching in a single weave from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut. . . to Barbados, Antigua, Surinam. . . to Africa. Today there is a Winthorp (sic) Bay in Antigua near the international airport. It is named for Winthrop’s son Samuel, who served as lieutenant governor and presided over a large plantation worked by slaves. Samuel’s brother, John Jr., the governor of Connecticut, owned black slaves on many properties, as did his siblings, heirs, and friends. On and on it went.

On the same land Governor Winthrop first had farmed, other families would come. They were slave-owners, too, every one. Slavery did not end in Massachusetts until after the American Revolution when a series of “freedom suits’’ taken to the courts by slaves and free blacks impelled the legislators to live up to their grand rhetoric of freedom.

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The end was neither swift nor definitive. Not a single newspaper article from the time made note of the end of a century and a half of bondage. Instead, the high court finally ruled, and then there were debates over semantics until, farm by farm, owner by owner, the practice sputtered, and then failed. But not before some of those enslaved had been sold back to the Caribbean so an owner could avoid a difficult financial loss.

Only Vermont explicitly outlawed slavery in its constitution in 1793. Article One: “Slavery prohibited.’’ That was the exception, not the rule.

Then we forgot.

But the forgetting took time. Remnants of the truth remained in 1915 when, on what was left of Winthrop’s “Ten Hills Farm,’’ a three-day pageant celebrated America’s early history. Among the players were John Winthrop, George Washington, the slave Belinda, and a slave named George who killed himself rather than be sold. Newspapers crowed about the refreshing inclusivity of the event. But those accounts referred only to impoverished Irish and Italian immigrants who had followed the trolley tracks to move outside of Boston. George and Belinda were white folk dressed in blackface. The larger slave population (which counted at least 27 on that farm in the 1700s) sat huddled on a bench. Photographs still show them there - white boys from the Medford High School Glee Club, their faces rubbed with coal.

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Perhaps in 1915 the memory was still too fresh to fade. Twenty-three years later, the same was true. That year, the WPA artist Henry Billings dipped his brush to paint an enormous mural for the Medford Post Office. His “Golden Triangle of Trade’’ shows a white sailor leaning up against a post. That man is watching another, a black man, working, cane upon his shoulder, manacles lying open in the tropical sand. The triangle above them - topped by a huge American eagle - sweeps from Africa, across the Caribbean, and then straight to Boston Harbor. That history was still perhaps too fresh to kill.

The North has surely done a good job since.

Think of the South, and slavery immediately comes to mind. Think of the North, and there march in the heroes and the Patriots, the stern-faced abolitionists, poets and philosophers. In time, the vanishing was almost total. Visitors who go to 105 Brattle Street in Cambridge today usually go there to visit Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s old house without realizing the slave past (Cuba, Tony, Darby. . .) that stretched way back inside those walls.

Did Barack Obama know, when he studied law at Harvard, that the basement apartment he rented in Somerville lay on ground that hosted slavery for 150 years? Did his dean welcome students with the information that the Law School was created out of money made partly from the work of and trade in men who never saw a day of freedom?

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This void in general knowledge persists five years after the powerful exhibit in 2005 by the New York Historical Society, “Slavery in New York.’’ It persists as scholars strain and labor to uncover deeper aspects of this past. It persists though this is 150 years lost, not 10. And it persists despite the fact that statistics from the period of the American Revolution tell an abbreviated story of at least 10,000 souls enslaved across the North, not a handful of domestic “servants’’ afforded gentle treatment.

“We have memorized America,’’ the poet Miller Williams wrote.

He was eloquent. But he was wrong.

The national dialogue has stalled on easy binaries: North/South. Abolitionists/slave owners. Blue states/red states. You know the drill. Miller Williams asks us to look forward to be true to values we have always held. It’s a lovely thought. But honestly, it would be better to heed King’s warning, and look backward at a past imperfectly remembered.

Then, just maybe, we can talk.  (source: The Boston Globe)


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