Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave by Aphra Behn (1688)

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689) is generally considered the first known professional female writer in England. She was a very successful playwright, producing at least 15 plays, mostly Restoration comedies. She was a widely published poet, translator, essayist and writer of prose fictions.

She lived through troubled times – growing up during the civil wars (1637 – 53) she was 9 or so when King Charles was executed in January 1649, lived through the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and was 20 or so when Charles II was restored. There are at least four biographies of Behn, plus numerous introductions to her work. They all agree that she welcomed the return of the Stuart dynasty, was popular with Charles II, and even did some spying for him abroad (on a journey to Antwerp). Back in London she was part of the set of rakish poets and playwrights which included John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, to whom she dedicated a poem.

‘Behn was a lifelong and militant royalist, and her fictions are quite consistent in portraying virtuous royalists and put-upon nobles who are opposed by petty and evil republicans/Parliamentarians.’ (Wikipedia)

Charles II died in 1685 (in Oroonoko he is referred to as ‘his late Majesty, of sacred Memory’) and was succeeded by his brother James II, triggering an uprising by Charles’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, in the Protestant cause.

Monmouth’s rebellion was successfully defeated, but three years later:

  1. James’s Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, giving birth to a son, who everyone knew was set to be raised a Catholic, with the threat that Britain would become a Catholic country
  2. coincided with James’s foolish decision to prosecute seven Anglican bishops for seditious libel

The combination of these events triggered a rebellion by England’s richest Protestant landowners, who a) expelled James b) invited Prince William of Orange (a state in the Low Countries) – who had a sort of legitimacy because he was  married to James’s (solidly Protestant) daughter, Mary – to come and rule Britain in his place.

This seismic event in British history and all its political and legal consequences, for a long time referred to as The Glorious Revolution, had barely bedded in when Behn died, aged (if her birth date is correct) just 49.

Oroonoko

Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave is the longest and most successful of Behn’s prose pieces. It was a bestseller in her lifetime, was quickly turned into a successful stage play and went on to have at least three other stage adaptations and revivals.

Basically, it’s a tragic love story. Oroonoko is a prince of Coramantian, the 17th century name for what later became known as the Gold Coast, and later still became modern-day Ghana. Oroonoko is the grandson of the king of Coromantian, who has an impressive harem of wives. By the age of 17 Oroonoko is a heroic warrior and goes to war under the guardianship of the people’s greatest general, and blossoms into:

one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars: so that he was ador’d as the Wonder of all that World, and the Darling of the Soldiers.

The text has that tone throughout – Oroonoko is depicted as the greatest, noblest, most educated, wisest and wittiest and bravest and manliest man that ever lived.

Oroonoko is available in several OUP and Penguin paperback editions, all of which are introduced by feminist scholars, all of whom make the same point that Behn was an ‘outsider’ in the ‘man’s world’ of literary Restoration England. Thus they all point out the poignancy / structural appropriateness of Behn depicting another type of outsider to the ‘white supremacist, racist, misogynist discourse’ of Restoration England – a black man. One outsider writing about another.

Except that, as I read Oroonoko, it seemed to me Behn makes her black hero less of an outsider than you might expect. In fact he comes over as an epitome of civilisation, conceived very much along European lines:

for his Discourse was admirable upon almost any Subject: and whoever had heard him speak, would have been convinced of their Errors, that all fine Wit is confined to the white Men, especially to those of Christendom; and would have confess’d that Oroonoko was as capable even of reigning well, and of governing as wisely, had as great a Soul, as politick Maxims, and was as sensible of Power, as any Prince civilis’d in the most refined Schools of Humanity and Learning, or the most illustrious Courts.

Not least because Oroonoko has had European tutors and governors:

Some Part of it we may attribute to the Care of a Frenchman of Wit and Learning, who finding it turn to a very good Account to be a sort of Royal Tutor to this young Black, and perceiving him very ready, apt, and quick of Apprehension, took a great Pleasure to teach him Morals, Language and Science; and was for it extremely belov’d and valu’d by him. Another Reason was, he lov’d when he came from War, to see all the English Gentlemen that traded thither; and did not only learn their Language, but that of the Spaniard also, with whom he traded afterwards for Slaves.

Thus:

Oroonoko, who was more civiliz’d, according to the European Mode, than any other had been, and took more Delight in the White Nations; and, above all, Men of Parts and Wit.

So Oroonoko is not quite the ‘outsider’ or ‘other’ figure that the politically correct introductions led me to believe.

It’s also striking that Behn deliberately removes from her hero some of the most prominent physical characteristics of people of colour.

His Nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat: His Mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turn’d Lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole Proportion and Air of his Face was so nobly and exactly form’d, that bating his Colour, there could be nothing in Nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome. There was no one Grace wanting, that bears the Standard of true Beauty. His Hair came down to his Shoulders, by the Aids of Art, which was by pulling it out with a Quill, and keeping it comb’d; of which he took particular Care.

He does not have a large nose, or ‘great turn’d lips’, or frizzy Afro hair, but a Roman nose, flat lips, and shoulder-length, straight hair. He sounds more like a native Indian than an African. As educated as a European? Looking more like an Indian than an African? this is not quite the African prince I had expected.

Anyway, back to the love story. In the heat of the battle, the brave old general sees an arrow heading for Oroonoko and throws himself in front of it, dying from his wound. The general had one daughter, Imoinda, so Oroonoko goes to see her to tell her how bravely her father died.

Imoinda is, of course, a stunning beauty. The leading quality of Behn’s mind is exorbitance: everything is the bestest of the best.

This old dead Hero had one only Daughter left of his Race, a Beauty, that to describe her truly, one need say only, she was Female to the noble Male; the beautiful Black Venus to our young Mars; as charming in her Person as he, and of delicate Virtues. I have seen a hundred White Men sighing after her, and making a thousand Vows at her Feet, all in vain and unsuccessful. And she was indeed too great for any but a Prince of her own Nation to adore.

And Imoinda’s wonderful appearance is confirmed when Oroonoko actually visits her:

When he came, attended by all the young Soldiers of any Merit, he was infinitely surpris’d at the Beauty of this fair Queen of Night, whose Face and Person were so exceeding all he had ever beheld, that lovely Modesty with which she receiv’d him, that Softness in her Look and Sighs, upon the melancholy Occasion of this Honour that was done by so great a Man as Oroonoko, and a Prince of whom she had heard such admirable Things; the Awfulness wherewith she receiv’d him, and the Sweetness of her Words and Behaviour while he stay’d, gain’d a perfect Conquest over his fierce Heart.

The point of giving these three long quotes is to show how Behn’s prose works – with long sentences which swell with Romantic clichés and stereotypes – the language of Restoration poetry which was devoted to describing a narrow group of stereotyped qualities – Beauty of body and face; Love with its world of sighs and passions; Warrior qualities of sternness and bravery; and the Tragic Mode of grief and tears.

And every Important word is in Capitals.

Slavery

In another reversal of the politically correct interpretation of Oroonoko as a victim of white imperialism, he quite calmly gives the fair Imoinda a gift of slaves which he captured in the recent battle. The casualness with which Behn describes this suggests that slave-taking, selling and giving were part and parcel of the African societies of the time, or at least that Behn thought so:

So that having made his first Compliments, and presented her an hundred and fifty Slaves in Fetters, he told her with his Eyes, that he was not insensible of her Charms; while Imoinda, who wish’d for nothing more than so glorious a Conquest, was pleas’d to believe, she understood that silent Language of new-born Love; and, from that Moment, put on all her Additions to Beauty.

Note how the 150 slaves are mentioned only in passing and don’t merit as much space as the looks of love which the two lead characters exchange.

In fact the text then goes on to make it perfectly plain that Oroonoko is a slave trader in his own right. When an English ship arrives on the coast:

The Master of it had often before been in these Countries, and was very well known to Oroonoko, with whom he had traffick’d for Slaves, and had us’d to do the same with his Predecessors… To this Captain [Oroonoko] sold abundance of his Slaves…

So when Oroonoko is himself made a slave, it is no more than the fate he has dealt out to hundreds of his countrymen. In fact, when he is caught and sold into slavery Oroonoko he will meet many of the blacks he himself sold into slavery in the previous years.

Some of the mechanics of slavery are explained from what is, presumably, first hand experience.

  • how merchants in the West Indies contract with the captains of slave ships to bring back specified numbers of slaves
  • how the slave traders break up the slave into ‘lots’, deliberately mingling men, women and children from different tribes, so that they often speak different languages and dialects, to prevent them conspiring together
  • how the slave owners ignore the slaves’ real names and give them simpler, easier English names (as Oroonoko will be renamed ‘Caesar’, see below)

The narrator

The tale is told in the first person by a woman narrator, made plain in several places, including:

his Misfortune was, to fall in an obscure World, that afforded only a Female Pen to celebrate his Fame; tho’ I doubt not but it had lived from others Endeavours, if the Dutch, who immediately after his Time took that Country, had not killed, banished and dispersed all those that were capable of giving the World this great Man’s Life, much better than I have done.

The narrator tells us that she lived in Surinam, and spends a couple of pages describing the character of the native inhabitants with whom she and the other white colonists deal and trade. Among these is the description of an elaborate native head-dress the narrator was given and which she later donated to ‘the King’s Theatre’ for a production of The Indian Queen.

Now this was a real historical play which was produced in Behn’s London, so many critics see the story as overt autobiography, linking the narrating voice directly with Behn herself which – along with the vividness of her descriptions of the local climate, flowers and wildlife (armadillos) – persuades some modern scholars that Behn did indeed travel to Surinam and personally witness much of what she describes.

Whereas other modern scholars completely disagree, and point out that Behn could have gathered every scrap of detail she uses in the narrative from current books of exotic travel and description.

You pays your money and you believes whichever version takes your fancy.

The plot

Oroonoka falls in love with Imoinda and they perform a ceremony of troth-making, though not officially getting married.

The king of Coramantia – Oroonoka’s grandfather – hears about Imoinda’s wondrous beauty and also that Oroonoka is wooing her. He has her brought to his palace to join his harem, specifically to join him in the royal bath. Imoinda throws herself on his mercy and begs her innocence. The king ignores her pleas, takes her into his bath and into his bed. However, we are assured quite a few times that he is old and impotent – therefore he may ogle her and caress her but cannot ‘possess’ her. This is to ensure she remains a virgin for Oroonoka.

A word about virginity

In The Vicar of Wakefield, and Pamela and Oroonoko I am fascinated by the intense importance – the moral and emotional and legal and religious importances – that are put on the quality of female virginity, and also by the numerous flowery periphrases which are used to tastefully describe it.

 whether she was robb’d of that Blessing which was only due to his Faith and Love.

I am not yet known to my Husband.

’Twas not enough to appease him, to tell him, his Grandfather was old, and could not that Way injure him

for Imoinda being his lawful Wife by solemn Contract, ’twas he was the injur’d Man,

I believe he omitted saying nothing to this young Maid, that might persuade her to suffer him to seize his own, and take the Rights of Love.

… the Vows she made him, that she remained a spotless Maid till that Night, and that what she did with his Grandfather had robb’d him of no Part of her Virgin-Honour; the Gods, in Mercy and Justice, having reserved that for her plighted Lord, to whom of Right it belonged.

the old King had hitherto not been able to deprive him of those Enjoyments which only belonged to him,

But as it is the greatest Crime in Nature amongst them, to touch a Woman after having been possess’d by a Son, a Father, or a Brother, so now he looked on Imoinda as a polluted thing wholly unfit for his Embrace;

In part, then, Oroonoko joins the vast record of humanity’s complete inability to sensibly organise relationships between the two sexes which we find the human species cast into.

Millennia from now visitors from Mars will leaf through these records in disbelief at the enormous weight of importance which was put on the insertion of a part of the male anatomy into a part of the female anatomy – an event of such vast importance that it inspired murders, suicides, drove people to ruin their own and other’s lives, inspired tribes and entire nations to go to war about it. The Martians will flick through these records and their coy circumlocutions in disbelief at the trouble it caused.

More plot

Oroonoko is struck down with despair at the news his beloved has been taken off by the king. But his own life is in danger if the king thinks he still loves her. So Oroonoko has to feign indifference to Imoinda, even when they are both at court, even when he sees her, at the end of the evening’s entertainment, being led off into the king’s bed-chamber.

Luckily, Oroonoko recruits one of the king’s courtiers, the handsome Aboan, to his cause. This young man chats up one of the older ‘discarded’ mistresses of the king’s harem, Onahal, and persuades her to let him and Oroonoko in a back entrance of the palace one night. Oroonoko goes straight to Imoinda’s chamber, where:

I believe she was not long resisting those Arms where she so longed to be; and having Opportunity, Night, and Silence, Youth, Love, and Desire, he soon prevail’d, and ravished in a Moment what his old Grandfather had been endeavouring for so many Months.

While Aboan has to pay the price of old Onahal’s helping them, namely allowing the old woman to take him to bed. Here you can see the deliberate pairing of the Serious and the Comic, our hero’s coupling with the beautiful heroine paralleled by the essentially comic coupling of May and December in another bedroom nearby. You can see how this is designed to prompt fine sentiments about the former, interspersed with comedy or comic revulsion, at the latter.

Dawn comes too quickly, servants try to enter Imoinda’s chamber, Oroonoko threatens to kill them, calls the chamber the chamber of love, kisses her one last time then makes his escape. The servants report back to the king, confirming all his worst suspicions. Well, now she has been ‘possessed’ by another man, she is not fit for the harem and so the king orders Imoinda (and Onahal, who obviously helped her) to be sold as slaves.

Then he repents (or Behn contrives for him to repent) in such a way as to come round to respecting the couple’s young love. According to the twisted of the day, the king cannot undo Imoinda’s fate, but he can make it ‘respectable’ by declaring he had her executed. That is less shameful than being sold a slave. And so the king sends messengers to Oroonoko telling him he’s had Imoinda executed.

Oroonoko was at the army camp expecting an attack from the enemy. He slumps onto the carpet in suicidal despair. The enemy attacks and is winning and the captains come to beg Oroonoko snap out of it. Eventually he does, declares he will die in battle, storms out of his tent, and leads the army to a famous victory. He captures the enemy leader, Jamoan, single-handed, and comes to respect his nobility and dignity.

You can see how it is less a plot than a succession, a kind of gallery of scenes presenting the highest type of noble figure – kings, princes, generals – displaying the noblest emotions – true love, true grief, valour in battle, chivalry to a defeated opponent.

The weeks and months pass and Oroonoko becomes an accepted figure at the court; he has forgiven the king and the two rub along OK, but he has never overcome his grief at the supposed execution of his true love.

And English ship docks in the port and the captain, a man of culture and education, treats Oroonoko and his followers to a grand feast and tour of the ship – at the climax of which they seize them, throw them in chains and sail away. Oroonoko tries to kill himself, first by beating his head against the floor or walls, then starving himself to death, but the captain and he have a lengthy wordy exchange which results in the Oroonoko being given liberty of the ship on the basis that he will be freed when they reach the next port.

But they’re not. They arrive at Surinam, an English colony. Here Oroonoko is sold off in a lot of seventeen slaves. He throws a parting curse at the captain of the ship and worthlessness of the God he swore his vows by.

Oroonoko is sold to a Cornish man, Trefry, who hears Oroonoko speak and realises he not only speaks English but us a man of ‘quality’. He impresses everyone who meets him. Trefry gives him the slave name Caesar. They travel upriver for days. When they arrive Caesar behaves more like a governor than a slave – many of the other blacks on the plantation were slaves he himself consigned to their condition but, recognising natural Nobility, instead of stoning him, they flock to worship him and prostrate themselves at his feet!

Trefry entertains him at the plantation mansion telling him, among other things about a beautiful young slave woman they’ve christened Clemene, and who everyone is in love with. Trefry takes Caesar to see her and, of course, she is none other than Imoinda! She faints, he runs to catch er, Trefry is delighted this little romance has played out on his plantation. Hidden in all the alarums is the surprising news that Imoinda is only 15 or 16. Or, as Behn puts it, in her operatic baroque style:

Trefry, who was naturally amorous, and delighted to talk of Love as well as any Body, proceeded to tell him, they had the most charming Black that ever was beheld on their Plantation, about fifteen or sixteen Years old, as he guess’d; that for his Part he had done nothing but sigh for her ever since she came; and that all the White Beauties he had seen, never charm’d him so absolutely as this fine Creature had done; and that no Man, of any Nation, ever beheld her, that did not fall in love with her; and that she had all the Slaves perpetually at her Feet; and the whole Country resounded with the Fame of Clemene, for so (said he) we have christen’d her: but she denies us all with such a noble Disdain, that ’tis a Miracle to see, that she who can give such eternal Desires, should herself be all Ice and all Unconcern.

Then again, we know that Oroonoko entered the army and had become a noted captain by the age of seventeen:

as soon as he could bear a Bow in his Hand, and a Quiver at his Back, was sent into the Field, to be train’d up by one of the oldest Generals to War; where, from his natural Inclination to Arms, and the Occasions given him, with the good Conduct of the old General, he became, at the Age of seventeen, one of the most expert Captains, and bravest Soldiers that ever saw the Field of Mars:

So it’s a love story between a 17 year-old and a 16 year-old.

At this point the narrator enters the story. She has been introduced to Oroonoko, who has told her the story of  his life to date, corroborated by the French tutor who was captured along with the prince and his courtiers, and brought across the ocean, though cannot be enslaved (because he’s a Christian). She has assured Oroonoko she will petition the governor to get him freed. We also learn that Imoinda’s body is decorated, as is Oroonoko’s:

and tho’ from her being carved in fine Flowers and Birds all over her Body, we took her to be of Quality before, yet when we knew Clemene was Imoinda, we could not enough admire her. I had forgot to tell you, that those who are nobly born of that Country, are so delicately cut and raised all over the Fore-part of the Trunk of their Bodies, that it looks as if it were japan’d, the Works being raised like high Point round the Edges of the Flowers. Some are only carved with a little Flower, or Bird, at the Sides of the Temples, as was Cæsar; and those who are so carved over the Body, resemble our antient Picts that are figur’d in the Chronicles, but these Carvings are more delicate.

‘Carved’? ‘Cut and raised’? Does this mean tattooed, or scarred so as to create patterned ridges of scar tissue?

Oroonoko and Imoinda live – and are accepted by everyone – as man and wife. She becomes pregnant. The couple are always at the narrator’s house, eating, and she teaches them about history and Christianity which, however, Oroonoko doesn’t understand and mocks.

There is a pause in the narrative while the narrator explains that she sailed to Surinam with her father who was meant to become Lieutenant-General of 36 islands ‘beside the continent of Surinam’ but died on the voyage out. Nonetheless, she is put up in the finest house in the colony, Parham House.

It is important to grasp that Orinooko does not live the life of a slave at all – occasionally they go and visit the ‘Negro villages’ where the slaves live. Instead, he lives a life of leisure and diversion with the narrator and other white gentry. In this holiday capacity Oroonoko has several adventures:

  • he’s one of a party with the narrator who are surprised by a massive female tiger which threatens them but Oroonoko kills with one sword stroke
  • he hunts and kills another tiger which has been terrorising the neighbourhood
  • he fishes for the legendary numb-eel and is struck so numb by it he falls into the river and is carried some distance downstream, unconscious, before being rescued

Some kind of war breaks out with the native Indians, who attack white settlements and kill white settlers. The narrator, some others and Oroonoko go on a long journey down the river to visit a village of Indians and we are treated to an extended ethnographic description of their appearance and customs.

They meet some Indians of a different height and style, who tell them they’ve returned from the mountains where gold tumbles down in the streams. Once known this spurs gold fever in the settlers. More than once the narrator laments that the British government (well, Charles II) let the Dutch take over the colony of Surinam as a result of the third of the three brief Dutch wars of the 1660s (under the Treaty of Breda in 1667).

As Imoinda becomes more heavily pregnant, Oroonoko chafes more and more at, not exactly his slavery, because he isn’t used as a slave, but certainly at his lack of freedom. He calls together the Negroes on their free day and inspires, not a rebellion, but an exodus: they pack up all their stuff and leave, planning to cross rivers, mountains and forests and set up their own colony of the free.

They are followed by the governor-general, William Byam, and about 600 men. They catch up with the renegades and there’s a fierce fight, but the rebel blacks are slowly defeated or persuaded to stop fighting by their womenfolk, until only Ceasar and his most loyal lieutenant, Tuscan, are fighting on.

The governor promises them safe passage if they yield, and honourable Trefry goes talk to them and persuades them to surrender. They are all taken back to the plantation where Caesar and Tuscan are suddenly seized, tied to stakes, and whipped till the flesh falls off their bones. Many of the whippers are the very slaves he tried to free and who pretended to worship him. They rub pepper into the wounds and tie him to the ground.

The narrator didn’t witness this. She and the other white women, when they heard Caesar had led the slaves away, all fled to the safety of the river (?) where they were put in charge of the gallant Colonel Martin. When they hear the rebellion is put down they return to their house on the plantation (Parham House) then go to see Caesar in his wretched condition. They have him released, put into a bath to wash away the pepper, and surgeon called to administer healing balm. Caesar thanks them and respects Colonel Martin but says he vows to live solely to take his revenge on Governor Byam.

The Governor calls his council (of white trash, exiles and renegades) who call for Caesar to be hanged. But Trefry nobly points out the council has no authority over his estate (where they’ve brought Caesar to recuperate) and so he lives.

He lives but he vows eternal vengeance on Byam. But then he quavers in his determination, knowing he will not survive the murder and – worse – his beautiful Imoinda will be punished, maybe raped or gang-raped. Therefore (in the twisted logic of high opera) he resolves to kill her first.

He takes her up to a hilltop, explains his plan – to kill Byam, then take the punishment, but doesn’t want to leave her exposed – and she agrees, and amid tears and noble declamations – he stabs her to death!

while Tears trickled down his Cheeks, hers were smiling with Joy she should die by so noble a Hand, and be sent into her own Country (for that’s their Notion of the next World) by him she so tenderly loved, and so truly ador’d in this: For Wives have a Respect for their Husbands equal to what any other People pay a Deity; and when a Man finds any Occasion to quit his Wife, if he love her, she dies by his Hand; if not, he sells her, or suffers some other to kill her. It being thus, you may believe the Deed was soon resolv’d on; and ’tis not to be doubted, but the parting, the eternal Leave-taking of two such Lovers, so greatly born, so sensible, so beautiful, so young, and so fond, must be very moving,

Mind you, the details are extraordinarily gory:

All that Love could say in such Cases, being ended, and all the intermitting Irresolutions being adjusted, the lovely, young and ador’d Victim lays herself down before the Sacrificer; while he, with a Hand resolved, and a Heart-breaking within, gave the fatal Stroke, first cutting her Throat, and then severing her yet smiling Face from that delicate Body, pregnant as it was with the Fruits of tenderest Love.

He waits two days by the body but is then distraught to discover that excess of grief and lack of food have made him weak. When he tries to stand, he staggers. He rests another six days but only becomes weaker and weaker.

Meanwhile the narrator and his friends have become alarmed at the disappearance of Caesar and Imoinda and send out no fewer than hundred servants and slaves to find him. They find him in a clearing thanks to the smell of Imoinda’s rotting corpse.

Good God, why has he murdered his beautiful wife? He explains his plan but is too weak to move. He cuts flesh from his neck, then disembowels himself.

He stabs to the heart the first man who approaches him, but then Tuscan disarms him (be receiving the knife in the arm) and the other catch him and carry him back to Parham House. He is now skin and bone, like a death’s head.

Then one of the governor’s wretched criminal confederates comes and seizes Orookoko, not realising all he wants is to die and be with Imoinda. So when they tie him to the whipping post and announce they are going to kill him, Oroonoko is delighted.

Piece by piece they dismember his living body – cutting off his ‘members’, then his ears and nose and throwing them into the fire. Then hacking off one arm, then the other, at which point he dies. They quarter his body and send the quarters to different plantations to frighten the slaves.

Thus died this great Man, worthy of a better Fate, and a more sublime Wit than mine to write his Praise: Yet, I hope, the Reputation of my Pen is considerable enough to make his glorious Name to survive to all Ages, with that of the brave, the beautiful and the constant Imoinda.

Anti-colonialism

Nowhere does Behn express any explicit statements against slavery: it was too much a part of contemporary society, not just in Europe but in Africa and the colonies, for it to have come to seem monstrously unjust. Its evils and injustice and cruelty is amply described, but without any sense that the trade and institution itself could or should be stopped.

Instead, what Behn focuses on is the unfairness of enslaving a prince, a man of natural Nobility and Culture. The Wikipedia article and Penguin introduction both emphasise that the central pillar of Behn’s beliefs was her devotion to the principle of Monarchy. Nations need kings. Hence her enthusiastic support for Charles II. Once you grasp that this is the central principle of Behn’s worldview, then you understand:

– why she doesn’t criticise slavery, as an institution, but she does criticise the injustice of seizing Oroonoko

– why the issue of keeping one’s word is much more laboured over than slavery; for Behn, keeping one’s promise was the basis of trust, faith and society; her harshest criticism isn’t reserved for slavers as such, but for people like the sea captain who invites Oroonoko and his followers to a feast, then breaks his word to them – who promises to set them free at the next port, but breaks his word again; and for the governor of Surinam, Byam, who promises Oroonoko safe passage after his rebellion, but instead, once he gives himself up, orders his extreme whipping. In Behn’s view, men like that undermine the possibility of a civilised society, which must be based on trust and good faith.

– why the narrator is at such pains to repeated that Surinam lacks a proper governor, a representative of the king who would underpin good government. Instead it has the troth-breaking and treacherous governor Byam, and his treachery is intimately connected to the lack of his monarchical abilities. Without a True King a colony, like a nation, collapses.

– and this principle explains why Oroonoko’s Nobility and natural dignity outshine and shame the squalid brutality of his persecutors. The final scenes in which he continues smoking a pipe while his punishers cut off his members, his ears and nose and arms, is absurd from a ‘realist’ point of view, but an important token of Behn’s fervent belief in Royalism. Oroonoko is a king in the same way that Jesus was a king, full of sanctity and dignity, and beside his natural princely dignity the colonists seem like barbaric animals.

– and finally, it explains the narrator’s repeated disparaging references to the Dutch. The Dutch received the colony of Surinam as part of the Treaty of Breda of 1667 (the British received the settlement of New Amsterdam, which was to grow into New York City) and the narrator laments King Charles’s short-sightedness in giving away such a rich colony. But edge is added to her criticism because the Dutch were republicans and democrats. In Behn’s royalist view, every nation needs a king, and this is why she laments what she sees as the inevitable decline of the colony once it was handed over to democrats who, by definition, have no idea how to run a state.

Feminist scholars and critics have written scores of books and thousands of articles about Aphra Behn, raising her to sainthood in the pantheon of women writers. In doing so, they tend to equate her with their own politically correct and ultra-liberal views. They prefer to overlook the central fact that Behn was, from start to finish, in all her poems, prose and plays, a fervently right-wing, anti-democratic royalist. She would have voted for Mrs Thatcher.

Feminism

Behn is a feminist saint but it doesn’t prevent her depiction of the female lead, Imoinda, being the most clichéd and stereotypical imaginable, which will have come over from my plot summary.

On the other hand, the narrating voice, the persona she creates for herself within the text, is interesting, flexible and highly intelligent. She begs the reader’s indulgence for having a merely ‘female pen’, but this comes over as merely one of the polite formalities of the day, like the dedication and the preface and the verse prologue and so on attached to the text.

These conventional disclaimers shouldn’t distract us from her intelligence and skill, and the interest and curiosity she displays about the wildlife and climate of both the Africa of Oroonoko’s youth and the Surinam where the second half is set.

Feminist scholars and critics by the thousands have written scores of books and thousands of articles about Aphra Behn, raising her to sainthood in the pantheon of women writers. In doing so, they tend to equate her with their own politically correct and ultra-liberal views.

They prefer to overlook the central fact that Behn was, from start to finish, in all her poems, prose and plays, a fervently right-wing, anti-democratic royalist. She would have voted for Mrs Thatcher.

Is it a novel?

No, would be my answer, it is more like a Restoration play than a novel, and a restoration play – with its stock in trade of princely heroes and only the noblest and most highfalutin’ of emotions – is more like an opera than a modern play.

And towards the end it becomes more like the kind of sensationalist, penny-dreadful tracts hawked around scaffolds when criminals are to be executed, hanged or beheaded, another genre altogether.

One moment struck me as exemplifying the gap between the high-minded rhetoric of the text and the probable realities which underpin it. When Trefry describes the beautiful Clemene whose beauty ravishes everyone, Caesar asks him why he doesn’t just ‘ravish’ her, and Trefry replies:

‘I confess (said Trefry) when I have, against her Will, entertained her with Love so long, as to be transported with my Passion even above Decency, I have been ready to make Use of those Advantages of Strength and Force Nature has given me: But Oh! she disarms me with that Modesty and Weeping, so tender and so moving, that I retire, and thank my Stars she overcame me.’

I think a moment reflecting on this testimony, or text, or bit of discourse, suggests how utterly unlike the real world Behn’s fiction is, how it exists not to depict a ‘reality’ but to showcase the finest sentiments from a succession of noble characters. Indeed:

The Company laugh’d at [Trefry’s] Civility to a Slave, but Cæsar only applauded the Nobleness of his Passion and Nature…

(I wrote this observation before the final passages describing Oroonoko being whipped and peppered, murdering his wife, then wasting away, then being hacked to pieces. These final scenes seem, to me, to belong to a different genre altogether, certainly to a different register, and I wasn’t surprised to read, in the Wikipedia article about Oroonoko, that many of the details of the whipping and dismemberment might have been copied from written accounts of the appalling end of a white settle in Surinam, John Allin, which was described in detail in a contemporary publication.)

Is Oroonoko a novel? Well, it’s a long, connected narrative fiction, which is one definition. And you do get a cumulatively persuasive view of the narrator – the narrator’s tone and intentions and explanations seem assimilable to modern logic and understanding.

But the text itself, the actual story, seems to me too much like a Restoration tragedy, a contrived scaffold for unrealistically high sentiments all the way through – until it collapses in the last pages into its polar opposite, a blood-thirsty account of ‘true life crime passionel‘.

It is undeniably a precursor of the flexible, adult type of narrative which we call ‘the novel’, and yet…


Related links

Blog posts about slavery

Kara Walker @ Tate Modern

Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in California in 1969. She is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. I have previously come across her work in:

1. The big exhibition of prints held at the British Museum in 2017, where I wrote:

In this room the standout artist for me was Kara Walker, with her stylised black-and-white silhouettes of figures from the ante-bellum Deep South. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But her style is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

2. The other place I’d come across Walker is in the huge book, Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012) where Chadwick writes:

  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

So I was familiar with Walker’s crisp, black silhouettes, and the way that, despite their often emotive titles the actual illustrations are often more teasing, strange and fantastical than the apparent straightforward obsession with slavery would suggest.

Slavery! Slavery! by Kara Walker (1997) Installation at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Kara Walker and the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument

So when Tate announced that this year’s annual commission would be given to Walker, anyone familiar with her work will have expected it to touch on the issue of slavery – and she didn’t disappoint. She has created a huge sculpture which parodies the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument outside Buckingham Palace.

To understand how Walker has parodied the original, let’s take a moment to refresh our memories.

The Queen Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace, London

The Victoria monument is 25 metres high and contains 2,300 tonnes of white Carrara marble. As well as a solid, matronly Queen Victoria seated holding the orb and sceptre, the memorial also carries statues representing courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood. The central monument, created between 1906 and 1924, is by Sir Thomas Brock, but the whole design, including the nearby Memorial Gardens, was conceived by Sir Aston Webb and the Memorial was formally unveiled by King George V in 1911.

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

Walker decided that, in London, home of the slave trade for so many centuries, and a city stuffed to the gills with very white marble statues of and monuments to very white imperial heroes, it would be an interesting gesture to create a memorial, on a similarly imposing scale, to all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

The result is Fons Americanus (Latin for American fountain), an enormous monument made up of various human statues and a water feature spouting water into a set of concentric pools at its base, also filled with miscellaneous statues of people and a surprising number of sharks.

Installation view of Fons Americanus by Kara Walker (2019)

Walker replaces the smooth Victorian allegorical figures of the original with crudely carved cartoon figures representing archetypes from the slave trade, topped off with a staggering female figure spouting water from her breasts (and also from a nasty gash in her neck).

Each of these figures has a symbolic meaning and, although it’s not immediately obvious, most of them actually reference works of art from the British tradition, nineteenth century paintings of rafts and slaves and so on. There’s a full list of the different figures and explanations on the Tate website:

Broadly speaking, Walker replaces the British or imperial icons, depicted in the smooth neo-classical style of the original monument, with figures from various aspects of the slave trade – a weeping boy, a native woman instead of smug Queen Vic, a generic sea captain, a kneeling praying man in chains, and a tree with a noose dangling from it to represent the countless Africans who were hunted down, tortured, lynched and hanged.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood


First thoughts

1. Scale

The most obvious thing about filing the Turbine Hall is that your work must be big, and Fons Americanus is big alright. You can view it from the ground floor walkway but it’s worth going down to the lower level to walk around it and really get a sense of its hugeness. It towers over the mere mortals at its feet.

2. Aesthetics

All the Tate labels and webpages emphasise that the point of Fons Americanus is to subvert and parody the smooth surfaces of traditional monuments, as those monuments in their turn smooth over and gloss over the violence, and horror and exploitation which lay at the basis of the British Empire.

And that this explains why the surfaces of all the figures have been left deliberately pockmarked and rough to the touch. And, in the same spirit, explains why the human figures aren’t perfectly proportioned human figures based on the ancient Greek ideals of standardised beauty; instead they are deliberately rough and crude, because life is crude and real people are rough.

I understand the intention. I understand all that. But it’s still ugly. It’s still hard not to be repelled by the crudeness and ugliness of the figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Maybe she’s intending to give repellent content a repellent appearance, I understand the intention. But it’s notable how drastically Fons Americanus with its lunking crudity is unlike the silhouettes which brought her to fame. The silhouettes were notable for their style and grace and elegance of design.

I can’t help thinking that anyone familiar with the imaginative world of her silhouette works will be surprised and pretty disappointed by the blunt crudity of this enormous object.

3. Irony

There is a sort of politico-aesthetic irony here: I have read here and about other exhibitions, that Walker and many other BAME artists and writers are protesting against the white canons and the white rules of beauty which have dominated European and American art and media for so long. My impression is that for the past fifty years or more a lot of black artists and writers and film-makers have been campaigning to have black beauty, black pride, black appearance, black hair and black faces incorporated into much more diverse and inclusive notions of ‘beauty’.

OK, I understand the aim.

But there’s a kind of irony here that Walker seems to be playing to the crudest of racist stereotypes and clichés by making her black people so insistently and defiantly brutish and ugly, unfinished, rough and repellent. Maybe we are intended to overcome our repulsion from these crudely drawn figures and make the imaginative effort to sympathise for any human in dire need, no matter how crude and ungainly and clumpishly they’re depicted? Maybe the aesthetic clumsiness is part of a kind of moral test?

4. Patronising

But the biggest problem with this installation is the wall labels, the press release and all the relevant pages on the Tate website.

They all seem to assume that we’ve never heard of the Atlantic slave trade – that the existence of slavery 200 years ago will come as a massive surprise to Tate gallery visitors – and that the work will shine a dazzling new light on a previously unknown subject, confronting ‘a history often misremembered in Britain’ as the wall label puts it.

Misremembered by whom exactly? By art gallery visitors? Probably the most bien-pensant, liberal cohort of people you could assemble anywhere.

The notion that the slave trade is an obscure historical event which needs more publicising struck me as an extraordinary claim, especially since I went to see this sculpture during the 32nd Black History Month.

Had none of the previous 31 Black History Months mentioned slavery? Have no books been written on the subject, or TV documentaries made, or articles written or exhibitions about it held anywhere else? That assumption, which is taken as the premise of all the curator commentary, seemed astonishingly patronising, to me.

In fact I gave up reading the Tate web-page about the installation when I came to the sentence carefully explaining that London was ‘the capital of the British Empire’… OK. It was at that point that I realised the entire commentary was either for schoolchildren, or for people who have little or no knowledge about Britain or British history. But are these the kinds of people you are liable to meet at Tate Modern or Tate Britain?

In fact the type of person you meet most at Tate Modern are tourists. Every time I go, I end up helping some hapless foreigners find their way about, or explain the escalators and lifts, or the layout of two buildings to them (yesterday I had to explain to a family of Italians in the lift with me that they were going to the correct floor but in the wrong building).

Almost all the voices I heard as I walked round the installation were foreign: I particularly remember a French family who were posing their little kids for charming tourist pics on the edge of Fons Americanus‘s the pool, and plenty of other family groups were posing and taking family snaps around it, just as they do by the fountains in Trafalgar Square or at any number of other great big imposing public monuments in London.

What does its radical deconstruction of the tradition of neo-classical, British imperial monumentalising mean to them, I wonder?

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Ben Fisher

5. Artists and history

History, as a professional activity, is about the careful sifting of evidence. Historians undergo an extensive training in the use of archives and other sources, and ways of judging and assessing documents, speeches, books and so on.

Historians can obviously still be terribly biased, or commissioned by the state to write propaganda, and completely ‘objective’ history is probably impossible – but nonetheless the notion of objective history is still an ideal worth preserving and striving for, and most historians generally adhere to professional standards of presenting and interpreting evidence, which is or should be made available for others to sift and assess in their turn.

And hence the intellectual discipline of History – which amounts to an endless debate about all aspects of the past backed up by evidence.

Compare and contrast this meticulous approach with the worldview of artists, who are free to make great sweeping generalisations about life and art and society and capitalism and God and anything else they feel like, with little or no comeback, with no requirement for proof or evidence.

This is fine if they want to make provocative works out of industrial junk or surrealist paintings. But if they take it upon themselves to create works designed to be a complete reinterpretation of history over a period of hundreds of years – and if their new interpretation of history is going to be taught to schoolchildren and explained to school groups – then they assume a certain amount of responsibility.

In other words, to put it really bluntly – you shouldn’t rely on artists to teach you anything about history. You should rely on historians. That’s why they’re called historians. It is because they are lifelong specialists in an area of intellectual enquiry which is defined by rules, best practice, and policed by a community of peers, in academic journals and so on.

That’s Argument Number One against artists teaching history.

Argument Two concerns the idea of respecting the complexity of human history.

In my opinion, good history should try above all to capture the complexity of human motives and experiences. It’s a mistake not to take account of the extent to which people of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated and capable of contradictory feelings, beliefs and actions, as we are today. They were people like us, not one-dimensional caricatures.

In order to create the space to let your imagination and empathy work, in order to fully enter into the spirit of another time and try to understand the people who lived in it and the multiple pressures and compulsions they lived under – we should not rush to judgement. As the American historian David Silbey writes in his incisive account of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against Western imperialist forces in China:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

The kind of history I like is continually upsetting my expectations, presenting me with counter-intuitive ideas, making me stop and think and really reconsider my existing beliefs. Thus the book about Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, which I read recently, overturned my ideas about all sorts of aspects of the past, made me view lots of general trends and specific areas of history (such, for example, as the importance of the imperial conquests of Russia) in a completely new light.

My view is that Walker’s version of history doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know – that you weren’t taught at school and haven’t had reinforced by countless books, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles and Hollywood movies about slavery – and by thirty-two Black History Months with their annual outpouring of exhibitions, articles and documentaries.

Instead of making you really stop and think, of prompting unexpected insights and new ways of seeing, for me, at any rate, Fons Americanus seems to set out to confirm all your prejudices and stereotypes –

  • to confirm your impression that all blacks in all of history were helpless victims of the slave trade
  • to confirm the stereotype that all white masters were racist sadists
  • to erase the fact that the slaves were sold to the traders by Africans who made a fortune by enslaving their fellow blacks
  • to erase the hundreds of thousands who worked or bought their way out of slavery, set up businesses or had lives as fulfilling as plenty of the miserably poor whites (and other ethnic groups) they lived among
  • to erase the role of Britain and the Royal Navy in abolishing slavery and then policing the world’s oceans to try and prevent it. As James Walvin points out in his history of slavery, ‘Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.’ Somehow, I don’t think we’re going much about these positive achievements in the deluge of wokeness coming our way.

In other words, I feel nervous about the reduction of an immense and extraordinarily complicated history of the multifarious experiences of tens of millions of people over several hundred years down to half a dozen, crudely-drawn, Simpsonsesque cartoon figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Fons Americanus is big. It’s very big. American big. Like a skyscraper or a Big Mac.

But I recoiled from it a) aesthetically – it is crude and ugly and repellent, and b) intellectually – it is crude and patronising and dangerously simplistic.

Second Thoughts

To be honest, a lot of my negative response was triggered by Tate’s wall labels and by the Tate web-pages about Fons Americanus and the slave trade – commentary and labels which I found worryingly simple-minded, and single-minded: simplifying an enormous, complex, multifarious epoch of history down into a handful of slogans and images, and into a new, and worryingly simple-minded, orthodoxy.

My argument was, to a large extent, with the written interpretation of the work.

But there’s a different and much more obvious approach to the commission and presence of Fons Americanus here in Tate Modern, which is to ask: among all the hundreds of memorials and monuments and statues to countless white men and generals and politicians, most of whom served under the British Empire in one shape or another and which litter London’s public spaces: should there be a memorial to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade?

To which the answer is almost certainly an emphatic YES, Yes, there should be.

In which case the follow-up questions are:

  1. Should it be this one?
  2. and, Where should it go?

Where would you put it?


The Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern and global warming

Every year Tate commissions a contemporary artist to fill the vast space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The funding comes from Hyundai.

Hyundai is a South Korean multinational automotive manufacturer headquartered in Seoul. It manufactures nearly 5 million automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles each year. If green activists have woken up to the fact that many art exhibitions are sponsored by oil companies, and violently object to their contribution to global warming, indeed have gone to the trouble of pouring oil at the front of the National Portrait Gallery which each year hosts the BP Portrait Awards… how long before the penny drops that oil is only actually a pollutant when it is burned to produce CO2 and a host of toxic poisonous chemicals hazardous to human life and all other life forms?

In other words, I wonder for how much longer a company which manufactures toxic, air-polluting ‘automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles’ will be allowed to sponsor works of art and installations like this?


Related links

Other posts about slavery / American history

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (5) by James M. McPherson (1987)

Stepping back from the detail, this reader’s general sense of the actual fighting of the American Civil War – having just finished this 860-page book about it – was that the slaughter steadily escalated, until tens of thousands were being killed and wounded at each brutal, bloody, slogged-out battle, causing death and injury on such a scale you’d have thought they’d be decisive.

And yet they weren’t. There was a terrible fatality or weakness about the commanding generals on both sides which prevented them from landing really knockout blows and allowed the war to drag on for years longer than necessary.

The reader gets very impatient with General George B. McClellan who was in charge of the north’s largest army, the Army of the Potomac. He was, by all accounts, an excellent organiser of armies and inspirer of men who, however, turned out to be pathologically reluctant to risk his shiny military machine in actual battle. And, on the rare occasions when he did engage and repel the Confederates, McClellan consistently failed to pursue and crush them, allowing them to retreat, lick their wounds, regroup, re-arm and come again. Eventually, President Lincoln became so impatient with McClellan’s fatal indecisiveness that he sacked him.

But, to the reader’s frustration, the turns out to be true of his replacement, Major General George Meade, who commanded the northern army at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3 1863), massacring the rebels as they tried to storm his entrenched men along Cemetery Hill.

But then, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee called off the rebel attack and withdrew, Meade refused the calls from his officers, and from Lincoln himself, to pursue and crush the exhausted southern survivors – thus ensuring that Lee could withdraw, regroup, and that the war went on for another two years!

Apparently, a contemporary satirist described the armies of the American Civil War as little more than armed mobs wandering over the Virginia countryside at random, occasionally bumping into each other, massacring each other, then wandering off again with no decisive result. For long periods of time this satire does seem to be true.

According to McPherson, the siege and capture of the rebel stronghold of Vicksburg, which took place at the same time as the enormous Battle of Gettysburg (May to July 1865), marked a turning point in the war – but quite clearly neither was a knockout blow, and the South continued to field armies for 24 more bloody months.

Two years of bludgeoning, desperate bloodletting, as bigger and bigger armies engaged for longer and longer, at the costs of tens of thousands of eviscerated mangled bodies, with an enormous loss of life and treasure.

Meanwhile, as the generals of both sides failed to win the war, the conflict was nonetheless a time of rapid social, economic and technological change.

Military innovation

The generals initially carried on implementing Napoleonic battle strategy i.e. close ranked men march forwards, protected by cavalry on the flanks, until they’re within range to charge and close the enemy with bayonets – at which point the enemy breaks and runs, hopefully.

However, this was the war during which the rifle replaced the smooth-bore musket. Rifling made a bullet fly further and more accurately. This meant rifle fire could now kill men at three or four times the distance i.e. infantry advancing in the old style were cut down like grass.

Suddenly the advantage was with well-entrenched defenders. This explains the carnage at the Battle of Antietam as attacking Union troops found themselves funnelled into a lane which led towards the Confederate positions, and were mown down in their thousands. Or the carnage at Fredericksburg, where Union troops walked towards a solid wall at the base of St Marye’s Heights lined with Confederates assembled in ranks who fired in sequence – it was like walking towards machine guns.

It’s in the last two hundred pages, from the year 1864, that the power of defensive trenches really comes into its own, with the enormous losses suffered by Union soldiers trying to take rebel trenches at Spotsylvania and Petersburg. Here the fighting anticipated the appalling attrition rates of the First World War.

Arguably it was the development of the rifle, and the advantage it gave defenders, which is the one big reason why the American Civil War was so long and so bloody. (pp.477ff)

The scale of the slaughter

Some of the slaughter was awe-inspiring. The massacre at Antietam Creek left 6,000 men dead and some 17,000 wounded – four times the total number suffered on the Normandy beaches on D-Day – more than all American casualties in the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the Spanish-American war combined.

Similarly, the three-day Battle of Gettysburg was an abattoir, with some 8,000 killed out of about 50,000 casualties.

Even relatively minor encounters seemed to result in appalling rates of death and maiming.

Some 620,000 men from both armies died in the civil war. It was a catastrophe.

Disease the biggest killer in most wars

But disease was an even bigger killer than rifles and artillery. For every soldier who died in battle, two died of disease. The biggest killers were intestinal complaints such as dysentery and diarrhoea, which alone claimed more men than did battle wounds. Other major killers were measles, smallpox, malaria and pneumonia.

The fundamental basis of modern medicine – the fact that microscopic bacteria spread infections – had not yet been discovered. Medicine was, as McPherson puts it, still in the Middle Ages. The result was that no-one appreciated the importance of sterile dressings, antiseptic surgery, and the vital importance of sanitation and hygiene.

The impact of disease was so severe that it disrupted or led to the cancellation of a number of military campaigns. (p.488)

The changing role of women

McPherson goes out of his way in several places to discuss the changing positions of women. This is especially true of his section on medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women followed the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These women nurses and organisers impressed the medical establishment, the army and the politicians, and made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness.

Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483). In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, specially in the North, where women were called in to replace men, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

Financial innovations

But arguably the most profound changes wrought by the Civil War – and certainly the most boring to read about – were the financial innovations it prompted.

To finance the war the northern government instituted the first ever federal income tax, on 5 August 1861. Taxes on other goods followed quickly under the Internal Revenue Act of 1862 which taxed ‘almost everything but the air northerners breathed’ (p.447) including liquor, tobacco and playing cards, carriages, yachts and billiard tables, taxes on newspaper adverts and patent medicines, licence taxes on virtually every profession, stamp taxes, taxes on the gross receipts of corporations, banks, insurance companies and the dividends or interest they paid investors.

The relationship of the American taxpayer to the government was never the same again.

This was accompanied by a Legal Tender Act of 1862 which issued, for the first time, a federal currency. Until this point each of the states had had their own treasury and their own forms of payment. Now the Federal government set out to supersede all these with the green dollar bills it produced by the million. These soon became known as ‘greenbacks’ and endure to this day.

Having revolutionised the country’s monetary and tax structures, the 37th Congress (1861-62) did the same for public land, higher education and railways.

McPherson shows how the economic dynamism of the north had been hampered and blocked for decades by southern states suspicious that every attempt to spread its free market, industrial culture was an attack on the South’s slave-based, agricultural economy.

Once the southern states seceded the Congress, now representing solely northern states, was set free to unleash its vision. A homestead act granted 160 acres of land to settlers who developed it for five years, underpinning the explosive expansion westwards.

A Vermont congressman developed a bill to make 30,000 acres of public land in each state available for the founding of further education, and especially agricultural colleges – establishing a network of institutions which ensured the most efficient exploitation of farmland by American farmers for generations to come.

And the Pacific Railroad Act granted land and money for a railway which eventually ran from Omaha to San Francisco. Much of the land dealing and speculation about the construction of this and later railways became notorious for corruption and sharp practices. But nonetheless the railways were built, connecting people, services and supplies across this vast continent.

Taken together these changes amounted to a ‘blueprint for modern America’, a:

new America of big business, heavy industry, and capital-intensive agriculture that surpassed Britain to become the foremost industrial nation by 1880 and became the world’s breadbasket for much of the twentieth century… (p.452)

The capitalists, labourers and farmers of the north and west superseded the plantation aristocracy of the South in the economic and political system, permanently remodelling America as a high-finance, industrialised, capitalist country.

Reconstruction

And this is the background to the idea of ‘Reconstruction’.

As in any war, the war aims of both sides changed over time. Initially most northern Democrats and many Republicans simply wanted the southern states to de-secede and return to the Union, more or less as they were.

But savvier radicals realised that there would have to be drastic changes in southern economy, culture and politics if the whole nation wasn’t simply to return to the permanently blocked political deadlocks of the decades which led up to the conflict.

Even slow-to-change Abe Lincoln realised that the South would have to be remade on the model of the industrialised, capitalist North. Having been devastated, economically, in terms of war dead, in terms of goods and assets destroyed, burned and bombed to bits, and having had the fundamental underpinning of its entire economic existence – slavery – abolished – the South would need to be entirely rebuilt from scratch.

This is what the term ‘Reconstruction’ came to mean and McPherson’s book comes to an abrupt stop just before it begins. His book ends with the end of the war, with the moving encounter between the old enemies as Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, and then Confederate troops came in and surrendered their weapons to their union victors.

A short epilogue fleetingly references the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 15 April 1865, the vast funeral, the flight of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and half a dozen other events which quickly followed in the wake of peace – but that’s it as far as McPherson’s account is concerned.

The whole enormous story of what came next:

  • the attempts to reconstruct the South and their long-term impact, in terms of poverty and ongoing racial prejudice
  • the conquest of the West and the so-called Indian Wars
  • the astonishing industrial and financial rise of the North until America was on a par with the mightiest European powers

remains to be told in the next book in the series.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left) signs the terms of surrender to Union General Ulyses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, as painted by Tom Lovell in 1964

Confederate General Robert E. Lee (left) signs the terms of surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on 9 April 1865, as painted by Tom Lovell in 1964


Related links

Other posts about American history

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (4) by James M. McPherson (1987)

Slavery is the normal condition of the negro… as indispensable to his prosperity and happiness… as liberty is to the whites.
(From a petition sent to Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the 56th Virginia regiment against allowing black soldiers to fight for the Confederacy, quoted on page 836)

Racism…

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were wrong if they meant to include Negroes among ‘all men’, said Alexander Graham after he had become vice president of the Confederacy.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery… is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. (quoted on page 244)

Repeatedly, every few pages in this long book, the reader is slapped in the face by quite breathtakingly racist statements made by all classes of Americans in the 1860s. Here is the southern newspaper, the Richmond Whig, in 1865, discussing the heretical idea of arming the South’s slaves to fight for it. The idea was:

a repudiation of the opinion held by the whole South… that servitude is a divinely appointed condition for the highest good of the slave. (quoted p.834)

It is one of the characteristics of McPherson’s immensely thorough account of the American Civil War that he lards his text with quotations – from speeches by presidents, senators and congressmen, from newspaper articles and editorials, from the diaries and letters on both sides of the argument, and statements from the lowliest, barely literate, farmhands-turned-soldiers.

In other words, McPherson gives you deep insight into the minds of people at every level of society on both sides of the war.

And one of the big things that comes over is a level of anti-black racism at all levels of 1860s American society which is staggering, almost beyond words to describe.

Nowadays the word ‘racism’ is quickly applied to the slightest verbal slip or misspeak. It is eye-opening to come to understand what institutional racism really means, in the sense of a quite overt, explicit, unashamed and widely popular belief, promoted by politicians from the (Confederate) president at the top, throughout the entire (Confederate) press – that black Africans are a separate and inferior race, quite incapable of education, higher thought, or serious mental activity, a race set aside by GOD specifically to perform the most menial, humdrum, mindless activities. And a race which posed a permanent terrorising threat to all decent white folk.

As the Charleston Mercury put it, emancipation would mean:

the poor man… reduced to the level of the nigger. His wife and daughter are to be hustled on the street by black wenches, their equals. Swaggering buck niggers are to ogle them and elbow them. (p.836)

I suppose it was obvious that this would be the mindset of the southern plantation-owning class but it is still shocking to read.

But almost worse is the revelation that even in the north whose politicians were anti-slavery and who eventually turned the war into a crusade to emancipate the slaves, there was, of course, a strong abolitionist movement, particularly in snooty, Puritan New England – but there was also anti-black sentiment almost as strong as in the south, and just as profoundly racist.

Many northern soldiers, and their newspapers and congressmen, went out of their way to explain that they were fighting the war against rebels but certainly not for uppity Negroes. In the north, there were protests against the new draft introduced in July 1862, where protesters carried banners saying things like:

We won’t fight to free the nigger (p.493)

MacPherson quotes a Union soldier as writing: ‘I am not in favour of freeing the negroes and leaving them to run riot among us’. It wasn’t isolated bigots, but the state legislatures of Illinois and Indiana who called the Emancipation Proclamation ‘wicked, inhuman and unholy’. It was an Ohio newspaper editor who described it as ‘monstrous, impudent and heinous… insulting to God as to man, for it declares those “equal” whom God created unequal.’ (p.595)

In the 1863 congressional elections in the north, the remaining Democrats (a party mostly associated with southern slave-holders) campaigned as the peace party, expressing such vehement opposition to the war that one of their leaders, Clement Vallandigham, was forced to flee the country and campaigned from Canada. He wrote:

In considering terms of settlement we should look only to the welfare, peace and safety of the white race, without reference to the effect that settlement may have on the African. (quoted page 592)

The editor of New York’s leading Catholic weekly told a mass meeting that:

when the president called for them to go and carry on a war for the nigger, he would be damned if he believed they would go. (quoted p.609)

The Democrat Party in the north split into war democrats and peace-at-any-price Democrats. The most outspoken wing of the peace Democrats was given the nickname ‘copperhead’, after a particularly venomous American snake. A copperhead campaigning in the Ohio elections wrote:

Let every vote count in favour of the white man, and against the Abolition horses, who would place negro children in your schools, negro jurors in your jury boxes,  and negro votes in your ballot boxes. (quoted page 686)

Being a democratic politician means you have to listen to the people, you have to take their beliefs into account, even if you think they are ignorant and prejudiced beliefs. As Lincoln himself put it:

A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. (p.128)

All of this evidence, which McPherson marshals so effectively, explains why Lincoln had to proceed slowly, retaining as many allies as he could, in the political class as well as among the broader population, in a culture awash with anti-Afro-American thoughts and prejudices.

But it’s still a shock to read the remarks he made to a group of black leaders in the White House on 14 August 1862. Slavery was:

the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.

But even if slavery were abolished, racial differences and prejudices would remain.

Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.

Blacks had little chance to achieve equality in the United States.

There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free coloured people to remain among us… I do not mean to discuss this, but to propose it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I could.

This fact, Lincoln thought, made it necessary for black people to emigrate to another land where they would have better opportunities. He asked the black leaders present to ask for volunteers for a government-sponsored pilot scheme to resettle black Americans in Central America. (p.508) So even the leader of the North and the proclaimer of the emancipation of the slaves thought the only real solution to the ‘Race Problem’ was to pack off the ‘other’ race to a different country. Wow.

It makes for a lot of unpleasant reading, but it also gives the reader a sense of the deep, deep, deep racist, anti-black sentiments which were central to American society, had been for decades beforehand, and would continue to be for decades afterwards. It helps you understand why profoundly racist attitudes continued in full flood well into the 1960s and beyond, and had to be combated by black movements which themselves were often radical and violent.

It makes you understand that African slavery and the racism it engendered is the Original Sin which just can’t be cleansed from the American soul.

… and constitutional law

It’s easy to overlook because it’s so much less shocking than the racism, but in among the descriptions of the economy, of banking and then – of course – of the paraphernalia of war, the recruitment, arms factories, train lines and battles – a steady hum which, once you notice it you realise makes up most of the book, is the central importance to American politics of the law.

Having read Alan Taylor’s book about the American War of Independence I now understand that the American constitution wasn’t some pristine and perfect theory of government devised by political philosophers working in a vacuum, but an extremely hard-headed set of compromises between the squabbling thirteen colonies who all had particular interests to protect, not least the southern slave states who fought to ensure that slavery was protected, even if it was nowhere explicitly mentioned.

Reading this book helps the reader to understand the uniquely complex and legalistic nature of American society, whereby each state has its own elected officials and supreme court, which may – or may not – be overridden by federal i.e. national president, congress and Supreme Court.

In other words, any two parties caught in a civil or criminal case, has at least two sets of authorities to appeal to, state and federal. When U.S. society split from top to bottom in the civil war there became in effect four sets of law. And since each state had its own traditions, made its own laws, and elected its own officials, the reality was something more like 30 squabbling states, plus two overriding federal authorities who were at war with each other.

What is fascinating is the extent to which neither side really appealed to moral or religious principles, but tried to dress up their decisions in the cloak of the Constitution. The main arguments of the civil war occurred at the where Law meets Political Theory. Both sides appealed to the Constitution, but gave their own (wildly conflicting) politico-legal interpretations of it.

Thus the most obvious thing, to us, today, about the quote from the Confederate vice-president at the top of this review, is its repellent view of race: but what’s symptomatic of its era is that it is couched not in terms of scientific theory or morality or religion – but as a theory of government.

When politicians argue in this book (and they argue all the way from page one to page 860) of course they sometimes express themselves in terms of ‘racial theory’ or religion but, when push comes to shove, they argue strongest about laws and the basis of all American laws, the Constitution.

They argue whether the Kansas-Nebraska Law of 1854 is constitutional, whether the president has powers to proclaim emancipation, they argue whether states have the right to secede under any circumstances, about what a state actually is (early in the war West Virginia seceded from Virginia – was it allowed to? who said so?).

What’s easy to forget in all the bloodshed and in the inflammatory rhetoric of racism, is that this was a highly articulate, well-educated argument taking place among sometimes blunt and rude but often very subtle and clever lawyers.

If one obvious element of Battle Cry of Freedom is to rub your face in some very unpleasant racist ideology and make you appreciate how deep and enduring anti-black racism has been in America – a less immediately obvious but just as important conclusion is the extent to which America is a country meshed in a fascinating and endlessly complicated web of state and federal laws and courts and legal powers.

Something which goes a long way to explaining why outsiders often find American politics confusing and end up with a simple-minded focus on the personality of whoever happens to be in the White House (JFK, Nixon, Barack, Donald), ignoring the complex web of political, legal and constitutional wrangling which go on continually at lower levels of American political life, and which are often more important in determining the lives and livelihoods of most Americans.

And explains Americans’ apparently ceaseless appetite for TV shows about lawyers. Are there any British TV series about solicitors? No, because their work is very boring. Whereas American law really is a) more complex, challenging and swashbuckling; b) seems to automatically offer the possibility of a career progressing into state politics and then, potentially, on into national politics.

In terms of its racial heritage, and its legal-political arrangements, this books helps the reader really come to appreciate what a very different country from our own America is.


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (3) by James M. McPherson (1987)

This is a long book. It takes McPherson about 280 pages before he gets to the outbreak of hostilities, just to paint in the complicated political, economic, legal and social background to the American Civil War. This build-up section is absolutely fascinating, giving insights into a number of deep and enduring aspects of American history and culture.

Cuba

I had no idea that freelance forces raised in the southern states repeatedly tried to invade and capture Cuba (this was after President Polk offered Spain $100 million for it and Spain haughtily refused). The so-called ‘Ostend Manifesto’ of 1854 declared that Cuba was as vital for American interests as any of the other American states. Invasion attempts were led by Narciso Lopez among others. Cuba was attractive because it had a slave population of some 500,000 i.e. annexing it to America would create a) another slave state, thus giving the existing slave states more political clout, b) add a big new territory in which slaves could be bought and sold i.e. where slave traders could make a profit.

And Nicaragua. In 1855 adventurer and mercenary leader William Walker managed to get himself appointed head of the Nicaraguan army, from where he usurped the presidency, ruling as President of Nicaragua for a year, 1856-57, before being defeated in battle by an alliance of other Central American states. (Walker had previously ‘conquered’ La Paz, the capital of sparsely populated Baja California, with a force of 43 men, and concocted various plans to seize territory from Mexico. McPherson’s book conveys a wonderful sense of this era of bandits, adventurers, filibusters and mercenaries.)

Plenty of southern ideologists thought that, blocked by the free states in the north, their destiny was to seize and conquer all the nations surrounding the Gulf of Mexico (Mexico, all of Central America, all the Caribbean islands), institute slavery in all of them, and corner the market in all the world’s coffee, sugar, cotton and other tropical goods, establish a new slave empire.

What an epic vision!

The various invasion attempts reinforced Latin American countries’ suspicion of America’s boundless arrogance and her thinly veiled ambitions to control the entire hemisphere, which lasts to this day.

Reviving the slave trade

Many southerners wanted to renew the slave trade, and some went as far as commissioning private ships to go buy Africans and ferry them back to America e.g. Charles Lamar, although Lamar was arrested (and released) and no sizeable trade was, in the end, established.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

In McPherson’s opinion the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was ‘the most important single event pushing the nation towards civil war (p.121).

The territories of Kansas and Nebraska needed to be defined and organised. The process was led by Senator Stephen Douglas. He needed senate support. A key block of southerners made it clear they wouldn’t support the bill unless Douglas allowed slavery in the new states. To be precise, unless he repealed the ban on slavery north of 36° 30’ which had a been a central part of successive compromises with the slave states since 1820.

Douglas inserted such a repeal into the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the bill’s supporters then forced a meeting with President Pierce (1853-57) during which they threatened him: ‘Endorse repeal or lose the south’.

Pierce caved in, the act passed and caused a storm of protest. McPherson details the process by which the Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated the collapse of the Whig party, whose northern and southern wings increasingly struggled to find common ground. From the ashes arose a variety of anti-slavery parties, which eventually crystallised into a new, entirely northern, Republican party.

Nativism

Immigration quadrupled after the great potato blight in Ireland of the mid-1840s. Immigration in the first five years of the 1850s was five times higher than a decade earlier. Most of the immigrants were Catholic Irish fleeing the famine or Germans fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848. They tended to be poor peasant labourers who crammed into urban tenements, driving up crime, squalor, disease and drunkenness.

Pope Pius IX (1846-78) helped stoke anti-Catholic feeling among liberals and the American Protestant establishment by making the Catholic Church a beacon for reactionary beliefs – declaring the doctrine of papal infallibility and publishing a Syllabus of Errors which forbade Catholics from praising or practicing liberalism, socialism, public education, women’s rights and so on. American Catholic archbishop Hughes published an inflammatory book declaring that Protestantism was declining and would soon be replaced by Catholicism in America.

Unsurprisingly, in reaction, spokesman arose for a movement called ‘nativism’, which promoted the Protestant virtues of sobriety and hard work. There were riots and fights in cities between nativist mobs and Catholic groups.

Nativism overlapped with a growing temperance movement, which sought to close down bars and ban hard liquor – an anticipation of the Prohibition of the 1920s.

Secret societies grew up dedicated to keeping America Protestant by organising their members to only vote for Protestant candidates. There may have been up to a million members of these societies who were told that, if anyone asked about the name or membership of their local branch, they were to say ‘I know nothing’. As a result they became known as the ‘Know-nothings’, and in the few years up to the Civil War knownothingness became a sort of political craze.

The Catholic Irish also tended to be strongly against blacks, with whom they competed for the roughest labouring jobs at the bottom of the social hierarchy. It was the Irish vote which played a key part in preventing blacks from being given equal voting rights in New York, in 1846. One journalist summarised the conflict as:

freedom, temperance and Protestantism against slavery, rum and Catholicism (p.137)

Abraham Lincoln

The trigger for civil war was the election of Abraham Lincoln as president on 6 November 1860. The less well-known of the two candidates for the Republican party, it wasn’t so much him personally, as the sweeping triumph of the essentially northern antislavery Republican party running on a platform of opposing the spread of slavery to any more U.S. states, which prompted southern slave states to finally carry out the acts of secession they’d been threatening every time there was a political clash or controversy for the previous decade or more. (For example, South Carolina had threatened to secede in 1850 over the issue of California’s statehood).

Indeed, it was South Carolina which first seceded from the United States as a result of a political convention called within days of Lincoln’s election, the official secession declared on December 20, 1860. South Carolina was quickly followed by Mississippi (January 9, 1861), Florida (January 10, 1861), Alabama (January 11, 1861), Georgia (January 19, 1861), Louisiana (January 26, 1861), Texas (February 1, 1861), Virginia (April 17, 1861), Arkansas (May 6, 1861), North Carolina (May 20, 1861), and Tennessee (seceded June 8, 1861).

The seceding states joined together to form the Confederate States of America (CSA). In April 1861 President Lincoln made a speech saying the seceded states did not form a separate country, and that he would take steps to protect Union property and assets in the so-called Confederate states.

Almost immediately a flashpoint arose at Fort Sumter built on a sandbar at the entrance to the harbour of Charleston, capital of South Carolina. Reports that the Union navy was planning to resupply the small Union garrison in the (unfinished) fort prompted the South Carolina militia to make a pre-emptive strike and bombard the Fort into surrender on April 12, 1861. These were the first shots fired in the Civil War and Lincoln had been astute in managing to ensure it was a rebel state who fired them.

A political war

It was a political war. From start to finish the aims of both sides were political – broadly speaking the survival of their respective political, economic and social systems (one based on slave labour, one not) i.e. it was not a war fought about land or conquest.

Although it quickly escalated (or degenerated) into a total war, mobilising the resources of both sides, and leading to terrible casualties, the political aspect of the struggle was always pre-eminent.

Neither side was monolithic. There were moderates in the south, there were even unionists in the upper southern states, to whom Lincoln held out the possibility of negotiation and reconciliation. Similarly, not all northerners were in favour of total war, and one plank of southern rhetoric was to reach out to northern ‘constitutionalists’ by emphasising that the southern states’ cause was a logical consequence of the American Constitution’s concern for each state’s individual autonomy. They were merely fighting for their rights under the Constitution to govern by their own laws.

Whose rights came first – the states or the Union as a whole? Who ruled – the central or the states governments? This had proved a thorny problem for the drafters of the Constitution back in the 1780s and was, at least to begin with, the core issue of the war. It’s certainly the one Abraham Lincoln focused on in his early speeches, which assert that you simply can’t have a government if large parts of the country threaten to secede every time laws are passed which they disagree with.

We must settle this question now: whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.

But the south didn’t think it was a matter of this or that law – they thought the Republicans’ stated aim of stopping slavery from spreading and, in time, forcing it to wither and die, represented an existential threat their entire economic and cultural existence. As the South’s reluctant president, Jefferson Davis, said, the Confederate states had been forced:

to take up arms to vindicate the political rights, the freedom, equality, and state sovereignty which were the heritage purchased by the blood of our revolutionary sires.

Length and complexity

This is why the first 300 pages of McPherson’s book are so important. They need to paint a really thorough picture of the confused and contradictory political scene right across American society in the decades preceding the conflict:

  • explaining the arguments over slavery which tore both the pre-war Whig Party and that Democrat Party apart
  • explaining the rise of the new antislavery Republican party; describing the importance of nativist and racist movements in the north (not only anti-Catholic and anti-Irish but also anti-negro)
  • describing in detail the sequence of political crises which flared up over the admission of each new state to the union, the blizzard of arguments on both sides about whether each the new state should be slave or free
  • and detailing the complicated compromises which just about papered over the cracks for decades until the election of Lincoln.

And you need a good grasp of the kaleidoscopic and shifting complexity of American political scene in these years to understand why Lincoln took the decisions he did; for example why he appointed to his first cabinet several of his major political rivals – even from other parties – in order to build the widest coalition.

Why he appointed a soldier from the rival Democrat party George B. McClellan as head of the army on the Potomac, and stuck with him even though he failed to press the North’s military and logistical advantage.

Similarly, why Lincoln delayed so long before declaring the Emancipation of the Slaves – namely that he had to keep onside as many as possible of the Democrat (i.e. slave-friendly) politicians in the north who had continued attending the Union Congress and Senate, and avoid offending opinion in the border states of Missouri and Kansas.

The American Civil War really is a classic example of the old saying that war is politics by other means as, throughout the conflict, both leaders, Lincoln and Davis, had to manage and negotiate unending squabbles on their own sides about the war’s goals and strategies. McPherson notes how both leaders at various points felt like quitting in exasperation – and how both sides found their war aims changing and evolving as political feeling changed, and as the value of various alliances also changed in importance.

Killers

Meanwhile, as in any war, some men discovered that they liked killing.

You need the background and build-up in order to understand why the border states between north and south (for example, Missouri and Virginia) found themselves torn apart by opposing political movements and descending into their own mini civil wars, which generated gangs of raiders and freelancers beholden to neither side, degenerating into tit-for-tat bloodbaths.

One of Quantrill's Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James.

One of Quantrill’s Raiders, the best-known of the pro-Confederate partisan guerrillas (or bushwhackers) who fought in the American Civil War. Their leader was William Quantrill and they included Jesse and Frank James (pp.292 and 303)

It takes some time to explain why such a large, rich, bustling, vibrant nation managed to tear itself to pieces and descend, in many places, into violent anarchy. Battle Cry of Freedom is a very long book because it needs to be – but it never ceases to be completely absorbing and continually illuminating.


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2) by James M. McPherson (1987)

In mid-19th century America there was a cohort of people who were professional slave hunters. Let’s just reflect on that fact… people whose full-time job it was to reclaim the lost ‘property’ of southern slave owners. How did this come about?

1854 advert for a runaway slave

1854 advert for a runaway slave

The Fugitive Slave Act

In 1850 the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers (a short-lived political party which took part in the 1848 and 1852 presidential races with the sole aim of preventing slavery being expanded into the new western states).

The law required that all escaped slaves, upon recapture, be returned to their masters, and that the officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate with this. Many northern states opposed the law and passed personal liberty laws which used various strategies to try and to block the Fugitive Slave Act – by insisting that captured suspects get a fair trial, or by forbidding state authorities from collaborating with the federal agents tasked with recapturing runaway slaves.

Almost every case brought under the new act caused explosions of outrage on both sides of the argument. Many northern states took advantage of jury ‘nullifications’, where a jury refused to convict because they believed the entire basis of a federal law was unjust.

Northern cities set up Vigilance Committees which could mobilise lawyers to defend a captured runaway, and/or mobs to surround gaols where they were being held. On numerous occasions this resulted in fighting, often with guns, as northern mobs stormed gaols to free slaves held by Federal authorities.

Southerners believed northerners wanted to abolish the entire notion of property, which was a founding concept of American freedom (a circular definition in which freedom is defined as the ability to own property, and the ownership of property equals the independence from poverty which underlies the notion of personal freedom).

The clash between the pro-slavery Federal law and the anti-slavery strategies taken by various northern states made almost every case of a runaway slave being recaptured into a show trial.

Imagine being a freed black person, going about your business in Boston or New York, and suddenly being set upon by a gang of men and hustled along to a gaol. And then – if you’re lucky – standing in the dock while lawyers argue whether you are a human being or a piece of property!

Impact of the law

The law had a noticeable cultural impact. For northerners, the country’s law for the first time made them accomplices in the institution of slavery – forced them at the risk of a hefty fine or possible imprisonment, to aid federal marshals in arresting, imprisoning and returning runaway slaves to the south, no matter how much they didn’t want to.

It was a flavour of slavery and the slave state, forced right into northerners’ faces. And it forced the more conscientious of them to choose between obeying an unjust law or their consciences. It created martyrs not only among the poor captured runaway blacks, but among their white supporters, especially in the church. McPherson quotes a number of clergy who wrote publicly announcing that they were prepared to go to gaol to defend the liberty of runaway slaves.

The intrusion of slave violence into the free north inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, the ‘daughter, sister and wife of Congregational churchmen’, to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery story told with moral passion. The book was published in monthly serials in an antislavery magazine before being published in book form in 1852. It went on to become the most popular novel of the 19th century, second only to the Bible in book sales in the States and abroad. Extraordinarily, Stowe wrote it in the evenings after completing all the household chores and putting her six children to bed. I wish I had that much energy.

The underground railway

Implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act reinforced the importance of the so-called Underground Railway, escape routes of safe houses and sympathetic helpers who could ferry blacks north through the free states and on, ultimately, to Canada – much like the networks which shot-down Allied airmen used in Nazi-occupied Europe a century later.

An estimated three thousand blacks fled to Canada in the last three months of 1850 alone. During the 1850s the black population of Ontario doubled.

There are records of slaves committing suicide rather than be caught. McPherson quotes the story of a runaway slave mother who tried to cut the throats of her own children as the slave catchers broke into the house where they were hiding, rather than let them be taken back to a lifetime of servitude and abuse. Stories like that really bring home the horror and the despair of slavery.

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

And yet, during the entire decade of the 1850s, as a result of the law only some 332 escaped slaves were returned and only 11 declared free. Odd that such a relatively small number had such a seismic cultural impact on both the north (disgusted) and the south (outraged that the north tried to steal their ‘property’), when you set it against the fact that there were some four million slaves in the south.

Meditating on the stories McPherson prints, it’s hard to see how anyone brought up in these communities, and in the USA, could recover from such a deeply embedded trauma. And it’s easy to imagine the aftershock of such a colossal wound lasting down through generations and never, really, being healed…


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1) by James M. McPherson (1987)

‘Our political conflicts must be in future between slavery and freedom.’
Whig Congressman Joshua Giddings at the Free Soil convention in 1848 (quoted on page 61)

This massive volume (900 pages) is part of the multi-volume Oxford History of America which began publishing back in the 1980s.

The civil war is by far the most written-about event in American history, not least because more Americans died in it than in all other wars America has fought put together.

The civil war tore the Republic apart, and the schism between north and southern states is in some ways still evident to this day. Certainly the bitterly divisive issue of race in America shows no signs of going away, ever.

Social background

McPherson gives a good run-up to the war with a fascinating profile of economic and social progress in America in the half century from 1800.

I was particularly struck by his interpretation of the movement of women from being cottage industry producers to the heads of nuclear households in which the male went out to earn a wage, as a big step up in power and autonomy for women. Also the importance of women in creating a market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century or more.

And in creating an enormous market for an explosion of magazines and papers dedicated to women and women’s issues (homes and beauty etc). The bestselling novel of the entire 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was written by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Women also established their dominance in the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female; the figure is 80% in the UK). In 1848 a convention in New York state launched the modern women’s rights movement (pp. 33-36).

Inevitability

What comes over strongest is the inevitability of the war. Conflict – bitter and angry conflict – between slave and free states exists from the very start of his account. (McPherson doesn’t mention it, but reading Alan Taylor’s account of the drafting of the American Constitution, it’s clear that slavery caused problems even then, back in the 1780s, with the northern participants having to find loose and ambiguous forms of words to take into account problems raised by slavery – for example questions like: what was the population of a slave state, should you include slaves as ‘people’ or not?).

It takes McPherson about 300 pages to cover the period from about 1820 to the outbreak of war. Almost every page features rancour and disagreement caused by slavery.

The curse of slavery

In fact slavery comes over as a curse of Biblical proportions on America. There is no way round it, no way out of it, no way of escaping the fact that the wealth of half the country depended on whip and chains. It fatally undermines all the vaunting rhetoric about freedom and independence spouted by northerners and the rebels of 1775, and they knew it.

Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty had become mostly an empire for slavery. Territorial acquisitions since the Revolution had added the slave states of Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida and Texas to the republic, while only Iowa, admitted in 1846, increased the rank of free states. (p.51)

Slavery had been absolutely vital for the economic success of the southern states when the mainstay crops were rice and tobacco. As the nineteenth century progressed, cotton rose in importance, not least to be exported to feed the mechanised cotton looms of Manchester. Economically, slavery increased its importance in the southern economy and culture as the century progressed.

Whipping a slave

Whipping a slave while his family watch

As America expanded, should the new states be slave or free?

The most fundamental fact of American history in the 19th century was its relentless progress westwards, settling, staking out, defining and creating new states as it went. Every time this happened, there was virulent debate about whether the new state would be slave or free.

Northern states, roughly represented by the Whig party, campaigned for all new states admitted to the union to be slave-free. Politicians, journalists, businessmen and activists all across the south saw this as:

  • a threat to their livelihood
  • a block to them expanding their economic model
  • in effect reserving each new state for the northern economic model of free farming or industrialisation
  • and so an insult to the much-vaunted ‘honour’ of the South

Politicians and journalists were talking about a clash between the slave-owning southern states and the free northern states from the turn of the century. As early as 1820 a compromise had to be hammered out about just how much of the new territory of the Louisiana Purchase should be slave and free (the decision was that it should be slave-free above latitude 36′ 30) and the accession of each new territory caused a repeat of the same arguments, except louder and more bitter each time.

Map of America in 1854 showing free and slave states

Map of America in 1854 showing free and slave states and the enormous contested area of Kansas-Nebraska

The Mexican-American War

The book really gets going with the arguments in the wake of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. After American forces beat the Mexican army at a series of battles and then occupied Mexico City, the Mexican government was forced to cede California and New Mexico to America, and to give up hope of retrieving Texas which, for a while had been an independent state, before being absorbed in the USA. Mexico accepted the course of the Rio Grande river as its new border with America, losing a third of its territory to the States.

But even as the Mexican war was being fought, politicians, lobbyists and so on were bitterly arguing whether about whether the new territory seized from Mexico should be slave or free. The crisis lasted from 1846 to 1851, with a series of political expedients and compromises in Congress under successive presidents. McPherson goes into very great detail about how the arguments around this issue were central to the campaigns for party nominations, in the presidential campaigns, and in various congressional and senate contests.

The American party system comes over as confusingly fragmented (with Conscience Whigs, Cotton Whigs, the Liberty Party, Barnburners, southern ‘fire-eaters’, the Free Soil convention and many more floridly-named splinter groups), but roughly there were:

  • northern Whigs, representing industrialisation and civil liberties
  • and southern Democrats representing slavery, the rights of property and the slave economy

At least that was the situation in the early 1850s. It is a central thread of the book to show how this rough grouping was torn apart and refashioned by the war.

Arguments for and against slavery

Personally, I find one of the most interesting aspects of history is the study of the reasons or arguments which lost. Historians often skip over these, assuming that nowadays we all agree, that the values of the present are self-evident and eternal. But for me that’s precisely a major value of the study of history: to enter fully into the economic, social and political mindset of people in completely different times and circumstances, to fully understand what drove them to believe and fight for their cause.

McPherson usefully summarises the arguments for and against slavery, conceived in the broadest sense:

AGAINST SLAVERY

  • free labour was more efficient than slave labour because it was motivated by the inducement of wages and ambition for upward social mobility rather than coercion
  • slavery undermined free white labour wherever the two existed side by side
  • slavery inhibited education and social improvement, keeping not only blacks but poor whites in a state of low education
  • because it was best suited to a small number of labour-intensive crops, slave labour prevented the development of a diverse economy and innovation

Northerners thought these economic arguments explained why the northern free states were ahead of the South on almost all metrics, such as capital investment, literacy, industrialisation, innovation, and so on. And explained what was at stake in deciding whether new states should be slave or free: it wasn’t just a moral problem – allowing slavery in the new states condemned them to being second class economies. Allowing slavery into the majority of American states would doom the whole of America to becoming a backward, agrarian society.

FOR SLAVERY

Intellectual southerners invoked the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought that freedom amounted to economic independence based on the possession of property. He envisioned a nation made up of independent farmers and artisans who defined their own work rate, hours and products. Followers of Jefferson strongly opposed the spread of industrialisation in the north. Industrialisation converted free farmers into ‘hands’ who worked regimented hours in large factories, losing all their skills except the handful necessary to fit into mass production. Hence the expression ‘wage slaves’. By the 1840s everyone knew that industrialised society was prey to periodic depressions when trade collapsed and factories laid off workers in droves, to beg in the streets.

Therefore, intellectual southerners could position themselves as principled opponents of capitalism, maintaining what they saw as older ideas of ‘liberty’ (for white people).

  • slavery was a blessing to the slave and to the master
  • slavery had civilised African savages
  • slavery introduced heathen savages to Christianity
  • slavery provided slaves with a paternalistic cradle-to-grave care not available to northern ‘wage slaves’
  • it raised up white labourers by freeing them from the most menial tasks
  • slavery eliminated the spectre of class conflict among whites by eliminating class and caste differences between them, slavery brought whites closer together, unlike the widening gap between rich and poor taking place in the industrialised north
  • slavery generated the wealth to create a leisured class of gentleman who create civilisation, culture and fine living – unlike the hustling hucksterism of northern capitalism
  • all previous great civilisations had been based on slavery – the Greeks, the Romans etc

These pro-slavery arguments are fascinating because you can see there is a grain of truth in some of them (in the virtues of an agricultural over an industrialised economy, for example). They were certainly enough to mobilise opinion right across the south, enough to produce a torrent of speeches and articles fulminating against northern arrogance and soulless industrial capitalism, enough to prompt endless threats that the south would secede or take up arms to protect her special interests – enough to drown out the simple, undeniable fact that slavery was an outrage against human decency, dignity and any ideas of ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’.

To see how so many educated southerners – politicians, lawyers and journalists – managed to suppress this basic truth amid a flood of secondary arguments and justifications, is quite mind-boggling, and an education in human beings’ limitless ability to delude themselves when self-interest is at stake.

But it’s only if you make an imaginative attempt to understand, to internalise these arguments as much as their proponents, that you can hope to understand what came next. Thus McPherson quotes Senator John C. Calhoun as saying that slavery was:

the most safe and profitable basis for free institutions in the world (p.56)

This, and thousands of other statements like it, are virtually incomprehensible to us. But unless we make the effort to understand the almost unbelievable things people in the past have passionately believed in, we condemn ourselves to live in a world we don’t fully understand.


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Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild (2005)

In all of human experience there was no precedent for such a campaign. (p.97)

Executive summary

The abolition of slavery took place in two parts:

  1. abolishing the slave trade (1807)
  2. abolishing slavery itself (1834)

1. Abolishing the slave trade 

After a whole century when anybody suggesting that African slavery be banned would have been considered a mad eccentric, the issue suddenly exploded into public consciousness in the years 1788 to 1793 when there was an extraordinary eruption of pamphlets, articles, petitions from every town and city in Britain, plays and polemics and debates in parliament, calling for the abolition of the slave trade.

It suddenly became the topic of the day and Hochschild is able to quote diarists and letter writers saying how heartily sick they are of every single dinner party or coffee house conversation being about nothing but abolitionism.

And then, just as the cause of abolition had become so unstoppable that it seemed poised to succeed in Parliament, the French Revolution broke out which led to two major events which set back the cause of abolition by a decade:

  1. The outbreak of the largest slave rebellion anywhere, in the French sugar colony of St Domingue, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, in November 1791. This is a long story, in which both the French and the British sent armies which were eventually defeated or, more accurately, abandoned the war in the face of deaths from tropical sickness and the slaves’ successful guerrilla tactics. But reports of the brutality on both sides of the conflict had undermined the image which abolitionists tried to foster, of slaves as helpless, saintly victims.
  2. The French revolutionaries executed Louis XVI in January 1793 and declared war on Britain in February 1793. War always halts reforms. A nationwide outburst of patriotism was accompanied by repressive laws banning seditious writings and political meetings. Abolitionism became ‘tainted’ by association with some of the wilder English Jacobins, who included it in general calls to overthrow the monarchy, the House of Lords, please for universal male suffrage and so on.

The movement which might have led to the end of the slave trade in just four or five years from its inception in 1788, because of the interruption of the French revolutionary wars, ended up taking nearer to 20 years.

The movement’s representative in parliament, the short, correct and conservative MP William Wilberforce, introduced an abolition bill into each new sitting of parliament from 1788 onwards, but they were always swamped by the pressing urgency of measures to deal with the war and the eruption of other crises throughout the British Empire.

It was only after the Peace of Amiens of 1802 led to a pause in the war with France, that the abolitionists were able to rally. Although war with France resumed in 1803, a new burst of campaigningy led to the final abolition of the slave trade in 1807. It became forbidden for British ships to carry slaves. Soon the Royal Navy was instructed to stop all ships carrying slaves of whatever nation, and confiscate them.

2. Abolishing slavery

There was then a long lull as Britain focused its energies on defeating Napoleon, first in 1814, then all over again in 1815 after he escaped from St Helena. The period 1815 to 1820 was characterised by immense social unrest in Britain caused by the mass unemployment of huge numbers of men who’d been serving in the army and navy simply being dumped back on the market, and also the social disruption of the industrial revolution.

The government responded with a whole series of repressive measures. Paul Foot’s biography of the poet Percy Shelley is a surprisingly thorough account of the repressive laws enacted during this period, as well as a doleful record of the many working class activists who were arrested, convicted, hanged or shipped off to the new penal colony in Australia.

It was only in the 1820s with a new government in place, with better harvests damping down rural protest, with working people finding more work, that the sense of crisis eased, and a new wave of young abolitionists took up the struggle, this time to abolish slavery altogether.

In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in London, its members including Joseph Sturge, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton with the women Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Elizabeth Pease, and Anne Knight.

The most interesting aspect of the story, in Hochschild’s telling, is that most of the running of this second phase was made by the women. William Wilberforce was still there in Parliament. Thomas Clarkson was still the great collector of facts and information. The Quaker networks provided the basis of publicity and campaigning. But they all took a cautious, gradualist approach. By contrast, a number of the women and women’s groups pressed for immediate abolition. Most notable was Elizabeth Heyrick.

During the 1790s the first generation of abolitionists had organised a sugar boycott i.e. they stopped buying and using sugar. Heyrick went one further and went to grocers shops asking them not to stock it at all.

Again the cause became entangled with a much bigger issue – in the 1790s it had been the French Revolution, in the late 1820s it was the titanic struggle to pass the Reform Act of 1832 to reform Britain’s ludicrously out-of-date electoral system.

Abolitionists realised this was their cause too, and put their energy into this struggle, and it was only after a reformed parliament had been elected in 1833, that direct campaigning for abolition continued and almost immediately was a success.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire BUT even then, it was in two phases: as of 1834 only slaves below the age of six were freed, all adult slaves had to continue working for their masters as ‘apprentices’.

Full and complete abolition – i.e. full and complete emancipation of all British slaves – had to wait until midnight on 1 August 1838. Hochschild amply describes the celebrations.


Bury the Chains

This is a long, detailed, very readable and profoundly moving account of the movement to abolish slavery in Britain.

Some of Hochschild’s most interesting points are made in the introduction, namely:

  1. In the 1780s, when the abolition movement got going, not just African slaves but maybe as many as three quarters of the world’s population was unfree.
  2. The abolition movement was the first mass civil society movement, not the product of a particular class or particular special interest group or trade – it joined all classes, all genders, all ages and all occupations across all the regions of Britain (‘Something new and subversive was making its first appearance: the systematic mobilisation of public opinion across the class spectrum.’ p.138)
  3. It was the first such campaign in human history that was not motivated by self-interest; none of the campaigners stood to gain anything and they, and the British population as a whole, stood to lose out economically – but nonetheless the righteousness of the cause outweighed self-interest.
  4. The abolition movement invented, or brought to perfection, a whole range of campaigning tactics which are still used around the world.

An unfree world

The first stirrings of the abolitionist movement occurred during the American War of Independence (1775-1783), around 1780. This is where Hochschild begins his narrative (although some strands require stepping back a bit in time to explain the background and development of slavery, and of specific elements in the story, such as a brief history of the Quakers.)

Anyway, I found it riveting that the first few pages are devoted to explaining that most human beings in the world at that age, in 1780, were not free.

When native Americans fought each other they often took captives prisoner as slaves. The Aztec and Inca empires had seized conquered peoples as slaves. Then the Spanish turned the entire population into peons to work for their European masters. But slavery was widespread in African kingdoms, too, and existed long before the Europeans touched the coast in the late 1400s.

For centuries before that there had been a) a slave trade taking African slaves north to serve in Muslim countries of the Mediterranean, and particularly to the heart of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and b) victorious African rulers routinely enslaved their defeated enemies.

The condition of slavery, selling of slaves, slave trails and slave entrepots were established well before the Europeans arrived.

The enormous landmass of Russia was characterised by serfhood where illiterate peasants were tied to land, and bought and sold along with it. In most of the rest of Europe illiterate peasants were similarly virtually the property of their lords and masters. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of people were in outright slavery (‘tens of millions’, p.2), while tens of millions more lived in a form of debt bondage which tied them to specific owners.

Hochschild doesn’t mention China, but millions of Chinese peasants lived in various forms of servitude.

Even in the most ‘civilised’ parts of Western Europe and north America, there was a deeply engrained social hierarchy, by which everyone deferred to those above them, and the aristocracy and landowners could use, whip, beat, punish and abuse their servants and staff, almost at will.

It is chastening, sobering, terrifying to read Hochschild’s convincing account of how most people for most of the past, have not been free. Count your blessings.

18th century violence

Not only were most people either not-free, or lower down the pecking order of deferentiality, but the 18th century world was one of quite staggering brutality. When you don’t know much you sort of think that the disgusting brutality meted out to slaves was uniquely bestial. But violence of every sort existed quite freely far beyond the slave world. Ordinary men and women could be punished for simple misdemeanours with public whipping or even the death penalty. As James Walvin’s book on slavery highlights, and as Hochschild repeats, deaths among the crew members of slave ships were, proportionately higher than deaths among the slaves.

And then there was the British tradition of press-ganging. Any halfway fit man walking the streets of London, Portsmouth, Bristol and any other major port city was liable to be bought drinks till he was legless, or simply seized by the notorious press gangs, carted off to serve on a slave or Royal Navy ship, for years at a time, with no legal redress.

Alan Taylor, in  American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, describes some atrocity happening in the 1700s and ironically remarks, ‘all this took place in the supposed “Age of Enlightenment”‘.

But the whole point of the Age of the Enlightenment is that it was a movement to try and reform a fundamentally brutal, backward, obscurantist and reactionary society. It was light amid darkness, profound darkness. Of course the Age of Enlightenment was often brutal; that’s precisely what the relatively small number of philosophers, thinkers, poets, writers, artists and enlightened citizens were struggling against.

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789)

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789), according to Hochschild, the first painting depicting the slave trade

The Quakers

This makes Britain’s 20,000 Quakers stand out all the more remarkably from all the other social and belief systems of the Western world. For the Quakers believed that all people are equal – and put their belief into practice. They didn’t use any linguistic forms of deference, refused to say Mr or Sir or Your worship, insisted on only saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ since these were the non-deferential versions. They refused to fight in wars. They refused to take vows to any monarch or magistrate. They insisted their only allegiance was to God the Creator of All. (p.107)

And they believed not only that all men, but that all people are equal. Thus, with ramrod logic, Quakers were the only one of the countless religious denominations anywhere in the New World who spoke out against slavery in the 18th century. They refused to own slaves. If they came into possession of slaves through land deals, they promptly liberated their slaves and, in some cases, Hochschild says, paid them compensation.

Compare and contrast with the Church of England which not only failed in its duty to speak out against slavery, but was itself a large owner of slaves through various companies and committees, notably the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

Among other properties the Church owned the Codrington estate, the second largest slave estate on Jamaica. On the governing board of the Society for the Propagation etc, and therefore aware of their slave profits, were the Regius Professors of Divinity at Oxford and Cambridge and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

All slaves working for the Society had the word SOCIETY branded into their chests with a red hot iron. Disgusting, eh?

It was Quakers who, in 1783, set up the first committee to lobby for the end of slavery. They got nowhere because they were ignored as cranks. It was only when Anglican luminaries came on board that the powers that be were inclined to listen. The most important was the Divinity student Thomas Clarkson, who, at the age of 25, underwent what amounted to a religious conversion, deciding to devote his life to the abolitionist cause.

Still, it was symptomatic that when a new committee for abolition was formed in 1787, nine of the twelve members were Quakers.

Thomas Clarkson

For Hochschild the central character of the entire story is Thomas Clarkson, 6 feet tall, red haired, who was converted to the evils of slavery aged 25 and became an indefatigable campaigner and investigator.

It was the investigations that mattered. In London, Bristol and Liverpool Clarkson spent months befriending slave ship captains, crews and merchants (where possible – many became firm enemies; on more than one occasion Clarkson’s life was threatened). He visited all the main posts gathering eye witness accounts of the brutality of the trade.

Using figures freely available from the authorities of the slave ports, Clarkson assembled statistics showing the appalling loss of life among the white crews of slave ships. As a proportion, more white sailors died on a slave journey, than slaves.

His aim was to refute one of the central the pro-slavery arguments, that the crews of slave ships provided a kind of rough apprenticeship for the Royal Navy. On the contrary, Thompson proved that most slave ship crews were press ganged, desperate to flee the ships, and only kept in place by punishments every bit as savage as those meted out to the slaves. He assembled copious testimony testifying to the way white sailors were flogged, sometimes to death, put in chains, tied to the deck or thrown into tiny spaces belowships, and died like flies on these long voyages.

Clarkson aimed to assemble the broadest possible case, showing that the slave trade degraded and brutalised everyone who came in touch with it. When he came across ship’s chandlers in Bristol or Liverpool openly selling chains, shackles and thumbscrews – implements of torture – he bought them as exhibits to show on his lecture tours, he sent accounts of them to the Times and to Parliament.

All this testimony and equipment, all the statistics existed and were publicly available, but nobody had ever set out to assemble all the evidence, to buy and display the implements of torture, to assemble all the statistic, to do the basic investigative groundwork which could then be recycled into articles, pamphlets, books and speeches.

Clarkson and colleagues listed the negative arguments against slavery, but also tried to formulate arguments emphasising the positive results that would stem from ending it.

One of these was the attempt to prove that free trade with African nations and peoples would yield larger profits than slavery; that the slave trade was not only morally reprehensible, degrading, lethal to ships crews, but that it was preventing the development of more profitable free trade with African countries.

To prove his point, on his visits to the slave ports, Clarkson came across products from Africa and began collecting them into what became known as ‘Clarkson’s box’. These included carved ivory and woven cloth, along with produce such as beeswax, palm oil and peppers.

Clarkson could see the craftsmanship and skill that went to produce many of the items and used them to refute the notion that blacks were savages, little more than animals. Quite clearly they were not, they were craftsmen and women of great skill. The idea that such imaginative and talented designers and craftsmen could be kidnapped and enslaved was horrifying.

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Campaign tactics

How did the abolitionists achieve all this?

It’s a long story which first of all requires a good sense of the nature of British society in the 1770s and 1780s, which is why it takes a book to tell how various strands of social, religious and moral thought came together.

But Hochschild also points out how the abolitionists pioneered campaigning techniques which have endured to this day:

  • posters
  • pamphlets
  • lecture tours
  • investigative journalism designed to stir people to action
  • books and book tours
  • mass petitions
  • targeting individual MPs
  • lobbying parliament
  • organising boycotts of sugar

Hochschild devotes a couple of pages to the origin of one of the most powerful icons of the movement and what he calls ‘one of the most widely reproduced political graphics of all time’.

The chairman of an abolitionist branch Clarkson had set up in Plymouth sent Clarkson a diagram of the slave ship Brooks which he had come across at the owners’ offices. It showed the optimal way to cram the ship full of African slaves. Clarkson seized on the diagram’s importance and worked with the committee’s publisher and designer to expand and fine tune it.

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

The slave packing diagram quickly began appearing in newspapers, magazines, books and pamphlets. The abolitionists and thousands of other supporters around the country hung it on their walls as a constant reminder. To this day it has the power to harrow and shock.

Morality trumped self interest

The British decision to abolish slavery was taken against the economic interest of Britain.

Not only this, but many communities and economic sectors which stood to be specifically damaged by the decision, nonetheless supported abolition. Towns whose wealth was based on slave imports nonethless produced lengthy petitions against slavery. It was, therefore, a decision taken on moral and religious principles, and these trumped economic self interest.

Scholars estimate that abolishing the slave trade and then slavery cost the British people 1.8 per cent of their annual national income over more than a century, many times the percentage most wealthy countries today give in foreign aid. (p.5)

Why 1788?

Hochschild lists the precursors, describes the events leading up to the formation of the abolition committee and gives accounts of the personal conversions to anti-slavery of key personnel. But it might still have remained an eccentric fringe group. Why did the cause suddenly catch fire, and become a country-wide phenomenon in 1788-89?

In 1780, if you had suggested banning slavery, everyone would have thought you were mad. Nobody discussed it, it didn’t appear in newspapers, magazines, parliamentary debates or coffee house conversations.

By 1788 Britain was aflood with a tsunami of anti-slavery propaganda. Petitions flooded Parliament as never before, thirteen thousand signed one in Glasgow, 20,000 one in Manchester; books and pamphlets flooded from the press, lectures and sermons were given about it, newspaper and magazine articles poured forth – it was everywhere, the burning topic of conversation, it was like the Brexit of its day.

But why? Why did the campaign to abolish slavery spread like wildfire and unite all classes, regions, towns and cities so suddenly? And why in Britain and Britain only? After all, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Holland and Sweden all owned colonies in north or south America which employed large numbers of slaves. There was no movement to abolish slavery in any of those six other European nations. Why not?

Hochschild gives a list of secondary causes, before he unleashes what he thinks is the prime and main cause (pp. 213-225).

The secondary causes amount to a thorough profile of British late-eighteenth century society and indicators of it economic, technological, social and political advancement beyond all its European neighbours.

  • massive investment in well-kept toll roads which made widespread travel easier in Britain than anywhere else in Europe
  • the world’s best postal service
  • more newspapers than any other country, and more provincial newspapers which passed on developments and debates in the capital to the remotest provinces
  • the coffeehouse, a British institution in every city and town, which had up to date copies of all the magazines and newspapers, and where news and issues of the day could be debated
  • more than half the population of Britain was literate because Protestantism insists that each individual can read the Bible in their own language
  • libraries in every town and city, with over a hundred in London alone
  • well over a thousand bookstores, which often offered hsopitality while you sat and read
  • no censorship; anyone could set up a printing press and publish what they liked compare with, for example, the 178 censors who censored everything written in France before it was published
  • debating societies which became widespread during the 1770s

So although fewer than 5% of the population could vote, an extraordinary number of people knew what was being debated and discussed by parliament, read and understood the issues of the day, and created a ‘public opinion’ which couldn’t be ignored by the country’s rulers.

  • The rule of law. Unlike most continental nations, Britain had age-old common law which had been continually influenced and modified by trial by a jury. Obviously the law was weighted towards the rich, towards aristocrats and landowners. But in theory at least, a labourer could take a lord to court and win. After the Somerset case of 1772, the leading abolitionist Granville Sharp helped a number of slaves take their masters to court – and won.

These are all mighty fine aspects of British society circa 1790, but none of these by themselves amount to a sufficient cause.

The primary cause, Hochschild thinks, is the uniquely British institution of press-ganging.

He gives four or five pages describing in some detail the mind-blowing examples of the powers of the press gang to kidnap any man whatsoever between about 14 and 40 and whisk them off to a life of brutally hard work and vicious discipline aboard the Royal Navy’s vast fleet.

Grooms could be kidnapped at the altar, in front of bride, vicar and congregation, and whisked off. Some gangs were so large they fought pitched battles with customs officials or soldiers. The pages he devotes to press-ganging are quite an eye-opener.

But his point is that many Britons had experienced, or knew of, a form of slavery themselves; knew an institution whereby perfectly free young men could be kidnapped and sold into a life little better than slavery, subject to appallingly brutal punishments, with a fair certainty of death from disease, rotten food or combat.

Alongside all its positive aspects, British society also contained this brutal institution – and it had led over the decades to a widespread sense of grievance and resentment. It was this feeling (among others) which the abolitionists were able to tap into.

Personally, I find this theory a bit far-fetched. I would have thought there were several other social trends which Hochschild mentions elsewhere but not in his list of causes, which were far more important than press-ganging.

Chief among these would be the Great Religious Awakening from the 1750s onwards, which led to the rise of non-conformist sects, chief among them the Methodists. This movement converted people rich and poor to the belief that society at large only paid lip service to Christian values, and that individuals really had to experience the grace of God for themselves to be born again into a purer, more devout, more moral Christian life.

It was to these newly awakened consciences that much abolitionist propaganda appealed, and it is notable that non-conformists – building on the heroic work of the Quakers – were at the forefront of disseminating and spreading the movement.

Fascinating and eminently readable though his book is, I don’t think Hochschild quite drills down into the immense spirituality and religiosity of the era, and how that influenced every thought and feeling of millions and millions of Brits.

Summary

This is an absolutely vast subject, because the campaign, in total, stretched across fifty years, and was hugely affected by two great historical events: the French Revolution and the twenty years war it led to; and then the immense struggle to pass the 1832 Reform Act – not to mention acknowledging the huge social changes caused by the industrial revolution which was trundling along in the background throughout the period.

Vast as it is, this really brilliant book probably comes as close to doing the subject matter justice as one volume can.

Despite the horror of much of the content, Bury the Chains manages somehow to be a humane and uplifting story, because it shows how evil can be conquered, and it shows how even when a wicked system or institution is in place, millions and millions of good-hearted people can rise above their own self interest to organise and work for its overthrow. And succeed.

The British are often damned for perfecting the Atlantic slave trade and making vast fortunes from it. But they should also be praised for rising up in their millions and forcing their government to change its policies and then to spend a lot of money policing the seas to try and eradicate this truly evil trade.


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Black Ivory (2) by James Walvin (1992)

Without the slaves there would have been no sugar and without sugar there would have been no national addiction to coffee and, later, to tea. (p.4)

I bought Walvin’s book 20 years ago, read it and found it as unsatisfactory then as I do now. He uses a thematic approach to grouping the material in order to loosely follow the slave experience. Thus the opening chapters describe the ways slaves were seized in Africa – in war or expressly for slavery – marched to the coast, he describes the coastal slaving forts, the Atlantic crossing, the slave auctions in America or the Caribbean, and then life and death on the different types of plantation.

It’s a valid enough approach, but the downside is it is very bitty. It creates a kind of magpie effect, picking out dazzling facts and incidents from Barbados in 1723 or Georgia in 1805 or Jamaica in 1671, fragmenting your understanding.

Not only is there little sense of chronological development and change, but some of the incidents he chooses are in reverse chronological order, so that the chapter about slave rebellions opens with the massive slave rebellion in Haiti in the 1790s, treating it at some length. But a) to do so he has to bend his own rules since Haiti – then called Saint Domingue – was a French colony and everywhere else Walvin restricts himself strictly to British colonies.

And b) he then works backwards from the Haiti revolt, to describe far earlier uprisings from the 1600s onwards, for example the Stono uprising in South Carolina in 1739, or jumps forward to uprisings near the end of the period – Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia, 1831, or the 1822 Charleston uprising, and then back to Tacky’s Revolt in Jamaica in 1760, then forward to the Baptist Uprising on Jamaica in 1831.

It all ends up being quite confusing. Much more sensible would have been to try and show what the slaves cumulatively learned about organising uprisings, and what the authorities learned about suppressing them.

Walvin repeatedly refers to the differences between plantation culture in the West Indies and on the American mainland, but never makes them as clear as Alan Taylor does in his outstanding book American Colonies: The Settlement of North America to 1800 (sugar grew best in the West Indies, tobacco in the Chespeake Bay area (Virginia, Georgia) and Europe-style agriculture from New York north into New England).

It was entirely these agricultural and climatic facts which gave rise to the intensive slave labour of huge sugar plantations in the Indies, to large but not-quite-so-vast tobacco slave plantations in the South, and to the relatively slave-free, family-run farms of the middle and northern states (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, New England).

Most irritating of all, Walvin has a fondness for rhetorical questions, which often just seem lame. It’s as if a historian of the Holocaust kept stopping every few pages to sigh, ‘But where are the memorials to all the Jews that died at Belsen?’ or ‘How can we imagine the feelings of the Jews of Jewish mothers as they carried their babies into the gas chambers?’

The facts are quite horrifying enough. They don’t need lachrymose embellishments, such as:

When Lord Mansfield died, in March 1793, he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey… But where are the memorials to those thousands whose lives were touched by the career of England’s Chief Justice? (p.22)

But how many watery miles would always remain between the slaves he had sold in Antigua and their loved ones in Africa? (p.43)

Nuggets

Nonetheless, the book does have loads of nuggets of information tucked away in it, and I thought I’d extract and list ones which stood out for me, as an aide-memoire:

Drinks The new fashionable drinks of the late 1600s and early 1700s – coffee, tea and chocolate – are all naturally bitter. They need sweetener. Sugar. Grown by slaves. What a stunning fact that a product from China (later imported into India and Ceylon), sweetened by tea from the West Indies, grown by slaves imported from Africa, became an addiction in cold northern Europe.

Puddings During the 18th century the British became famous for their puddings which required prodigious amounts of sugar: hot puddings, cold puddings, steamed puddings, baked puddings, pies, tarts, creams, charlottes and bettys, trifles and fools, syllabubs and tansys, junkets and ices, milk pudding, suet pudding, custards and cakes, and rice pudding (rice grown by slaves in Georgia and Carolina, sugar grown by slaves in the Indies).

Somerset v Stewart (1772) Slavery had never been authorized by statute in England and Wales, and Lord Mansfield decided that it was also unsupported in common law. Lord Mansfield tried to narrowly limit his judgment to the issue of whether a person, regardless of being a slave, could be removed from England against their will, and said they could not. Nonetheless the case ‘aroused enormous interest and political controversy’ (p.305) and became one of the most significant milestones in the abolitionist campaign.

Mansfield had in his own household a black slave, Elizabeth Dido, born to a slave woman captured aboard a Spanish ship by a British pirate, who got her pregnant and passed the baby on to his relative Mansfield, who brought her up.

In his will Mansfield specified that Dido be freed and given an annuity for life.

The Zong case (1781) The Zong was a Liverpool-based slave ship. In September 1780 it departed the coast of Africa for Jamaica with 470 slaves on board. 60 Africans and seven crew had died from disease on the crossing when, on November 29, Captain Luke Collingwood called a meeting of his officers to decide whether to throw the sick Africans overboard in order to preserve the others and save drinking water. 131 slaves were thrown overboard. The owners of the Zong, Gregson, claimed the loss of their slaves (£30 each) from their insurers, Gilbert. The insurers refused to pay. The case was taken to court and provoked a storm of outrage. Another milestone towards abolition.

A depiction of the Zong massacre, November 1781

A depiction of the Zong massacre, November 1781

John Newton John Newton, later in life an ardent abolitionist and author of the hymn Amazing Grace was, early in life, captain of a slave ship and responsible for punishing and reprimanding uppity slaves. He used thumbscrews.

The Middle Passage It surprised me that, as a proportion, more of the white crews died in the Atlantic crossing, than the slaves. I have seen the diagrams of the slaves packed tight below decks hundreds of times, and they have been recycled in numerous works of art as symbols of unprecedented suffering. Who knew, that as a proportion, more whites died than blacks!

All Souls Barbados was the most densely planted and cultivated sugar island in the West Indies. The largest slave owner was Christopher Codrington. It was his land which funded the establishment of the Codrington Library at All Souls College, Oxford. It comes as no surprise to learn that in our politically sensitive times, the College is setting up a scholarship to help West Indian students.

West Indian output Between the 1660s and the abolition of slavery, the African population of the West Indian sugar islands rose to 1 million. During that period over 10 million tonnes of sugar were produced.

Task work Slaves were set tasks and, once these were complete, were free to tend their own gardens, practice artisan skills and so on. In fact, one of the biggest learnings from Walvin is that many slaves had a surprising amount of freedom and agency.

Many were trained in a very wide range of skills, from artisan work such as coopers, carpenters and smiths, to work gang overseers, to book keepers and accountants, while off to one side of field work was an entire hierarchy of domestic servants from lowliest char to senior butler and household supervisor.

I thought the chapter about ‘runaways’ would be about desperate conspiracies to break shackles, get through the barbed wire fence and escape – but this is completely wrong. It turns out many, many slaves had jobs which naturally took them far afield, taking all kinds of goods to local markets, fetching and carrying from towns or neighbouring plantations, and even operating boats and ships to carry plantation produce down river to collection centres and big towns.

Slaves were much more mobile than we might imagine. (p.165)

Some slaves’ jobs required them to be absent from the plantation for weeks on end, and so it turns out that the definition of ‘runaway’ is ragged round the edges. Many slaves didn’t ‘run away’ so much as stay away longer than a job warranted – for all kinds of human reasons, because they had a sweetheart to visit, or distant spouses and children they’d been separated from, to gamble and get drunk.

Free blacks Similarly, it is startling to have it brought home how many free Africans lived in the slave areas, specially of the Deep South. They also sailed the seas as free sailors, alongside white sailors, ending up in ports wherever European ships anchored – which is to say, right round the world.

Striking that Olaudah Equiano, who left a detailed account of his life, worked aboard a British ship which made an expedition to the Arctic in 1773!

If there is one really pervasive message to Walvin’s book, it is the counter-intuitive one that slaves – captured, enslaved Africans and their descendants – were emphatically not passive helpless victims, but adapted to their appalling new circumstances, spread into all walks of life available, acquired skills, saved up and earned their freedom, set up businesses and schools, and sailed the seven seas alongside their European one-time captors.

As Walvin puts it, everywhere historians look, they see:

the growth of an independent slave culture, linked to the world of plantation slavery but operating and thriving at an economically autonomous level. (p.115)

The black African element not only underpinned the wealth of the British Empire in the 1700s, but was everywhere visible in that empire.

It was news to me that there was a black drummer in the Scottish court in 1507, that Henry VII and Henry VIII employed a black trumpeter, that Elizabeth I had black musicians and dancers. At a celebration ball in London in 1764 all the musicians were black.

Black servants were highly fashionable among the 18th century aristocracy. And not just aristocrats. Samuel Johnson’s much-loved manservant Francis Barber was black, and Johnson not only made him his heir but left him most of his important papers.

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth by Pierre Mignard (1682)

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, with a black servant by Pierre Mignard (1682)

Death in the Indies The majority of slaves were imported into the West Indies where they dropped like flies, because of poor food, appalling conditions, and being worked to death by the brutal requirements of sugar production. Fewer slaves were imported onto the American continent, but more of them survived because working tobacco was relatively less onerous, food and conditions were better, and, above all, disease was less lethal.

Music Apparently, it’s racist to say that Africans have a special feel for music and rhythm – but the testimony of slave owners and visitors to plantations is full of evidence for the slaves’ fondness for music of all sorts, from chanted and sung words alone, to the accompaniment of instruments made from whatever came to hand, through to full proficiency on European instruments like the violin.

Christianity I’ve met no end of progressives, especially feminists, who think that Christianity’s influence was and is and can only ever be a terrible, calamitous thing. In some respects this may be true, but Walvin has a chapter ramming home the fact that it was the Great Religious Awakening from the 1750s onwards, and the spread of Protestant missionaries throughout the slave colonies, the conversion of many slaves to Christianity, and then the widespread dissemination of Christian anti-slavery pamphlets, sermons and so on, from the 1770s onwards – which played a huge role in creating widespread public and political support for abolition.

The role of Christianity in freeing the slaves was ‘seismic’ (p.194).

Phases of abolition Anyone familiar with the subject knows this, but it’s worth emphasising that abolition came in waves.

In the 1780s there were attempts to rein in what were becoming the well-publicised excesses of plantation owners in the colonies. Parliament passed laws restricting the types of punishment (for example, the number of lashes) they could dole out.

Phase one was the campaign from the end of the American War of Independence (1783) to abolition in 1807. This first abolition was the abolition of the slave trading by ship. From 1807 no British ship was allowed to carry slaves. Parliament and the campaigners expected that  this would result in an improvement in the conditions of slaves in the West Indies, and they set up a demographic register to monitor change.

In the event, the evidence came in that it improved nothing. The condition of slaves in the Indies remained as miserable as ever. Abolitionism was put on hold during the Wars with France. When these ended in 1815, there was a period of intense political repression in Britain. But this slackened in the 1820s and a new generation called for further reform, and not just of slavery.

The new post-war generation chafed against the domination of the landed gentry under the old voting franchise. The industrialists of the north chafed against having no political power to match their new wealth. Apologists for capitalism insisted that Free Trade was the great panacea which would drive the British economy and so campaigned against trade tariffs. Christian missionaries provided a ceaseless supply of literature describing the appalling conditions and sufferings of the ongoing slave colonies.

This was the second wave of abolitionism, led by a new generation, which called for the abolition of slavery on moral, Christian, but also economic and political grounds. Free market economists insisted that slavery distorted markets, businesses and wages, thus hampering the growth of British trade and prosperity.

It was only after the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed, and a new ‘reformed’ Parliament assembled, that a laws was finally passed to abolish the condition of slavery throughout the British Empire.

On 1 August 1834 all slaves under 6 were freed. Adults became ‘apprentices’ and were still forced to work for their owners for 40 hours a week, for nothing, for a period of 6 years. Some islands decided tojust get on and free all their slaves.

Many of the colonies had reacted to the unrelenting pressure from the church and the mother country against slavery, by steadily releasing slaves already, especially if they were old, ill or unable to work. Slavery was always first and foremost an economic consideration.

Full abolition only came at midnight on 31 July 1838. Freed slaves across the West Indies held marches and parades, made speeches, attended church, decked their houses and towns with flags and bunting.

The British enforced the slave trade Having seen the light, the British became enthusiastic opponents of the slave trade wherever it remained. It became a standing order of the Royal Navy to confiscate slave ships. Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.

American slavery But we no longer had jurisdiction over the United States. By 1860 there were some 4 million slaves in the USA, far more than had been liberated from the British colonies in the 1830s.

Their struggle for liberation, and the epic civil war it prompted, is another story.


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Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Figures

It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.


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