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About the Author
Ned Sublette is the author of Cuba and Its Music, The World that Made New Orleans, and The Year Before the Flood. Constance Sublette published, as Constance Ash, the novels The Horsegirl, The Stalking Horse, and The Stallion Queen, and edited an anthology of science fiction. They live in New York City.
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The American Slave Coast
A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry
By Ned Sublette, Constance Sublette
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette
All rights reserved.
The Mother of Slavery
"Virginia was the mother of slavery," wrote Louis Hughes.
It wasn't just a figure of speech.
During the fifty-three years from the prohibition of the African slave trade by federal law in 1808 to the debacle of the Confederate States of America in 1861, the Southern economy depended on the functioning of a slave-breeding industry, of which Virginia was the number-one supplier. When Hughes was born in 1832, the market was expanding sharply.
"My father was a white man and my mother a negress," Hughes wrote. That meant he was classified as merchandise at birth, because children inherited the free or enslaved status of the mother, not the father. It had been that way in Virginia for 170 years already when Hughes was born.
Partus sequitur ventrem was the legal term: the status of the newborn follows the status of the womb. Fathers passed inheritances down, mothers passed slavery down. It ensured a steady flow of salable human product from the wombs of women who had no legal right to say no.
* * *
Most enslaved African Americans lived and died without writing so much as their names. The Virginia legal code of 1849 provided for "stripes" — flogging — for those who tried to acquire literacy skills. A free person who dared "assemble with negroes for the purpose of instructing them to read or write" could receive a jail sentence of up to six months and a fine of up to a hundred dollars, plus costs. An enslaved person who tried to teach others to read might have part of a finger chopped off by the slaveowner, with the full blessing of law.
So it was an especially distinguished achievement when in 1897 the sixty-four-year-old Louis Hughes published his memoir, titled Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom: The Institution of Slavery as Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter. Like the other volumes collectively referred to as slave narratives, it bears witness to a history slaveowners did not want to exist: the firsthand testimony of the enslaved.
By the time Hughes was twelve, he had been sold five times. The third time, he was sold away from his mother to a trader. "It was sad to her to part with me," he recalled, "though she did not know that she was never to see me again, for my master had said nothing to her regarding his purpose and she only thought, as I did, that I was hired to work on the canal-boat, and that she should see me occasionally. But alas! We never met again."
The trader carried the boy away from the Charlottesville area that had been his home, down the James River to Richmond. There he was sold a fourth time, to a local man, but Hughes "suffered with chills and fever," so the dissatisfied purchaser had him resold. This time he went on the auction block, where he was bought by a cotton planter setting up in Pontotoc, Mississippi — a booming region that had recently become available for plantations in the wake of the delivery of large areas of expropriated Chickasaw land into the hands of speculators.
Slaves were designated by geographical origin in the market, with Virginia-and Maryland-born slaves commanding a premium. "It was held by many that [Virginia] had the best slaves," Hughes wrote. "So when Mr. McGee found I was born and bred in that state he seemed satisfied. The bidding commenced, and I remember well when the auctioneer said: 'Three hundred eighty dollars — once, twice and sold to Mr. Edward McGee.'"
McGee had plenty of financing, and he was in a hurry; he bought sixty other people that day. A prime field hand would have commanded double or more, but even so, the $380 that bought the sickly twelve-year-old would be more than $10,000 in 2014 money.
Like the largest number of those forcibly emigrated to the Deep South, McGee's captives were all made to walk from Virginia to Mississippi, in a coffle.
* * *
Southern children grew up seeing coffles approach in a cloud of dust.
A coffle is "a train of men or beasts fastened together," says the Oxford English Dictionary, and indeed Louis Hughes referred to the coffle he marched in as "a herd." The word comes from the Arabic qafilah, meaning "caravan," recalling the overland slave trade that existed across the desert from sub-Saharan Africa to the greater Islamic world centuries before Columbus crossed the Atlantic. With the development in the late fifteenth century of the maritime trade that shifted the commercial gravity of Africa southward from the desert to the Atlantic coast, coffles were used to traffic Africans from point of capture in their homeland to point of sale in one of Africa's many slave ports.
But the people trudging to Mississippi along with Louis Hughes were not Africans. They were African Americans, born into slavery and raised with their eventual sale in mind. Force-marched through wilderness at a pace of twenty or twenty-five miles a day, for five weeks or more, from can't-see to can't-see, in blazing sun or cold rain, crossing unbridged rivers, occasionally dropping dead in their tracks, hundreds of thousands of laborers transported themselves down south at gunpoint, where they and all their descendants could expect to be prisoners for life.
Perhaps 80 percent of enslaved children were born to two-parent families — though the mother and father might live on different plantations — but in extant slave-traders' records of those sold, according to Michael Tadman's analysis, "complete nuclear families were almost totally absent." About a quarter of those trafficked southward were children between eight and fifteen, purchased away from their families. The majority of coffle prisoners were male: boys who would never again see their mothers, men who would never again see wives and children. But there were women and girls in the coffles, too — exposed, as were enslaved women everywhere, to the possibility of sexual violation from their captors. The only age bracket in which females outnumbered males in the trade was twelve to fifteen, when they were as able as the boys to do field labor, and could also bear children. Charles Ball, forcibly taken from Maryland to South Carolina in 1805, recalled that
The women were merely tied together with a rope, about the size of a bed cord, which was tied like a halter round the neck of each; but the men ... were very differently caparisoned. A strong iron collar was closely fitted by means of a padlock round each of our necks. A chain of iron, about a hundred feet in length, was passed through the hasp of each padlock, except at the two ends, where the hasps of the padlocks passed through a link of the chain. In addition to this, we were handcuffed in pairs, with iron staples and bolts, with a short chain, about a foot long, uniting the handcuffs and their wearers in pairs.
As they tramped along, coffles were typically watched over by whip- and gun-wielding men on horseback and a few dogs, with supply wagons bringing up the rear. In the country coffles slept outdoors on the ground, perhaps in tents; in town they slept in the local jail or in a slave trader's private jail. Farmers along the route did business with the drivers, selling them quantities of the undernourishing, monotonous fare that enslaved people ate day in and day out.
Sometimes the manacles were taken off as the coffle penetrated farther South, where escape was nearly impossible. But since the customary way of disposing of a troublesome slave — whether criminally insane, indomitably rebellious, or merely a repeated runaway — was to sell him or her down South, drivers assumed that the captives could be dangerous. Coffles were doubly vulnerable, for robbery and for revolt, so security was high.
The captives were not generally allowed to talk among themselves as they tramped along, but sometimes, in the midst of their suffering, they were made to sing. The English geologist G. W. Featherstonhaugh, who in 1834 happened upon the huge annual Natchez-bound chain gang led by trader John Armfield, noted that "the slave-drivers ... endeavour to mitigate their discontent by feeding them well on the march, and by encouraging them" — encouraging them? — "to sing 'Old Virginia never tire,' to the banjo." Thomas William Humes, who saw coffles of Virginia-born people passing through Tennessee in shackles on the way to market, wrote: "It was pathetic to see them march, thus bound, through the towns, and to hear their melodious voices in plaintive singing as they went."
Sometimes coffles marched with fiddlers at the head. North Carolina clergyman Jethro Rumple recalled them stepping off with a huzzah: "On the day of departure for the West the trader would have a grand jollification. A band, or at least a drum and fife, would be called into requisition, and perhaps a little rum be judiciously distributed to heighten the spirits of his sable property, and the neighbors would gather in to see the departure." Rumple was speaking, needless to say, of "heightening the spirits" of young people who had just been ripped away from their parents and were being taken to a fate many equated, not incorrectly, with death.
A coffle might leave a slave jail with more people than it arrived with. The formerly enslaved Sis Shackleford described the process at Virginia's Five Forks Depot (as transcribed by the interviewer):
Had a slave-jail built at de cross roads wid iron bars 'cross de winders. Soon's de coffle git dere, dey bring all de slaves from de jail two at a time an' string 'em 'long de chain back of de other po' slaves. Ev'ybody in de village come out —'specially de wives an' sweethearts and mothers — to see dey solt-off chillun fo' de las' time. An' when dey start de chain a-clankin' an' step off down de line, dey all jus' sing an' shout an' make all de noise dey can tryin' to hide de sorrer in dey hearts an' cover up de cries an' moanin's of dem dey's leavin' behin'.
An enslaved person could always be sold to another owner, at any time. When Louis Hughes's coffle reached Edenton, Georgia, McGee sold twenty-one of his newly purchased captives, taking advantage of the price differential in the Lower South to post an immediate profit on a third of his Virginia transaction and thereby hedge his debt to his financier.
Charles Ball described a deal that took place on the road in South Carolina:
The stranger, who was a thin, weather-beaten, sunburned figure, then said, he wanted a couple of breeding wenches, and would give as much for them as they would bring in Georgia. ... He then walked along our line, as we stood chained together, and looked at the whole of us — then turning to the women; asked the prices of the two pregnant ones.
Our master replied, that these were two of the best breeding -wenches in all Maryland — that one was twenty-two, and the other only nineteen — that the first was already the mother of seven children, and the other of four — that he had himself seen the children at the time he bought their mothers — and that such wenches would be cheap at a thousand dollars each; but as they were not able to keep up with the gang, he would take twelve hundred dollars for the two. The purchaser said this was too much, but that he would give nine hundred dollars for the pair.
This price was promptly refused; but our master, after some consideration, said he was willing to sell a bargain in these wenches, and would take eleven hundred dollars for them, which was objected to on the other side; and many faults and failings were pointed out in the merchandise. After much bargaining, and many gross jests on the part of the stranger, he offered a thousand dollars for the two, and said he would give no more. He then mounted his horse, and moved off; but after he had gone about one hundred yards, he was called back; and our master said, if he would go with him to the next blacksmith's shop on the road to Columbia, and pay for taking the irons off the rest of us, he might have the two women. (paragraphing added)
Women with babies in hand were in a particularly cruel situation. Babies weren't worth much money, and they slowed down coffles. William Wells Brown, hired out to a slave trader named Walker, recalled seeing a baby given away on the road:
Soon after we left St. Charles, the young child grew very cross, and kept up a noise during the greater part of the day. Mr. Walker complained of its crying several times, and told the mother to stop the child's d — — d noise, or he would. The woman tried to keep the child from crying, but could not. We put up at night with an acquaintance of Mr. Walker, and in the morning, just as we were about to start, the child again commenced crying. Walker stepped up to her, and told her to give the child to him. The mother tremblingly obeyed. He took the child by one arm, as you would a cat by the leg, walked into the house, and said to the lady,
"Madam, I will make you a present of this little nigger; it keeps such a noise that I can't bear it."
"Thank you, sir," said the lady.
* * *
From the first American coffles on rough wilderness treks along trails established by the indigenous people, they were the cheapest and most common way to transport captives from one region to another.
The federally built National (or Cumberland) Road, which by 1818 reached the Ohio River port of Wheeling, Virginia (subsequently West Virginia), was ideal for coffles. It was the nation's first paved highway, with bridges across every creek. Laying out approximately the route of the future US 40, its broken -stone surface provided a westward overland transportation link that began at the Potomac River port of Cumberland, Maryland. From Wheeling, the captives could be shipped by riverboat down to the Mississippi River and on to the Deep South's second-largest slave market at Natchez, or further on to the nation's largest slave market, New Orleans.
Beginning after the War of 1812 and continuing up through secession, captive African Americans were trafficked south and west by every possible method, in an enormous forced migration. "A drove of slaves on a southern steamboat, bound for the cotton or sugar regions," wrote William Wells Brown in his 1849 autobiography, "is an occurrence so common, that no one, not even the passengers, appear to notice it, though they clank their chains at every step."
As railroads extended their reach, captives were packed like cattle into freight cars, shortening the time and expense to market considerably. Some passenger trains had "servant cars," though a cruder term was more commonly used. On his first trip to the South, in January 1859, the twenty-one-year-old New Englander J. Pierpont Morgan noted: "1000 slaves on train."
They were trafficked by sea in oceangoing vessels that sailed the hard passage from the Chesapeake around the Florida peninsula to New Orleans, as well as in shorter voyages within that route. Ocean shipment was more expensive than a coffle, but it was quicker, so it turned the capital-intensive human cargo over more efficiently. Though exact figures do not exist, it is safe to say that tens of thousands of African Americans made the coastwise voyage from the Chesapeake and from Charleston to New Orleans and up the Mississippi to Natchez, as well as to Pensacola, Mobile, Galveston, and other ports. Maryland ports alone (principally Baltimore) shipped out 11,966 people for whom records exist between 1818 and 1853, and an unknown number of others before, during, and after that time.
More slave ships came to New Orleans from the East Coast of the United States than from Africa. In a shorter recapitulation of the Middle Passage of a century before, the captives were packed into the hold with ventilation slats along the side to keep them from suffocating. Upon arrival, they were discharged into one or another of New Orleans's many slave pens, where they were washed, groomed, and fed, their skin was oiled, and their gray hairs, if they had any, were dyed or plucked out. On sale day, they were put into suits of the finest clothes many of them would ever wear, with perhaps even top hats for the men. Most would be sent to the cotton fields, where inhuman levels of work would be extracted from them through torture, or to Louisiana's death camps of sugar.
Excerpted from The American Slave Coast by Ned Sublette, Constance Sublette. Copyright © 2016 Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 The Capitalized Womb
1 The Mother of Slavery 3
2 Protectionism, or, The Importance of 1808 10
3 A Literature of Terror 21
4 Natural Increase 37
5 Little Shadows 46
6 Species of Property 65
Part 2 The Chesapeake and the Lowcountry
7 Rawrenock 75
8 A Cargo of Shining Dirt 88
9 Our Principall Wealth 96
10 Maria's Land 106
11 Barbados 117
12 The Anglo-Saxon Model 132
13 Carolina 141
14 The Separate Traders 159
15 Charles Town 167
16 Savannah and Stono 176
17 A Rough Set of People, but Somewhat Caressed 192
18 Ballast 201
Part 3 Silent Profit
19 Newspapers as Money as People 227
20 Lord Dunmore's Blackbirds 240
21 The General Inconvenience 258
22 The Fugue of Silences 282
23 Ten Thousand Powers 299
24 The French Revolution in America 309
Part 4 The Star-Spangled Slave Trade
25 The Cotton Club 329
26 The Terrible Republic 345
27 I Do Not Threaten the Government with Civil War 364
28 These Infernal Principles 376
29 The Hireling and Slave 389
30 A Jog of the Elbow 405
Part 5 The Slaveocracy
31 Swallowed by Millions 425
32 Democratizing Capital 447
33 Old Robbers 469
34 Wake Up Rich 493
35 The Slave Trade to Cuba and Brazil 514
36 Heaps and Piles of Money 523
37 The Slave Power 530
38 Manifest Destiny's Child 544
39 A Letter from Virginia 554
40 Communists in Blackface 564
41 Hiring Day 583
Part 6 The Revolution
42 Vanish Like a Dream 595
43 A Snake Biting Its Tail 606
44 Assignment in Paraguay 621
45 The Decommissioning of Human Capital 634
46 A Weird, Plaintive Wail 645
Picture Credits 675