By Edward E. Baptist
Published by Basic Books
A Member if the Perseus Books Group
The educational system in the United States exposes students to a history that has little resemblance to the actual events that transpired in our past. The history taught in the schools of this country gives a picture of a nation that has had its troubles, but has triumphed in spite of those obstacles.
Gordon S. Wood a Brown University professor gave this basic view in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Radicalism of the American Revolution. “But there is no denying the wonder of it (the American Revolution) and the real earthly benefits it brought to the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people.”
There are other authors who have given us a different view of the past. Some of these include James Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, and my favorite is a book edited by George Novack, America’s Revolutionary Heritage.
Edward Baptist gives us a new and fresh view of the roots of how the economy of the United States transformed the world in his book, Half Has Never Been Told – Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. In his book, Baptist looked at the theories of Thomas Malthus who argued that with the growth of the population, humanity would eventually run out of food.
Clearly Malthus wasn’t concerned with the gross inequality of his day. However, Malthus felt that based on the productive forces of that time, humanity wouldn’t have enough food to feed everyone.
Baptist gives the evidence of how all this changed with the industrial revolution. The beginnings of this industrialization took place with the transformation of cotton fiber into cloth. All of this depended on the slave labor of the United States.
In order to fully appreciate Baptist’s argument we need to look at the terminology he used to support the theme of his book. The following are some of the words and phrases Baptist used:
Coffle – a line of slaves who were chained together at the neck with the arms chained behind their backs. These salves, chained together in coffles, sometimes walked for hundreds of miles so slave owners might turn a profit.
Enslaved migrants - Slaves who might have been separated from their families to travel via ship or coffle to work in the areas of Mississippi and Louisiana primarily for the cultivation and picking of cotton.
Torture – The routine method used to coerce slaves to become more productive.
Calibrated torture – The amount of pain or torture inflicted on slaves by slave owners and their hirelings to coerce slaves to increase their productivity.
Slave labor camps - Historians have called these plantations. These were the places where slaves toiled and were tortured when they failed to meet the expectations of slave owners.
Hardware Store – The place where slave owners purchased instruments of torture.
Whipping machine – This is Baptist’s term to identify the routine torture slaves endured to meet the expectations of slave owners.
Baptist included several tables and drawings to illustrate various points he attempted to make. In one of these tables he showed how the amount of cotton slaves produced increased dramatically until the Civil War. Most of this cotton was shipped to the British port of Liverpool and then transported to Manchester. This table showed how the amount of cotton that was spun and then woven also increased dramatically during those years.
However, while the supply of cotton and cloth increased, the price of raw cotton decreased. While cotton prices decreased, there was a sharp increase in the price of the finished cloth. This trend is typical to the capitalist system. As technology makes it easier to produce commodities, the prices of finished commodities continue to increase.
This reality put a tremendous amount of pressure on slave owners to increase the productivity of slaves. All slaves were routinely tortured in various ways. In order to adapt to this system, slaves needed to continuously work from sun up to sun down at a seemingly inhuman pace.
Baptist wrote about how slaves needed to use both hands simultaneously in order to meet these increasing quotas. He argued that this is not natural, and the slave needed to loose him or herself in this work to be effective. To even stand erect while toiling under the hot sun might provoke a beating.
Coercion of labor today
While I was reading this passage in Baptist’s book, I thought about my own experience of working in an auto-parts manufacturing facility during the 1990’s. I remember attending a meeting where a corporate officer demanded that we increase production or the company would close the plant down.
I remember working faster than I thought possible in order to meet these new requirements. At times I worked alongside robots where I worked so fast that I had the feeling of flying. While we met the company demands of increasing productivity and improving quality, the corporation closed the plant anyway. About 2,500 workers who produced an enormous amount of wealth for various corporations were thrown out into the street like used garbage.
I raise this experience to demonstrate that there is a certain similarity of thinking by the owners of wealth towards the chattel slaves of the past and workers today.
The economics of slavery
Like any commodity, cotton produced under slave labor conditions, had its periods of boom and bust. Initially slave owners transported their human property to the Mississippi Delta, where the climate was ideal for cotton cultivation. As cotton production increased, prices declined and slave owners weren’t able to meet their expenses.
Initially bankers sold bonds to rescue the slave owners. This meant that slaves would be confiscated and sold in the event of bankruptcy. Breaking up slave families was never a concern of those who viewed them as property.
Slave owners got around their financial problems with the GTT. This meant “Go To Texas.” After Texas became independent of Mexico, slave owners transported slaves to Texas in order to avoid confiscation.
After Texas became a state, slave owners attempted other measures to avoid bankruptcy. They pressured the government to open up more lands for slavery.
As early as 1830 the United States government passed the Indian Removal Act. This act, in effect, stole millions of acres of land from its original inhabitants. In the trail of tears the Cherokee (Tsalagi) nation was forced to march about 1,200 miles to their new homes in an alien land known as Oklahoma. About 5,000 Cherokee died in this forced relocation. The motivation behind the Indian Removal Act was to open up a vast area for slave labor.
Slave owners also made a habit of defaulting on their loans. This might be of interest to university students who have been saddled with astronomical loans to pay for their education. While the United States government allowed slave owners to default on their loans, this same government will not allow college graduates to default on their loans by declaring bankruptcy.
Slave labor and the world
We might also think about how the production of cotton by slave labor influenced the world. On the one hand, this labor was the very foundation of the industrialization of the world. This was the beginning of the revolutions in communication, transportation, housing, food production, education, and medical care.
On the other hand, this labor gave an immense amount of power to the British ruling powers. At this time Britain was the world’s super-power.
Friedrich Engels lived in Manchester at the time when workers spun and wove cotton fiber produced by slaves in the factories of that city. He wrote about what he saw in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England. While workers in Britain were technically free at that time, they needed to spend every waking hour toiling for their employers. Engels documented the miserable conditions British workers faced in order to produce obscene profits for their employers.
The British ruling powers also forced the Chinese to import opium during the Opium Wars. Because opium purchases and this war bankrupted the Chinese, millions starved to death while the British profited. The people of Ireland, India, and Brazil had similar experiences where millions starved to death while the British profited from investments in those countries.
Conflicting ideas about what it meant to be a human being
Under these conditions the rape of slave women was routine. Rape is not an attempt at sexual gratification, but an expression of power by a demented man. However, Baptist argues that during the era of slavery slave owners felt that raping slaves was an expression of manhood.
Rape wasn’t just an expression of power by a slave owner over a slave. It was an expression of power over citizens who did not own slaves. Rape was also an expression of power over the slave owner’s wife who clearly did not want her husband to be raping women.
We can also say that inflicting torture on slaves was also seen as an expression of manhood. As Baptist has shown, this was a routine part of what it meant to produce cotton for the market.
On the other hand, the slave had a different idea of what it meant to be a human being. Today, many people might think that slaves should have been more determined in their efforts to free themselves from this bondage.
Baptist gives the evidence showing how it was nearly impossible to launch a slave rebellion. Baptist showed how the Haitian slave revolution did succeed. However, hundreds of thousands of Haitian slaves lost their lives in their attempt to be free. The slave owners of this country took steps to make sure that a Haitian style revolution would never happen.
Only a tiny percentage of slaves managed to escape these conditions. Understanding this reality, slave owners would not tolerate even a slight expression of defiance. One challenge to their authority would only lead to many, many others.
Today, there is a common conception that to be a righteous human being entails a struggle against oppression. This idea is contained in the Declaration of Independence. This document is a list of grievances the colonists of the thirteen colonies had against the British royalty. It argued that people not only have a right but “a duty” to fight against tyranny. While these are nice words, Baptist shows us that a successful fight against the clear tyranny of slavery in this country was nearly impossible until the Civil War.
So, understanding that revolt and escape were not real possibilities, slaves needed to find ways of enduring the seemingly unendurable. They did this with thousands of acts of solidarity. They understood that the only way for people to endure these conditions was to watch out for one another. Clearly this didn’t always happen, but these acts of solidarity made it possible to endure.
Baptist pointed to a slave who lost his family when they were sold at auction. This slave took care of a child who lost his parents at this same auction. Another slave lost her family in an auction and had understandable feelings of despair. With the supportive acts of other slaves and her belief in religion, she was able to overcome her despair and found the strength to survive.
We can also look at escaped slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman who energized the abolitionist movement. Baptist argues that all progressive social movements have their roots with those slaves who waged an uncompromising struggle to end the system of chattel slavery in this country.
Even the music we listen to today has its roots in the system of slavery. Before reading this book, I was of the opinion that much of the music we hear had its roots in European and African musical styles. Baptist argues that this is an inadequate explanation. We also need to look at the fact that the experience of slavery also influenced the music slaves performed. This experience gave us the foundation for the musical styles of the Blues, Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, as well as Rap.
So, here Baptist shows us two views of what it means to be a human being. One view is a criminal attitude advocating for the worst kind of anti-social behavior, all for the sake of money. The other view is about seeing one’s self as a part of a community and understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all.
We might also consider that ex-slaves finally were allowed to become soldiers in the Union Army. This took place when many union soldiers were demoralized due to the immense damage caused by the war. The 250,000 African American soldiers were necessary to the union effort to win the war. This was one of the main reasons why President Lincoln signed his Emancipation Proclamation.
Slave labor and capitalist productivity
One of the ideas that I learned from Baptist’s book was that slave labor in the cultivation of cotton was actually more productive than the productivity of freed slaves. Baptist argues that the main reason for this difference was the fact that slave owners were able to coerce slaves with torture.
In Frederick Douglass’ autobiography he gave a different view with respect to labor productivity in the ship building industry at that time. Douglass reported that three workers in a northern ship building port could do the work of about twelve slaves in Baltimore performing the same job.
I think we can recognize the reality of both these arguments. When machinery is introduced to the workplace, skilled workers are a necessity. While workers have an incentive to develop skills, the main priority of slaves is to be free. This, I believe, explains why there were very few scientific advancements during the 600 years of the Roman Empire that also relied on slave labor.
Reparations for slavery
Reading Baptist’s book, I thought about the question: When will Black people be compensated for the immense price their ancestors paid? As Baptist has shown, the labor of slaves was an essential ingredient to transform the world. Yet the government in this country has never seriously considered this issue. I believe we also need to ask the question: Why?
While the institution of chattel slavery has been, for the most part eliminated in this country, the primary goal of the government continues to be support for those who control the flow of money. While one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat, the government has dumped literally trillions of dollars on some of the most affluent people in the world. They have called this scheme quantitative easing.
My opinion is that Black people want what we all want. We want to be free. This means free from hunger, as well as free from poverty. As Aretha Franklyn and Otis Redding said in their song, they want respect. As Etta James said in one of her songs, people also want security. I don’t believe these are unreasonable requests. Reading Edward Baptist’s book we can understand that Black people have clearly earned these things a long time ago.
Until we have a government that recognizes this basic reality, my opinion is that none of us has any right to say that we are free.