Saturday, December 19, 2015

The American Slave Coast – A history of the slave breeding industry

By Ned and Constance Sublette
Lawrence Hill Books - 2016

A review of the book and an analysis of the first American Revolution

There were about ten to twelve million Africans who Europeans merchants kidnapped and transported to the Americas to become slaves.  Of that number, no more than 450,000 went to the thirteen colonies that became the United States of America. 

At the time of the Civil War in this country, there were about four million slaves in the former Confederate states.  So, a question to be asked is: Why was there such a dramatic increase of the Black population in this country under the horrendous conditions of slavery?  Ned and Constance Sublette have given us an enormous amount of information to help answer this question.

In Edward Baptist’s book, Half Has Never Been Told, he gives us facts about the slave system that most people in this country are unaware of.  Therefore, in order to understand the theme of The American Slave Coast, we need to look at some of the realities of the institution of slavery.

Some realities of slavery

Today, money is the thing that allows us to purchase the commodities we want and need.  During the colonial period, and the first years of the establishment of this country, slaves were the most transferable commodities.

People who had power didn’t view slaves as human beings, but as investments.  Slave owners viewed the children of slaves as interest on investments.  Bankers viewed slaves as collateral that could be confiscated if slave owners failed to make payments on loans.

Benjamin Franklyn owned a newspaper where he profited from advertisements for slave auctions.  Later in his life he supported the abolition of slavery.  Given the times he lived in, Franklyn saw clearly how the human labor of slaves was the source of all wealth.  Karl Marx quoted Franklyn and also understood that the source of wealth comes from the minerals in the ground as well as human labor.

The system of slavery was different from the system of serfdom in the feudal epoch.  The chattel slavery of the Americas was more like the slavery of the Greek and Roman Empires that existed over 1,000 years before Columbus came to this part of the world.

However, the Roman slave laws to forbid slave families from being separated.  An interesting fact is that the English word family comes from the Roman language Latin, familia or famulus.  For the Romans, their word for family literally meant “a family of slaves.”  The Roman’s had another word to describe families of people who were not slaves.

The slave owners of this country had a routine policy of separating slaves from their families.  Why were slave owners driven to do this?

Baptist documents in his book how the amount of cotton picked by slaves continually increased over the years.  Slave owners found that it became increasingly difficult to pay off their enormous debts.  To continue the flow of cash they required, slave owners needed to increase production.  Baptist documented how slave owners coerced slaves to increase production with a routine system of torture.

Slave owners had their own reasons for who was to have sexual relations with whom.  This was based on profit and the lust of slave owners.  In other words, rape was a routine practice during the years of slavery. 

The abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass witnessed the horrendous effects of this system.  The slaves Esther and Ned Roberts wanted to be together.  The slave owner, Mr. Anthony, forbid this.  When they disobeyed Mr. Anthony’s orders, Esther was tied to a tree and whipped.

A basic question

I am a student of history and have been intrigued by a basic question.  How was it that slave owners, who practiced all these horrendous crimes, would also be leaders of the American Revolution?

Before looking at this question we might look at the meaning of what a political revolution is.  First, we are talking about the kind of change that transforms society.  Revolutionaries are not about making improvements in the existing order.  They are about replacing the ruling powers with a new ruling class that has completely different priorities.

Ruling powers have many advantages.  The have the armed forces, the courts, the mainstream press, as well as the government.  Revolutionaries have an idea and the ability to organize support for that idea.

Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, a President of the United States, and the author of the Declaration of Independence.  This declaration was a list of grievances revolutionaries had against the British crown that prompted the revolution.  The following words are from this Declaration and underscore the reasons for the revolution:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.  But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”   

These are powerful words and continue to be relevant today.  However, we can see another side to Jefferson in the book America’s Revolutionary Heritage.  In a chapter titled, Class Forces in the American Revolution, Harry Frankel gave a different quotation from Jefferson that gives us a completely different picture of the man.

“The planters were a species of property annexed to certain mercantile houses in London.  .  .  They got him more immersed in debt than he could pay.  .  .  They never permitted him to clear his debt.”

These were Jefferson’s real reasons for supporting the Revolution.  As long as Britain ruled the Thirteen Colonies, he would be a debt slave to the British.  His idea of “liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” was to be free of these debts so he could run his slave labor camp without British interference.

So, if these were the real motives of some of the leaders of the Revolution, we might ask: What was gained by the revolution in the Thirteen Colonies?  In order to begin to answer this question, I believe we need to look at a philosophical method used by supporters of the ideas of Karl Marx.  This is the theory of dialectical materialism.

Dialectical Materialism

In this country we routinely learn a different philosophical method known a formal logic.  Formal logic goes something like this.  If you work hard in school, then work hard on the job, you can expect to live a comfortable life that will be better than the lives of your parents.  This would appear to be logical.

Clearly, there have been tens of millions of people in this country who were able to move into suburban areas, send the children to college, and live relatively comfortable lives.

The problem is that the standard of living has been going down in this country for the past forty years.  Many people who received advanced degrees in school have found themselves on the unemployment line.

However, when unemployment runs out, hard working skilled workers might find themselves among the tens of millions of people in this country that do not have enough food to eat.  So, while formal logic has its advantages, it also has clear limitations.

Dialectical materialism is about looking at our reality as a continuous struggle between contending forces.  Charles Darwin wrote in his monumental book On the Origins of Species that animals develop based on their ability to adopt to nature.  This means that nature is constantly changing due to a continual struggle to determine how an organism can best adapt to this changing reality.  

When we look at history we see that contending classes came into conflict to create the reality we experience today.  First, we see that humanity experienced a hunter-gatherer stage.  Then, in Greece and Rome we see humanity went into a period of slavery where prisoners of war became slaves.  When the Roman Empire was overthrown, humanity entered the feudal epoch where royal families ruled.  The capitalist system emerged because the new capitalist class pushed aside the rule of the royal families and organized their system based on private profit.

History is ruled by a number of forces struggling against one another.  Scientific advances and their integration into society has had enormous influence in the world.  These advances have caused classes to battle one another for supremacy.  So, history hasn’t followed a logical straight line.  George Novack argued that world history followed a line that he called Uneven and Combined Development.

So, using the method of dialectical materialism, we can now look at the contending forces that caused the first of many American Revolutions.

Contending forces in the American Revolution

The British royal family viewed their subjects as children and in turn kings and queens expected to be viewed as father, or mother.  The elite of British society were the gentlemen who had real power over the common people.  British gentlemen never worked.  This meant that people who did work would never be treated as an equal.

These feudal attitudes influenced the revolutionaries of the thirteen colonies.  George Washington was a slave owner, who was considered to be a gentleman, and became the commander of the revolutionary forces.  Paul Revere was a silversmith who was also a famous defender of the revolution.  Revere never became a commanding officer because he worked with his hands and this meant he wasn’t considered to be a gentleman.

The British viewed their colonies as a means of enriching the royal crown, as well as British bankers.  They adopted laws that forbid colonists from selling commodities to other nations.  For these reasons, they only favored a limited development in their colonies.   

After the British war against the French colony in the Americas, Britain expected the colonists to pay for the costs of the war.  This was the spark that caused the colonists to begin to understand that they needed a revolution to free themselves from British tyranny.

As we have seen, the slave owners didn’t want to continue to be debt slaves to Britain.  Because of the nature of their so-called business, they didn’t rotate crops and continually planted the same crops year after year.  This practice made the soil unusable and there was a continuous need to find new lands that would be cultivated by slave labor.

The capitalists and their supporters in the northern colonies wanted to have an unrestricted development.  These capitalists had benefitted from British financing, but felt that they could do much better in an independent nation.  The British exorbitant taxes convinced the capitalists that continued subjugation was intolerable.

These capitalists profited from wage labor.  While the slave owners wanted an agrarian based economy, the northern capitalists would move towards and industrial based economy.  This difference would polarize these two classes after the revolution.

The planters and workers wanted certain rights to live their lives free of a tyrannical power.  The ideas in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and that they have “certain unalienable rights” were clearly revolutionary in the context of British colonialism.  The planters and workers would also become antagonistic to the interests of slave owners.

The French Monarchy wanted to dominate the world and the British crown was in their way.  The British defeated the French in the French Indian war. 

Initially the American revolutionaries suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the British military.  Then, they proved that they could defeat the British in the battles of Saratoga and Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River.   At this point the French gave military support to the revolution and transformed the conflict from a battle over the thirteen colonies into a world war.

After the American Revolution, a revolution of slaves erupted on the island that became the nation of Haiti.  Sugar production from the Caribbean accounted for about 40% of the French economy and the nation that became Haiti was the most productive sugar producer.  The loss of this revenue, as well as the huge debts the French needed to pay for their wars were the sparks that ignited the French revolution. 

Individuals from various nations supported the American Revolution.  They experienced tyranny from the feudal monarchs in their country and were inspired by the example of the first revolution in the Americas. 

In Canada they call the Indians the First Nations.  When the Europeans came to this part of the world, they brought diseases that might have killed over 90% of the indigenous population.  These would include populations of literally hundreds of nations in North and South America.

The Indians had a communal lifestyle where everyone contributed to the welfare of their societies.  The leaders of these nations oftentimes experienced relative poverty so everyone in the nation might be provided for.

The Indians routinely travelled long distances to obtain the necessities they required to live.  The European powers saw this lifestyle as completely antagonistic to the emerging capitalist property relations.  Many Indians could not understand why some Europeans lived affluent lifestyles while others lived in poverty.

Indians fought for both sides in the American Revolution.  Most Indians fought for the British because they correctly understood that British colonialism would mean a slower development of the lands they had lived on for thousands of years.  In fact, the Declaration of Independence used the racist word savages to describe the first people who lived in this part of the world. 

The United States government would continue the war against Indians for over 100 years.  Even President Abraham Lincoln signed the order to execute 38 members of the Dakota nation in the largest mass execution in this country’s history.  One of Lincoln’s top generals Phillip Henry Sheridan argued that, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

Black people had conflicting interests.  Free Blacks of the northern colonies favored independence and supported the revolution.

Most Black people during those years were slaves.  They had one overriding interest and that was to be free.  In an opportunist move, the British promised slaves their freedom if they fought against the revolution.  As a result, thousands of slaves fought against the revolution.

After the revolution, the United States government demanded that the Black soldiers in the British army be handed over to slave owners.  In fact, many soldiers in the revolutionary army were paid, not with money, but with slaves.

The British negotiators betrayed the promise they made to their Black soldiers and agreed to hand them over to slave owners.  However, Sir Guy Carleton, who was the Irish commander-in-chief of the British forces refused to hand over soldiers under his command to slave owners.  He declared these soldiers to be free and transported about 3,000 to Nova Scotia.

After the Revolution, many Black people who thought they were free could be kidnapped and sent to slave labor camps.  Solomon Northup was one of those who was kidnapped and wrote about his experience in the book 12 Years a Slave.

After the Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sanford, any black person could be legally kidnapped.  In fact, since this decision argued that Black people have no rights, anyone who thought they were free could be accused a being Black.  This meant they had no right to trial and could be legally sent to a slave labor camp.       

Advances made because of the first American Revolution.

Clearly, there were numerous advances made in this part of the world because of the first American Revolution.  Although the affluent dominated the new government, for the first time people felt that they had certain rights the government needed to respect.

Today we can be inspired by the examples of the organizer Sam Adams and the propagandist Thomas Paine.  These two leaders of the revolution managed to inspire and galvanize the support needed to end British colonialism in this part of the world.

The Shay’s rebellion erupted over grievances working people had with the new government.  Although the government defeated the rebellion, this rebellion established the right of the people to protest.

In the world, the American Revolution was the first that made a clean break with the feudal property relations of the past.  There had been other revolutions, but they compromised with the old order.  So, we can say that the American Revolution played a key role in transforming the world.

Several states immediately abolished slavery.  Clearly, the movement in favor of abolition was given new life because of the revolution.  However, there was a problem.

Most of the income of the United States came from slave labor.  The revolutionary government was made up of those who supported slavery and those who supported an industrial capitalism where workers received wages for their labor.  These two groupings called themselves the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.  The slave owners were the Anti-Federalists who favored slavery and a weak federal government.  The Federalists supported the capitalists in the North and favored a strong federal government.

These two factions represented what might be called a dual power.  At first, they recognized there were differences, but managed to work together.  As time went on, each side became convinced that their differences were irreconcilable.  The basic problem was, that slave owners dominated the revolutionary government.

In the book America’s Revolutionary Heritage, George Novack gave the evidence showing how the federal government made major decisions to favor slave owners after the election of Thomas Jefferson.

“The purchase of Louisiana, the War of 1812, the conquest of Florida, the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the Gadsden Purchase, the Ostend Manifesto—all these actions were taken with an eye to the promotion of the agrarian interests, in most cases against the bitterest opposition of northern merchants, money men, and manufacturers.”

The theme of the Sublette book gives a history of the slave breeding business centered in the state of Virginia.  President Thomas Jefferson opposed the trans-Atlantic slave trade in order to protect slave breeding in his home state of Virginia.  This is just one of many examples given by the Sublettes showing how the government in this country worked diligently to protect slave owners.

People may be familiar with the film Amistad.  This is the story of a slave uprising where slaves took command of a ship sailing from Africa to Cuba.  After the slaves took over the ship, they were unable to chart a course back to Africa and a US ship commandeered the vessel.

Cuban slave owners argued that the slaves were their property and wanted compensation.  The case went to the Supreme Court that ruled in favor of sending the slaves back to Africa.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at that time was Roger B. Taney.  Taney might have agreed with this decision to protect the slave breeding business in the United States.  In later years, Taney was the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision where he argued that Black men have no rights that white men need to respect.

So, while the first Revolution in the Americas brought about numerous progressive reforms, a government dominated by slave owners dominated this country from the time of Jefferson until the election of Lincoln.

Frederick Douglass’ speech July 4, 1852

Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery to become a leader of the abolitionist movement.  On the Forth Of July in 1852 Douglass gave a speech on the significance of this holiday to the millions of slaves who lived here.  The following are quotations from his remarks”

"Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.  The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common.  The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.  The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me.  This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.  You may rejoice, I must mourn.  To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony."

"What to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?

"I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.  To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."

"Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all monarchies and despotisms - of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without rival." 

When we think of the national holiday of the Forth of July, the above quotation gives us a completely different view of what this celebration is all about.  Clearly Frederick Douglass had excellent reasons for giving this speech.  These weren’t just his opinions, but represented the sentiment of millions of human beings held as chattel slaves.

However, Douglass wasn’t aware of the philosophy of dialectical materialism.  The following history shows how we can look at the American Revolution from a different perspective.

The so-called Haitian revolutionary terrorists

After the American Revolution, a revolution led by slaves erupted on the Caribbean island that became the nation of Haiti.  Slave owners on that island lost all their property and many lost their lives. 

The slave owners in this country wanted to keep the Haitians out because they felt that their influence would spark, what they felt were terroristic activities amongst the slaves.  As we have seen, these slave owners had no problem with the routine terrorism used against slaves.  However, when slaves used the force of arms to free themselves, the slave owners felt this was terrorism.

Looking back, these same slave owners needed to be concerned about another force they would have to deal with.  The slave owners lost control of the United States government with the election of Abraham Lincoln.  The government they once controlled organized an army that went to war against the slave owners. 

During that war, under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman, many of the buildings of the Confederate states were destroyed.  South Carolina was a center for slavery and the Union Army destroyed nearly every building in the state.  The goal of this massive destruction was to convince the Confederacy that there was no way they could win the war.

Slave owners and bankers had literally billions of dollars invested in slaves.  After the Confederate defeats at the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  This meant that the billions of dollars invested in slaves literally vanished.

So, when we look at the American Revolution from a dialectical point of view, we see that although slave owners controlled the government for many years, the revolution set in motion forces that would eventually overturn the system of slavery.

Karl Marx and the American Revolution

Karl Marx and many who supported his ideas spoke uncritically about the American Revolution.  Clearly he saw how the British were and oppressive colonial power.  He also saw all the advances made because of the revolution.  He even saw how the revolution set in motion the forces that led to the Civil War and the outlawing of chattel slavery.

Marx also was aware of the horrendous conditions working people faced in the factories of Britain.  His co-thinker Frederick Engels wrote a book exposing those conditions in the city of Manchester.  However, employers in Britain paid working people in wages.  The slaves of the United States of America didn’t have that right.

The genius of Marx was his understanding that the workers who experienced these conditions were part of an international class that has the potential to transform the world.  In the United States, the great labor battles would have to wait until the system of chattel slavery was no more.

Understanding these facts, I believe we can make two conclusions.  One, we can recognize that the American Revolution did transform this part of the world.  However, the facts show that for decades before the Civil War, slave owners ran this country.  Frederick Douglass’ Forth of July Speech gives us ample reason not to celebrate this national holiday.

When we look at the history of this country, we are also looking at a history of the institutional discrimination against Black people.  The birth of this country started with Chattel slavery.  Then, after the Reconstruction Governments were militarily defeated, Black people lost citizenship rights with the rise of Jim Crow segregation.  Then, with the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, institutionalized discrimination continued.  Recently, Michelle Alexander wrote her book titled The New Jim Crow – Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.

Clearly the abolition of slavery in this country was a reason for celebration.  However, it is useful to read the text of the Thirteenth Amendment to see limitations in this monumental victory.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

 So, we see how the Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery actually allowed for it with respect to those who have been convicted of a crime.  In the Sublette book we see how a former slave plantation named Angola is today one of the most notorious prisons in the nation.  While there are machines used to pick cotton, prisoners at Angola pick cotton by hand.  

This reality underscores the words of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (a leader of the Russian Revolution) who argued in his pamphlet State and Revolution that the state under capitalism is a special instrument of repression.  In other words, the government uses the repressive character of the state to rob working people of the wealth we produce.  This means that when we make advances, the system works diligently to reverse those advances.  

However, every time the government came up with a new way of carrying out this discrimination, Black people learned new and increasingly effective ways to resist.  After the Civil War Black people participated in the labor movement, the civil rights movement, as well as the movement against the war in Vietnam.  In the words of Malcolm X, “Either everyone will be free, or no one will be free.”   

Today, at the same time as Barrack Obama is President of the United States, Black people organized a new movement called Black Lives Matter.  The name of this movement not only reflects the issues of today, but the fact that the government in this country has disagreed with that point of view ever since the Forth of July 1776.                           

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