FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Slavery, Cotton and Imperialism

by W.T. WHITNEY, Jr.

“Cuba is already ours. I feel it in my finger’s ends.”

— James Buchanan, 1849

Historian Walter Johnson’s highly recommended book, “River of Dark Dreams,” centers on cotton production and slave ownership in the Mississippi River Valley prior to the U.S. Civil War. Planters, it seems, believed their fate was linked to imperatives imposed through an internationalized system of sales, manufacture, and re-supply.  Johnson’s spirited, enthralling narrative casts slave ownership and cotton growing as precarious undertakings. Planters on the edge of disaster strategized and improvised in order to retain both land and slaves.

Their intransigence vis-à-vis northern compatriots derived, Johnson suggests, from immersion in a labyrinth-like alternative universe that set conditions for their economic survival. Planters were alienated enough from pretensions of their own government to seek deliverance through privatized military interventions in countries seen as hospitable to plantations and slavery.

Johnson focuses on actualities and people’s lives rather than on well-trodden slavery-era themes like abolitionism, or northern industrialization, or states rights . Social and economic history in his hands tells of ledger books; cotton “pickability;” slaves starving, stolen, rebelling, and running away; search dogs; slave babies dying, slave prices, soil fertility, droughts, sandbars, and Haiti.  Steamboats feature prominently, along with their explosions, gamblers, races, high-pressure engines, and dining room etiquette. They were technological marvels of their era and absolutely crucial for marketing cotton,

During the period under study, Valley cotton production increased fortyfold, the slave population, 17 times.  “The greatest economic boom in the history of the United States” was in progress. Cotton was “the largest single sector of the global economy.” Planters were part of “a network of material connections that stretched from Mississippi and Louisiana to riverdarkdreamsManhattan and Lowell to Manchester and Liverpool.” Indeed, the “rate of exploitation of slaves in a field in Mississippi … was keyed to the exchange in Liverpool (port of entry for 85 percent of U.S. planters’ cotton) and the labor of mill hands in Manchester.”

In New York southern cotton was re-sold, re-graded, and re-loaded onto other ships for the Atlantic crossing. That city consumed 40 percent of all income generated through cotton sales. Cotton made up two thirds of all U.S. exports. Yet only 10 percent of U.S. imports ended up in cotton-producing states. Southern manufacturers lacked essential equipment manufactured abroad. Cotton producers endured shortages of imported plantations supplies.

Johnson characterizes “the conceptual reach of the global economy in the first half of the nineteenth century” as “lashes into labor into bales into dollars into pounds sterling.” Cotton moved from plantations, to factors in New Orleans, to bankers and shippers in New York, to bankers, buyers, and manufacturers in England, all on a flood of promissory notes, loans, credit, and deductions.

Planters’ wealth took the form of slaves and land. Although land served as collateral for loans, “without slaves, land itself was worthless.” In effect, planters “buy Negroes to plant cotton and raise cotton to buy Negroes.” Facing hard times, slaveholders as a class could not simply transfer their investment from one form of capital to another… Their capital would not simply rust or lie fallow. It would starve. It would steal. It would revolt.”

Influential trade representatives and publicists determined upon a “spatial fix.” They envisioned the Mississippi River as conduit to southern venues favorable to cotton production and other investment possibilities. “In order to survive, slaveholders had to expand,” the author points out: “Proslavery globalism increasingly took the form of imperialist military action.”

“[F]or many in the Mississippi Valley … the most important issue in the early 1850s was Cuba.” Pursing annexation, former Spanish soldier Narciso López in 1851 invaded the island with troops drawn from “the margins of the cotton economy.” Slaveholders had donated supplies. The expedition failed, and López’ execution in Havana attracted 20,000 spectators. Former Mississippi governor and co-conspirator John Quitman raised 1000 men in 1855 for another invasion, which never materialized.

Johnson reviews the career also of slaveholder proxy William Walker whose small army in 1855 subdued Nicaraguan defenders and set him up as the country’s president. Mississippi Valley supporters provided supplies, arms, troops, and ample publicity.

Were slave-owners capitalist?  Johnson rejects the notion of slavery as an “archaic” pre-capitalist mode of exploitation. He settles on “a materialist and historical analysis [that] begins from the premise that there was no nineteenth century capitalism without slavery.”

The author relies upon historical materialism, brain child of Karl Marx, as a social investigatory tool.  Marx stipulated in his “German Ideology that, “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature… This conception of history … has not, like the idealistic view of history, in every period to look for a category, but remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice.”

Explaining his own methodological approach, Johnson echoes Marx: History is often “approached through durable abstractions: ‘the master-slave relationship,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘resistance,’ ‘agency.’ [Yet] these categories have become unmoored from the historical experience they were intended to represent.” Moreover, terms like “agency” and “power” are “thick with the material givenness of a moment in time.”  The story of the hybrid cotton strain “Petit Gulf” shows “that beneath the abstractions lies a history of bare-life processes and material exchanges so basic they have escaped the attention of countless historians of slavery.”

For the author, “The Cotton Kingdom was built out of sun, water, and soil; animal energy, human labor, and mother wit; grain, flesh, and cotton; pain hunger, and fatigue; blood, milk, semen, and shit.”

Johnson documents early stirrings of U.S. imperialism. The take among many leftists is that capitalism by its very nature entails recurring crises in accumulation. They assume too that for solutions capitalists look to overseas extension of their operations, even to war making. Thus slave owner longings for exploitative possibilities in the Caribbean and in Central America fueled military adventurism. “River of Dark Dreams” serves in this regard to have documented the beginnings of a U.S. turn toward a global fix for close-to-home economic incongruities.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

 

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 09, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Nasty As They Wanna Be
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Second Gilded Age: Overcoming the Rule of Billionaires and Militarists
Andrew Levine
Trump’s Chumps: Victims of the Old Bait and Switch
Chris Welzenbach
The Forgotten Sneak Attack
Lewis Lapham
Hostile Takeover
Joshua Frank
This Week at CounterPunch: More Hollow Smears and Baseless Accusations
Paul Street
The Democrats Do Their Job, Again
Vijay Prashad
The Cuban Revolution: Defying Imperialism From Its Backyard
Michael Hudson - Sharmini Peries
Orwellian Economics
Mark Ames
The Anonymous Blacklist Promoted by the Washington Post Has Apparent Ties to Ukrainian Fascism and CIA Spying
Erin McCarley
American Nazis and the Fight for US History
Yoav Litvin
Resist or Conform: Lessons in Fortitude and Weakness From the Israeli Left
Conn Hallinan
India & Pakistan: the Unthinkable
Andrew Smolski
Third Coast Pillory: Nativism on the Left – A Realer Smith
Joshua Sperber
Trump in the Age of Identity Politics
Brandy Baker
Jill Stein Sees Russia From Her House
Katheryne Schulz
Report from Santiago de Cuba: Celebrating Fidel’s Rebellious Life
Nelson Valdes
Fidel and the Good People
Norman Solomon
McCarthy’s Smiling Ghost: Democrats Point the Finger at Russia
Renee Parsons
The Snowflake Nation and Trump on Immigration
Margaret Kimberley
Black Fear of Trump
Michael J. Sainato
A Pruitt Running Through It: Trump Kills Nearly Useless EPA With Nomination of Oil Industry Hack
Ron Jacobs
Surviving Hate and Death—The AIDS Crisis in 1980s USA
David Swanson
Virginia’s Constitution Needs Improving
Louis Proyect
Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness
Paul Atwood
War Has Been, is, and Will be the American Way of Life…Unless?
John Wight
Syria and the Bodyguard of Lies
Richard Hardigan
Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: Senate Bill Criminalizes Criticism of Israel
Kathy Kelly
See How We Live
David Macaray
Trump Picks his Secretary of Labor. Ho-Hum.
Howard Lisnoff
Interview with a Political Organizer
Yves Engler
BDS and Anti-Semitism
Adam Parsons
Home Truths About the Climate Emergency
Brian Cloughley
The Decline and Fall of Britain
Eamonn Fingleton
U.S. China Policy: Is Obama Schizoid?
Graham Peebles
Worldwide Air Pollution is Making us Ill
Joseph Natoli
Fake News is Subjective?
Andre Vltchek
Tough-Talking Philippine President Duterte
Binoy Kampmark
Total Surveillance: Snooping in the United Kingdom
Guillermo R. Gil
Vivirse la película: Willful Opposition to the Fiscal Control Board in Puerto Rico
Patrick Bond
South Africa’s Junk Credit Rating was Avoided, But at the Cost of Junk Analysis
Clancy Sigal
Investigate the Protesters! A Trial Balloon Filled With Poison Gas
Pierre Labossiere – Margaret Prescod
Human Rights and Alternative Media Delegation Report on Haiti’s Elections
Charles R. Larson
Review:  Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls: the Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria
David Yearsley
Brahms and the Tears of Britain’s Oppressed
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail