FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A History Defined by the Trade in Human Beings

by

slave-auction-virginia-P

Slave auction in Virginia, 1861.

The history of the US is soaked in blood. Then again, the same can be said for many nations and certainly every empire. Several nations throughout history have also allowed and even encouraged the taking and use of slaves. None, however, encouraged this practice in a manner or scale equal to the United States. More importantly, no nation has based its economy on the buying, selling and breeding of human beings other than the US. The decisions that went into this mode of operations were steeped in racism and based in greed. The defining characteristic, however, was the pursuit of profit.

As Ned and Constance Sublette make clear in their comprehensive and exhaustive history, The American Slave Coast, that profit was not only determined by the labor of the enslaved but also in the slaves’ bodies themselves, including the potential production of more slaves. The authors call this latter status the “capitalized womb.” In a manner similar to the projection of an animal’s potential reproduction capabilities through several generations, the potential offspring of enslaved girls and women was considered when they were sold and when their owners applied for credit. As an example, supposedly when one kills a hen with their vehicle in some countries, the driver of the vehicle pays the farmer who owned the hen for the hen, but also for all the chickens the hen might have produced and another generation that those chickens would have produced. There is a certain formula used by the legal system in these situations to determine the sum total owed by the offending driver. Slaveowners and traders also agreed upon such a formula in the antebellum United States.

The American Slave Coast describes a nation founded in genocide and maintained by an economy based almost entirely on the slave trade. Beginning with the arrival of the first Englishmen on the continent’s eastern shores and up to the final battles of the Civil War, the Sublettes describe how virtually every major decision by the colonists and their successors was made with a determination to keep the institution of racialized slavery intact. From the determination of the individual colonies’ boundaries to the framing of the constitution and beyond to the annexation of territory, all major legislation was looked at through the prism of how it would affect the human capital held by the slavers.

These holdings were not small.  Indeed, some economists and historians believe the value could be measured in the hundreds of millions of today’s dollars. This is why, argue the Sublettes, the Civil War was the truly revolutionary war in the United States–because with the Emancipation Proclamation and the defeat of the slaveowning Confederate States of America, those who had the most capital suddenly had none. As the Sublettes write towards the book’s end:

“No more counting children as interest. No more multigenerational wealth accumulating from reproduction of enslaved humans to be passed on as legacies to slaveowners’ children. No more paying debts in a bad year by cashing out and selling adolescents: the liquidity of the financial system vanished when ownership of the human capital was transferred from landowners to the laborers themselves.” (655)

Of course, the construction of racialized slavery was not only maintained by the profits made by slaveowners and traders. It was also enabled by churches, the media, the educational system and the government, all of whom perpetrated a racism that insisted those who were enslaved were subhuman and better off as slaves. Consequently, this slavecoastbook is more than a discussion of the economics of North American slavery. It is also a catalog of brutality, rape, sexual abuse, kidnapping and a multitude of other horrors associated with slavery. There were no humane slaveowners; the very act of owning another human being is inhumane. The structure of slavery built in the US–a structure that intentionally bred humans to sell them for their labor in what they hoped would be a permanent situation–is beyond every definition of inhumane.

One fact this book makes clear is that anyone who was involved in the financial markets or interstate trade in the United States was also involved in the industry of slaveowning, breeding and trading. There was virtually no way around such complicity given the
centrality of the slavers’ system to the US economy. Indeed, at least a few of today’s fortunes were made in the buying and selling of human beings. As the one-term Senator from Ohio Thomas Morris stated in 1839: “The cotton bale and the bank note have formed an alliance….”

Likewise, some of that nation’s best-known names were slaveowners, traders and fierce supporters of the institution. Besides the names already known for their involvement–Thomas Jefferson (for whom the Sublettes have no mercy) and George Washington, to name two–there is also the author of the US national anthem, Francis Scott Key. No legitimate argument justifying the involvement of such men (Key was also a powerful lawyer and US Attorney who enforced slavery laws) can be made.

As I read the final chapters of this incredible book, the news came over an internet feed that a grand jury had refused to indict the policeman who killed Cleveland’s twelve year old Tamir Rice in November 2014. After going through the seven hundred pages of this history of US slavery and racism, the only thought I had was this: of course, why wouldn’t the cop go free? He was only doing the job he was hired to do; only wearing the uniform that made it okay for him to murder young Black people; only wearing the uniform that guaranteed his immunity from prosecution. The grand jury was provided information and opinions by the prosecutors intended to ensure there would be no indictment. Consequently, the jury did what was expected–the majority voted exactly how the masters intended.

Ned and Constance Sublette have provided the world with one of the best history books ever written about the United States. Nominally about the slave breeding industry in the US South, The American Slave Coast is actually a sweeping, in-depth survey of the nation known as the United States. The authors skilfully blend economics, politics, military history and personal narratives into a history volume that stands among the best ever published. Written with an eye on the present–a present where the case of Tamir Rice is but one of hundreds–it is a history with a weight that will never began to be thrown off until it is understood with the same honesty it is told in The American Slave Coast.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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