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

Weekend Edition
August 26, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
How Donald Trump Can Still be a Hero: Force the Guardians to the Duopoly to Open Up the Debates
Louisa Willcox
The Unbearable Killing of Yellowstone’s Grizzlies: 2015 Shatters Records for Bear Deaths
Charles Pierson
Wedding Crashers Who Kill
Richard Moser
What is the Inside/Outside Strategy?
Patrick Cockburn
Turkey’s Foray into Syria: a Gamble in a Very Dangerous Game
Brian Terrell
What Makes a Hate Group?
Dirk Bezemer – Michael Hudson
Finance is Not the Economy
Howard Lisnoff
Trouble in Political Paradise
Ben Debney
The Swimsuit that Overthrew the State
Ashley Smith
Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution
Vincent Navarro
Is the Nation State and Its Welfare State Dead? a Critique of Varoufakis
John Wight
Syria’s Kurds and the Wages of Treachery
Lawrence Davidson
The New Anti-Semitism: the Case of Joy Karega
Mateo Pimentel
The Affordable Care Act: A Litmus Test for American Capitalism?
Roger Annis
In Northern Syria, Turkey Opens New Front in its War Against the Kurds
David Swanson
ABC Shifts Blame from US Wars to Doctors Without Borders
Norman Pollack
American Exceptionalism: A Pernicious Doctrine
Ralph Nader
Readers Think, Thinkers Read
Julia Morris
The Mythologies of the Nauruan Refugee Nation
Ann Garrison
Unworthy Victims: Houthis and Hutus
Julian Vigo
Britain’s Slavery Legacy
Rivera Sun
Accountability: An Abandoned American Value
Philip Doe
Colorado: 300 Days of Sunshine Annually, Yet There’s No Sunny Side of the Street
Joseph White
Homage to EP Thompson
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
DNC Playing Dirty Tricks on WikiLeaks
Ron Jacobs
Education for Liberation
Jim Smith
Socialism Revived: In Spite of Bernie, Donald and Hillary
Robert Koehler
The Heart of Order
David Macaray
Organized Labor’s Inferiority Complex
David Cortright
Alternatives to Military Intervention in Syria
Binoy Kampmark
The Terrors of Free Speech: Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act
Cesar Chelala
Guantánamo’s Quagmire
Andrew Stewart
Did Gore Throw the 2000 Election?
William Hughes
From Sam Spade to the Red Scare: Dashiell Hammett’s War Against Rightwing Creeps
Raouf Halaby
Dear Barack Obama, Please Keep it at 3 for 3
Charles R. Larson
Review: Paulina Chiziane’s “The First Wife: a Tale of Polygamy”
August 25, 2016
Mike Whitney
The Broken Chessboard: Brzezinski Gives Up on Empire
Paul Cox – Stan Cox
The Louisiana Catastrophe Proves the Need for Universal, Single-Payer Disaster Insurance
John W. Whitehead
Another Brick in the Wall: Children of the American Police State
Lewis Evans
Genocide in Plain Sight: Shooting Bushmen From Helicopters in Botswana
Daniel Kovalik
Colombia: Peace in the Shadow of the Death Squads
Sam Husseini
How the Washington Post Sells the Politics of Fear
Ramzy Baroud
Punishing the Messenger: Israel’s War on NGOs Takes a Worrying Turn
Norman Pollack
Troglodyte Vs. Goebbelean Fascism: The 2016 Presidential Race
Simon Wood
Where are the Child Victims of the West?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail