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A Gringo Reads Taibo II at the Alamo

Lee Ballinger’s essay in CounterPunch (Vol. 21 No. 8), “The Eyes of Texas are Upon Us”, put Phil Collins’ donation to the Alamo in its proper context. Mr. Collins professes a love for the Alamo because he saw Fess Parker in the Disney version of Davy Crockett. So, Collins fell in love with a myth made for television and profit. Collins also fell in love with a racist asshole, because Fess Parker earned money talking about how to shoot Indians as a form of entertainment for white kids. Crockett actually stopped kicking it with Andrew Jackson for the genocidal acts he perpetrated against the Indians. So, Fess Parker was ignorant, on top of being a racist asshole.

I digress.

Instead of Collins’ “heroic” myth, Ballinger relates to us the history of the Alamo as part of the general support for slavery across the Southern United States, and the expansionist desires of those slave states and the United States generally. He writes that from 1825 to 1836 the slave population in Texas rose from 1,800 to 5,000. Sections 6, 9 and 10 of the Texas constitution agreed upon at Washington-on-the-Brazos bear repeating from Ballinger’s essay:

“All free white persons who emigrate to the republic…shall be entitled to all the privileges of citizenship.’

All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude … Congress (of Texas) shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from the United State of America from bringing their slaves into the Republic with them … nor shall Congress have the power to emancipate slaves; nor shall any slaveholder be allowed to emancipate his or her slave or slaves…no free person of African descent either in whole or in part shall be permitted to reside permanently in the Republic without the consent of Congress.”

As it is now the 178th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Alamo, which lasted from Feb. 23rd to March 6th, 1836, I wanted to add to his discussion with a tidbit from a book I was surprised to see being sold at the Alamo. The book, El Álamo: Una Historia No Apta para Hollywood [The Alamo: A History not Apt for Hollywood], is by the always pleasurable Paco Ignacio Taibo II. It is a book for those ready to confront bullshit history and ask who these mythologized people were.

The cast of characters typically raised up as exemplars of the American drive for freedom were on the whole a bunch of freedom-negating hucksters who had little to do with Texas, other than ransacking it and using it for illegal slave trading. By way of an example, let’s take Jim Bowie. Here is a translation of Paco’s description of Bowie’s early life:

“After a short pass through the militia, the Bowie brothers had a certain success due to their relationship with the pirate, Jean Lafitte, in the slave trade. United States law at the time permitted the buying and selling of black slaves in the southern states found inside US territory, not slaves from Africa; Lafitte got into the business using Cuba as a way station and the Bowie brothers (Jim, Rezin, John) became his associates. They would collect the blacks Laffite introduced to the US through Texas (where there was a slave market on Galveston Island) and they transported them on the eastern route to Louisiana, or using a fraudulent mechanism denouncing supposed slave-traffickers whose slaves were detained by the authorities, and then the law would give them half the slaves as property, that now being inside the United States were “legal”…”(77)

This is one of many facts brought up by Paco to demonstrate the utter lack of morality our “heroes” actually had in reality. The Bowie brothers actively broke the law to sell human beings for their own profit. This profit allowed Jim Bowie to buy a sugar plantation worked by slaves. From there in Arcadia he participated in land speculation and selling false titles. Truly, Jim Bowie was a scoundrel.

Nor was he the only one to be so directly invested in the slave trade. James Walker Fannin, breaking Mexican law, brought with him 14 slaves to Velasco, Texas in 1834. He declared the slaves “free” to break Mexican law, but also to break US law against the “trafficking” of slaves. Fannin built a company to bring slaves from the Congo to Cuba, and then on to Texas. Paco relates that, “Documents were conserved from an operation introducing and selling 153 persons.” (119) Fannin, celebrated in Texas, is the archetypical human trafficker, a human in pursuit of profit at all costs.

If the horrendous business practices and immoral fortunes of many “Texans” don’t disabuse of their heroism, maybe the fact that they weren’t “Texans” will. Of the 59 folks at the Texas Independence Convention, 3/4th were from southern slave states, 1 was from the colony settled by Austin and 10 had lived in Texas more than six years. Of the 88 men who voted for the convention delegates, 47 had only been in Texas a week. As Taibo writes, “Morally, from a nationalist point of view and with the same “democratic rights”, it’s as if an assembly of Mexicans from Puebla declared independence for New York on the doorstep of a deli on 6th Ave.” (133-134)

There is also the racism the story of the Alamo set-off, racism continuing to today. In a letter William Barrett Travis wrote during the battle, he declared all Mexicans public enemies and “to confiscate their properties to pay for the war.” (136). Forgotten by the rebels was that they started the war to maintain slavery, allow unlimited immigration from the US to Mexico, and acquire land. The demand for unlimited immigration seems quite ironic considering the militarized border presently. It is as if the whites are worried they might have happen to them what they did to others.

Also, there was land speculation, a point typically ignored in the story, reduced either to independence or manifest destiny, as opposed to framing the story’s characters. The “heroes” were trying to become rich through the buying and selling of land, just not their own. They stood to possess a lot of land through their conquest of Texas, especially land they would later take from Mexicans. And as David Harvey has made us understand, accumulation is linked to dispossession. It is natural to capitalism, and I guess as Texan as barbeque.

The history of the Alamo, of Texas “independence”, is then a story of how you get rich. As Balzac wrote, “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.” The story of the Alamo and its “heroes” is the story of people who were as flawed as humans are, and more so. Oddly enough the flawed human who set in motion Texas, Stephen Austin, died “isolated from his old companions, slandered by them, accused of being “Mexican in his principles and politics”, and just not Texan enough. Once more, a certain irony in human history.
I write this then to demonstrate we should be wary of myth, wary of stories told to justify horror.
Thus, as we “Remember the Alamo”, maybe it would be possible to actually remember it.

Andrew Smolski is a writer.

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Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

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