[Marxism] The Northern slave trade
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 23 12:39:20 MST 2006
Philip Foner's "Business and Slavery: The New York Merchants and the
"In the years just before the Civil War, it was customary for anti-slavery
writers and speakers to refer to New York City as 'the prolongation of the
South' where 'ten thousand cords of interests are linked with the Southern
Slaveholder.' If, by some magic, one of the countless visitors to the
'World of Tomorrow' had suddenly been transported back to the New York
World's Fair of 1853, he would have had no difficulty in discovering the
reasons for these remarks. Had he arrived in the city late in June or early
in July, he would have noticed that the lobbies of the Astor, St. Nicholas,
Fifth Avenue, St. Denis, Clarendon, and Metropolitan hotels were thronged
with Southern merchants and planters. The pages of the morning and evening
newspapers, he would have observed, were filled with advertisements
addressed to these Southerners, urging them to visit this or that store, to
inspect the latest assortments of dry goods, hardware, boots and shoes, and
other types of merchandise
"Had the visitor remained in the city until September, he would have seen
the daily departures of packets for the South, burdened with huge cargoes
of dry goods, boots and shoes, hardware, clothing, liquors and even fruits,
butter, and cheese. The same vessels, he would have noticed, soon returned
to New York, this time loaded with cotton, tobacco, tar, resin, turpentine,
wheat, pork and molasses. By the time our visitor was ready to return to
the Twentieth Century, he should have been quite ready to agree that New
York was 'almost as dependent upon Southern slavery as Charleston itself.'
Perhaps he might even have agreed with James Dunmore De Bow, who said in
reply to a query by the London Times, asking, 'What would New York be
The Northern Slave Trade
The hidden history of slavery in New York calls myths of American morality
By Phyllis Eckhaus January 6, 2006
Americans excel at ego-boosting myths of exceptionalism: It's our
ingenuity, energy and can-do attitude that explain our rise from frontier
to world power. But what if slavery were the real secret of our success?
We like to condemn slavery as an exotic evil perpetrated by plantation
Southerners, but two new books and a museum exhibit provide nightmarish
reminders that slavery was the norm in the early years of this country, and
that up through the eve of the Civil War, Northern bankers, brokers and
entrepreneurs were among slavery's staunchest defenders.
In Complicity, a team of Hartford Courant journalists investigates this
history, producing 10 stories that explore how deeply the fortunes of New
York and New England were tied to the slave trade. "Slavery in New York,"
an exhibit at the New York Historical Society through March 5, reveals New
York as a city substantially built by slaves. The companion book of the
same name, elegantly designed and illustrated, anchors the exhibit in a
series of scholarly essays. Together, these works echo and amplify each
other, providing a kind of surround-sound opportunity for an anguished
identity crisis: If our supposedly freedom-loving forebears were not "good
guys," what were they? And what are we?
From the get-go, Americans were profiteers, and plundering the New World
was backbreaking work. Writing in 1645 to John Winthrop, governor of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony, his brother-in-law Emanuel Downing complained, "I
do not see how we can thrive until we get a stock of slaves sufficient to
do all our business." Further south, in New Amsterdam, slaves built Wall
Street's wall and cleared what became Harlem and Route 1. When a new
shipload of slaves proved insufficiently hardy, Director General Peter
Stuyvesant expressed his displeasure to the Dutch West India Company,
insisting that the company supply the best slaves to Christian and company
enterprises, while unloading the feeble on "Spaniards and unbelieving Jews."
For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, New York boasted the largest urban
slave population in mainland North America. Slaves made up one-fifth the
population. And white New Yorkers lived in terror of slave revolt. An
alleged 1741 plot led to the jailing and torture of scores of slaves, 30 of
whom were executed, 17 by burning at the stake.
For slaves, the Revolutionary War was a liberating experience--but only if
they fought for the British, who promised them freedom. Though George
Washington sought to reclaim the colonists' slaves, British General Guy
Carleton oversaw the evacuation of more than 3,000 black Loyalists, who
fled New York for Nova Scotia and other British outposts.
New York slowly and reluctantly abolished slavery; federal census figures
showed slaves in the state until 1850. But the death of slavery in New York
scarcely impeded the city's business in the slave trade. In the peak years
of 1859 and 1860, two slave ships bound for Africa left New York harbor
every month. Although the trade was technically illegal, no one cared: A
slave bought for $50 in Africa could be sold for $1,000 in Cuba, a profit
margin so high that loss of slave life was easily absorbed. For every
hundred slaves purchased in Africa, perhaps 48 survived the trip to the New
World. By the end of the voyage, the ships that held the packed, shackled
and naked human cargo were so filthy that it was cheaper to burn some
vessels than decontaminate them.
Law-abiding Northerners made money off slavery through the cotton trade.
"King Cotton" was to antebellum America what oil is to the Middle East.
Whole New England textile cities sprang up to manufacture cloth from cotton
picked and processed by millions of slaves. In 1861, the United States
produced more than 2 billion pounds of cotton, exporting much of it to
Great Britain via New York. No wonder then that as the South began to talk
secession, so too did New York Mayor Fernando Wood, who proposed that
Manhattan become an independent island nation, its cotton trade intact.
How do we reconcile these facts with our mythology of the Civil War and our
convenient conviction that the evils of slavery were contained within the
South? Obviously, we can't. Slavery was such a huge and gruesome
enterprise, supported by so many, that it explodes inflated notions of
American character. Instead, we might appropriately draw parallels between
antebellum America and Nazi Germany.
This is not to assert that ordinary Americans were "evil," but rather that
our insistent sorting of the world into "good guys" and "evildoers"
distorts reality. Today, progressives are justly suspicious of the
high-flown "freedom" rhetoric our government deploys to advance American
empire. But we need always to be skeptical of reductive, righteous
narratives. Far from promoting morality, such fictions allow us to hide our
worst impulses from ourselves.
Phyllis Eckhaus is an In These Times contributing editor who has written
essays and book reviews for the magazine since 1993, covering everything
from the history of Mad Magazine to the economics of terrorism. Her work
has also appeared in Newsday, The Nation, the Guardian (U.S.) and the
Womens Review of Books, among other publications. Trained as a lawyer and
social scientist, with degrees from Yale, Harvard and New York University,
she works in nonprofit management and lives in New York City.
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