"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Slave Trade In The North–Shipping, Textiles, And Banking

According to most Northerners and Northern ‘progressives’ in particular, slavery is a Southern institution, and the South should be forever reviled and marginalized for its participation in an immoral if not inhuman activity.  The South in this view is retrograde, fundamentalist, and ignorant – all due to the legacy of slavery.  The mark of Cain has been indelibly branded on to the South’s collective forehead, and Northern idealists are determined that the South will never, ever rise again.

Northern liberals come by this jaundiced view honestly.  Abolitionists took a principled but inflexible moral position – that slavery was against the laws of God and man – and significantly set back Lincoln’s efforts at reconciliation and reunification. In league with Johnson and the Radical Republicans they did their best to destroy the South once and for all and to complete the job that Sherman’s march had begun.

Out of the War and Reconstruction to follow, Northern opinion hardened. Not only had Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy, but a superior moral system had prevailed. Free labor – the right and duty of every man to reap rewards from his own toil – won out over indentured and forced servitude.  Enlightenment principles, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and in the Bill of Rights, were never endorsed or embraced by the South, and its defeat in the Civil War was a vindication of the righteousness of the North.

The ascendency of the industrial North after the War assured the muscular application of these ideals, and despite the reestablishment of many of the traditions and policies of the Confederacy, it was for a century the backward, country cousin of the North.  Not only had the North prevailed in the War, and become a world economic power after it, the South had never learned its lesson.  It is quite understandable, then, that Northern liberals continue to disparage the South as a region, consider Southerners an inferior social and intellectual class, and keep them far more isolated and marginalized than Lincoln ever intended.

Out of this moral certainty has come arrogance, sanctimony, and self-righteousness.  In a recent blog post (Boycott the South!), I wrote of the continued censure of everything Southern.  An American pop singer had chosen the Nottoway Plantation, an elegant antebellum home in Louisiana, to hold an artistic retreat organized to bring together artists and musicians to discuss creative production.  She was forced to cancel the event because of the loud hue and cry from the ‘progressive’ community.  How could she even think of holding an event in the home of a Confederate slaver?

It is hardly worth mentioning that if one is to boycott Southern antebellum homes because of their link to slavery, then one should certainly boycott the Pyramids of Egypt, built with thousands of slaves who died by the hundreds in brutal conditions.  Or the Taj Mahal built by the cruel and heartless Emperor Shah Jahan.

One should avoid the Capitol Building in Washington, built in part with slave labor; and never walk on the C&O Canal, its towpath and locks built with slave and indentured labor, or visit the Smithsonian Castle. These and many other buildings and public works in the Nation’s Capital were built with slave labor.

One should certainly not visit Angola, Gambia, or Sierra Leone where African slavers provided human capital to Arab middlemen who then traded with European businessmen.  The Great Wall of China was not built by well-paid, well-treated in the First Dynasty of  Qin Shi Huang but by slaves, so visits there should be off-limits. The great cathedrals of Europe were built by serfs, another name for European slaves.

All of which brings me to the North and its role in the slave trade – a history which Northern liberals conveniently overlook.  First, while the number of slaves in the North were insignificant compared to the South, it was common and widely accepted.

Slaves were auctioned openly in the Market House of Philadelphia; in the shadow of Congregational churches in Rhode Island; in Boston taverns and warehouses; and weekly, sometimes daily, in Merchant's Coffee House of New York. Such Northern heroes of the American Revolution as John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin bought, sold, and owned black people. William Henry Seward, Lincoln's anti-slavery Secretary of State during the Civil War, born in 1801, grew up in Orange County, New York, in a slave-owning family and amid neighbors who owned slaves if they could afford them. The family of Abraham Lincoln himself, when it lived in Pennsylvania in colonial times, owned slaves (Slavery in the North, Andrew Harper, www.slavenorth.com)

Second, while the New England slave trade was small in comparison to the Europeans, there is no doubt that great wealth was generated by Northerners.  In 2006 a team of Hartford Courant journalists wrote a series called Complicity in which they chronicled the North’s role in slavery.

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 (Reported in The Northern Slave Trade, Phyllis Eckhaus, In These Times, 1.6.06)

                              New England Slave Ship ca. 1825

The slave trade in particular was dominated by the northern maritime industry. Rhode Island alone was responsible for half of all U.S. slave voyages. The DeWolfs may have been the biggest slavers in U.S. history, but there were many others involved. For example, members of the Brown family of Providence, some of whom were prominent in the slave trade, gave substantial gifts to Rhode Island College, which was later renamed Brown University (Traces of the Trade – A Story from the Deep North, www.tracesofthetrade.org)

Money was certainly made by the transatlantic shipping of slaves; but the greatest Northern wealth was generated from the cotton trade.  Northern textile mills flourished in the antebellum period largely because of Southern, slave-picked cotton.  Industrialists in the booming New England and Mid-Atlantic states thrived, and the basis for a vigorous American capitalism was established.

“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 (Eckhaus).

Those Northern traders, industrialists, and shippers invested the money realized from the slave and cotton trade back into America.  Wall Street made millions thanks to the investment of New England and New York capitalists, and lent that money out to thousands of large and small entrepreneurs throughout the rapidly growing country.  In other words, slave money infiltrated everywhere in the new United States. Looked at from the modern PC perspective of disinvestment, we should boycott everything.

The network of slavery extends throughout the world; and those who refuse to stay in an antebellum Southern home or even visit one should stay away from Portugal and the Netherlands, the countries responsible for the trading and shipping of at least 10 million African slaves.  Without them, the transatlantic slave trade would not have been possible.

The point is not to demonize the South and characterize it as the devil within, but to understand its history, to learn how and why it developed as it did, and to derive lessons from its past.  The history of the North is intimately linked with that of the South; and it is certain that without the harsh, punitive policies of the Radical (Northern) Republicans during Reconstruction, the South might not have been so determined to re-establish its old ways.  Without Northern shipping and textile mills, cotton and its slave economy would never have flourished as it did. 

History is neither good nor bad.  It simply happened.  Every event or period has antecedents, some hundreds of years in the past. Moral principles, scientific inquiry, and political philosophy all change with the times. The great civilizations of Egypt, Rome, Persia, and China were built on the backs of slaves; but is this enough to condemn them?  Genghis Khan, Pol Pot, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao were responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths, but should we never set foot in Mongolia, Russia, or China?

The study of history allows us to cut others a little slack.  If we understood how and why the South got to where it is now, we might be a little more tolerant; and as importantly we might be able to forge more complete and respectful alliances.  The point is not to keep blaming the South for its past, but to address the present.  If we can forget the horrors of the Portuguese slave trade and eat well in Lisbon; forget the thousands of Nubian slaves who died at Giza building the Pyramids and enjoy Ancient History; or pretend that Mao never killed millions of his own people while we marvel at the vibrant, modern, forward-looking cities of China, then we can fast-forward our Southern movie reel to the present.


  1. You fail to mention Africans of the same color enslaved their own brothers and sistersinto sslavery in Africa and would catch and sell slaves to the slave seeking countries for the African capitalism itself, let's NOT forget the source of the wrongs and if the American Civil War had never happened or went the other direction, these same Africans would still be in business selling/trading for their countrymen and women to this day... "follow the money"

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