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Cliven Bundy and James Henry Hammond

Recently, Cliven Bundy, an American rancher, pontificated these views after seeing a public housing project in Nevada.

They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.[CLIVEN BUNDY’S SLAVERY DELUSION]

The comment that Blacks would have been better off as slaves picking cotton stuck with me because, it was just few months back that I had  read a similar comment made by James Henry Hammond who a politician and planter from South Carolina who served as a United States Representative, the  Governor of South Carolina  and as a United States Senator in the mid-19th century. In Letter to an English Abolitionist written in 1845, he argued that slavery was more humane than wage labor. Quoting slave writings from Solomon Northrup, Harriet Jacobs, and Charles Ball, I had written essay refuting Hammond’s alternate universe. The very casual way in which Bundy suggests slavery as a alternative, even after all these, is quite shocking.

Over the past few months, I also wrote few other essays on American slavery, like From a Society with Slaves to a Slave Society, Understanding Thomas Jefferson, and Disputing the Jefferson Davis Theory. All these were part of the coursework required for the Coursera course from University of Pennsylvania titled, The History of the Slave South. For completing these essays and participating in the weekly discussions, I got a certificate as well.

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Slaves Refuting Pro-Slavery Arguments

The inspection and sale of a slave

The inspection and sale of a slave, 1854

James Henry Hammond was a politician and planter from South Carolina who served as a United States Representative, the  Governor of South Carolina  and as a United States Senator. He owned several plantations, about 300 slaves and was one of the outspoken supporters of slavery before the American Civil War. In Letter to an English Abolitionist written in 1845, he argued that slavery was more humane than wage labor.

“You think it is a great ‘crime’ that we do not pay our slaves ‘wages,’ and on this account pronounce us ‘robbers.’  In my former letter I showed that the labor of our slaves was not without great cost to us and that in fact they themselves receive more in return for it than your hirelings do for theirs. . . It is altogether praiseworthy to pay the laborer a shilling a day and let him starve on it.  To supply all his wants abundantly, and at all times, yet withhold from his money, is among ‘the most reprobated crimes.”

This outrageous claim was challenged by narratives written by the slaves, published with the help of anti-slavery and abolitionist allies. A perfect rebuttal is this passage from Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup.

“The existence of slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature. Daily witnesses of human suffering—listening to the agonizing screeches of the slave—beholding him writhing beneath the merciless lash—bitten and torn by dogs—dying without attention, and buried without shroud or coffin—it cannot otherwise be expected, than that they should become brutified and reckless of human life.”

When Hammond tried to present the image of a benevolent overlord, who provides for his slaves, as opposed to people who just paid wages to laborers, he just washed away the humanity that was taken away from the slaves. The above passage mentions all that Hammond did not acknowledge.  The slaves lived in perpetual fear of punishment and hardship. The master, by law, owned the blood and flesh and had the freedom to enforce tyranny. For example, during the cotton picking time, the slaves were expected to rise early in the morning, take a break for ten to fifteen minutes at noon to eat a cold meal and then slave away till dark. Once the cotton was picked, they were weighed and if the quota was not met, the floggings started.

When an impurity was found in the picked cotton or a branch was broken, the penalty was twenty five lashes. For crimes above this, they got fifty lashes. If you stood idle, the penalty was a hundred lashes and two hundred, if you fought with other slaves. Runaway slaves got five hundred lashes  and Northrup mentions an incident where a slave named Patsy was almost flogged to death. For some incidents, they were put down like animals or hanged. Northrup writes that  for some slave owners “…. whose chief delight was in dancing with his “niggers,” or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream“ were not paternalistic as Hammond claimed, but just sadistic.

Slave Market in Atlanta, 1864

Slave Market in Atlanta, 1864

While daily laborers sold their labor and not themselves, that was not the case with the slaves. Since they had no ability to read, write or swim, they had to endure the torture. Floggings were the not cruelty they had to endure. Overseers, whose sole motive was to ensure the maximum crop without any concern for the suffering went around with dogs to overhaul fleeing fugitives and even used the gun sometimes. If a slave fell down, tired from his cotton picking, he was dragged to the shade and buckets of water poured on him to wake him up. Once he woke up, he was sent back to labor.

In the quoted passage, Northrup mentions the “ tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature.” Slaves were treated like animals. In the slave market, customers would examine their body, look at their teeth, ask about their skills, like how “a jockey examines a horse.” In some cases, they were stripped and examined more carefully. Once a purchase was finalized, the purchasers did not care if a family was separated. One of the heart wrenching incidents in the book is when a mother and her children are separated without any remorse by the slave trader. Charles Ball, in his account, Fifty Years in Chains, wrote about the painful separation of the family as the most traumatic experience, “ …I was now a slave in South Carolina, and had no hope of ever again seeing my wife and children. I had at times serious thoughts of suicide so great was my anguish.”

“Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own”, wrote Harriet Jacobs, a slave woman in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , upon the birth of her daughter. Besides the physical and mental torture, female slaves also faced sexual harassment. When she was 15, her 55 year old master Mr. Flint was after her. Her mistress knew what was going on, but in patriarchal system, she was helpless and  vented her anger on the female slaves. To find a way out from Mr. Flint, she entered into a relationship with a lawyer with whom she had children. Mr. Flint still did not leave her alone and threatened to separate her from her children.

All these narratives reinforce the view that the slave was the master’s property and he could do whatever he wished with them. In his book, Northrup rightly notes that all of this was happening in the country which proclaimed, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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Understanding Thomas Jefferson

This is the "Rough Draft" text of the Declaration as Jefferson probably presented it to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams

This is the “Rough Draft” text of the Declaration as Jefferson probably presented it to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams (via ushistory.org)

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal”,while being a slave owner. He called slavery repugnant and called for its abolition, but emancipated only a handful of the few hundred slaves he owned. So how does one understand Jefferson? When he wrote about the equality of men, was he talking only about White men or all men? If he made public statements against slavery why did free only a few? Was there a contradiction between his public position and private behavior?

Jefferson’s position on slavery in the new country was anything but complicated. When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he was drawing on Scottish moral sense philosophy and when he equated men, he was equating them in the moral sense. For Scottish thinkers, people who had Common Sense could grasp self-evident truths. A republic with such ideals would enhance the quality of its citizens and also advance the interests of the whole and make them consent to a social vision. What was required was the ability to set aside self interests and pursue the common good. Moral sense gave people dignity and Jefferson did not exclude Blacks from this claim.

“I hope preparing under the auspices of heaven for a total emancipation”, he wrote in  Notes on the State of Virginia because he thought that slavery was morally wrong. He thought that the  “commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” He wrote about the immoral aspects of slavery which allows one set of the citizens to trample on the rights of the others and thought that these practices were inconsistent with Republicanism.

Though he talked about emancipation, he did a lot to expand slavery in the union and make it an engine of economic growth and political power. A century before Herbert H. Risley defined 2378 castes as belonging to 43 races on the basis of their nasal index in India, Thomas Jefferson used dubious science to define the difference between Blacks and Whites. He noted that the Blacks were brave and adventurous and easily entertained, but they were inferior to the Whites.  Jefferson writes, “but never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration never seen even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture”.

They had good memory, but “in reason,much inferior as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid and that in imagination they are dull tasteless and anomalous.”  He also found “They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.” But that did not prevent him from having an affair with Sally Hemings who was a teenager and thirty years younger. He had six children with her whom he did not acknowledge, but they were the only people whom he freed.

Since there were substantial differences between the races he thought freeing the slaves would create problems because “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained new provocations the real distinctions which Nature has made and many other circumstances will divide us into parties and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race”. He rejected the idea that the two races could co-exist. Since that could result in a civil war, his solution was to send the freed Africans back to Africa or somewhere outside the colonies where they could not mix with the white population(“he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture”) and live as “free and independent people” . He wrote, “For if a slave can have a country in this world it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labor for another in“.

At the end of his presidency, Jefferson left slavery an immensely strong institution after the Louisiana purchase and the spread of slavery across the continent. He even provided the intellectual defense of slavery. When Missouri wanted to join the Union as a slave holding state there was a debate over it and Jefferson took the side of the slave holders.  He wanted the northern states to recognize slavery; for him the expansion of the country was more important than the abolition of slavery. During the purchase of Louisiana under his presidency, he did more than anyone to change the terms of slavery for slaveholders. This purchase added significant slave territory to the nation and with the surge  of cotton production slavery expanded to new regions within southern states and to territories further west. There emerged an invigorated interstate slave trade, and hundreds of thousands of slaves, particularly in the Upper South, were separated from families and sold to labor on cotton fields in the new states.

(Based on   Notes on the State of Virginia  by Thomas Jefferson and the lectures of Prof Stephanie McCurry, University of Pennsylvania for the course History of the Slave South at Coursera)

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The end of Rapa Nui

In 2003, BBC had a program on why the Rapa Nui (Western Name: Easter Island) civilization came to an end. Rapa Nui had created those magnificent giant stone statues or moai   from volcanic stones and set them on platforms along the coast. These people  had sufficient technology to build these moai, some of which were double the size of the stones at Stonehenge and move them around the island. Then suddenly sometime in the 17th century, the civilization which had such cultural sophistication collapsed and the reason was attributed to the stone gods.

The word scholars used was ‘ecoside’, short for ecological suicide. The Rapa Nui exploited the natural resources so much that it bought about an ecological disaster. Since the islanders were manufacturing lots of large stone statues, they would need trees to move them, some as far as 9 miles. Cutting down trees for this purposes essentially deforested the island.

NARRATOR: The effect was devastating. Without trees the rains would have washed away their precious soil. Crops would have failed. There was no wood for canoes, so no more fish. And no canoes also meant no escape. The Easter Islanders were trapped in a hell of their own making. So they turned on each other and the gods who’d failed them.[The Mystery of Easter Island – transcript]

Thus the island which once looked the island on the TV show LOST, became barren. The oral tradition tells us of cannibalism, starvation and war.

The end of Rapa Nui was blamed on the Rapa Nui themselves and the lessons were used as warning to the current generation. But the end did not come due to the cutting down of trees, but due to other factors. The 2003 BBC program mentions it and it has been expanded in a new program which was telecast this year.

One of the first Westerners to reach Rapa Nui was the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen in 1722. He was on his way to Australia when he reached the islands. At that time the deforestation had already happened, but it did not look like a society which had gone through a civil war. People were happy and well nourished with crops of yams, sweet potatoes and sugar cane.

But that short visit had far reaching consequences. Roggeveen left diseases that destroyed the society and it was similar to what happened in the Americas following the arrival of the imperial land grabbers and gold miners in the 15th century. Fifty years later Captain Cook stopped by at Rapa Nui and then the seeds of the demise of the civilization were evident. There were signs of disease and malnourishment. Some of the statues were toppled over. Between the period between Roggeveen and Captain Cook, there were Spanish ships, whalers and merchants that arrived there and the islanders who had not interacted with Westerners before, could not handle their diseases.

The sailing path of  Roggeveen

The sailing path of Roggeveen

Most of these Westerners did not have noble intentions. In 1805 an American ship Nancy appeared and kidnapped the Rapa Nui. Indentured laborers were gathered for South American mines and plantations and just in the year between 1862 and 1863, around 1500 Rapa Nui were kidnapped. Following the merchants, Christian missionaries (French Catholic) followed for destroying the culture.

In the 1700s, there used to be a tradition called ‘birdman’ which was a contest among the various chiefs. As part of the birdman festival, people would scramble down a rocky path to the beach,  paddle through shark infested water to an islet and wait for the birds to arrive. Once he got an egg, the contestant had to swim back to Rapa Nui and climb up the wall to finish. If he survived the ordeal, the chief of that group could claim the birdman title. Following the arrival of the missionaries, this was put to an end and what modern day visitors see is St. Peter standing on top of the birdman iconography. By 1877, only 111 people living there. Within 150 years of European arrival, the Rapa Nui had been wiped off. It was not ecocide, but genocide.

Many of the previous theories have also been falsified. The terrible violence that was attributed to overpopulation and deforestation was found to be very minimal and there was no evidence for a full blown civil war. There was no evidence for cannibalism; those came just from the European narratives. There was even a statue found with ribs protruding to show that there was famine, but carbon dating proved that the statue was created much earlier and the protruding ribs were just part of the iconography. It has also been shown that the Rapa Nui may not have used tree rollers to move the statues, instead they may have used ropes to walk the statues which had center of gravities designed for this purpose.

Closeup of the recto of rongorongo which is still undeciphered

Closeup of the Rapa Nui script which is still undeciphered

Thus the cutting of the trees did not drive them into starvation. The deforestation started much earlier, probably from the 13th century. But the innovative farmers of Rapa Nui had learned to farm in caves and they also had an ocean full of fish. Thus it is no surprise that the Dutch found them healthy and well nourished.

With this new evidence, the pattern of destruction of a culture is the same that we have seen  elsewhere in the world. The Spaniards, through Guns, Germs and Steel, destroyed the native civilizations. Americans used the concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’ to grab Native American land in the continental United States. In Hawaii, it was the missionaries who arrived first and soon they were followed by American businessmen who were involved in whaling and the cultivation of bananas, pineapples and sugarcane. Rapa Nui was annexed by Chile on 9 September 1888.

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The Conversion of Pocahontas

Baptism of Pocahontas

Baptism of Pocahontas by John Gadsby Chapman (1840)

The Virginia Company was chartered by James I in 1606 for settling in North America and one of the goals mentioned in the charter was the following:

We, greatly commending, and graciously accepting of, their Desires for the Furtherance of so noble a Work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government: DO, by these our Letters Patents, graciously accept of, and agree to, their humble and well-intended Desires;[The First Charter of Virginia; April 10, 1606]

In the Terrence Malick movie, The New World (2005), which portrays the arrival of Virginia Company people in America, the conversion goal is downplayed and the English are portrayed as people who had come to trade. In the Disney movie Pocahontas(1995) which is based the same voyage, the intentions of the invaders are not diluted. They sing:

What can you expect From filthy little heathens?

Their whole disgusting race is like a curse

Their skin’s a hellish red

They’re only good when dead

They’re vermin, as I said

And worse

[Savages (Part 1)]

There were few reasons why the English wanted to come to North America and convert the heathens. By the 17th century, the Spanish becoming fabulously wealthy through imperialism and were converting the natives to Catholicism. As I wrote in a previous post

But with the discovery of the Americas, the Spaniards ended up with a mother-lode of wealth. The image on the side shows a 1553 CE map of the city of Potosí in Bolivia. This was one of the sites of a major silver mine which the Spaniards reached after they had done looting the native coffers. Between 1560 and 1685 CE, Spanish America sent between 25,000 to 35, 000 tons of silver to Spain and in the century following that the amount doubled. In fact around 85% of the world’s silver supplies came from the Americas. This was extracted from 30 such mines.To compare it to modern times, it was like Saudi Arabia discovering oil.[Impact of the Columbian Exchange on the world]

Every European power was into imperial expansion at that time and the English were the late comers. They first resorted to piracy, but their activities were called privateering and was sanctioned by the crown. Soon they decided to capture new territories and dig for gold themselves as well get some converts as Protestants.

The initial settlement in Jamestown did not go very well; a previous settlement in Roanoke had vanished without trace.  They had to face harsh winters without food and eventually had to resort to cannibalism.  The Jamestown colony was surrounded by 15,000 native Americans under the leadership of the Powhatan tribe who followed a matrilineal system, like the Nairs and some sort of agreement had to be reached with them for food.

An incident from that voyage, which is famous even now is the affair between Pocahontas and Captain James Smith. According to the popular narrative, Smith was about to be executed by the Powhatan tribe, based on an order by Pocahontas’ father. As they were about to strike, Pocahantas threw herself on James Smith and he is spared. In the Disney version, they settle in a dugout canoe and sing, while a talking raccoon fawns.

According to a discussion in BBC’s In Our Time, this incident never happened. Pocahontas, who lived nearby, visited the colony often and her age at that time was around 10 which makes it unlikely that she threw herself to save a 30 year old Smith. Also, in a narrative written by James Smith in 1608, this incident is never mentioned. In another version written in 1624, seven years after Pocahontas died, this incident appears. Not just that, in his voyages, there seems to be a pattern; James Smith is saved by maidens three other times as well.

Portrait engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616

Portrait engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616

Even though that tale was doubtful, even a movie made a decade back, never cast any doubt on it. One reason could be that the affair between a Native American and a White settler makes for a powerful national narrative in which the imperialism gets a smooth human face. From the Captain Smith and Princess Pocahontas (1805) by John Davis to The Indian Princess by James Barker in 1808 to Pocahontas; or, The Settlers of Virginia (1830) by GW Custis to the modern day movies, this narrative has been repeated again and again without any care for historical accuracy.

Once James Smith went back to England and Pocahontas was on her way to her husband’s house, she was kidnapped by the English under Captain Samuel Argall. The Virginia Company  had instructed their men to kidnap children of leaders so that they could be instructed in Christianity. During her captivity in Virginia, the 15 year old was converted and took the name Rebecca.   This was a big coup for the company and she was taken to London as a sample of one who was eager to receive the gospel. London did not suit her well; she caught one of the numerous diseases and died at the age of 21.

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