The team behind Game of Thrones is bringing a new series to HBO. It’s set in an alternative present. In Confederate the south won the American Civil War. Consequently, the Confederate States of America and slavery still exist in the 21st century.
I groaned when I read this and that was before I was aware of the controversy it had stirred up. The objections came thick and fast and there are simply too may to go into here.
Mine, though, is this. Why make a counterfactual about slavery when so much of the real story hasn’t been told? As Bree Newsome, the activist who was arrested for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, remarked:
It’s dangerous to present alternative histories when people are still not clear on the facts.
For example, few people are aware of America’s internal slave trade in the early 19th century. Our stylised image of transatlantic slavery is of the slave ships and the cotton plantations of the Deep South. But the slaves didn’t go straight from ships to picking cotton. By the time the big cotton plantations were developed, the transatlantic slave trade had ceased. Slaves, many of whom assumed they would soon be freed, were shipped to Alabama and Mississippi from other parts of the United States. Estimates vary but somewhere between twice and four times as many slaves made the journey down the American river system to the Deep South as made the original Atlantic crossing to North America.
The treatment of slaves during this period, says Professor Henry Louis Gates, was worse than that of previous centuries:
When we think of the image of slaves being sold “down the river” on auction blocks — mothers separated from children, husbands from wives — it was during this period that these scenes became increasingly common. The enslaved were sometimes marched hundreds of miles to their destinations, on foot and in chains. Indeed, the years between 1830 and 1860 were the worst in the history of African-American enslavement.
His Harvard colleague Professor Marcyliena Morgan argues that the internal slave trade, as much as the original transatlantic one, tore black people from their linguistic roots and shattered their communities. Many African-Americans retained their tribal links and even their native languages while on the plantations of the Upper South but the splitting up of families and clans as they were sold south destroyed what was left of their African identities. (For more on this see previous post.)
This was also the point at which slavery and modern capitalism connected. The American Civil War is often presented as a clash between two systems, the industrialising market economy of the north and the more traditional agrarian economy of the south. The reality is more complex. The early 19th century saw the industrialisation of slavery. The cotton plantations of Alabama and Mississippi were much bigger than the old plantations of the Upper South. Cotton production doubled between 1830 and 1837. On some measures, the amount picked per slave per day quadrupled between 1800 and 1860. Historians argue about how much of this was due to better systems and economies of scale and how much simply to making the slaves work harder. What is not in doubt, though, is that the slave economy of the mid 19th century was on a different scale to anything that had gone before; bigger, more productive and more profitable. These were major commercial businesses that belonged to the industrial age.
None of this would have been possible if cotton growing had been a purely southern affair. It is true that the plantations, the slaves and the masters were in the Deep South but the finance that enabled the industrialisation of slavery came from elsewhere.
Historians such as Calvin Schermerhorn, Sven Beckert and Edward Baptist have followed the money on slavery and uncovered the links between 19th century capitalism and the development of the south’s cotton economy. Setting up these vast cotton plantations required capital and that could be raised by borrowing against existing assets, such as slaves. As Professor Baptist explains:
The cotton and slave trades were the biggest businesses in antebellum America, and then as now, American finance developed its most innovative products to finance the biggest businesses.
In the 1830s, powerful Southern slaveowners wanted to import capital into their states so they could buy more slaves. They came up with a new, two-part idea: mortgaging slaves; and then turning the mortgages into bonds that could be marketed all over the world.
In other words, you package up debts secured against slaves in the same way as banks packaged up mortgages on property in the 21st century. You’ve heard of mortgage-backed securities? Well these were slave-backed securities.
The financial product that such banks as Baring Brothers were selling to investors in London, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York was remarkably similar to the securitized bonds, backed by mortgages on US homes, that attracted investors from around the globe to US financial markets from the 1980s until the economic collapse of 2008.
[M]ortgage-backed securities shifted risk away from the immediate originators of loans onto financial markets while promising to spread out and thus minimize the consequences of individual debtors’ failures. Investors who purchased latter-day mortgage-backed securities planned to share in streams of income generated by homebuyers’ mortgage payments.
Likewise, the faith bonds of the 1830s generated revenue for investors from enslavers’ repayments of mortgages on enslaved people. This meant that investors around the world would share in revenues made by hands in the field. Thus, in effect, even as Britain was liberating the slaves of its empire, a British bank could now sell an investor a completely commodified slave: not a particular individual who could die or run away, but a bond that was the right to a one-slave-sized slice of a pie made from the income of thousands of slaves.
Like modern financial instruments, these slave-backed securities spread risks and provided a means by which capital from all over the world could be channelled into the slave economy. They also enabled finance to be raised in US states and other countries where slavery was illegal because the investor no longer owned any slaves, just a bond based on loans secured against slaves. That way, British investors could still profit from slavery decades after its abolition.
As Professor Schermerhorn notes, the bonds were sold for the price of an individual slave but without the risks.
European investors who bought land- and slave-backed securities from the Barings did not run the risk that American slaveholders did that an individual enslaved person might die, flee, or become incapacitated. They did not risk a poor harvest, pests, or floods. Bonds were issued in $500 and $1,000 denominations, about what an enslaved worker sold for on the market.
The Barings referred to here are the founders of the venerable London merchant bank of the same name. Other banking dynasties rose to prominence during this period too. Lehman Brothers went from Alabama cotton broker to New York finance house in two decades. There were vast profits to be made and you didn’t even need to own slaves to get a piece of the action.
The title of Edward Baptist’s book is The Half Has Never Been Told, a reference to how little discussed these aspects of slavery are. This period would make an interesting backdrop for a TV drama, should anyone want to tell the story. It’s not just a southern story, it’s integral to the story of American capitalism. (For more on this see previous post.)
Which brings me on to my second beef with HBO’s Confederate. It is yet another narrative that confines slavery to the southern states. Thanks largely to the American entertainment industry, slavery has become synonymous with the Deep South and its culture. That is very convenient for everyone else. It was the southerners with their funny accents, crazy religion and redneck ways that ‘did’ slavery. It was nothing to do with the rest of us. We can all point the finger at the Deep South and forget that Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the northern US states were involved too and continued to be involved even after they had formally abolished slavery themselves.
There are lots of reasons why it would have been unlikely that slavery in the Americas would have persisted into the twentieth century but that’s a subject that needs a post of its own. But, if we really must produce a drama setting slavery in a modern American context, here is an alternative counterfactual.
Instead of winning the civil war, the southern states don’t secede in the first place. Instead, they continue with their hitherto successful strategy of hinting at secession and thereby wringing concessions out of the rest of the USA. Preserving the union proves more important to Abraham Lincoln than preventing the spread of slavery, so compromises are made, allowing the admission of new stave states to the Union. Maximilian’s French-backed intervention in Mexico gives America the opportunity of a foreign war to reinforce national unity. The territory seized from Mexico as the price of expelling Maximilian is opened up to slavery, thus buying off the discontented southerners with new land into which they can expand. Capital, both foreign and domestic, pours in to finance new plantations.
Employers in the industrial north, hit by the labour unrest of the 1880s, begin to relocate factories to slave states who are only too happy to apply the productivity boosting methods perfected on their plantations to manufacturing. Slaves are put to work on production lines. Non-slave states respond to the perceived flight of capital and jobs with draconian labour laws to prevent trade union organisation. European governments, fearful that their industries might relocate too, cave in to demands from businesses and deploy troops against their own trade unions. The existence of slavery thereby strangles the trade union movement at birth. The impoverished workers are encouraged to fear the slaves more than their bosses and tame racist trade unions emerge to preserve what little privilege the ostensibly free labourers have left.
By the late 20th century, the American south resembles something like South Africa under apartheid but, resting as it does within the world’s greatest superpower, criticism is muted. While some argue that slavery is an outrage and an anachronism, by now there is too much money at stake to change it. Slavery’s defenders argue that it is totally within the law and those investing in it are doing nothing wrong.
The story has a wonderful cast of villains. Apart from the slave owners and overseers, there are ruthless industrialists, venture capitalists calling for ever higher returns and shady trade union bosses doing sweetheart deals. High-minded professors write papers justifying slave labour while politicians mouth platitudes about the desirability of abolishing slavery and the sheer impracticability of doing so. Patrician London bankers channel funds from all over the world to the lucrative slave economy of the Deep South. Liberal intellectuals condemn the trade while fearing for the slave-based investments in their pension funds.
Preposterous? Well, yes, but no more so than asking us to believe that the Confederacy lasted for another 150 years. In fact it only lasted for 5 years. For most of its history, slavery in the Americas existed within, or was funded by, the countries that now make up what we call the free world. My counterfactual extrapolates slavery into the modern era with that uncomfortable reality intact, instead of isolating it in a fictitious pariah state.
Better still, though, would be to set a drama amidst what actually happened. Something that brings the internal slave trade and the financing of it to life, telling the wider story instead of pretending that it all happened in the Deep South and was nothing to do with the rest of us. A drama that explains just how far the rest of America and Europe was involved, even after having ostensibly abolished the slave trade. Perhaps it’s time that the other half was told.