Sold down the river – the economics behind 12 Years a Slave

It might be the film that everyone is talking about but Orville Lloyd Douglas isn’t going to watch 12 Years a Slave. His reasons:

I’m convinced these black race films are created for a white, liberal film audience to engender white guilt and make them feel bad about themselves. Regardless of your race, these films are unlikely to teach you anything you don’t already know. Frankly, why can’t black people get over slavery?

I am not against revisiting the past, but there are already numerous black films that have covered the civil rights era and slavery.

I get what he’s saying and I can understand why some black people might think, ‘Oh no, not the slavery thing again.’ It’s also true that lots of film and TV series have been made about slavery.

I will be going to see 12 Years a Slave, though, because this one is a little different. Anything that looks at a period of history ‘everybody knows about’ from a slightly different angle has to be worth a look. 12 Years a Slave is set against the background of America’s internal slave trade. It’s a story rarely told but it was crucial to the development of the Deep South’s slave economy.

What ‘everybody knows’ is that Africans were transported across the Atlantic to America and forced to work on plantations by rich slave-owners. The northern US states then fought a civil war against the horrid southern cotton barons after which the slaves were freed. In between are stories of unspeakable cruelty and barbarism. The battle for the emancipation of  slaves, that culminated in the American Civil War, has thus been depicted as a struggle between the liberal North and the nasty slave-owning South.

As so often, though, the truth is messier and murkier than that. It is often assumed that slavery was confined to the southern states but when the United States declared independence, all thirteen states had slaves. There were fewer in New England than in the South but all states were slave states.

Between 1777 and 1804, the northern states began to free their slaves. But property rights were sacrosanct in eighteenth century America. Laws confiscating a man’s property, effectively nationalising his slaves, were unpopular even in the North. For this reason, the abolition of slavery in the northern states was gradual. A few states freed their slaves soon after independence but most used post nati laws which meant that those born into slavery after a certain date would be free when they reached adulthood, usually age 21 or 25. For this reason, there were still some slaves in Pennsylvania and Connecticut in the 1840s and a few left in New Hampshire and New Jersey until the nationwide emancipation in 1865. This Yale Law study Abolition without Deliverance looks at the gradual emancipation process in some depth.

Part I examines Connecticut’s Gradual Abolition Act of 1784 and reveals that the law freed no slaves. It did promise eventual freedom to the future-born children of slaves, but, under the law, even these beneficiaries remained in servitude until the age of twenty-five. The law reflected the legislature’s intent to end the institution of slavery in the state in a way that respected property rights and preserved social order.

The most enduring image of slavery in America is the southern cotton plantation. However, this was slavery’s final phase, lasting little more than half a century. The slaves who were transported across the Atlantic were not delivered directly to cotton plantations. Most were put to work cultivating rice and tobacco. When these crops became less commercially viable, due to soil exhaustion, cheaper competition from elsewhere and falling demand, the economics of slavery began to change. (Some commentators have noted that northern antipathy to slavery was delayed until its profitability was safely in decline.) For a time, it looked as though slavery would decline in the South too, as the profits that could be made from slave plantations decreased.

But then economics and technology intervened. The invention of the cotton gin and the mechanisation of weaving in Britain’s northern towns created a massive new demand for cotton. From the early nineteenth century, vast cotton plantations began to appear in the Deep South and the demand for slave labour shot up.

At around the same time, the British abolished the transatlantic slave trade and the US banned the import of slaves. America was now left with a rapidly rising demand for slaves and a limited supply. By 1830, slaves were being sold for $230 more in the Deep South than in the more northerly slave states like Virginia.

It doesn’t take much imagination to work out what happened next. If you were a slave owner in the North whose slaves were due to become free when they reached adulthood, or a tobacco planter in the Upper South whose plantation was coming to the end of its life, you were presented with the opportunity to get rid of your slaves and earn a lot of money at the same time. You sold your slaves to the eager cotton planters in the Deep South.

Much of this trade went by the great American river system. The Ohio and the Mississippi provided a route by which large numbers of slaves could be transported. Slave markets appeared along the rivers, like the one at Louisville on the Ohio. It is from this trade that we get the term ‘sold down the river’ for a broken promise. People who had hoped that they might one day be free were loaded onto ships and sold down the river into much harsher conditions in the Deep South.

According to some estimates, 1.2 million people were ‘sold south’ during the first half of the nineteenth century. This map shows the distribution of slaves in 1790 and 1860. During that period, an entirely new slave-based economy grew up in the Deep South, supplied mostly by an internal slave trade.

Screen Shot 2013-09-20 at 14.33.21

Historian Ira Berlin has described this trade as the Second Middle Passage – “the massive deportation traumatized black people, both slave and free”. Most of those transported were young. Husbands and wives were rarely bought together. People were torn from their families and from the slave communities that had grown up over centuries in the Upper South. Historian Marcyliena Morgan argues that many African Americans retained their tribal links and even their native languages while on the plantations of the Upper South. It was therefore, she says, the internal slave trade, as much as the original Atlantic one, that tore black people from their linguistic roots and shattered their communities.

But while some people suffered, others got very rich. Estimates of the annual revenue from the trade vary from $3.75 million to $6.7 million. For those unscrupulous enough, it was only a short step from selling existing and soon-to-be-freed slaves south, to abducting free black people and shipping them down river too. As the price of slaves rose, so did the number of people willing to cross this line. In what became known as the Reverse Underground Railroad, free people were sold back into the slavery from which they or their ancestors had escaped. This was made easier by the law which enabled slaves to be recaptured and returned to the South even from the ‘free’ states in the North. If caught, a couple of thugs, beating up a black man and clapping him in chains, could simply claim to be recapturing a fugitive slave.

Because of the illegal nature of the trade it is difficult to be sure about the numbers involved but it seems to have been lucrative enough to sustain several particularly vile criminal gangs.

Among those seized was Solomon Northop, kidnapped from New York in 1841 and held in slavery in Louisiana until 1853. It is his story on which the film 12 Years a Slave is based. I hope the film does him justice. Guy Walters fears that it will reignite America’s racial tensions. I’m not so sure. By now, the sadistic treatment of slaves will not be news to anyone who has even a passing interest in the period. The horror depicted in the film has been described many times before.

What is new is the film’s context. The huge forced migration of captive people is an aspect of slavery’s history that has been underreported but which had far-reaching consequences for economic and political developments in America and elsewhere. Until the rapid rise of the cotton economy, it looked as though slavery might disappear of its own accord. Without it, and the internal slave trade that provided its labour, the power of the southern planters would have waned and there might have been no need for the American Civil War. The history of America and, by extension, that of Britain and of the industrial revolution would have been very different.

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8 Responses to Sold down the river – the economics behind 12 Years a Slave

  1. Pingback: Sold down the river – the economics behind 12 Years a Slave - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. John D says:

    Very interesting article. An alternative explanation for the US Civil War is that the North felt its industrialisation was being placed under threat due to the cheap labour practices of the South and the war was essentially a war of production and had little to do with ethical standards.

    The sole reason slavery became an issue was because the North were losing the war initially and Lincoln decided to adopt an anti-slavery stance to garner support from elsewhere in the world for the Northern cause.

    We in this country should not be too high-minded about slavery for while we “freed” slaves in the British Empire in 1833 it is unarguable that Britain profited from the proceeds of the slave trade long before that. There is a very interesting and recent article “Britain’s colonial shame: Slave-owners given huge payouts after abolition” at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/britains-colonial-shame-slaveowners-given-huge-payouts-after-abolition-8508358.html which reveals how some ancestors of currently significant politicians benefited.

    It reveals that ‘Among those revealed to have benefited from slavery are ancestors of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, former minister Douglas Hogg, authors Graham Greene and George Orwell, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the new chairman of the Arts Council, Peter Bazalgette. Other prominent names which feature in the records include scions of one of the nation’s oldest banking families, the Barings, and the second Earl of Harewood, Henry Lascelles, an ancestor of the Queen’s cousin. Some families used the money to invest in the railways and other aspects of the industrial revolution; others bought or maintained their country houses, and some used the money for philanthropy. George Orwell’s great-grandfather, Charles Blair, received £4,442, equal to £3m today, for the 218 slaves he owned.

    The British government paid out £20m to compensate some 3,000 families that owned slaves for the loss of their “property” when slave-ownership was abolished in Britain’s colonies in 1833. This figure represented a staggering 40 per cent of the Treasury’s annual spending budget and, in today’s terms, calculated as wage values, equates to around £16.5bn.’

    A little humility on this side of the pond would not be amiss too.

    • Rick says:

      John – I wasn’t trying to apportion blame here. If you go on some US websites you can get into some very heated discussions about who was most to blame for slavery, northerners blaming southerners and southerners pointing out that northern ships carried a lot of the slaves.

      The whole thing started, at least in N America, under the British and French empires. When slaves were due to freed in the Caribbean, some British and French slaveowners tried to sell their slaves to the Deep South too (though it was technically illegal). You are right, lots of British people were in it up to their necks. Narratives which point fingers only at the Southern States are way wide of the mark.

  3. Chris says:

    Yes, Britain was one of the nations that industrialised the scale of slavery. Up until that time there were many slaves from many countries in many other countries, but we bought ridiculous numbers of slaves from Africa.

  4. Sunny says:

    Good piece. One quibble: “I get what he’s saying and I can understand why some black people might think, ‘Oh no, not the slavery thing again.’ It’s also true that lots of film and TV series have been made about slavery.”

    You may want to check IMDB for the amount of slavery films and tv shows that have been made. For a phenomenon that impacted so many over such a huge swathe of time and continues to shape political/economic/social aspects of our lives, you would be surprised how few. The list is padded up by including any film with any link to slavery as a ‘slavery film’ – so for example Gone With the Wind counts for purposes of padding up as a ‘slavery film.’

    Second, it may be helpful to see how few black people are ready to “not the slavery thing again.” One the statement elides the varied history of black people and I do realise you are speaking from a British perspective and Black British experience is not nearly as focussed on slavery as the US one. The presence of Black Africans ensures that. However, your statement does dismiss many others.

  5. Worth remembering, too, that not all slaves in America were black Africans……

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-irish-slave-trade-the-forgotten-white-slaves/31076

    • John D says:

      Thank you for that information. The British Empire also, of course, sent huge numbers of people out to other parts of the world such as Australasia. Even as late as the 1960s or 1970s they were still sending children out to parts of the former British empire.
      Current court cases in Australia reveal the fact that there are still people alive today who suffered from these vile practices. So much for the so-called “good old days” !!!

  6. Pingback: Pilant's Business Ethics Blog | ▶ Slavery in Brazil, A Tragic History

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