Debunking a White Power Meme: An Extension of the Black, Muslim Slave Trade? No.

Gentle Readers, I have come this far so I may as well finish with the white power meme I found a few weeks ago. To recap, neither Anthony Johnson nor any other black person holds the distinction of first slaveholder in the Americas, nor in North America, nor British North America, nor even in Virginia. Free blacks in the South did own slaves at a greater rate than whites, but they chiefly owned their loved ones who circumstance, funds, and law prohibited them from freeing. In neither case would these claims, even if true, change the fact that New World slaver overwhelmingly involved whites enslaving blacks. Thinking that might make people with a skin color like mine feel better about our past. We have the long habit of carving our self-esteem, along with our wealth, from the lives of those we make into others and declare inferior. Should we neglect that, as we often prefer, then we still have a past disinclined to changing itself to suit our whims.

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy

This leaves us with one last choice morsel of hatred:

the New World slave trade was an expansion of the slave trade in Africa run by black Muslims

Like the other claims, this has so much wrong packed into a single line that it requires significant unpacking. For the sake of argument, let’s say our meme author got something right. Black Muslims ran a slave trade in Africa, from which white Europeans bought people to take to the New World. Sub-saharan Africans did sell people to European traders. As the New World trade ramped up, they provided to it more people to cross the Atlantic from Africa than would from Europe up into the nineteenth century. The New World demand for slaves proved so great that African polities developed around serving it. They extended their networks deep into the African interior to enslave more and more people. You can read about this in any decent history of American slavery; I recommend David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage and Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone.

By the conventional typologies of race, we consider those Africans black. Some of them may have subscribed to Islam. In all of this, we have ignored who bought the slaves. White Europeans came to Africa and bought people. They carried those people across the ocean in foul-smelling, deadly ships to distant ports. There Europeans enslaved them and turned their toil and misery into profits for those same Europeans. Our meme’s author would have us believe that it took the great arts of black Muslims to convince Europeans to do all that. Otherwise, why would it matter who conducted the first sale or two? The involvement of a black person and a Muslim wipe any guilt away.

But we must pull back further. It transpires that a slave trade did operate in Africa prior to the Atlantic trade. Slavers did capture large numbers of sub-Saharan Africans and take them to distant fields for exploitation. The buyers in this case often professed Islam. The distant fields where their slaves toiled existed in North Africa and the Middle East. It did not expand into European hands, with wily Muslims hoodwinking innocent white Christians into buying slaves. Nor did those same racist stereotypes cross the Atlantic with the slaves and whisper in the ears of Caribbean, Chesapeake, or Carolina planters that they must -they simply must!- keep the people they bought as slaves for life and exploit them to the utmost. White people didn’t require any such instruction, but rather proved entirely capable of figuring it out on their own. That does not excuse those Africans who chose to sell to Europeans, but no one compelled Europeans to join in.

Leave that aside, if you wish. Grade school geography refutes the notion that the Atlantic slave trade constituted an expansion of the Muslim slave trade. Muslims wanted slaves to take to North Africa and the Middle East. Europeans wanted slaves to take to islands in the Atlantic Ocean, Iberia, and ultimately the Americas. We cannot reasonably call the Atlantic slave trade an expansion of the Muslim trade based on personnel; Europeans did most of the buying and transporting. We likewise cannot call it an expansion geographically, as Europeans want to take slaves in, literally, another direction entirely.

Slaving is slaving. Taking the slaves to a different distant land doesn’t make it better. Nor do the colors or religions of the practitioners mitigate it at all. To argue otherwise, we must presume that the misdeeds of adherents to unfamiliar faiths or with different skin colors have sins more weighty than our own. Unless we think that, we would not introduce them into evidence. White supremacists never think their imagined inferiors suitable role models, except when they become handy to pass off some blame. Then we must study those unfortunates with great vigor, as their doing something excuses our doing it. So we transmigrate sins to where they belong: a hated minority we wish to continue exploiting. We cannot be asked to feel even a few pangs of conscience, but they must bear the burden of any sins they committed on top of those we did. They must feel guilty for the things we did to them.

 

Advertisements

Debunking a White Power Meme: Was the first slaveholder in America a Black Man?

Gentle Readers, last week I dug into the question of whether African-Americans held more slaves, proportionately, than white Americans did. A white power meme I found circulating made that claim, which has the unusual benefit of factual accuracy. The percentage of slaveholders among free black Americans is greater than that of their white counterparts. The meme declines to inform the reader that the vast majority of these people held as slaves relatives whom they could not easily free. In other words, most occasions of black slaveholding in the antebellum United States happen in the context of resisting the slave system imposed upon them by whites, rather than direct continuance of it. They owned loved ones to protect them from ownership and exploitation by whites.

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy

Which brings me to the second of the meme’s noxious claims, which lacks the warm factual coating for the first:

What about the fact the first slave owner in America was a black man?

Let’s take this from the top. Say, for the sake of argument, that no one owned a slave in the Americas until some black man came over and taught white people how to do it. Bending over backwards to the point of falsehood still leaves us with an irrelevant, if illustrative, point. However slavery originated in the New World, it became the system we remember. In that system, whites owned blacks. White skin meant freedom and black skin meant stolen labor, loved ones, and lives.

We have here a despicable case of white power projection. Whites must do nothing wrong. If white people did do something wrong, then it could only be because some black person corrupted them. This remarkable person, an alleged member of an alleged inferior race, had such power that his example seduced and corrupted thousands of whites for centuries on end. From him, and him alone, they learned the arts of slavery. If not for that example, they would have had no labor shortage, nor decided to meet it by buying the lives of “heathens” and “savages” from Africa who could turn sweat, blood, tears, and screams into money.

Maybe all of that makes sense if you believe white skin betokens moral virtue and black skin singular perfidy. Millions of white Americans still believe just that, but we don’t have to count ourselves among them. Like the fantasy of inferior races, the first slaveholder’s blackness doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny. To begin with, American Indians practiced slavery on a small scale in the Americas long before any people from Europe arrived. Indian vs. Indian slavery didn’t set the pattern for whites any more than black vs. black slavery did. By the time whites came to the New World, our white ancestors already had long experience with slavery. In the later half of the fifteenth century, with the traditional supply of slaves from Eastern Europe cut off by the fall of Constantinople, the Mediterranean basin turned from using Slavs -we got our name from the practice- to grow their sugar and cotton to the use of sub-Saharan Africans.

You may remember from grade school that these explorers sought a way to the Spice Islands and China. If you learned it like I did, they left out what happened along the way. Iberian explorers bought and brought back people from their voyages. Initially, the Portuguese just landed and stole what and who they liked. The discovery of more organized and powerful states nearer the equator changed plans. Further out to sea, Iberians found Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary Islands. The last had native inhabitants, the Guanche. They had olive skin, if one wishes to keep score of such things. Lacking metallurgy and isolated for centuries, the Guanche had difficulty resisting conquest. That conquest did not go smoothly, all the same. It required decades of fighting for the Spanish to seize Grand Canary. A combination of violence and disease finished off the Guanche, to the point where only nine sentences of their tongue survive.

That left the Spanish in possession of a islands in subtropics better suited to sugar cultivation than their plantations back home. They went right to work, enslaving the Guanche and putting them to work. The Guanche didn’t last long, thanks to the violence and disease, but Europeans didn’t want to just give up making money off sugar. Soon the Portuguese brought the first black slaves to the first of the sugar islands. On these and other islands down the African coast, Europeans perfected the arts they would also practice on the other side of the ocean.

One might object here that islands in the Eastern Hemisphere don’t constitute any part of the Americas. Geography agrees, but the Spaniards took the lessons learned with the Guanche and others with them to the West Indies. They had established colonies and plantations worked by black slaves there well in advance of settlement on the mainland. A few Slavic slaves also appear in sixteenth century Havana, remnants of the old Mediterranean trade.

A person deeply wedded to white supremacy might object that Iberians hardly count as white, but even if we unwisely grant such a concession it helps them not at all. In fact, let’s take this one all the way and declare only Anglo-Saxon Protestants white. This means we must confine our inquiry to British colonies. Roanoke did not practice slavery that we know of which brings us to Virginia. (A similar process happens at about the same time in Barbados, but as both your author and you Gentle Readers know more about Virginia I shall focus on it.) The first slaves to arrive in Virginia came courtesy of the Dutch:

About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. They mett with the Treasurer in the West Indyes, and determined to hold consort shipp hetherward, but in their passage lost one the other. He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualls (whereof he was in greate need as he pretended) at the best and easyest rates they could.

We should take care, however, to bear in mind that the Englishmen of 1619 did not have an elaborate concept of racial hierarchy such as we have so often prosecuted. The Dutch probably intended to sell their cargo as slaves, or just didn’t care, but it seems that except for the circumstances of their arrival these twenty people faced no worse treatment than white indentured servants. One can count them as slaves, but doing so projects back a system still decades in the future.

In Virginia, we now have black indentured servants owned for a term of years by whites. Up in New England we have something else. White Englishmen arrive there not long after those twenty Africans arrive unwillingly in the Chesapeake. Samuel Maverick arrived in Massachusetts in 1624, bringing with him black slaves. If you want a first slaveholder in British North America, he makes for a good candidate. After the Pequot War, the Puritans enslaved many Indians. They sold most of the men to the West Indies but kept the women and children for themselves. The Pequot, by no common racial theory, count as black but they got very similar treatment. The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties includes possibly the first formal slave law in British North America:

91. There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authoritie.

Incidentally, the seventeenth century’s spelling practices constitute one of the more prosaic reasons this blog doesn’t have a great deal of colonial America content.

One can argue that Yankees don’t count on the same grounds that we could object that even if the first enslaver in North America had black skin it doesn’t matter. The system whites imposed made black people slaves to whites. It also, from a fairly early period, saw prosecution far more aggressively in the Chesapeake and points south than it did in New England. The Middle Colonies offer an exception in the middle eighteenth century, where they appear well into a transition from societies with slaves to slave societies, but the American Revolution put paid to that and it takes us well beyond any consideration of firsts.

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

This brings us back to Virginia again, and the man that many people claim as the first slaveholder in the colony: Anthony Johnson. Johnson came to Virginia as a slave, found himself an indentured servant, and became free at the end of his term. He did well for himself, able to gain property and sponsor the transport of indentured servants from England. He sued a neighbor to secure the return of a black man he held as a slave, John Casor. The court sided with Johnson, indicating that by 1655 the idea of lifetime slavery had established some purchase in Virginian culture.

The court did not, however, make Casor the first slave as we would understand the term. Even within Virginia’s jurisdiction, and bearing in mind that Massachusetts has already crossed the finish line with a white enslaver, the first known case of lifetime slavery appears to come in the person of John Punch. Punch and some other indentured servants absconded with themselves. They got caught. All three received some lashes for their trouble. Punch’s companions, both white, received a year added to their time under indenture, then a further three serving the colony. Punch, a black man, got slavery for life on July 9, 1640.

Debunking a White Power Meme: Did free blacks really own more slaves than whites?

Gentle Readers, studying the things I do often brings one in contact with the part of the internet which has forgotten its real purpose as a source of gentlemen’s special interest media. The nineteenth century insulates me to some degree from modern expressions of white supremacy, though not so much as one would hope. White power devotes its tremendous creative energies to strategy more than ideology, even when not spreading lies about the Confederacy. What I do see of modern racist discourse consequently has tight connections to proslavery and anti-Reconstruction arguments, the latter of which I have begun to familiarize myself with.

I haven’t found any proslavery writing that justifies slavery on the grounds that more free blacks than whites owned people, though I found a meme that does:

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy, coming soon to a Facebook feed near you.

The stock photo of a darker-skinned gentleman looking puzzled by whites should feel guilty about slavery, which the text insists lays at the feet of black people, deserves credit for taking the logic of white supremacy to a nauseating conclusion. It implicitly both excuses whites by the proxy of a black man and encourages us to see ourselves deserving of an apology from black Americans for our national ancestors enslaving theirs. Ordinarily, our narratives grant no agency at all to non-whites; we treat them as objects which we act upon so consistently that it takes conscious effort to do otherwise. We learn our whiteness in schools, from our media, and every other cultural channel available to us.

Yet the moment white agency involves white people behaving in ways we have decided that we must, at least in mixed company, condemn, white agency vanishes. Then we must speak of black agency. Black people in Africa sold slaves to us, which washes away any injustice we might have done. We find the real racists with black skin, just as we find the real miscreants in every other possible sin. In this crazy, upside-down world it doesn’t matter that whites bought black slaves, but only that blacks sold them.

A full debunking of this meme would run very long. I may make a series of it, but today I want to focus on the first the first factual claim:

A greater percentage of free blacks owned slaves than whites.

This kind of argument would have made no sense to someone in the middle nineteenth century. I don’t know that any antebellum white considered that a mitigation of slavery, as it turned their racial caste system on its side. Black skin meant enslaved, not enslaver. That the slaves still had the “right” color would not have charmed them much. They did not understand black slaveholders as entering a class with themselves, even if those same free people of color sometimes aspired to that role.

The author of the meme found a real fact, rare enough for white supremacists, but naturally used it in a profoundly misleading way. Just taking it on its face, you would think free blacks constituted the great slaveholding caste of American history. We may know otherwise, but the presentation encourages us to let that slide by. They accounted for a trifling fraction of the number of whites who owned slaves, not even close to a significant fraction of all free people of color in the Antebellum South. The author asks us to ignore almost every slaveholder, indeed the nature of American slavery as a race-based caste system itself. We may as well declare the Pacific Ocean one vast desert, neglecting all that water.

Our author also neglects the multitude of ways in which slavery still constrained the lives of free black Americans. In no way did being free, but black, make many black Americans even near-equals to white Americans. In slave states, where the great majority of them lived, free blacks led lives still governed by the slave codes. They and their children lived in real fear of being kidnapped and sold as slaves somewhere far away. Whites and white law frequently, though with notable exceptions, restricted to low status and/or economically marginal work. Their marginality extended, thanks to the system whites built, to treatment often similar to slavery. In many slave states, especially in the later antebellum, freeing a slave required deporting the slave from the state at the owner’s expense. The whites literally wanted them gone, rather than around to contradict how black skin inherently meant enslaved, and whiteness alone made one free. At the least, this meant separation from homes and loved ones, just as a slave sale did. The impulse to purge the land of free blacks recalls twentieth century forced population transfers.

One finds successful, even wealthy, free black Americans in the historical record but they appear few in number. Many of these tried to make distinctions based on their lighter skin color, inherited from rich white fathers. They don’t make fair representatives of free blacks in general, and still faced considerable disabilities on account of their ancestry. In rare conditions, enough free and freed black Americans lived in one place to form their own class, particularly in New Orleans and Charleston, but whites insisted they occupy a sort of middling position well short of whiteness. Most were dependent on maintaining close relations with white patrons, often their relatives, to remain in that status. Complicating this further is that in most of the Cotton States have far fewer free blacks than they the Upper South (the Chesapeake, Kentucky, etc.) where no such “brown” class develops.

This began with black enslavers, so it would do to come back to them. Free blacks owned slaves in every slave state, but it pays to mind the details. When most of us read that someone owned slaves, we probably picture a plantation, a whip-wielding master, and all the rest. We imagine the actual experience of the great majority of slaves in the United States, sensibly enough. But free blacks almost always held very modest amounts of human property. Though a few operated plantations, for the most part we find circa one or two people owned. Specifically, we find family members of the free person.

Whites insisted that freeing slaves constitute a difficult legally and socially challenge on top of any financial burden from lost investment or labor. It could literally required an act of the state legislature, something far beyond the means of a person hoping to buy a spouse or child to save them from the full horror of slavery. The more freed people appeared locally, the stronger the local whites would object and the harder they might fight to make the lives of freedpeople impossible. Purchasing a loved one could thus mean taking the least worst option.

All of this requires us to grapple with a slavery that actually existed in the real world: a system of violence, theft, torture, and rape spread across two continents by white Europeans and their descendants. The Atlantic world that whites built on constraining, controlling, and exploiting blacks does not go away because we pretended otherwise. We can imagine a strange world where cunning black enslavers coerced or corrupted virtuous whites into buying human beings. We can pretend that they sat on the shoulders of white enslavers on their plantations, whispering in their ears: whip them, rape them, steal their children. We can tell ourselves whatever stories we like, use whatever startling facts out of context might distract us. The reality remains, as we all know. Declaring ourselves innocent and demanding apologies from those we still studiously afflict for how they hurt our feelings doesn’t depart from the system we built long ago, but rather continues it. We know that too.

Stringfellow’s Defense of Slavery, Part One

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow explained the intentions and policy of the Platte County Self-Defense Association. Doing so gives us a valuable window into how the principals of the time saw themselves and the situation they faced. But he titled his pamphlet “Negro-Slavery, No Evil”. Like many nineteenth century authors, he had a longer version of the title too: Negro-Slavery, No Evil, or The North and the South. The Effects of Negro-Slavery, as Exhibited in the Census, by a Comparison of the Condition of the Slaveholding and Non-slaveholding States. Considered in a Report, Made to the Platte County Self-Defensive Association, by a Committee, through B. F. Stringfellow, Chairman.

Stringfellow makes it nearly ten pages into all that before he reaches the topic in the title. At first blush, a moral or other defense of slavery qua slavery seems a bit beyond the scope of a pamphlet laying out the Platte County group’s reasons for organization and action. Of course they believed slavery a good thing. They had an understandable fear of race war and losing their human property that further directly motivated them. The righteousness of slavery seems a few steps further removed, though. One might believe slavery right and good, or even merely the best of a bad situation, and still not think it imperative to carry the institution into Kansas. Plenty in the South did, considering Kansas a Missouri issue to which they had a sectional obligation and duty rather than a vital and immediate interest.

All that said, slaveholders resented the Missouri Compromise and other limits on slavery because they understood them as judgments about the institution’s morality. Limiting slavery implied undesirability, both for the institution and its practitioners. They did not view themselves as tainted inferiors who the nation ought to quarantine. Thus Stringfellow and company naturally saw the Kansas question as a part of the larger national debate and their stance on the morality of slavery as core to their undertaking. They cast their position in moral terms like anybody would. This ranges wider than the immediate problem of Kansas, so I’ve given it its own heading.

Stringfellow lays it out bluntly:

We assert that negro-slavery, as it exists in the United States, is neither a moral nor a political evil, but on the contrary, is a blessing to the white race and to the negro.

A Virginia patriarch might fret about slavery and say he wished it gone, all the while fighting ardently to keep it, but Stringfellow had none of that. White and black alike felt not the best of a bad situation. They did not have the wolf by the ears, as Jefferson had it, and worry about letting go. Rather they felt blessed by slavery. Just ask the white slaveholders.

That said, even Stringfellow had his limits:

Let us not be understood as suggesting that the number of slaves should be increased by violence, by opening again our ports to the importation of those whom the now abolitionists would then capture in the wilds of Africa. Though it has been wisely suggested, if this were done, abolitionists would give us no further troubles, they would as did their fathers, become slave-catchers, and thus being able to make a profit of slavery, would cease to hate slave-owners; would forget their mock love of the negro in their real love of money; though it may easily be shown that slavery has done more to civilize and christianize the African, than all the schemes of all the pious missionaries; yet our sympathies for the African are not such as for his good to induce us to bring among us a horde of savages. Our philanthropy does not extend, so far as to become the civilizers of savages, by bringing them into our families. We are now reaping the benefit of our fathers’ good works; we have the civilized Christian man, in place of the rude, vicious, and degraded heathen.

In smearing abolitionists as slave-catchers, Stringfellow had a small historical point. Many New Englanders helped build, crew, operate, and owned the ships that carried millions of slaves to the New World. They made good money doing it. But the era of New England slave ships plying the Atlantic ended decades before. The last slave importers who operated legally in the United States operated from ports in Georgia and South Carolina. Southerners, not Yankees, continued the trade on the sly. As the decade wore on, sons of the South a bit more radical than Stringfellow would prefer openly advocated for full resumption of the African slave trade. Even on the eve of civil war, that asked too much of most Southern consciences.