by Doctor Science
I read A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia by Richard S. Dunn a couple of months ago. This is not so much a review as a discussion of things the book and the associated website made me think about.
My biggest insight was how much the capitalist slave system of the United States exploited and even depended upon the strong families enslaved people were able to create. It's a terrible, bitterly tragic irony that family ties -- which gave enslaved people strength and hope -- helped keep American slavery profitable and expansive, decades after the Founders' generation hoped it would have faded away.
Going in, I knew that one of the biggest differences between slave life in Jamaica and in Virginia was that the enslaved population in the United States grew by "natural increase" (=an excess of births over deaths), while the enslaved population in Jamaica was always falling and had to be replenished with new people from Africa. The end of the British slave trade 1807 meant Jamaican slavery would inevitably wither, but American slavery continued to prosper and would only eventually be ended by force of arms.
I also knew that the reason slavery in Jamaica was so brutal was sugar (use PDF link from this page). The work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, Brazil, and in southern Louisiana was physically hard and unrelenting, owners wanted more male workers than female, and the enslaved people were expected to provide much of their own food--while the overseers made it difficult for them to do so.
Basically, sugar production was a semi-industrial process, one input for which was human lives. It ate people.
I knew that sugar was a devouring monster, but Dunn's book let me see how it played out for the enslaved. For instance, more African men than women were imported to "Mesopotamia", the Jamaica plantation he studied. But African men died faster than women or than Jamaica-born men, though they were physically larger and stronger than either group. Dunn suspects that African-born men died for lack of social context: they had lost all masculine roles they'd grown up to expect, and could find no replacement in the New World.
There's no doubt that the overseers at Mesopotamia (and other sugar plantations) wanted a majority of the field workers to be male. Dunn found that in practice more than half of the workers in the "Great Gang", the large work group that did the heaviest labor, were female. This was because most of the semi-skilled or craft labor fell under "men's work": construction, woodworking, barrel-making, handling livestock and wagons, as well as the all-important job of manning the sugar boiler.
In Virginia, too, more than half of field workers were female. There were some craftswomen textile workers and a few who worked in the house, but most of the semi-skilled or craft jobs were "men's work", leaving all the most drudge-like field labor for women and children.
Enslaved people at Mesopotamia seem to have had unstable families, because of the very high death rates for everyone and because so many people were dislocated, "fresh off the boat" from Africa. "Seem to", at least, because the overseers didn't record usually slaves as couples or imply that they had anything like marriages. When you look at their family trees, you can see that for most children born on the plantation Dunn could not determine the father.
On the other hand, enslaved people were rarely sold away from the plantation, so people had a good chance of staying near their families--for as long as they were alive.
At Mount Airy plantation in Virginia and at the satellite plantations the family developed in Virginia and Alabama, marriages between enslaved people where acknowledged in the enslavers' records, and for most Dunn could find a putative father. Such stable, recognized family relationships were probably one of the reasons the enslaved population in the US grew steadily in the antebellum years -- indeed, faster than the growth rate for the native-born white population (the issue is currently a hot topic in historical research).
US slavery also differed from Jamaica's in being much more closely tied into a capitalist system. I saw this most clearly reading Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism:
In the 1830s, powerful Southern slave owners wanted to import capital into their states so that 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.Slave mortgage derivatives were the extreme case of the general principle: in the US enslaved people were tied into the world of investment and debt. They were bought, sold, and moved in response to financial opportunities or retrenchments; there need not be anything *personal* for children to be sold away from their parents, for young women to be sold as sex slaves, for families to be torn apart. It was just business.
First, American planters organized new banks, usually in new states like Mississippi and Louisiana. Drawing up new lists of slaves for collateral, the planters then mortgaged them to the banks they had created, enabling themselves to buy additional slaves to expand cotton production. To provide capital for those loans, the banks sold bonds to investors from around the globe ---- London, New York, Amsterdam, Paris. The bond buyers, many of whom lived in countries where slavery was illegal, didn't own individual slaves ---- just bonds backed by their value…
As slave-backed mortgages became paper bonds, everybody profited ---- except, obviously, enslaved African Americans whose forced labor repaid owners' mortgages. But investors owned a piece of slave-earned income. Older slave states such as Maryland and Virginia sold slaves to the new cotton states, at securitization-inflated prices, resulting in a slave asset bubble. Cotton factor firms like the now-defunct Lehman Brothers ---- founded in Alabama ---- became wildly successful. Lehman moved to Wall Street, and for all these firms, every transaction in slave-earned money flowing in and out of the U.S. earned Wall Street firms a fee.
Reading Dunn's book, it seems to me that the "natural increase" of the US slave population was treated like the compound interest we might expect from an investment, expressed using very similar mathematical equations. I put "natural increase" in irony-quotes to emphasize that it didn't just *happen*, it was the result of ongoing human effort by enslaved people, to bear and raise and love their children. The US capitalist-slavery system monetized that effort and made it part of their financial calculations.
This also explains why US slavery was so expansionist, why it was so crucial that more states be opened up to slavery and why there was so much talk in the 1850s about extending US slavery to Latin America (as I learned from River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson). The population of enslaved people was growing at about 25% per decade, and the only way to keep up the value of the investment enslavers (and their enablers) had made was to keep finding more work for enslaved people to do. Agricultural field labor growing cotton (or sugar) was the time-tested, reliable way to get a good R.O.I.--but it needed ever more prime farm land to employ the growing force of slaves.
In the North cities and industrialization could soak up most of the growing population, and still have places for millions of immigrants. In the South, white people didn't really want large densities of slaves to build up in cities, and industrial slavery was secondary, always less profitable than cotton farming.
So when the Southern enslaver class started the Civil War because if slavery couldn't expand it would end their way of life, they were partially right. Without new territory, slavery would have to become something radically different. I don't think it would have faded away as it did in Jamaica, because it was still extremely profitable in the US. But it would certainly have *changed*, and that was something the South could not then imagine nor abide.
 Quoted by Gilda Haas, from "American Finance Grew on the Back of Slaves", an article by Baptist that no longer seems to be available online.