An Antebellum Dilemma Uncovered - Part Two

From William A. Percy
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“The following, from the N. Y. Herald of August 5, 1860; gives a hint concerning our method of importation. ‘Padre Island, or rather Father Island, is called so, from being the largest of a number of similar islands along the Gulf coast of Texas, and is about a hundred and twenty-five miles long, by from one to two miles in width. It is an island, because between it and the main shore of Texas there exists a regular belt or estuary of the sea, extending from the harbor of Brazos Santiago to Corpus Christi. Its adaptability has made Padre Island a resort for the initiation of those measures which were necessary in order to make popular a matter of vital importance to the South. To have boldly ventured into New Orleans, with negroes freshly imported from Africa, would not only have brought down upon the head of the importer the vengeance of our very philanthropic Uncle Sam, but also the anathemas of the whole sect of philanthropists and negrophilists everywhere. To import them for years, however, into quiet places, evading with impunity the penalty of the law, and the ranting of the thin-skinned sympathizers with Africa, was gradually to popularize the traffic by creating a demand for laborers, and thus to pave the way for the GRADUAL REVIVAL OF THE SLAVE TRADE. To this end, a few men, bold and energetic, determined, ten or twelve years ago, to commence the business of importing negroes, slowly at first, but surely; and for this purpose they selected a few secluded places on the coast of Florida, Georgia and Texas, for the purpose of concealing their stock until it could be sold out. Without specifying other places, let me draw your attention to a deep and abrupt pocket or indentation in the coast of Texas, about thirty miles from Brazos Santiago. Into this pocket a slaver could run at any hour of the night, because there was no hindrance at the entrance, and here she could discharge her cargo of movables upon the projecting bluff, and again proceed to sea inside of three hours. The live stock thus landed could be marched a short distance across the main island, over a porous soil which refuses to retain the recent foot-prints, until they were again placed in boats, and were concealed upon some of the innumerable little islands which thicken on the waters of the Laguna in the rear. These islands, being covered with a thick growth of bushes and grass, offer an inscrutable hiding place for the ' black diamonds.'” (Drake, Introduction, pp. vii-viii)

Cotton Production.jpg

A recent, unfortunately titled book, The Last Victims, pointed out that the importation of slaves accelerated in the last two or three years before the trade became illegal. Of course it did, because already in that short a time since Eli Whitney had invented, worked on, and perfected earlier crude models of the cotton gin like Fulton had the steam boat (so useful for getting the cotton down the river and hauling to market), one could see the need for more slaves.

Cotton production increased at staggering rates throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, more than quadrupling between 1838 and 1859, and increasing over fifty percent in only five years between 1850 and 1855. “At the close of the War of 1812 cotton produced in the United States was estimated at less than 150,000 bales. The crop produced in 1859 amounted to 4,451,000 bales, an increase of over thirty fold. During the first five years following the close of the War of 1812 production approximately doubled. By 1826 it had about doubled again….Between 1830 and 1837 the crop doubled again…by 1851 the crop was again approximately double that of 1837. The crop of 1859 was more than double that of 1849.” (Gray, p.691) And as the output in bales increased, so did the size of the bales. “In 1824 all bales of American cotton imported at Liverpool averaged 266 pounds, and by 1832 they averaged 319 pounds. In 1835 the bales used in the South Atlantic States averaged 300 to 325 pounds, but those from the Gulf States 400 to 500 pounds each. By the forties the majority of Texas bales weighed 500 pounds. Watkins estimates the average weight for the entire South by decades as follows:

1790-1800………………..225 1830-1840………………..368
1800-1810………………..247 1840-1850………………..415
1810-1820………………..269 1850-1860………………..436

Even if the planters had had mechanical cotton harvesters roaring across their field, as the soi-disant historian Shenk recently claimed in Lincoln’s Melancholy, natural increase and shipments from the Upper South together could never have supplied nearly enough hands to plant and chop all this product, no matter how good the weather!

No scholar has until now heard Col. Percy’s assertions. The Colonel was one of the greatest planters in the Mississippi Delta – the flood plain between the bluffs on which Memphis and Vicksburg were erected – 220 miles apart as the crow flies. It was the richest cotton producing area in the world in 1860, still being cleared and in desperate need of slave labor. Natchez, just south of Vicksburg, became the richest per capita city in the country. Where there is such a demand, a supply will almost always materialize. It is a law of economics. See how much liquor was consumed during prohibition. How much dope today? How many illegal immigrants do we have today? Much of the commodities and many of those people were smuggled in just as slaves were up to 1860, into the bayou lagoons and swamps along our porous gulf coast, and also across the Rio Grande into Texas.

True, prices sagged from 1815 to 1830, but the output continued its steady climb, and demand increased much more after Andrew Jackson virtually emptied the South this side of the Mississippi of Native Americans by 1830 – the year he and two other speculators founded Memphis, which became rich from selling mules, slaves and cotton. (It only became a major emporium for hardwood after the end of slavery.) The demand for cotton escalated every year thereafter until 1860. Likewise did the demand for slaves had to have risen. There was most likely a sag in imports in the 1820’s and early 30’s. But, “The demand for slaves was manifested in the illicit traffic that noticeably increased about 1835, and reached large proportions by 1860.” (Du Bois, p.155) Cotton was indeed king, and the labor supply had to be secured, as it is today by illegal aliens coming in. So much did cotton production increase that the price moved up only moderately and sporadically after 1844.

Cotton Prices001 01.jpg
(Fogel & Engerman, p.91)

In some West Indian islands, slaves were supposedly often worked to death in an average of seven years, because they were so cheap that they didn’t need to be preserved much less bred, as was the case in late Republican Rome when Cato in De Agricultura, copying Carthaginian manuals, recommended brutal exploitation and no breeding for maximum profit. Slaves almost always had a longer life expectation and more offspring in the North American colonies, with generally less murderous work than on the sugar islands, and in the U.S., however, than in the Caribbean or Late Republic Rome, but they weren’t superhuman breeders. Furthermore, “It was, for example, found cheaper to work a slave to death in a few years, and buy a new one, than to care for him in sickness and old age; so, too, it was easier to despoil rich, new land in a few years of intensive culture, and move on to the Southwest, than to fertilize and conserve the soil. Consequently, there came a demand for land and slaves greater than the country could supply.” (Du Bois, p.155)

Cotton cultivation was usually less lethal than tobacco, even perhaps when tobacco was grown in commercial quantities almost exclusively in the Chesapeake as in the colonial era, a more temperate zone than the lower South. Very little cotton was grown anyway beyond the east coast until after the Revolution. Only with Whitney’s gin did large quantities of short staple cotton begin to be grown in the Southern interior. Tobacco, like cotton, was undoubtedly less lethal than sugar cane. Large quantities of rice were also grown in coastal Georgia and South Carolina, but the slaves there worked on a quota system, and the most efficient might finish their day’s work by early to mid-afternoon; however, labor in the rice paddies was unhealthy, physically exhausting, and dangerous because of snakes and insects.

The threat to ship recalcitrant slaves “down the river” from cotton to cane cultivation was often enough to get more cooperation from the victim, but some were actually shipped down the Mississippi from the cotton to the cane fields in Louisiana. Slaves in the upper South were also threatened with being sold down, though not necessarily down the river, but to the cotton fields of lower Dixie. Working in the cotton fields of the Red River Valley was certainly no picnic. Treatment by masters as well as type of work and climate caused variations in life expectations and reproduction rates, but nothing except illegal imports can possibly explain the extraordinary increase recorded by the census takers, and for various reasons, likely due to lack of diligence or the hiding of newly imported slaves, they doubtless undercounted.

And it was not only cotton production that increased in the nineteenth century. Between 1840-1860, export of tobacco was nearly 60% higher than it had been in 1790. In 1857-1860, it was double. (Gray, p. 753) Sugar cane output also grew. From 1828 – 1832, the output of cane doubled. “As a result of technical progress the productivity of slave labor in the sugar industry was greatly increased during the first half of the nineteenth century…The estimated yield per slave for slaves of all ages averaged 3.14 hogsheads in 1845 and 2.55 hogsheads in 1853. Receipts per hand above $300 were not uncommon, and it is probable that receipts of $250 were usual for well managed estates.” (Gray, p. 743) “Almost all of the sugar grown in the United States during the antebellum period came from Louisiana. Louisiana produced from one-quarter to one-half of all sugar consumed in the United States. In any given year the combined crop of other sugar-producing states in the South was less than five percent of that of Louisiana. Louisiana's sugar harvest rose from 5,000 hogsheads (a large barrel that held an average of 1,000 pounds of sugar) in 1802 to a high of 449,000 hogsheads in 1853, peaking at an average price of $69 each in 1858, bringing the total value of Louisiana's sugar crop to $25 million.” [(]

Already a known importer of slaves, Louisiana’s sugar industry, deadly as the harvesting of sugar is known to have been, would have required a great influx of workers, and was already accustomed to the mechanics of procuring them illegally. Slaves were known to have been brought into Galveston at least as late as 1836, when “An English schooner reportedly landed blacks from Grenada at Galveston in January, 1836. In March of that year, William S. Fisher reported from Brazoria that the schooner Shenandoah had landed 170 Negroes belonging to Monroe Edwards and that Sterling McNeel had brought a cargo of Africans to the coast. The ‘traffic in Negroes,’ Fisher said, ‘is increasing daily.’” (Campbell, p.46)

Cuba Slave Figures.jpg

“The African slave trade, even when illegal, continued to supply hundreds of thousands of slaves to Brazil until 1851 and to Cuba until 1867 ( Davis, p.28) If correct, Curtin’s estimates for Cuba are ten times that what he estimated for American annual imports in the same period. No doubt they are fairly accurate, as reasonable data exists between Cuban census reports and the notes of the British Foreign Office for many of these years. However, few scholars have discussed what traffic lay between the United States and Texas. Of course, such an illegal activity is impossible to calculate. However it is known at the very least that there existed trade from Cuba to Texas and also to New Orleans, and knowing that the demand for slaves was what it was, it is not unreasonable to assume that a greater traffic than most wish to postulate existed between the island and our country. Though most reports come from the 1830’s, they continued thereafter, even after Texas was annexed to the U.S. Meanwhile, the known import to Cuba rose significantly.

“The consul at Havana reported, in 1836, that whole cargoes of slaves fresh from Africa were being daily shipped to Texas in American vessels, that 1,000 had been sent within a few months, that the rate was increasing, and that many of these slaves ‘can scarcely fail to find their way into the United States.’ Moreover, the consul acknowledged that ships frequently cleared for the United States in ballast, taking on a cargo at some secret point. When with these facts we consider the law facilitating ‘recovery’ of slaves from Texas, the repeated refusals to regulate the Texan trade, and the shelving of a proposed congressional investigation in these matters, conjecture becomes a practical certainty. It was estimated in 1838 that 15,000 Africans were annually taken to Texas, and ‘there are even grounds for suspicion that there are other places…where slaves are introduced.’ Between 1847 and 1853 the slave smuggler Drake had a slave depot in the Gulf, where sometimes as many as 1,600 Negroes were on hand, and the owners were continually importing and shipping.” (Du Bois, p.165) “Joseph Crawford, the British vice-consul at New Orleans, reported in 1837 that slavers from Cuba had landed Africans in Texas. Francis Sheridan, Britain’s colonial secretary, visited Galveston in 1840 and complained that Texas was doing too little to enforce its laws against the African trade and urged that British cruisers be ordered to extend their antislavery activities to the Gulf Coast. During the same year, a visiting English lawyer, Nicholas Doran P. Maillard, claimed that American ships were carrying one hundred slaves from Cuba to Texas twice a month. Such charges persisted well into the statehood period. Oral tradition has it that the United States War Department’s experiment with camels as pack animals on the southwestern ‘deserts’ served as a cover for the importation of a shipload of Africans at Indianola, Texas, in 1856. Arthur T. Lynn, the British consul at Galveston, reported in 1858 that a new state law permitting free blacks voluntarily to enslave themselves was in fact a scheme to cover the importation of Africans.” (Campbell, p. 53)

Texas, where many immigrated at Steve Austin’s behest, was fertile in the east, and thus a flourishing cotton market took off, increasing the need for labor, and as the labor size increased, so did production. In 1833 a convention on Texan statehood condemned slavery, the reason being that a slaver from Cuba had recently landed at Galveston. However, by 1835-6, in the midst of the chaotic separation from Mexico, it became easier for slaves to reach Texan shores. However, newcomers to Texas ignored the resolution and continued to import Africans thereafter. (Campbell, p. 39)

Curtin notes that “The imports into the Bahamas, and perhaps into British Honduras, were probably en route to the United States,” (p. 236) yet he does not suggest that any came in from Cuba, despite the fact that between 1841-1861, when 170,900 slaves at least were imported into the island, the slave population there dropped by 69,100. He notes that this is a slightly starting rate of natural decrease – about 3% - yet counts it as plausible, owing largely to a cholera epidemic. True, much of Cuba’s labor was devoted to sugar, a dangerous and often fatal occupation, but it does not guarantee that the supply of slaves all stayed on the island, especially when reports came to the U.S. about slave exports. “ ‘There is certainly a want of proper vigilance at Havana,’ wrote Commander Perry in 1844, ‘and perhaps at the ports of the United States’; and again, in the same year, ‘I cannot but think that the custom-house authorities in the United States are not sufficiently rigid in looking after vessels of suspicious character.’” (Du Bois, p.161) Footnote 3 on the same page: Trist to Forsyth: House Doc., 26 Cong. 2. sess. V. No. 115. “The business of supplying the United States with Africans from this island is one that must necessarily exist,” because “slaves are a hundred per cent, or more, higher in the United States than in Cuba,” and this profit “is a temptation which it is not in human nature as modified by American institutions to withstand.”

In Inhuman Bondage (Oxford, 2006) David Brion Davis, the dean of all those students in the Atlantic slave-trade and slavery in the New World, has summarized the prevalent interpretations, many of which result from his own theories, most prominently advanced in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1966 The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966). In the half century that his publications span, opinions about that history have changed spectacularly.

Though not himself a statistician, Davis accepts wholeheartedly the revised statistics about the slave trade within Africa, the transportation to the New World, and the recalculations concerning Africa itself, the middle passage, the life expectancy and reproduction rates of Africans in the Americas and also the demographics of the native Americans, which have undergone even greater reappraisals than all of the others.

On imports Davis has accepted the consensus: their case an old one, little modified since the appearance of Curtin’s book, which itself on this topic basically accepted the theories of J. Potter – namely that the cotton kingdom only imported 1,000 on average every year from 1808-1860. Interesting to note is that one reason Curtin gave for the likelihood of such small numbers is that because one would expect the number of males to outweigh the number of females by the end of the period surveyed – males being the more attractive group to import – he was surprised to find the female population higher in the 1860 census. However, we have found that he was incorrect. According to Census data, there were 1,981,395 males and 1,959,151 females. (figures courtesy of Geostat Center Historical Census Browser)

He says the prohibition on slave imports into the U.S. in 1808 did not reduce the slave population, because primarily raising tobacco and more and more cotton, they had achieved (in healthy climates with less demanding labor routines) a remarkable rate of increase, while that of the whites had not, who continued to be increased by trans-Atlantic migration. We have much much more evidence to compute the demographics of the trans-Atlantic slave trade than that out of Africa before Columbus, or of pre-Columbian native American population, and their post-Columbian die-off; however we do not have enough to make the resolute, unswerving convictions that historians would often have their readers believe them to have attained. It was no one’s intent to admit the significance of the illicit trade – not the government’s who failed to stop it, the apologists who openly and brazenly condemned it, while exalting the benevolent paternalism that their native born slaves enjoyed (better than that of the Irish immigrants laid off and left to starve by their Yankee mill masters during recessions), and most of all not the slave importers or their customers. “The dimensions of the nineteenth-century slave trade have always been a matter of controversy – political controversy at the time and historical controversy since. The outcome is hardly unexpected…The result was a great deal of writing about a subject on which no one could possibly be very well informed.” (Curtin, p. 231)

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