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Water and Soil, Grain and Flesh | The Nation

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Water and Soil, Grain and Flesh

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Walter Johnson

Walter Johnson

River of Dark Dreams
Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom.
By Walter Johnson.
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If all we mean by “capitalism” is exploitation for profit, then Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956) might have put an end to the discussion by demonstrating the profit-driven exploitation and cruelty of slavery. Johnson, however, has more in mind. Before turning directly to the production of cotton on plantations, he describes the violence of territorial conquest, the savagery of white responses to real and imagined slave revolts, and the ecological destruction of turning diverse natural landscapes into grids of cotton fields. Johnson then devotes three fascinating chapters to the world of the steamboats that plied the Mississippi River. The steamboat discussion begins with a genre of booster literature that Johnson calls the “steamboat sublime.” In these writings, “the commercial geography of the valley was rescaled in the key of awe.” The river, the boats, the fertile land, the exotic racial and linguistic diversity, the palpable threat of apocalyptic slave revolts, and the mud-caked elegance of commercial New Orleans (the world’s fourth-busiest port in the 1840s)—all contributed to “the promethean grandeur of the river world,” which seemed to astound even the alligators in the stream.

The steamboat economy of the Lower Mississippi, immortalized for modern readers in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857), was the domain of gamblers, hustlers, planters, thieves, slaves and free people of color, plus slaves who claimed to be free and people of color passing as white. There were ladies and gentlemen (or people claiming to be such) in the cabins and riffraff on the open decks. It was exciting and dangerous. Pilots raced, engines exploded and boats ran aground. Because profit margins were slim, boat owners skimped on expenses by installing inferior engines and pressuring crews to stretch their capacities. In 1852, the federal government stepped in to regulate this chaos by passing the Steamboat Act, which established licensing and inspection and mandated lifeboats, fire pumps and life preservers. But the basic problem on the Mississippi River remained: “too many boats making too many runs competing for too little business on too little water.”

Once Johnson leaves the river for the plantations, he describes the horrifying daily violence inflicted on slaves—over and over, and in prose intended to shock, as if readers might fail to appreciate the fundamental evil of slavery. Extensive discussions of torture define “the human condition of owning” as “the condition of gazing, claiming, supervising, delighting, penetrating, climaxing, and maiming at will.” Planters starved their slaves, used food to control them, and then gloated about the results in rhetoric that “processed starvation into racism.” They raped women to “convert their own semen into capital,” but such “forcible genital penetration of enslaved women by white men” was only part of their perverse sexual violence, which included stealing the milk of lactating women by forcing them to nurse “children too young to know that they owned the breast from which they hungrily sucked,” and dressing children in cheap shifts that exposed “their buttocks and genitals—their penises, their pudenda.” In Mississippi, whites considered slaves confessing to crimes under gruesome torture to be such a normal fact of life that “it became a settled principle of law that…slaveholders could make slaves say whatever they wanted.”

Johnson also insists that the terms “inhuman” and “dehumanizing” should not be used to describe slavery, in part because their use can mask the actual humanity of the slaves. “We cannot any more separate slaves’ labor from their humanity than we can separate the ability of a human hand to pick cotton from its ability to caress the cheek of a crying child, the aching of a stooped back in the field from the arc of a body bent in supplication, the voice that called time for the hoes from that which told a story that was centuries old.” But there is also a separate issue. The oppression of slavery depended on slaveholders recognizing the fundamental humanity of their “property.” Not only did they rely on their slaves to perform all kinds of irreducibly human tasks, but “the satisfaction that they got from violence…depended on the fact that their victims were human beings capable of registering slaveholding power in their pain, terror, grief, submission, and even resistance.” Johnson then makes a puzzling suggestion: instead of thinking of slavery as dehumanizing, we should think of it as “a concerted effort to dishumanize enslaved people.”

Johnson goes on like this, noting how the slaveholders bent even the landscape to their violent will. Fruit trees might signify agricultural diversification, but they also yielded the switches that, as an ex-slave narrator recalled, “cracked the skin so that the blood oozed out.” Slaves trying to escape measured distances “not simply in miles, but also in suffering: in wounding and exposure, in the fearful nausea of a human being hunted like an animal, the mind-shattering loneliness of a person starving to death somewhere on an unknown map.” Slaveholders created a “carceral landscape” and “visuality of mastery” that frustrated slaves’ efforts to flee, permanently or merely for a few stolen hours, by withholding shoes, coats and blankets; by preventing slaves from learning how to read or swim; and also by clearing forests, riding horses and deploying “weaponized dogs.” Material and spatial as much as economic and legal, the Cotton Kingdom “was built out of sun, water, and soil; animal energy, human labor, and mother wit; grain, flesh, and cotton; pain, hunger, and fatigue; blood, milk, semen, and shit.”

* * *

As powerful as the Mississippi Valley slaveholders were, they were haunted by the recurrent nightmare of a revolutionary slave revolt like the one that had established an independent black republic in Haiti. By the 1850s, with slavery also abolished in Barbados and Jamaica, not to mention the Northern United States, slaveholders saw imperial expansion and the forging of closer links to the slave societies of Cuba and Brazil as a way to fortify slavery in the Americas under their leadership. Their successes at home, meanwhile, had created another problem. High slave prices, spiraling beyond the reach of young white men who had not been lucky enough to inherit slaves, threatened to spark dangerous class conflicts within the ruling race. For some, the fantasy of empire was merely a show of bravado, but for many it bespoke real confidence in an expansive future. The Gulf of Mexico would replace the Mediterranean, declared 
DeBow’s Review, the voice of the Cotton Kingdom. New Orleans was Alexandria, and Havana could be “the Constantinople of our empire” if Cuba could be wrested from Spain. Nicaragua promised a new frontier of opportunity for would-be slaveholders if Americans could take possession. And the threat of class conflict could be kept in check indefinitely if planters liberated themselves from Maryland and Virginia by resuming direct importations from Africa, thereby lowering slave prices.

When Johnson turns to describing the “imperial” projects of the cotton planters, he mixes scenes of intense violence with jocular stories about con artists and fools in the business of “filibustering,” a term that referred to unauthorized warfare waged by private armies rather than obstructionist speeches. We follow Narciso López to his inevitable doom in Cuba, in an invasion widely publicized in advance to raise money and men, and filled with false hopes—such as an army of Cuban rebels awaiting his leadership. Then there was William Walker, “a shape-shifter who had been a doctor in Nashville, a newspaper editor in New Orleans, a lawyer in San Francisco, a filibuster in Sonora” and, incredibly, a former president in Nicaragua. American railroad interests were attracted to Nicaragua for a route to the Pacific, a canal like the one that later would be dug in Panama. Walker, who recruited followers “with the insistent consciousness-raising of a late-night infomercial,” presented a different vision, offering disappointed white men land and slaves on a new frontier, until he was finally undone “by a private army paid for by Cornelius Vanderbilt, captained by a British mercenary, and fighting under the flag of Costa Rica.”

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These imperial ventures failed ignominiously, but they made sense as expansions of the same type of process that had built the Mississippi Valley. And establishing the success of that capitalist conquest is the overarching point of River of Dark Dreams. Its wrenching detail supports Johnson’s description of a Cotton Kingdom resting on “the gradual process by which human life was turned to cotton: the torturous conversion of labor to capital, and of living people to corpses.” It is no accident that this formulation evokes a more traditional analysis of capitalism. In Capital, Marx relies on similarly thick description to portray production as the consumption of human life: “Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour.” A working day stretching into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.” Mill owners were “spinning silk for 10 hours a day out of the blood of little children.”

Johnson argues that “there was no 
nineteenth-century capitalism without slavery,” but the reverse is equally true: there was no nineteenth-century slavery without capitalism. The “ruling trinomial” at the heart of the Cotton Kingdom’s murderous project—bales per acre per hand—might have been extracted in another way. But it was actually extracted by slavery.

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