S1: Welcome to Episode 6 of the History of American Slavery a Slave Academy. I’m Jamelle Bouie, a Slate staff writer.
S2: And I’m Rebecca Onion, Slate’s history writer. Today, when Cotton became king, we’re gonna look at how the transition to a cotton economy in the early decades of the 19th century transformed the system of slavery and powerful and frightening ways as we do every time you join us.
S3: We’ll begin with the sketch of a single person’s life. Today, that person is a man named Charles Ball.
S4: Charles Ball was born sometime in the 1780s on a tobacco plantation in Calvert County, Maryland. When he was 4, the slave owner holding his family died and Ball was sold away from his mother and siblings. As a young man, he spent two years working as a cook for the U.S. Navy. His wages went to his own. In the Navy, he came up with his first plan to escape, which was foiled when he was captured and sold to a slave trader.
S5: Ball walked in a coffin with 51 other people from Maryland to South Carolina, where the trader sold him to a Georgia plantation in Georgia. He learned to pick cotton, a grueling experience. He later recorded in detail in his autobiography when Ball’s owner died in 1889. Ball was left in the control of the owner’s sons and heirs. Their cruelty, combined with his desire to see his wife and children, again, drove him to run away. He pulled off an epic yearlong walk from Georgia to Maryland, reunited with his family there.
S6: Ball managed to live as a fugitive for 20 years, long enough to become well established and even to own a farm near Baltimore.
S7: His wife died in 1816 and he remarried, this time to a formerly enslaved woman. But in 1830, he was caught and sold back south into slavery. Ball ran away again, smuggling himself north on a ship. But by the time he got back to Maryland, his wife and children had been captured and sold. Despite being legally free, Ball moved to Pennsylvania in hopes of staying out of slave catchers hands. His autobiography, Slavery in the United States A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, which Ball dictated was published in 1836. It was popular and republished six times before the Civil War, even living in Pennsylvania. Ball was constantly afraid that he’d be captured again. As he wrote in his autobiography, I am fearful at this day to let my place of residence be known, lest even yet it may be supposed that as an article of property, I’m of sufficient value to be worth pursuing in my old age. The time and place of his death are unknown.
S3: So, Rebecca, why is Charles Ball on our podcast today?
S8: Well, because his life, which was extraordinary in a lot of ways, sort of traced the transition between what it was like to be enslaved in the upper south and what it was like to be enslaved in the Deep South. And, you know, by writing this by publishing this autobiography, he was sort of trying to make this argument to people who might be reading it, you know, abolitionists or people he might be trying to convince to become abolitionists that, you know, because of cotton slavery was evolving into something, it made it worse, more stringent, more terrifying than what people might have thought that it was in earlier years. And so because of that, he’s a good person to use to try to think through what it was like to suddenly be working for this new system of cotton plantations.
S9: And the cotton fueled slavery is, I think, basically what most people think of when they think of slavery. It’s the large plantations and the violent whipping, sort of the I guess the classical image of what slavery look like really is drawn from this general period of the institution’s history.
S10: That’s right. And you don’t follow someone who talks about it with specificity, which is really helpful for us trying to look back and understand what it was about. And there is a part of his autobiography where he talks about his first day as a picture of cotton. That really shows us what it was like to do that kind of work. Here’s ball.
S11: I worked hard the first day and made every effort to sustain the character that I had acquired amongst my companions. But when evening came in, our cotton was weighed. I had only 38 pounds and was vexed to see the two younger men about my own age had 158 in the other. Fifty nine pounds. That was her first day’s work. And the overseer had not yet settled the amount of a day’s picking. It was necessary for him to ascertain by the experience of a few days how much the best hands could pick in a day before he established the standards of the season. I hung down my head and felt very much ashamed of myself when I found out that my cotton was so far behind that of many, even of the women who had heretofore regarded me as the strongest, the most powerful man of the whole gang. In this posture of affairs, I looked forward to something still more painful than loss of character, which I must sustain both of my fellows and my master, for I knew that the lash of the overseer would soon become familiar with my back. If I did not perform as much work as any of the other young men.
S2: So we spoke with Cornell historian Ed Baptiste for our last episode about Charles the Land. But we want to speak with him again for this episode about Charles Ball, because he writes so viscerally and presently about the experience of picking cotton. We want to ask him how he made the decision, sort of a literary decision to try to show us as readers what it was like to do that kind of work.
S12: One of the things was remarkable to me was how few historians of slavery had actually talked about picking cotton. Even that was obvious from reading everything. They wrote that once the cotton gin was invented, picking cotton was the bottleneck of production. That was a thing that could either speed up or slow down all the other aspects. That was the part of the process that determined how many bales of cotton there would be to sell. At the end of the year. And that was that was a crucial part that seems to have evolved into what Charles Ball describes pretty early. And what he says is that there are a couple of key parts to the production of cotton. A couple of key moments in the production cycle where labor is really pushed to the extreme and some of them have to do with the planning and the cultivating. And he describes what he calls them or what other enslaved formerly say people call the pushing system, where people are driven across the field at high speed at a uniform rate that’s determined by the fastest worker and so on. But it’s at picking that, as I said before, you really determine how much is gonna be made. And here, instead of driving people across the field at a uniform rate, would Charles Ball discovers very quickly and he’s moved from Maryland as about a 25 year old to South Carolina and 4:42 right at the beginning of this rapid current expansion. And he discovers that enslaved people all have as cotton pickers their individual quotas, at least where he is. And other people confirm this. They have a individual quota of pounds that they’re supposed to pick in a day. And if they don’t meet it, they’re in trouble. They’re going to be whipped. At the end of the day, they’re picking is Wade. It’s compared against what they’re supposed to make, what they’ve made in previous days. It’s written down in a ledger on a slate. That’s where the numbers are later transferred to a ledger. And then punishment is either dealt out or not dealt out.
S1: You know, Rebecca, I find this incredibly significant. We’ve mentioned before a bunch of times, you know, you’re talking about our own experiences with learning about slavery more younger in grade school or even in college. And one thing that I think was conventional wisdom when I was in elementary and middle school and what I think is still conventional wisdom now is that slavery was dying out essentially. That by the time the Civil War, it was on the wane. But Baptists suggest is the exact opposite. But slavery as a system was becoming more productive over time into my mind. That suggests a very disturbing alternate history where the civil war doesn’t happen. And slavery kind of just persists through the 19th century.
S13: It’s becoming more and more productive and more and more lucrative. It seems in some ways that, you know, I mean, it’s kind of actually harking back a little bit to the way that Ed talked about the slave holders who responded to rebellions sort of around the same time when he reminded us in the last episode that we should always be careful to remember that slavery was a flexible, unresponsive institution or that slave holders were good at figuring out how to get more out of it. And so the quota system that he mentions, which is sort of run by torture, run by terror in some way, is really effective. Or maybe we should say that that workers were really good at figuring out how to get more and more out of those fields. So, yes, it seems like even if maybe it’s not necessarily cotton that keeps on driving the economic productivity in this hypothetical alternate universe, if slavery continued through the middle of the 19th century, through that 20th century, there will be some other way. There’ll be something else that people would find to make money out of it.
S1: Right. And I think that given the fact of increasing productivity, slave holders could have adjusted to whatever changes in kind of the macro economy of both the South and the United States.
S13: I think one of the sort of misapprehensions about slavery also is that cotton was in some way peripheral or external to a larger world economy. You know, historians have started to really make the opposite argument about that. That cop was, in fact, central. And so we asked Ed to explain that to us a little bit. And here’s his answer.
S14: I mean, it might be the key or one of the key questions for understanding the economic history of the Western world over the last two hundred nine years, because cotton in the brand new industrial economy is developing in the early 19th century. And this is transforming Western economies. It’s transforming the way we think about economics. It’s transforming the way we organize our daily lives as we shift from agriculture to industry. All these transformations are happening around the central economic force of the cotton textile industry. This is the industry that is the first real industry, the first real factory system. It drives the industrial revolution. These are the factories that Karl Marx is writing about, that other people are identifying this massive economic changes that they’re writing about its cotton textile factories and the raw material that’s being used.
S12: There is cotton picked by and large in the American South. By the 1830s, something like 88 percent of all the continents sold in Liverpool, which is the port that feeds the British industrial system.
S14: And that’s the you know, that’s the first industrial revolution in the world. And Britain, 88 percent of that cotton comes from the American South American enslaved producers of cotton have priced almost everybody out of the market. Almost all the other cotton producers cannot compete with enslaved labor and they can’t compete with the enslaved labor because of the constant increase in productivity that you’re seeing in the cotton fields. I would argue because of this particular production system, this particular system of weighing, whipping, measuring, raising of quotas and so on, you can see the effects of this. And you can get a sense, I think, of how crucial this is to the industrial revolution by comparing the real price of cotton in eighteen hundred to the real price of cotton in 1860. So this is an inflation adjusted price. And even though demand for raw cotton has risen tremendously as the British Industrial Revolution has taken off, as the American Industrial Revolution is taking off, as cotton textile factories are spreading throughout Western Europe. Despite all that increased demand, the real price of cotton in 1860 is one fifth what it was in eighteen hundred. Wow. Imagine if over 60 years the real price of oil dropped to 20 percent of what it had been.
S1: Even as demand just kept on going up and up and up. Exactly. I think it’s worth putting an even finer point on that analogy. You know, in the 20th century, oil was pretty much a foundational part of the American and the global economy. There is no postwar expansion of the American suburbs that oil, there is no kind of rapid economic expansion throughout the developing or world without relatively low oil prices. You can easily imagine as as Ed said, if the demand for oil kept on going up, but the price kept on going down, that that would facilitate even more expansion and even more growth and wealth. And that that was the situation of cotton in 1923. And beyond that, and this is I think this is something else people should consider because enslaved people were basically the vectors for producing that cotton. They themselves were extremely valuable commodities. And so you could if you needed to finance a factory, for example, you could use the value of your slaves as essentially a security. And the value of your slaves was in part a function of how much cotton they would produce and they would produce quite a bit of cotton. And so that was all a way to get capital and financing and to continue economic expansion. And that that’s very powerful.
S13: And by the same token, there are booms and busts that happen because of what happened with the price of cotton. So they’re people that sort of like betting their whole fortunes on this in one way or another. And it’s all as Ed was saying, it’s sort of intertwined with what’s going on in the north and what’s going on overseas and what’s going on across the globe. But I think what I really like about Ed’s perspective on what cotton meant in the 19th century is that he manages to in some way sort of toggle back and forth between these giant considerations and what it meant to people on the ground that this was the system that they were living in. So we talked to him a little bit more about what it meant to inflame people, to sort of embed themselves in this new system of labor.
S15: You have this really shocking set of moments in cotton fields where you have to learn how to do a new system of labor, how to how to do new kinds of things, but also that you have to do them much more quickly. And what’s also significant is that you can do that and you can get really good at it, but you’re not going to really get anything out of becoming good at it. You’re simply going to be asked to be better and better all the time. There’s no real job hierarchy on cotton plantations and these are slave labor camps, as I call them, in these and these sorts of places. Generally speaking, the best you could hope for would be to become a a driver. But that doesn’t really bring many privileges. It means that you can decide who gets beaten and who doesn’t get beaten in some situations. But although that might let you protect some people, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be protected because of your cop protecting people. You’re gonna you’re gonna be beaten, too. So there’s there’s not that much to hope for. Right. There’s not the sorts of things that you had in places like Maryland and Virginia where as Charles Ball experienced and as he hoped to experience, as you got older, you could acquire skills like becoming a a blacksmith. Or you could become a cadre who takes things around from one place to another that gives you kind of mobility. And you could even have a reasonable expectation that if you worked really hard and you didn’t become the kind of scapegoat for the enslaved or that you would be able to find odd jobs on Saturdays and Sundays and maybe you would be able to eventually buy your freedom. I mean, this sort of thing actually did happen in Maryland, in Virginia. That’s that’s not a possibility in Mississippi. It’s not a possibility in Alabama or Louisiana. So your your horizons, I think, change very dramatically. It’s hard to see a way out of slavery. It’s hard to see any sort of a positive progression in your home life. And I think that requires a lot of mental and existential recalibration and harder to run away as well. Yeah, yeah. You’re a lot further away from where you would need to get to.
S13: You know, this description of the difference between what it was like to be enslaved in Maryland or in Virginia and what it was like to be enslaved in Alabama or Louisiana at this time, sort of brings me back to a conversation we had an episode for when we talked about Joseph Fossett and the enslaved people of Monticello. When we sort of. Awkwardly walked around to the idea of there being some conditions of enslavement that were in some way more tolerable than others or more. I don’t know. I don’t even want to say more livable because it’s just like the worst thing I. I can’t even say that. But. And we talked to Annette Gordon-Reed a little bit about the awkwardness of that conversation, because you never want to sort of like give ground to people who might say, oh, slavery wasn’t that bad. You know, if you were a Maryland, you could do what, Charles Walden and become a blacksmith and work your way out of it, because obviously it’s still enslavement. But, you know, I found myself sort of coming back up against these questions when I read Charles Bball Autobiography, because he speaks with a sort of reverence of his the people who owned him in Maryland. You know, he described, you know, one of his mistresses, quote unquote, mistresses as a lady of most benevolent and kindly feelings and says she was a true friend to me and I shall always venerate her memory. And he sort of doing this to draw a contrast between the way those people were and the way that people were in the Deep South where he experienced more cruelty. But I found myself sort of confounded by that sort of rhetorical move that he made. Right.
S16: And I should add, he he is even more generous in his descriptions and that. And just after that, he writes, It is now my opinion. After all, I have seen that there were no better hearted women in the world than the ladies of the ancient families, as they’re called, in old Virginia or the country or below the mountains. And the same observations will apply to the ladies of Maryland. Yeah.
S17: Yeah. My my my thinking on this is basically that there’s such a thing as a relative deprivation. Right. And that obviously being enslaved period is bad. And B, conditions of slavery everywhere it existed, version of, you know, a pre-agreed wrong and bad and horrible. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great ancient or bad and it’s possible for something to be less bad than an alternative into for ball being in the old south. Maryland and Virginia being in a place where he says the stock of slaves has belonged to the family for several generations. And there is a kind of family pride in being the proprietor of too many human beings. Being in that kind of situation probably is better relative to being on the frontier, for things are a bit dicier and people are a little more disposable or being in the Deep South where pro-slavery sentiment is even stronger and where there is even less regard for blacks and where abject fear of slave revolt has made life much more draconian. That, you know, I don’t think I don’t think saying that concedes anything to people who would say, oh, you know, slavery wasn’t so bad. No, even among bees, you know, less terrible slave holders. The fact remains that you were enslaved, that your families were liable to be broken up, that you are, you know, forced into sort of abject poverty. So on, so forth. All those things are true and all the things are horrible. But as with so many things, it could still be worse.
S13: I mean, I think if you read the whole of Charles Ball’s life story, part of his point is, you know, if you’re within the system of slavery, you could be with these maybe more paternalistic slave holders of the upper south and then someone could die. And, you know, there’s debt. And since you are an asset, you could be sold, you know, to offset that debt in some way.
S18: Thank you to Cornell, historian and redacted for participating in that last segment. You’ll find a link to an excerpt of his book, perhaps never been told. It’s really fantastic at Slate.com Slash Academy. It’s time for us to take a quick break right now. Remember, you can write to Rebecca and me with your thoughts about this episode. Our email address is History Academy at Slate.com. We’ve also launched a private Facebook group just for academy members. You can find it at Facebook.com Slash Group’s Slash History Academy.
S19: Water prepare for episode seven of the academy. You can read ahead, Rebecca and Jamal. We’ll talk about the disturbing relationship between slavery and 19th century science and medicine to prepare. Read an excerpt from Marie Jenkins Schwartz’s book, Birthing Slave Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South.
S5: Find the link in our show notes here at Slate.com. Slash Academi.
S20: Before the break, we were talking to Edward Baptist’s about some of the ways the cotton economy transformed the lives of enslaved people who provided the labor for that economy to function.
S2: We’re going to talk now with another historian whose work we admire, in part because it does such a terrific job of conveying what it meant to so thoroughly commodify human lives. Her name is Diana Raimy Berry and she’s a historian at the University of Texas at Austin. We began by asking her to talk about the actual values of enslaved people in the years when Charles Ball was shipped south to the cotton fields in Georgia. Here’s what she had to say.
S21: So between twenty three and thirty nine, the average and this is an appraised value. The average value of a female slave during this time was about five hundred dollars, roughly five hundred dollars. Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot of money today. It doesn’t seem like a whole lot. But when we put that into understanding what that value would mean in today’s terms, in 2010 dollars, we’re talking at a real value of anywhere from thirteen to fifteen thousand and an income value generating about two hundred sixty six thousand dollars.
S22: Wow, that’s a lot of money for one person.
S21: This is one slave person mails at the same time between the ages of twenty three and thirty nine on average were appraised at six hundred seventy three dollars. And that converts a lot higher than and converts, you know, closer to $20000 for an individual or $30000 depending on the income value is over three hundred thousand dollars.
S1: Is that income generating value over their lifetime?
S21: Yes. OK. So if you think about this, if you’re looking at $15000 or $30000 for one individual. Multiply that by a plantation of 30. This is we’re talking about billions or trillions of dollars of wealth in enslaved bodies.
S3: Those are absolutely stunning numbers. And I wonder, Rebecca, how exactly we we we came to them. How do we know that slaves were worth this much?
S2: So I found this amazing as well because, you know, it seems so precise for something that, you know, there’s a lot of stuff that we sort of don’t know about inside people’s lives, as we’ve discussed over this whole series. And then we have all of this knowledge. And Diana was telling us that there are the kinds of documents that historians might use to look at slaves evaluations. So there’s like a bill of sale, which is how much, you know, they sold for on a particular day. And then there’s also appraisals. So slave holders who own these big plantations and these businesses would have inventories made of everything in their house. So, you know, she gave examples like China and silverware, you know, livestock on their land. And so they, of course, enslaved people as owned property would be part of those appraised values. And those appraised values would be not just how much the slave person would be worth. Right. On that day, but also how much the slave holder anticipates they’d be worth over their entire lives. So you have to do sort of like a combination of calculations to get to the numbers that she had mentioned.
S3: But but ultimately, you get to that number and it’s a reliable sort of description of how much enslaved people were worth.
S8: Yeah. Especially in the context of the cotton plantations, because as Ed was talking about in the first segment, many people kept pretty strict records of how much Kourtney’s person picked per day, in part to try to goad them to pick more. And also because their own fortunes were increasing based on how much cotton was picked. So using those records, we can see, you know, how much productivity given people were contributing at the time.
S3: I’m trying to step back a little bit and think about this like an economist, because it’s very it’s I think it’s worth doing that.
S17: And here’s what I have.
S23: I think if you can keep track of the productivity of your slaves, in end, you can guarantee or if you can almost guarantee a certain amount of production, then let’s say you’re an enterprising in flavor. You can use your slaves as collateral for loans, as ways to raise more capital for, you know, capital. Durban’s for factories. You can essentially make an entire financial market around slave people and then use this market to power more economic development, which is not unlike how we used to housing and mortgages today. And, you know, just in my head, it seems remarkably powerful.
S10: Yeah. You know, Dr. Barry spoke with us about some of the ways that that might play out.
S21: Slaves were almost used as a form of legal tender. Not literally. But if a slave holder was in debt to somebody and they couldn’t pay off the debt, they’d sometimes loan out a slave or give a slave that was valued at a certain place to cover that debt. You also find that people rented out their slaves, so enslaved people were rented for political events, large scale weddings and ceremonies. Sometimes they would they would loan a slave and a slave person out to work that event. And we also find evidence of enslaved people being sold or auctioned off at raffles around community rallies.
S24: So there’s there’s their value as that implies. Like, you know, you think about a silent auction. That’s exactly what I was thinking about. A bingo like an Elks Lodge. Exactly. Exactly.
S25: And so you might have like, oh, we’ll build it and you can if you win the prize, the door prize for this particular event, you now can take home a young Negro, which, you know, worth five hundred dollars or what have you. And so we have evidence of these records where they were raffled off, where they were loaned out, where they were hired out. As we say, it’s historians they hired out for a particular purpose.
S26: But also they would when slaves were purchased, when they people were purchased.
S21: Sometimes people didn’t have the full value of that person to buy them on the day of the auction. So they could be purchased on credit with 50 percent down and they’d have six months to pay off the full value with interest. And I think that’s important to think about the interest factor, because you actually have to add that onto the value of the enslaved person. So in flavors and people, they’re purchasing, you know, human capital. They’re thinking about the larger picture of what they cost based on interest. If the money is paid cash down and the term of how long they have to pay them off.
S3: Like I said earlier in the episode, this reminds me so much of home ownership, both in sort of the mental calculations you’re making. How much money are you going to put down? What’s your interest rate going to look like? What kind of equity can you expect? How will this this asset look 10, 15, 20 years down the road? And in the sense that homeownership is somewhat aspirational. I mean, it’s it’s very aspirational. Americans want to own their homes. You know, millions of people spend years saving up money to afford a down payment. And they look at their homes as not just places where they live, but places. That define their status. That are savings vehicles for the future should have so much of American life, it’s wrapped up in owning your home. I was wondering if you saw this at all as well. Because I think that if that analogy to homeownership holds, the news actually says something very profound about how the role, but sort of the play slavery stood in the lives of ordinary people who may not necessarily own slaves.
S2: Yeah, that’s to think about it this way. Sort of blew my mind. So there is this, you know, common sort of historical argument that, you know, if you try to talk about slavery, some people will say, oh, but don’t blame the South because only a small percentage of Southern people own slaves. So, you know, we shouldn’t tarver on with the same brush. I believe the percentage, the dignified it is 25 percent of Southern whites own slaves now. But the point is that I’m you know, given everything that we’ve talked about in terms of the social capital of owning slaves, it seems like if you didn’t do it, if you didn’t own slaves like you wanted to.
S8: There is some there is a, as you say, aspirational sort of yearning for it or, you know, an understanding purer southern white person. And you live in a culture where the wealthiest and most influential people own a lot of a particular thing. Then it sort of becomes built into your cosmology as a thing that you really want, right.
S23: I don’t think this should be controversial because it’s sort of it’s it’s common sense right now. Very wealthy people. They own very expensive cars and very large homes. What do people just under the income rung purchase? They purchase somewhat expensive cars and kind of large homes in an attempt to sort of the AP, what did the wealthiest people own? And this is basically that same dynamic. Maybe you couldn’t buy a slave, but you might be able to rent one army, might be able to show your neighbors that you’re prosperous by renting a handful and you don’t own them.
S3: But still, the ability to do so demonstrates something.
S2: Exactly. But it wasn’t just the economy, and that’s sort of the social system of the south that was propped up by all the money and the future earning potential that was in the bodies of enslaved people. It was also the economy of the north.
S3: That’s right. And this, again, goes back to a point we made earlier precisely because enslaved people were stable assets, they could be used to fuel northern economic development and they did exactly that. Yeah, we asked Professor Berry about this and she gave us a very good illustrative answer of what this might look like.
S26: You’ll find this in evidence by the shipbuilding industry. A lot of the ships that were built in the north and they were used were either transporting slave produce goods from the south overseas or they were transporting enslaved people as part of the domestic slave trade. Right. You also have northerners that are producing shoes for the enslaved and making the clothing for enslaved people and selling itself. They also funding slave trading expeditions prior to the closing of the transatlantic slave trade and also having built much of their companies on slave produce goods or funds from slave holding families.
S3: This conversation about of the role the northern economy in fueling slavery and vice versa the role of slavery in fueling northern economy reminds me of a conversation I had not too long ago. I think it was right after the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. And I was on television and I was speaking to someone who is defending the Confederate flag in it during their defense. They said something to the effect that now, you know, slavery fueled the northern economy. It wasn’t really the South’s responsibility. The North is mostly to blame. And why are you heaping so much blame onto the south, which is an interesting rhetorical move, right? Because if two dupes of people are complicit in a thing that doesn’t make any one of them less complicit because of the other one, it just makes them all very complicit. Yeah, I think that’s a situation with slavery. You know, obviously we focus in and I think give most of our opprobrium to the antebellum South because that’s where slavery was in the South, eventually seceded over slavery. But that shouldn’t blind us to the extent to which slavery was a national system. And you don’t really have northern economic development in northern industrial development without the cotton produced by the southern states. And on the other side, you have northern politicians and northern industrialists and northern pretty much, you know, northern high society for a large chunk of the first half of 19th century defending slavery. You know, Abraham Lincoln’s opponent in the 1860 presidential election was Stephen Douglas, a northern Democrat who was willing to cut deals and. Maybe not explicitly support slave holders, but not oppose them either.
S2: Yeah, that’s an I mean and a lot of that is the economic rationale. Yes. So then I also want to make sure that we thought a little bit about the way that these values changed over time so that there was enslaved. People were constantly valuable throughout the 19th century, but that those prices weren’t static. And so she found that one of the big drivers of slave prices in the early years of the 19th century was, as you might sort of infer, the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1888.
S21: They know that if you’re not going to be able to bring in sources of labour from Africa or different parts of West Africa, then you’re gonna have to, quote unquote, breed them on your own or encourage them or force them to reproduce. And so there’s a small period where I find the values of enslaved women increases a little bit during this this period right before it in a way, and a little bit afterwards. Their actual market values increase because they’re thinking of women as being able to provide the source of labour they’re going to need. And what they’re trying to imagine the post slave trade area to look like they don’t notice at that point. Right. So they’re trying to understand what it’s going to look like. And one of the things they think about is, well, let’s continue to make sure women are having babies so they offer incentives to enslave women by the mid 19th century. You know, if you give birth to 10 healthy children, you’ll get you know, you’ll get your work load reduced if they survive to age five. You don’t have to pick cotton anymore for the rest of your life. And so you’ll see these kinds of incentives included in in ways to ask women or encourage them or force them to have more children.
S27: I think this all raises the question of how much enslaved people themselves were aware of their value of the dollar amounts being placed on them. They’re commodities, but they’re also people and people tend to pick up on things like that. We asked Diana about it.
S21: One of the things I find is that oftentimes they knew about their values because they were being, you know, traded on the auction block. This is for public feels, right? Well, there’s there’s an auctioneer and it’s like a cattle call literally where they’re auctioning them off. They often do the values, but sometimes they didn’t care. They either wanted to be sold or not to be sold to a certain person. They either wanted to be sold to a certain state because one of their relatives had been sold there years prior or months prior. And so you see enslaved people in manipulating the market where they would argue against their values in the market space. And oftentimes that argument was about being sold to the Deep South and not wanting to be sold to a certain place. We also have evidence of them knowing their values. Up until a little early to the scent. Onto the scent. They’ll say I was worth two hundred sixty six dollars and fifty five cents. I literally knew the exact dollar figures and they remembered this even years after slavery ended. And we can find this evidence and slave narratives. We also find it in letters and diaries and personal papers. Others tried to manipulate the market because they wanted to be purchased with their wives. Or are there, I would say, wives in quotes. But with the significant others or with their children. And so they would try to entice the people that were purchasing them and say, oh, you know, look at look at this person. You know, I look at my arms. I’m strong. I can do good work. And the sort of bragging about their their physical prowess because they want to be sold to the person that just purchased their husband or their child or what have you. So they absolutely understood that there was a valuation placed on them and they often tried to manipulate that when they could.
S28: But it’s funny. It’s not funny, but it reminds me of a an actual funny thing, which is a skit from the Comedy Central show, Key and Peele from I think the first season when they play slaves on the auction block and make it indignant that they’re not being produced.
S29: I actually use that in class. I have to say, when I played that, my students didn’t know whether they could laugh or not.
S22: And I told them, I said, relax. This is I was trying to put some levity into a really heavy like week of looking at auctions. And I wanted this. I want them to see it from a different angle. And to think about it, how would you feel as an enslaved person on the block? You know, what is it like to be gazed upon? You know, but I wanted them to loosen up some and open up their minds to like see how they might find humor, because enslaved people did find humor in space as they looked for spaces for pleasure and all kinds of things. So that’s an excellent episode. And I use that all the time because you have this you know, they’re they’re they’re sizing themselves up with larger sleighs and skinnier slaves or shorter slaves and taller enslaved people. And it’s it’s hilarious.
S30: Am I wrong? Is you not shorty shorts, but shoes are actually short in real life in the world. You know, if. I will not have my reputation tainted, Celan, superficial, bigoted, slave’s, superficial, did that really just come out of your mouth? That’s it. Auctions over auctions.
S31: Oh, no. Is it over? It’s not over. Well, I’m strong, yo. I’m very sure I can sleep in a bucket. I’m fast. I got stamina. I don’t look it, but I know magic. My worst quality is that I’m a perfectionist. Have I mentioned this docile?
S27: I have no idea how much Key or Peele know about slavery or whether they’ve studied it or whether they have a deep outside interest in it. But what’s so great about that skit, in addition to just the humor, is how it intentionally or not obliquely touches on this broader question of the commodification of enslaved people of slavery as a capitalist institution. Of all these questions that historians have really begun to tackle in a very public way in the last few years.
S8: Yeah. It’s one of those sort of awesome moments where, you know, comedy sort of lines up with historic graphical debate, which is how common is that? I’m not sure. But yeah, that was one of the biggest trends within the history of slavery right now is to look at the way that slavery was part of a developing capitalist economy in the United States. And that’s a trend that sort of reverses the way that some people had written about slavery earlier, which is to argue that slavery was pretty capitalist. In other words, that that the way that slavery worked doesn’t fit the definition of capitalism. And we sort of asked Dr. Berry to give us a little bit of background about that to be and to try to explain to us why it matters to historians to define whether or not slavery was a capitalist institution.
S21: Historians early on pre-1990, disregarded and was private, too strong of a word. But they often felt like slavery was not a form of capitalism because capitalism is defined by wage labor. So that was one way scholars dismissed the idea of slavery being a capitalist place. So now one of the things that historians are saying today is that if we don’t look so much at a strict definition of capitalism as meaning people have to receive payment for their labor. But we look at the way on the ground capitalism functioned and we look at the way slavery functioned. A plantation can be considered a capitalist institution because there’s wealth being produced, there’s goods being produced, raw goods are being sent to an industrial market that it been being produced and resold. And when we look at the financial records of slave holders, we see, you know, all the different ways in which they’re evaluating and thinking about things in terms of a marketplace. I would argue, though, adding to that is looking at enslaved people, you know, as humans, but also as a commodity. And I say that carefully because I don’t want to like I’m reducing the slave person to a product. But I would argue that enslaved people were used as a product and they were a very unique product in this marketplace. They were unique in that they had feelings. You know, what other product in the market can you think about? They can talk back to you that can manipulate their value, that can not perform the way you want to perform on that day. So there’s something different about looking at a human commodity than it is to look at a good such as, you know, a car.
S27: I think all of this gets back to what we were discussing about agency and about individuals and about how to talk about this mass economic system and also the particular people inside of it. And one thing I like about Berry’s work, much like Baptist work, but she does exactly this. She is able to talk about slavery and really illuminate our understanding of slavery as an economic system, as a system that involved. Come on. Fabrication of enslaved people, but also never to lose the fundamental reality that these are people and these are people who understand this circumstance and are reacting with it and against it. And, you know, a vast variety of different ways.
S8: It’s such a delicate balancing act for a historian to do. And that’s why I like reading Charles Bawls narrative so much. Just to return to the biography that we started the whole episode with is that he’s writing as a person who experienced so many aspects of this system. You know, he’s writing as a person who was sold many times who, you know, saw the way that slave holding worked in many different places, had to do a bunch of different kinds of labor, you know, ran away all of these things. And he is publishing this autobiography in the 19th century as a way to sort of say, hey, look at this. Like, you may think of this as a big system, but here I am, one person sort of making my way through the system.
S20: I think this wraps up this episode in our next one, we’re going to look at enslaved woman named Minorca, who is a subject and gynecological experiment in the middle of the 19th century. We’ll be speaking to historians in medicine. Deirdre Cooper Owens and Christopher Willoughby and broadly looking at the history of medical experimentation on slaves and the rise of scientific racism as whites tried to use science to show that enslaved Africans were a lesser race.
S32: You’ll find that our podcast feed in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, you can find supplementary reading material for this episode and catch up on any episodes you may have missed at Slate.com Slash Academy. I’m Rebecca Onion. And I’m Jamelle Bouie. Thanks so much for listening.
S19: You can read an essay by Diana Raimy Berry from the CHETTLE principal as part of the Slate Academy. Find the link in our show notes or at Slate.com Slash Academi.