Slavery, cotton-raising, and a global fix
By W. T. Whitney Jr.
Book Review – “River of Dark Dreams, Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom”
Author: Walter Johnson. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2013
ISBN 978-0-674-04555-2 $35
The spirited, engrossing narrative of “River of Dark Dreams,” authored by historian Walter Johnson, has Mississippi River Valley planters fighting to retain land and slaves prior to the U.S. Civil War. In the telling, slavery takes on a cruel logic within the era’s globalized marketing arrangements. Johnson shows how planters, their problems mounting, reached out internationally, turning their backs on northern compatriots.
Johnson’s book is filled with factual details, among them: ledger books; cotton “pickability;” slaves starving, stolen, rebelling, and running away; search dogs; slave babies dying, slave prices, hybrid cotton seeds, soil fertility, droughts, sandbars, and Haiti. Steamboats, seen then as marvels of technology and essential for cotton-marketing, figure prominently, also their explosions, gamblers, races, high-pressure engines, and dining room etiquette.
For Johnson, “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.” He writes about “bare-life processes and material exchanges so basic they have escaped the attention of countless historians of slavery.” Cotton production increased fortyfold in the Valley over three decades, the slave population, 17 times.
Other realities were farther away. “The greatest economic boom in the history of the United States” was in progress. Cotton was “the largest single sector of the global economy.” Planters were part of “a network of material connections that stretched from Mississippi and Louisiana to Manhattan and Lowell to Manchester and Liverpool,” destination of 85 percent of their cotton. Indeed, the “rate of exploitation of slaves in a field in Mississippi … was keyed to the exchange in Liverpool and the labor of mill hands in Manchester.”
Before crossing the Atlantic, planters’ cotton was re-sold, re-graded, and transferred to another ship in New York. Some 40 percent of money spent on cotton stayed in New York. The product accounted for two thirds of all U.S. exports, yet only 10 percent of U.S. imports went south.
“[T]ariffs and tonnage rates that had artificially diverted southern imports through northern ports and turned southern wealth into northern profits” triggered southern agitation for free trade. Reduced access to imported goods led to shortages of plantation supplies and hobbled efforts to build southern manufacturing capacity.
Cotton marketing called for “lashes [being converted] into labor into bales into dollars into pounds sterling.” Really, cotton flowed from planters to factors in New Orleans, to banks and shippers in New York, to bankers and buyers in England through promissory notes, borrowing, and credit, with deductions along the way.
Planters’ money was in slaves and land, the latter serving as collateral for loans. But “without slaves, land itself was worthless.” Planters “buy Negroes to plant cotton and raise cotton to buy Negroes.” Distressed planters “can’t shift investment … Their capital would not simply rust or lie fallow. It would starve. It would steal. It would revolt.”
Eventually powerbrokers looked for a “spatial fix.” For them, the River led to South and Central American venues fit for cotton-growing and other ventures. “For many in the Mississippi Valley, [therefore], the most important issue in the early 1850s was Cuba,” the “Gibraltar’ of the America.
The author recalls the last adventure of the onetime Spanish soldier Narciso López, cotton grower agent engaged in “pro-slavery imperialism.” With troops drawn from “the margins of the cotton economy,” López in 1851 headed to Cuba from New Orleans in a ship filled with supplies donated by slaveholders. The object was annexation. The invaders wandered about for two weeks before Spanish authorities executed López in Havana before 20,000 spectators. López supporter and former Mississippi governor John Quitman raised 1000 men in 1855 for an invasion project that never materialized.
Johnson also notes the career of slaveholder proxy William Walker who in 1855 left New Orleans with a small force for Nicaragua where he established himself as president. Mississippi Valley supporters provided supplies, arms, troops, and ample publicity.
In the end, “planters and merchants set about trying, first, to reform themselves and, failing that, to remap the course of world history. In order to survive, slaveholders had to expand … Proslavery globalism increasingly took the form of imperialist military action.” That drill should have become familiar to national politicians later on as they dealt with contradictions of U.S. capitalism.
Historians have debated whether or not slave-owners were capitalists. Johnson rejects the view that slavery is an “archaic” pre-capitalist mode of exploitation. He settles on “a materialist and historical analysis [that] begins from the premise that there was no nineteenth century capitalism without slavery.”
Johnson’s methodology as a historian is of great interest. He presents “a history of bare-life processes and material exchanges so basic they have escaped the attention of countless historians of slavery.” History, he notes, is often “approached through durable abstractions: ‘the master-slave relationship,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘resistance,’ ‘agency.’” Yet “these categories have become unmoored from the historical experience they were intended to represent.”
Rather than center his present investigation of slavery on concepts like abolitionists’ moral imperative, northern industrialization, southerners’ states’ rights bias, or virtuous free labor, Johnson turned at once to actualities and people’s lives.
His and Karl Marx’ views on historical method are similar. In the German Ideology, Marx writes: “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. [The method does] not, like the idealistic view of history, in every period [have] to look for a category, but remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice.”
Johnson’s book thus provides a fine example of using historical materialism, pioneered by Marx, as a social investigation tool. His conclusions on U.S. slavery are hardly run-of-the-mill. He is a scientist of history, and praise is due.
Open Letter to President of Venezuela
Soon, the Battle for Venezuela
by ANDRE VLTCHEK http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/21/soon-the-battle-for-venezuela/
They are already sewing your funeral gown, Venezuela. They are now ready to welcome you back to that world of the lobotomized, destroyed nations that are fully submissive to Western political and economic interests – Indonesia, Philippines, Paraguay, Uganda, Kenya, Qatar, Bahrain, and almost the entire Eastern Europe. There are so many places like that – it is impossible to list them all.
They want you back in their deadly embrace; they want you to be corrupt and hopeless, as you were before the “Bolivarian Revolution”.
They want you to be the top oil exporter, but with all those horrific slums hanging, like relentless nightmares, over your cities. They want your elites and your military top brass to speak English, to play golf, to drive luxury cars and to commit treason after treason, as they used to commit treason for decades, before your brave predecessor, President Hugo Chavez, began serving and literally saving the poor, in Venezuela and all over Latin America.
Those who are planning to destroy you, those who belong to the so called ‘opposition’, in their heads, are already portioning you; they are dividing your beautiful body – fighting over which parts should be taken where and by whom. They are arguing which pieces of you should stay at home, and what should be taken abroad – a leg, an arm, and your deep melancholic eyes, the color of the profound pools under the mighty waterfalls of Canaima. They want to sell your jet-black hair, as black as those evenings in the mountains, or like that endless night sky above Ciudad Bolivar.
They want everything, all that is under your skin as well as what is deep inside your body. They want your skin, too, as well as your heart.
They want your dreams, which are almost everybody’s dreams – the dreams of all those people from all over the world, people that have been oppressed, and humiliated, for centuries, up to today. They want to take your dreams and to step on them, dirty them, spit on them and to crush them.
But it is not over; it is all far from being over. You are loved and admired, and therefore you will be defended. By all means – we who love you will not be ungenerous; we will not be negotiating the price!
For many men and women, for millions all over the world, you used to be a girl; a brave, rebellious, wonderful young woman… then suddenly you became a mother and then you turned to a motherland – for all those who lacked one until this very moment. For me, too, you became a motherland… for me too!
I am not a Venezuelan citizen. I wish I could be, but I am not. But I have fought for Venezuela, in my own way, through my reports and speeches, through films and in my books. I fought ever since Hugo Chavez became the President, ‘my President’.
And I am proud that I fought. And now, when Venezuela is once again under vicious attack, I want to stand firmly by her side, by the side of her Revolution, by the side of El Processo, and of her great Presidents – both Chavez and Maduro!
And I want to say this, and I will say this loudly, carajo: I don’t care what passport is hanging from my pocket, but Caracas is now my capital, and Caracas is what we are going to defend, if we have to. Because in Caracas, we will be fighting for Havana, for Harare and Johannesburg, for Cairo and Calcutta, for the tiny atoll nations in the Pacific Ocean, for Hanoi, for Beijing, and even for Moscow, Asmara, La Paz, Valparaiso, Quito, Managua and for so many of the other independent, freedom-loving places of this wonderful world.
The violent activities undertaken by those so-called ‘protesters’ in Caracas have to be stopped, immediately, and if necessary, by force.
‘The opposition’ has been paid from abroad, as it has been paid, in the past and now, in China, in Eastern Europe, in Syria, Ukraine and in Thailand, as it has been paid everywhere else in the world, where the West could not manage to easily strip those ‘rebellious’ countries of all their riches, while keeping them humiliated, and on their knees.
As you are contemplating your next step, Mr. President Nicolas Maduro, as Venezuela is once again bleeding, as none of us knows what the next day may bring, I am leaving Indonesia, flying to Thailand. (For now it is Thailand, but I soon may change my course).
Thailand is not Venezuela, but their government also introduced free medical care and free education, and other basic social services. People responded – by supporting progress. They have been supporting it for years, through ballots.
But the elites intervened and the army intervened. There was a coup, and there are now voices shouting that ‘the people cannot be trusted’, otherwise they will always be voting for this administration, read: for progress.
The West is firmly behind the elites and against progress. Thai feudal leaders are fully trusted in Washington, in London, and even in Tokyo. It is because they have totally sold out their souls, because they fully lost all their shame during the Vietnam War. They fully participated in the horrible slaughter of the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people, and they even eagerly murdered their own people: revolutionaries, Communists and students.
The West likes it when such despots hold the reins of power. They like people like Duvalier, Trujillo, Videla and Pinochet – and their equivalents – on all the continents and in every country.
In Thailand they are now supporting the ‘opposition’, as they supported the ‘opposition’ in Chile before 1973 or in China before Tiananmen Square. As they are right now supporting ‘the opposition’ in Venezuela! Everything that can damage or destroy a rebellious country, Communist or non-aligned, goes!
It does not matter how many millions will die in the process. As long as a rebellion, or a fight for independence, can be crushed, Western imperialism and neo-colonialism will sacrifice any amount of human lives, especially the lives of those ‘un people’, just to borrow from the Orwellian lexicon.
I am soon leaving Indonesia, Comrade President Maduro. Indonesia is the country about which I have written books and made films, including a recent film for TeleSur.
Here, too, the West disliked the progressive President, Sukarno, who used to scream in face of the US Ambassador: “To hell with your aid!” Sukarno was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement. Some would call him the Asian Chavez, and they would not be too far off the mark.
And so in 1965, the West teamed up with the local military and religious cadres, supplying them with lists of those ‘who had to be killed’. What followed was one of the bloodiest coups in human history: between one and three million Communists, intellectuals, trade unionists, teachers and people belonging to the Chinese minority, were slaughtered. Culture was destroyed. The spine of the country was broken. It is broken right until now. It is terrible, a terrifying sight!
Now Indonesia is a servile, nauseating place, corrupt, both financially and morally. Its people are only there to supply multi-national companies and the local ‘elites’ with raw materials, and a low quality uneducated cheap work force.
It is exactly what the West wants to turn Venezuela into – the Latin American Indonesia, or even more frighteningly, the Latin American version of the African horror story – the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Venezuela’s riches under and above the ground, are so numerous, and its land so fertile, its rainforests endless. Foreign companies and governments from the North simply cannot stop shaking from the lowest type of desire; unable to contain their unbridled greed.
The West, of course, does not come and say: We will rob you and rape you. They sing some stereotypical tunes about freedom and democracy. But anyone in Venezuela who wants to know what will happen to their country if the ‘opposition’ takes over, should go to Indonesia and see with his or her own eyes. Or should at least remember what occurred in the Chile of 1973, because in Chile, the US replicated its horrible Indonesian formula.
It is all connected and inter-connected, comrades, although Western mass media does not want us to know any of this.
Venezuela has to fight back! It is under siege and you were democratically elected, Mr. President. You have a mandate, and an obligation to defend your people.
I have worked in almost one hundred and fifty countries. And I have seen the horrors of those places that fell into the hands of Western usurpers: directly or indirectly. I have worked in places as diverse but broken as Paraguay, Honduras, Egypt, Bahrain, Kenya, Uganda, Philippines, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Marshall Islands.
Countries are so often punished for their great leaders!
In Congo, Patrice Lumumba decided to dedicate his life to feeding the children of the continent, to use the enormous natural wealth of his country for the good of his citizens. He despised colonialism and he openly repeated his accusations again the former colonial masters (the Belgians murdered ten million Congolese people during the reign of the Kind Leopold II) and against the neo-colonial clique. And he was murdered; after the Belgians, North Americans, Brits and others joined forces and decided that ‘such behavior’ could not be tolerated.
Now the DRC, country which has some of the greatest natural wealth on this planet, has the lowest ‘Human Development Index’. Brutal Western allies in Africa – Rwanda and Uganda – have plundered DRC since 1995, on behalf of Western companies and governments. By now around eight million people have died. I made a film about it. Needless to say, nobody in Europe or in the United States wants to see it!
It is all because of Coltan, Diamonds, Uranium and Gold. But it is also, undeniably, because Congo once so proudly stood up against imperialism and foreign oppression. The Empire almost never forgives!
The Empire never forgave Yugoslavia, another founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, breaking it apart and bathing it in blood. It never forgave Russia, supporting an awful despot and alcoholic, Boris Yeltsin in his determined efforts to ruin what was left of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and by murdering thousands of Russian people during the siege of Russian ‘White House’.
It never forgave China, or North Korea, or Zimbabwe.
The list goes on, and it is endless.
Please, do not allow this to happen to Venezuela!
Allende, Sukarno and others, fell, and their countries fell, because they assumed that despite everything, despite the West murdering hundreds of millions of people all over the world, for many centuries, it would actually not be as brutal in this particular day and age, it would at least spare cities such as Santiago or Jakarta.
Then, when millions of Indonesian women had been gang-raped, when their breasts were ‘amputated’, when victims had to dig their own graves before being killed… when Chilean women were violated by dogs, under the supervision of ‘English speaking investigators’ as well as old German Nazis from Colonia Dignidad, when people were “disappeared”, tortured, thrown alive from the helicopters… Mr. President, it was too late… Too late to fight!
I saw enough of this. As a war correspondent, as a man who was searching for the truth on all continents, writing about the most devastated cities and nations, I managed to absorb so much pain and suffering that I hope it gives me at least some right to write this letter, this appeal, and to urge you: “Do not allow this to happen to Venezuela.”
Those who are opposing you will not stop – they will go all the way, if allowed. They have been engaged in a disinformation campaign, suspiciously similar to the one before the “9/11” in Chile, 1973. The ‘strikes’ and ‘insecurity’ are also similar to those provoked in Chile and Indonesia before their coups. And like elsewhere, in Venezuela there is also a group of ‘economists’ and ‘business people’, ready to reverse the course of the country, immediately, were the counter-revolution to succeed.
It is great business to oppose you! Tens of millions of dollars are poured into the coffers of those who want to overthrow the government of Venezuela… of Cuba… of China… of Iran, Bolivia, Ecuador, and so many other countries…
But Venezuela is now so high, perhaps at the top, of the Western mafia-style hit list.
In my recent essay: “How the West Manufactures ‘Opposition Movements’”, I gave a list of countries where all this is happening right now – an attempt to use local gangs to overthrow totally legitimate governments only because they are defending the interests of their people.
Mr. President, your country – Venezuela – is much more than a beautiful place inhabited by brave people. It is also a symbol of hope, and as Eduardo Galeano once told me in Montevideo: “To take away hope is worse than murdering a person.”
Do not allow them to choke this hope: the hope of the Venezuelan people, and the hope of millions all over the world.
If you have to fight, please fight! And we will join you; many of us will. Because what your predecessor and friend, Hugo Chavez, started, is what billions all over the world desire and dream of.
Venezuela, your Venezuela and my Venezuela, gave free books to the poor, free medical care, education, and housing to all needy people. Not as some sort of charity, but as something they deserve, have right to. Venezuela built cable cars, libraries and childcare care posts to help working mothers, where only naked misery reigned before. Venezuela educated and inspired some of the greatest musicians on earth. It stood against imperialism; it redefined, together with Cuba, what is ‘heart’ and what is ‘courage’.
Now our Venezuela cannot fail. It cannot fall. It is too big, too important. Perhaps, the survival of the human race depends on the survival of Venezuela and the countries related to it.
After Hugo Chavez died, or as many believe was killed in cold blood, I visited TeleSur in Caracas. In the center of the city, there was a photo of Chavez, sweating, clearly suffering from chemotherapy, but clenching his fist: “Here, nobody surrenders!”
And a short distance away, there was another poster only showing a sprinkle of blood on a white background. ‘Chavez from his heart’, it read. Chavez was endorsing Maduro, posthumously.
President Maduro, let’s defend our Venezuela! Please let us not allow this revolution to fail. Let us do it by reason and by force! Let us do it for every tiny village destroyed by drones, for children dying from depleted uranium, for the ‘Cuban 5’, for those who died from the horrors of modern-day imperialism, in Congo, Angola, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Chile, and in dozens of other ruined countries.
Let us defend Venezuela for the sake of the humanity. No pasaran! This time, let us make sure that the fascist forces will not be allowed to advance!
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His discussion with Noam Chomsky On Western Terrorism is now going to print. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. He has just completed the feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.