Tuesday, December 30, 2008

slavery's ground zero

I have been spending the holiday season in Richmond, Virginia, my first trip to the former capital of the Confederate States of America and my first trip to the U.S. South in almost 30 years. Before I came to Richmond, I had not thought much about the significance of the trip from an international development perspective, but for the past week I have not been able to avoid it. The reason is simple: in one of my early first year lectures I focus my attention on the role of slavery in facilitating the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe and the United States, and Richmond is the ‘ground zero’ of the American slave trade.

The U.S. stopped the international trade in slaves in 1808. It was Virginia’s slaveholders that stepped in to replace international trade by transforming Richmond into one of the biggest, if not the biggest, slave markets in the U.S., particularly in the neighbourhood known as Shockoe Bottom. What Île de Gorée in Dakar, Senegal, is to the slave trade from Africa, Shockoe Bottom is to the slave trade in the U.S. Owners of slaves from Virginia plantations brought them into Richmond to sell to owners developing new plantations in the Deep South. As a result, between 1808 and 1865 anywhere between 300000 and 3500000 slaves were sold out of Richmond’s slave markets. Considering that in 1865 the African-American population of the U.S. stood at around 4 million, this means that today hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of African-Americans can today trace their ancestry back to the slave markets of Richmond.

However, slavery in Richmond was not only about securing unfree labour for agricultural export production from the South. It was also about ‘developing’ the economy of a Virginia witnessing declining soil fertility and a decaying agrarian economy. Granted, a large proportion of Richmond’s slave population worked as ‘domestics’. Nonetheless, the development of industrial capital in Richmond—a legacy that can still be witnessed today—was predicated upon unfree slave labour. Hired slave labour was an important part of the work force at the Tredegar Iron Works, and the other iron foundries, that provided the industrial basis of the Confederacy’s attempt to sustain the class power of agrarian elites. Hired slaves also dominated the labour force in Richmond’s tobacco industry, performing the hard, back-breaking work needed to process tobacco. Finally, slave labour was necessary to create and maintain Richmond’s transportation networks. Unfree labour worked on the construction of the James River and Kanawha Canal, the first canal in the U.S., while crews of slaves, alongside free African-Americans, made up the bateau crews that navigated cargoes into Richmond.

The truth is thus that the history and development of Richmond, like the United States as a whole, and indeed the North, was, to a large extent, built by slave labour. As I try to argue in my lecture on colonialism and slavery, a convincing case can be made that industrial capitalism in its infancy required slavery in order to gain economic ascendency in the North. Capital was built, initially, on slavery.

This reality demands two final comments. The first is that slaves incessantly resisted their unfree status. Richmond paradigmatically illustrates this. Following the Haitian Revolution of 1792, the first major slave revolt in the south was led by a 24 year old slave named Gabriel (often, incorrectly, named Gabriel Prosser), a deeply Christian blacksmith. In 1800, disgusted by the slavery that bound him, Gabriel made plans to take the city of Richmond by force. By August of 1800 Gabriel had thousands of slave supporters and had secured a cache of weapons, including guns. Gabriel’s plans came to naught: he was betrayed by two of his ‘followers’ and, moreover, on the day of the planned revolt, the bridges into Richmond were destroyed in a flood. The Virginia militia attacked Gabriel and his thousand followers the next day; they were captured, and he and his followers were hanged. Gabriel’s revolt, little acknowledged outside African-American historiography, was the closest the U.S. came to a home-grown slave-led revolution.

The second comment follows from the fact that Gabriel’s revolt is little acknowledged. The history of capitalism’s development, and our globally-privileged life, is predicated upon slavery; yet this is not discussed, freely and openly. Our lives are built on a hidden history of power and privilege, a transcript that needs to be revealed and confronted if the poverty that stalks the world is to be eliminated.

Postscript: It should be acknowledged that Richmond was, in 2007, the first city in the U.S. to formally apologize for slavery. In mid-2008 Gabriel was informally pardoned by the Governor of Virginia. In late 2008, in the Shockoe Bottom area, a Slavery Reconciliation Statue was unveiled. These acts, which are about revealing a hidden transcript, do not come about autonomously, but as the result of citizens seeking to reclaim history. Such acts are a precondition of further, deeper social change.

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