To See The World In A Bale of Cotton

JohnsonThe promise of a tie between the local and the global—a thread to join the dense fiber of individual life to the vast patterns of human interaction—has long lingered at the edge of the historian’s vision. “The hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours,” wrote Emerson in “History.” “Each new fact in . . . private experience flashes a light on what great bodies of men have done.” Even the less Transcendental among us are lured by a link between the intimate and the infinite: every globalist, no matter how ambitious, must find their ground-level characters and illustrative anecdotes; the best microhistorians train their lenses to reveal not just cell particles but a whole cosmos. Few recent works in early American history, however, are so explicit in their equal pursuit of the local and the global, the hours and the ages, as Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013).

On one level Johnson’s book is a broad and comprehensive restatement of the argument he suggested in his now-classic exploration of the slave market and elaborated with precision in a subsequent article for the Journal of the Early Republic: a historical, rather than purely theoretical, case for the relationship between slavery and capitalism. In this view, the abstract question about whether “slavery” is, was, or could ever be “capitalist” matters far less than the material reality that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the global capitalism that actually developed depended in no small part on the global slavery that actually existed. (This is more or less the argument Johnson made in New York Times column that appeared just after his new book’s release.)

But on another level this does not describe River of Dark Dreams at all. Johnson remains interested in how slave labor in the Mississippi Valley constituted global capitalism, but in these pages he is perhaps even more interested in the material units that constituted slave labor in the Mississippi Valley: “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.” Most if not all of River of Dark Dreams’s first eight chapters fall under one or another of these elemental headings.

And when Johnson does directly address “the Capitalism/Slavery question”—not until page 252, midway through the ninth of fourteen chapters—he betrays more than a little impatience with its presuppositions: “What if we sought not to measure the extent to which ‘the market’ or ‘capitalism’ had penetrated the culture of cotton, but rather to understand more concretely and specifically the workings of this market . . . at this place at this point of time? What, that is to say, if we set aside prefabricated questions and threadbare tautologies, and simply began with a bale of cotton?”

Empires of the white man’s will: An American cotton plantation, circa 1840.

And, starting on page 254, that is exactly what he does. Without any further theoretical agonizing, Johnson spends the remainder of the chapter laying out (a very useful) account of a bale of cotton’s path through the international market, from New Orleans to New York to Liverpool. The focus here stays on the pickers, stevedores, planters, factors and merchants who made that market, and the long, intricate chain of speculation and debt it created. This twenty-five page focus on the material “workings of the market”—not the two-page theoretical discussion that preceded it—represents Johnson’s real consideration of the relationship between “slavery” and “capitalism” in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The final third of the book is the most broadly international in scope, as Johnson tracks proslavery ideology and activity across the Atlantic World: free trade campaigns that linked the Mississippi Valley to Britain, France, and Brazil; filibuster invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua; the movement to re-open the slave trade with West Africa. Yet even here River of Dark Dreams continues to suggest connections between the slaveholders’ boundless global ambitions and the material realities of the cotton South.

His three chapters on proslavery imperialism, for instance—which primarily consider Narciso López’s 1849-51 raids on Cuba and William Walker’s 1857 conquest of Nicaragua—hew fairly closely to the narratives and interpretations laid out by Robert MayTom Chaffin, and Amy Greenberg, among others. What distinguishes Johnson’s treatment is not just his view that proslavery’s aggressive outward thrust emerged from its own internal insecurities—i.e., that Cuba must be seized to revitalize New Orleans as a global commercial center, or that Nicaragua must be conquered to create a haven for restless nonslaveholding whites to become fully realized slaveholders. More subtle and less familiar than these arguments, perhaps, are the ways in which Johnson’s earlier and more materially focused chapters loom in the background, haunting and framing the surface discussion of proslavery globalism.

Chapter 7, after all, is called “The Empire of the White Man’s Will,” and though its subject is not Latin American filibusters but the coercive and capital-building ecology of the slave South—“grain, flesh, and cotton; pain, hunger, fatigue”—it’s impossible to read the later chapters without returning to consider the dual character of proslavery’s “empire-building” project. Slaveholders’ grand vision of global domination, Johnson reminds us, emerged from a social and material world painstakingly constructed from millions of direct local dominations.

River of Dark Dreams itself doesn’t attempt a full investigation of what might be called “the Imperialism/Slavery question.” Such a project would have to relate the dominations of Southern slavery not only to failed filibuster schemes in Latin America but the broader extension of European imperial power all around the world. 1857, after all, was the year that William Walker invaded Nicaragua, but it was also the year that France completed its conquest of Algeria and Britain exploited the Xhosa famine to extend the perimeters of Cape Colony in South Africa. It was the year of the Indian Rebellion, the Second Opium War, and the Russian subjugation of the Caucasus.

. . . and a sugar plantation in the Dutch East Indies, c. 1850

This perspective might trouble the traditional view, which Johnson shares, that proslavery imperialism was a product of the South’s distinctive internal anxieties. In fact in the 1850s there seemed to be plenty of global momentum for the expansion of social and economic systems that depended on racial hierarchy, labor coercion, and ‘open’ commerce. Southern attempts to write an alternative proslavery “history of the future,” which Johnson explores in detail in his last chapter on the African slave trade, were perhaps not so removed from the spirit of the time as we have often imagined. The Age of Emancipation, after all, gave way to the Age of Empire.

Yet at the same time a larger reconsideration of slavery’s relationship to imperialism only underlines the power of the alliance between capital and coercion that Johnson evokes so vividly in River of Dark Dreams. “The Empire of the White Man’s Will” in the mid-nineteenth century might extend far beyond Cuba and Nicaragua all the way to French Vietnam—but ultimately it still relied on many of the same ideas, tools, and networks that made slavery such a terrible and lucrative force in the Mississippi Valley. River of Dark Dreams is eloquent on this point: “global whitemanism,” as Johnson pugnaciously labels proslavery ideology, was local whitemanism, too. And everywhere around the world it bore the stains of blood, milk, semen, and shit.

One comment on “To See The World In A Bale of Cotton

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