David S. Cecelski. The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Xx + 288 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-4972-9; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2643-0.
Sally E. Hadden. Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Harvard Historical Studies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. xi + 340 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-00470-2.
Reviewed by Robert H. Gudmestad (Department of History, Southwest Baptist University)
Published on H-SHEAR (May, 2002)
The Contested Terrain of Slavery
The Contested Terrain of Slavery
William Henry Singleton, a North Carolina slave, had been sold a great distance from his family. He was desperate to return to his mother, so he ran away to find her. As Singleton neared his mother's cabin, he faced a wide creek. He knew the slave patrol was close at hand, but had no idea how to cross the stream. Success in this case could literally mean life or death. The bondsman then noticed a fisherman in the distance, but could not tell the man's race. Singleton hailed the fisherman, who turned out to be African American. The boatman ferried Singleton across the creek, allowing the runaway to avoid the patrollers and find his family (Cecelski, p. 57).
Such is an example of the connection between two very different books. David Cecelski's new work, The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, explores how African American mariners of antebellum North Carolina were able to loosen the bonds of slavery to an amazing degree. In the process, they "served as key agents of antislavery thought and militant resistance to slavery" (Cecelski, p. xvi). Sally Hadden, on the other hand, in Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, explains the efforts of masters to squash such agency. Perhaps only physical punishment or sale was more symbolic of white authority and destructive of human initiative than the slave patrols. Their primary duty was to enforce white hegemony, and Hadden details how all of white society had a stake in reinforcing the plantation regime.
The concept of slave agency, albeit in different forms, is present in both books. Cecelski relies heavily on the concept. The geography of coastal North Carolina--its shifting tides, peculiar sand banks, and the like--made the maritime trade a perilous and unattractive occupation. As a result, African Americans tended to monopolize work on the water and were able to acquire skills that made them indispensable. Slaves thus had extraordinary control over their own lives. The water also offered a relatively easy avenue for escape, allowing African Americans to create a shadowy social world outside the imperious gaze of their masters.
In her book, Hadden lays out the ordinary tasks of the slave patrol in preventing the fabric of white power from fraying at the edges. Patrollers assembled in groups of six or so and made rounds in their "beat." (The term still resonates in today's law enforcement argot.) They had wide authority to break up slave gatherings, confiscate contraband, control slave movement, search slave dwellings, and prevent bondspeople from engaging in "huckstering" (independent economic activity). The patrols usually operated two to three times a week and normally were more active on weekends and in areas that were known to have recalcitrant slaves. There were, however, limits to the authority of the patrollers. The state could reimburse a slaveholder for damage inflicted by a negligent patroller, and slaveholders sometimes prevented the night-time visitors from entering their property.
At their core, then, the two books show the ebb and flow of master-slave relations in the Old South. In Cecelski's book, the concept of agency sometimes gets overworked to the point where it resembles republicanism: a protean paradigm that can be twisted into any configuration. For example, there is the case of an owner who whipped his slave after a church picnic, because, he claimed, the minister had preached an incendiary passage from the Bible. With little to back up his interpretation, however, Cecelski speculates that the real source of this man's rage may have been other slaves, who were flaunting their independence by fishing on nearby beaches (p. 66). Cecelski, though, wisely backs away and shows how slavery in North Carolina could also deny human initiative. In his chapter on canal building, he demonstrates to what extent masters could inflict cruelty on their slaves. Cecelski asserts that canal digging "was the cruelest, most dangerous, unhealthy, and exhausting labor in the Antebellum American South" (p. 109). The argument is reminiscent of William Dusinberre's description of work on nearby rice plantations, and Cecelski provides enough documentation to make it believable.
For Hadden, agency is of minimal importance in her paradigm. That is to be expected, since her book is more about white society than slave culture. Granted, she uses WPA records and slave autobiographies to explain how bondspeople reacted to patrols. Not surprisingly, slaves hated them, which can be interpreted as a sign that the patrols were more than a mere nuisance. Slaves even used a familiar song ("Run, Nigger, Run!", Hadden 119) to express their dismay at the patrols' activities. Even though slaves found patrols stifling, they did their best to defy white authority. Some slaves fled, others bribed patrollers, and a few attempted physical resistance. In a point tacitly acknowledged by Hadden, even while slave patrols were an instrument of white dominance, they were symbolic of slave resistance. After all, if slaves were perfectly docile, there would have been no need for the patrols. That paradox is at the center of the southern society. The South was built on the necessity to coerce a large portion of the population even while many masters denied that such coercion was necessary.
Another useful comparison between the two books regards social relations between those who did and did not own slaves. In the maritime districts of North Carolina poor whites tended to have amicable relations with slaves and were likely to help bondservants seize their freedom. Cecelski, then, portrays significant tension in the white population. He implies that the forbidding nature of the maritime trade produced a rough egalitarianism between blacks and poor whites that was more important than racial control.
A reading of Hadden's work produces different conclusions. It is true that, at times, slave patrols drove a wedge between rich and poor. Masters disliked having patrollers search their property, because such actions intruded on the master-slave relationship and "implied that the individual alone could not adequately control his bondsmen" (p. 70). The patrols, though, could also provide commonalities for the two groups. Most of the patrol captains owned slaves, while many patrollers did not. The captains often "treated" their poor colleagues to food or liquor prior to their nocturnal duties. One went so far as to serve an oyster supper to his charges (p. 86). Furthermore, Hadden devotes an entire chapter to an examination of the socioeconomic makeup of the patrols. She concludes that patrollers came from a cross-section of southern society, challenging the traditional assumption that poor whites were the bulk of the patrollers. As time wore on, though, it appears that masters were less likely to ride at night. This was especially true in South Carolina, because of its high proportion of absentee planters. Hadden's conclusions about the patrols' membership should be tempered with the knowledge that her statistical evidence is from three counties in three states. While her anecdotal evidence is sound, more research is necessary before the economic status of the patrollers can be definitively determined. If she is correct, however, the patrols then served as a way to knit the white community together in a quest to control slaves.
Both books also explore the effects of the Civil War and emancipation on their respective subjects. The slave mariners of North Carolina took advantage of the confusion and dislocation of the war to escape to Union lines, serve as pilots for the northern navy, establish schools, or enlist in the United States Army. Indeed, the lessons of autonomy learned in the years prior to the war meant that African Americans in coastal Carolina had significant opportunities to influence the state's society in the post-war years. The fascinating story of Abraham Galloway is a case in point. Galloway, a mulatto slave, escaped during the war and recruited hundreds of black troops. He was so accustomed to getting his own way that he pointed a gun at a northern recruiter and forced the man to agree that blacks troops would have the same pay as white soldiers. Galloway later went on to be one of North Carolina' first black senators. This chapter is an interesting case study in the rough transition from slavery to freedom.
Hadden, by contrast, shows a desperate group of whites clinging to power. She is ambiguous when assessing the patrols' effectiveness during the war. At one point she argues that patrols "played a vital role in maintaining discipline on wartime plantations," but then points out how few men were actually patrolling and that slaves believed the patrols ceased to function (p. 178). One of the patrols' greatest threats was the perception that they were active, and so it is hard to believe they could be effective if bondservants saw them as non-entities. Hadden is much more successful in describing the transition of the slave patrols into the Ku Klux Klan. In the absence of legal means to enforce white supremacy, southerners combined their patrol experience with their wartime knowledge to create a deadly brew. The parallels between the patrols and the Klan are important and striking. They help explain why the Klan could arise so quickly and be so effective. Klan members had been training for years to suppress the activities of African Americans. More importantly, there were no incentives for Klan members to moderate their violence. Slave patrols, at least, had compelling reasons to forswear wide scale beatings and killings--the members could be held accountable for damages. The Klan had no such legal strictures in place.
Finally, both books make interesting contributions to southern historiography. Cecelski's work has some parallels to Richard C. Wade and Charles B. Dew in showing how particular bondspeople could stretch the parameters of their enslavement. The book, moreover, almost invites comparison. For instance, Thomas C. Buchanan has shown how slaves on Mississippi River steamboats resisted their enslavement. One wonders whether a similar situation existed in the bayous of Louisiana or the swamps of Florida. The Waterman's Song is elegantly written, as Cecelski has an eye for detail and a knack for expression. It would be a fine book to assign in a southern or African American history course since it might appeal to a wider audience.
Hadden has written a book that has few parallels--there is very little out there on her topic. That in itself makes her work a valuable contribution. Slave Patrols will prove even more interesting once an enterprising graduate student takes on the task of studying patrols in other regions of the South. Right now, there is simply no way to comment on the universality of Hadden's conclusions. It would be interesting to know how patrollers behaved in Tennessee, Missouri, or Texas, for instance. For many years to come, Hadden's work will be the standard of comparison for patrols and will be of much use to historians.
Taken together, the two books show how slavery was a tug of war between many groups with competing interests and how difficult it is for the historian to reduce this complex situation to simple explanations. Slavery and southern society in general, it is clear, cannot be reduced to manichean formulas of agency versus oppression, or slave holders versus yeomen, to name just two. Just like the coastal terrain of North Carolina, masters, slaves, yeomen, and all who made up the South could be capricious and unpredictable. Together they were locked in a struggle over the contested terrain of slavery.
. William Dusinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
. Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964); Charles B. Dew, Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994).
. Thomas C. Buchanan, "The Slave Mississippi: African-American Steamboat Workers, Networks of Resistance, and the Commercial World of the Western Rivers, 1811-1880" (Ph.D. diss., Carnegie Mellon University, 1999).
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Robert H. Gudmestad. Review of Cecelski, David S., The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina and
Hadden, Sally E., Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas.
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