Daniel B. Rood. The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Greater Caribbean. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 288 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-065526-6.
Reviewed by Lou Roper (State University of New York-New Paltz)
Published on H-LatAm (December, 2018)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
When considering the history of slavery in the Americas, the enduring images tend to concentrate around plantation life: people of African descent tending to sugar cane, tobacco, or cotton production broiling in the hot sun under the watchful eye of mounted overseers, and the abject circumstances in which those enslaved generally were compelled to inhabit. We certainly should not disregard the predominantly agrarian character of American slavery, but anyone who still regards the “peculiar [sic] institution” as a concept at odds with modernity and industrial capitalism—indeed anyone interested in the history of slavery—should consider Daniel Rood’s interesting (although jargon-riddled) study of the development of the economic links that connected the slave-owning parts of the United States with Cuba and Brazil in the decades preceding the outbreak of the American Civil War.
Rood’s account makes clear that—notwithstanding the official end of American and British participation in the transatlantic slave trade and the corresponding stationing of a fleet off of the African coast to deter illegal slavers from 1808; notwithstanding the end of slavery in most of the northern United States and in the British Empire by 1838; notwithstanding the fervent disapproval of abolitionists; and, last but by no means least, the even more fervent and everlasting disapproval of the slaves—the practitioners of slavery not only maintained their ideological, economic, and political position but successfully adapted their labor regime to new applications that the advent of industrialization offered in the first half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, in spite of the hopes and expectations that slavery would recede in the face of abolitionist pressure and the emergence of a supposedly inapposite manufacturing technology accompanied by a “free labor” ideology, the enslavers demonstrated a remarkable resilience that actually strengthened their international relationships and, accordingly, their continuing preeminence both in their societies and beyond. For Rood, “the interlocking dynamics of Cuba's sugar boom, Brazil’s coffee expansion, and Virginia’s wheat flour and ironworking industries” invigorated the period of Second Slavery to the same degree, if not more so, than the more celebrated advent of King Cotton in the United States after 1793 (p. 4).
The impetus for what Rood terms a “creole industrial revolution” came from the Spanish colony (p. 14). The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)—the most palpable manifestation of slave disapproval of the enslaving American societies—created a double crisis for enslavers: in addition to venting in the most dramatic way the disapproval of the enslaved of their circumstances, the destruction of Saint-Domingue’s regime had torn a massive hole in the Atlantic system by which the export of sugar had been managed since the seventeenth century. Utilizing work in both Spanish and English, Root's first two chapters track the move of entrepreneurs in Cuba, which had produced little sugar prior to 1790, to fill this gap. They did so, as historians of nineteenth-century slavery know, by importing slaves, which, perhaps not coincidentally, Cuban planters had not done to a substantial degree previously, and by employing a series of modern techniques in conjunction with scientific principles in order to improve the quality and quantity (“whiteness”) of their sugar. Their success reconfigured, not coincidentally but less familiarly, the social and environmental landscapes of the island, including the Havana docks, previously managed by African and Afro-Cuban crews whose control of the harbor was broken despite their resistance, as its infrastructure became yoked to the production and transport of the staple, as he sets forth in chapter 3.
This initiative incorporated railway construction, which, in turn, necessitated the importation of spikes, rails, and other iron and steel manufactures into Cuba, and the Tredegar Iron Works of Richmond, Virginia, became the leading supplier of railways there as well as for the rampant railway expansion undertaken in Brazil and in the southern United States. Drawing on the Richmond firm’s archive and contemporary literature, Root devotes his last four chapters to following these networks. In doing so, he helpfully connects the more familiar pattern of slavery’s expansion in Cuba—as well as its maintenance in Brazil—with the emergence of industrialization and reorientation of transportation facilities in Virginia to provide a fresh take on the progress of slavery after 1834. The development of Tredegar’s rise to preeminence began, naturally, with a crisis: in 1842, a combination of a shortage of local skilled workers, northern competition, and the febrile economic climate following the Panic of 1837 obliged its directors to seek “a ‘curtailment of expenditures’ from their ambitious young manager, West Point-educated engineer Joseph Anderson” (p. 98). Anderson, determined not to sacrifice production and quality in the name of economization, devised a plan that entailed a gradual shift from free, white workers to renting enslaved skilled ironworkers from their masters, which would save significant sums as well as give them both “greater flexibility” over their workforce and greater “control over ironworking knowledge that was at the time the nearly exclusive province of white artisans” (p. 99). When skilled white artisans declined to cooperate with this plan and went on strike in 1847, Anderson replaced many of them with slaves whom he could train in puddling and other new processes. Tredegar’s leadership used the tropical experience of its (white) engineers and information provided on local conditions by enslaved workers, connections with the United States government, and enslaved workers—in conjunction with skilled white laborers—to move from strength to strength in the 1850s before the Civil War interrupted the firm’s international operations.
Accordingly, the success of these endeavors depended upon the slaves in slavery’s industrial incarnation, just as it did in the more familiar agrarian version. This remained, then, the fundamental paradox of the slavery system. The manufacturers and entrepreneurs who employed slaves counted on the knowledge and skills of those workers to advance the balance sheets of their firms: the bakeries of Rio de Janeiro not only depended on enslaved workers; the reputation of their “French style” bread (p. 137) depended on the quality of the flour, milled by slaves, they imported from Virginia, shipping coffee in return. Not coincidentally, the supply of slaves flowed sufficiently to keep “slave ownership within the reach of non-wealthy people in Rio” who “often secured their own livelihoods” by renting them out (p. 139).
Enslavers might have hoped and expected the cooperation—obtained by coercion or otherwise—of slaves in furthering these capitalistic ventures, but, of course, this proved difficult to obtain in the breach; this was another manifestation of the self-generated inconsistencies of the enslavers. They needed slaves to support their undertakings, but the importation of enslaved workers rose to a dangerous, arguably unsustainable, degree. This, in turn, led to the paramount question for contemporaries: “what shall we do with the Negro?” (p. 199). In 1843, for instance, a revolt begun by 465 slaves convulsed the Cuban province of Cárdenas, where the incorporation of an enslaved workforce with advanced mechanization was especially evident. Alarmed by the prospects of “another Haiti” (p. 59), authorities in both Cuba and Brazil recruited migrants from Europe, as their counterparts in eighteenth-century British North America had done, but also turned to Asia, as their contemporaries in the British West Indies had done following emancipation, in order to reduce the African proportion of their populations. At the same time, though, certain advocates of slavery and empire in the United States envisioned the Greater Caribbean as a relocation zone for American slaves. The conveyance of people of African descent demographic southward would, they argued, rid the United States of unwanted “unproductive” and threatening blacks who would be put to work cultivating sugar cane and other tropical commodities in, for instance, the Amazon (pp. 197-98).
As The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery sets forth, Brazilian coffee growers, Richmond flour millers, Cuban sugar planters, the management of Tredegar Iron Works, and the Shenandoah Valley wheat farmer-turned-inventor Cyrus McCormick—whose reaper is so often invoked as an emblem of American industrial prowess—all readily incorporated slave labor in their respective pursuits of profit. Ultimately, as Rood also suggests, only warfare—often instigated by enslavers—brought “a path to freedom” as the enlistment of black soldiers brought “limited forms of black citizenship in the Greater Caribbean” (p. 200), whether through the American Civil War, Brazil's wars in Paraguay, or Cuba’s struggle for independence. Otherwise, who knows when the marriage of slavery and industrial capitalism would have ended? As it is, its effects still resonate deeply decades after emancipation.
The slim volume under review here thus provides important pieces to the historiographical jigsaw puzzle of nineteenth-century American slavery. Yet, important questions remain. Most particularly, to what degree did the “Cotton Empire” and the flour-sugar-coffee network that Rood describes constitute separate phenomena, as Rood suggests? Does it seem rather more likely that Tredegar’s expansion, the doomed Nicuraguan adventure of William Walker, and the Gadsden Purchase—to cite three instances of the pursuit of a mid-nineteenth-century empire of slavery by its supporters in the United States—reflected variations, perhaps closely intertwined, on the theme of slavery’s continuing expansion?
These enquiries may be beyond the scope of Rood's brief. Even so, his book does leave the reader wondering about the extent to which the history it discusses amounted to a “reinvention.” Rood concludes that “the allocationist ideal that underwrote both pro- and anti-slavery programs for the future of capitalism loomed large in the 1860s because of its reinvention during the Second Slavery,” meaning the contemporary tendency to conceive of “racialized labor as a pliant, moveable, and calculable commodity” (p. 201). But did not American enslavers—and, indeed, most whites who thought about slavery—always, at least in general terms, regard the people they enslaved in this way?
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-latam.
Lou Roper. Review of Rood, Daniel B., The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Greater Caribbean.
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