Thursday, 30 July 2015

The traces of that great convenient institution, slavery

Hasn’t it been interesting to watch the recent incidents in South Carolina? First there were the killings in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that left nine dead. And then State legislators voted to take down the Confederate flag flying outside the State Capitol.

The events reflect the greatest unresolved issue of US life, a deeply ingrained racism that has its roots in the belief that it was perfectly legitimate for one people, simply on the basis of its skin colour, to enslave another. Not that this was a specifically American abuse: the slaves were supplied to the Americas by European Whites. The cities of Nantes in France, or Bristol and Liverpool in England, owed much of their prosperity to the slave trade.

One of the benefits of the institution, for slave-owning (and therefore wealthy) white men, was that it provided what I suppose we could call comfort, on demand, on their doorstep. It’s now generally accepted that Thomas Jefferson fathered several children on his slave Sally Hemings. The practice of taking a slave as a concubine was not at all rare on the plantations. In fact, it was in that same State of South Carolina, that a lady name Mary Boykin Chestnut, quoted by Jon Meacham in his masterly biography of Jefferson, commented:

Any lady is able to tell who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household but their own. Those she seems to think drop from the clouds.

However, there was a benefit – again for wealthy white males – that I hadn’t been aware of until I read another fine Meacham biography, this one of Andrew Jackson. He talks about Colonel Richard M. Johnson, a Kentucky congressman who later became Vice President, and who claimed that he had himself killed the great Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh during the War of 1812.

He lived for a time and completely openly in a common-law marriage with a biracial (“mulatto”) slave called Julia Chinn, and their two daughters. When Chinn died in 1833, he took up with another slave, but discovered that she was being unfaithful to him. So he sold her, and moved on to her sister instead.

Richard M. Johnson
US Politician who knew how to make the most of slavery
Ah, yes. I can see how that would work. It provides a whole new meaning for the notion of a “mistress”, if she’s someone you can simply sell to someone else if she displeases you. A mistress entirely subject to your authority? Must be convenient. And it only needed her to have a small proportion of African descent (one sixty-fourth was enough to hold someone in slavery) to produce that convenience.

It’s not hard to imagine that the possession of such attitudes would leave a mark. Nor is it surprising that two centuries on, they haven’t been entirely expunged.

Again, though, don’t think that this kind of thinking applies only to the US. Today, there’s a serious problem of illegal migrants trying to get through the Channel Tunnel into Britain. And David Cameron, our Prime Minister, referred to them as “swarms” of migrants.

"Swarms" of migrants at Calais
Trying to take advantage of a strike to get into Britain
Human beings reduced to the level of insects. No wonder that back then we had no problem selling other humans to America. To provide convenient but not exactly ennobling services to their new masters.

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