Thursday, May 24, 2012

Just Finished Reading

One aspect of slavery that has recently drawn my attention in reading material is that of the domestic slave trade. The purchasing and large-scale interstate movement and transportation of bondsmen in the United States has a historiography that goes back to the first significant studies of slavery and has been conflicted in interpretations.

Professor Michael Tadman jumped into the debate with this book, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South, back in 1989.  Tadman utilized a wide range of primary sources as evidence to form his interpretation. Among other sources, he tapped census materials, newspaper reports, traveler accounts, court records, slave narratives, and most importantly, slave dealers' records and manuscript sources.

Speculators and Slaves is divided into two parts of which Tadman attacks longstanding myths on the domestic slave trade. The first part, "An Almost Endless Outgoing of Slaves: The Extent and Character of the Trading Business" covers the extent of the slave trade. Here the author claims that sale of slaves by individuals to traders was much more extensive than previously thought and the stigma of separating slave family members was not as taboo as it came to be seen in the post-emancipation era. For slaveholding people that sought to make money, the quickest way to raise it was to sell their slaves to a trader. These sales, Tadman contends, had a larger impact on the major shift in African American population figures from the East and Upper South to the Deep South rather than planter migrations, who brought their slaves with them.

The second part, "Slave Trading and the Values of Masters and Slaves," explains that racist assumptions were largely the means by which owners justified separating families. Black slaves were viewed by many whites, both North and South, as unable to develop deep loving and attached relationships. These racist views claimed that husbands and wives that were separated in sales would be upset at first, but that feeling would soon pass and they would find another mate.  The same argument was made for children being sold from parents. It is this similar idea that continues to confound me when expressed by those present-day people who view slavery as a benign institution. To me it doesn't matter how kind a master was, it is the fact that the slave had no free will; he had no say or self-decision making ability to control his own life; he did not profit from his labor - another person did.

Another myth that Tadman attacks is that the slave trader was a community pariah. Sure there were plenty of slovenly, seedy and slimy speculators, who sold damaged goods and stole their stock, but the majority of the traders appear to have been well respected and appreciated members of their communities. Again, this myth appears to have arisen in the post-emancipation era when former owners wished to deflect a share of the blame. Many of these men, who also often had their hands in other community businesses, were viewed by their contemporaries - especially those it the Deep South states with an insatiable demand for stock - as necessary to their livelihood and a vital supplier of labor.

Tadman backs up his contentions with a dizzying array tables, charts and statistics, but unfortunately to me, they were at times difficult to decipher and fuzzy in their calculations. With that said, I still found Speculators and Slaves to be an informative and educational book. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.

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