Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks and the Western Steamboat World.
Black Life on the Mississippi is an extremely well-executed project in social history. It extends recent work that has enriched our understanding of the diversity of slavery in the United States in space and over time. In this case, Thomas C. Buchanan reveals a previously neglected aspect of that experience: Black labor in the shipping industry on the Mississippi River.
Slaves and free Blacks were employed "often side by side" (20) on steamboats. Some differentiation did exist. The 2,000 to 3,000 slaves who worked on the southern river system tended to be concentrated in the deep south, worked on deck positions and found their on-land mobility severely restricted. The 1,000 to 1,500 free Blacks who also were employed on the boats tended to work further North, often in favorable crew positions, and though their off-boat freedom of movement was constrained, possessed a considerable degree of autonomy. Work on the western rivers, as Buchanan puts it, "provided slaves and free blacks with opportunities to forge local, regional and even international communities." According to him, "slave and free black steamboat workers worked to construct their own world beyond the sight of masters, captains and plantation owners" (17-8).
Steamboat work was of course arduous. Officers were, Buchanan reports, "obsessed with labor discipline" (54), a discipline imposed not infrequently with violence. Working conditions were "horrible" (58) and disease ever-present. In particular, black women working as chambermaids were at risk. As Buchanan puts it, "the dominance of African American women in these positions and the larger social context of rampant sexual abuse combined to make steamboats a harrowing work environment for African American women" (55). Black workers resisted these depredations as best they could. Nevertheless "what filled their day-to-day experience was backbreaking work" (79).
In all of this Buchanan is convincing. So too is he credible in his depicting the culture that emerged out of river life. But like much social history, there is a whiff of romanticism in his account. This most clearly is evident in his lengthy discussion of a botched bank robbery committed by a river gang composed of a slave and three free blacks. He claims these "rascals" are representative of "a widespread loosely organized, lawless underworld that connected the levee districts of western river cities," and that as such they represented "an important form of African Americana resistance" (127). Well, maybe. But as Buchanan himself acknowledges these outlaws were not above "occasionally swindling other working-class people," and further, did not see themselves as liberators, but rather "their main goal was achieving individual wealth and power" (125-6). What all of this suggests is that, at best, there were important ambiguities associated with their activities.
In the two most important chapters in the book Buchanan argues that the river industry allowed slaves and Black free workers to retain family ties and provided a vehicle for slave escapees. The backdrop for both was the importance of river transportation in what Ira Berlin calls the "second middle passage," the shipment of slaves from one part of the South to another. As Buchanan puts it, "steamboats were the sites of the most extreme suffering and most devastating violence to family relationships." Nevertheless, he argues, "the river industry was also a resource that bound slave family members emotionally and materially." Steamboat workers, though probably not plantation workers, were able to use their mobility to keep in touch with family members. Free river workers were able to provide financial support to their loved ones. Buchanan writes, "African American steamboat workers labored ... to maintain the fragile bonds of affection that made life meaningful" (82)
The struggle to maintain family connections appears again in Buchanan's discussion of the use of the river system for slave escapes. Buchanan reports "slaves throughout the western region flocked to steamboats hoping to 'cross the river Jordan' to freedom by passing as a boat worker or passenger" (101). The river system's northern terminus in free territory meant that "contact with free land gave slave steamboat workers more reason to flee brutal conditions" (103). But interestingly, Buchanan believes most slave runaways were fleeing only temporarily. Most escapees were women "who did not want to abandon their families but sought respite from plantation life" (113-4).
Inevitably a microcosmic study of this kind raises the problem of representativeness. How important were the mechanisms of empowerment that the river system permitted in the United States slave system? After all, as Buchanan reports, over a ten year period no more than 20,000 African Americans worked on the steamboats. In contrast, there were nearly 4 million slaves in the country in 1860. Further, Buchanan is not able to provide estimates of the number of slaves who actually used the river network to escape, nor the number of people who benefited from river workers acting as "the underground mail service of the slave economy" (97). As a result, though Buchanan is convincing that black steamboat workers were a "component of the black networks that enabled slaves to reach freedom" (6-7), the relatively small scale of that network in the larger slave system should act as a warning indicator. Most slaves in the United States had no contact with the river system that Buchanan depicts.
That said, Buchanan has succeeded in the task that he has set for himself. With this book he has "uncovere[d] the hidden world of the slaves and free blacks of the Mississippi River" (6). It now remains for other scholars to follow up and provide perspective on the results of the historical excavations presented in this important work.
Jay R. Mandle
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|Author:||Mandle, Jay R.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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