Printer Friendly

River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom.

River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2013. vi, 526 pp. $35.00 US (cloth)

In 1803 the custodian of Spanish Louisiana, Napoleon Bonaparte, sold the territory to the United States for approximately 15 million dollars. The price included a debt from the War for Independence. Bonaparte was at war, needed the money and had no strategic need of the territory. On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson's government had simply sought freer access through the port of New Orleans. The French cession put the Mississippi River and New Orleans wholly within the United States and doubled the nation's sovereign territory taking it west to the Rocky Mountains. The Louisiana Purchase would expand Jefferson's luminous "empire of liberty," a boundless space populated by independent republican farmers. And so it appeared in the northwestern reaches of the Purchase. But a darker vision of empire took shape in the sub-tropical lower Mississippi Valley, in a powerful slave-based society within the ambit of the Mississippi River.

That "bright to dark" imagery introduces Walter Johnson's ambitious new study of the Cotton Kingdom. The rich soil and abundant land of Louisiana, Mississippi, and adjacent states were exploited with distinct strains of cotton, steam-driven riverboats, and global textile markets. Most important was the labour of hundreds of thousands of slaves, measured by planters as so many "hands." The millions of bales of cotton that went through New Orleans every year began with the toil of the enslaved. By 1850 the Cotton Kingdom was the wealthiest region in the United States.

Johnson's treatment of slave life, racism and human degradation, and of the slave as labour producing commodity is powerful and depressing. Some 95 per cent of all African Americans in the Cotton Kingdom were in bondage, in a conspicuous colour line between slavery and freedom. As with all scholars seeking a slave perspective, Johnson has to rely on limited sources. The few available slave narratives, including that of the well-known Solomon Northrop, cannot speak for the millions of illiterate, trapped slaves who lived and died in the Cotton Kingdom. However, for the most part, the narratives amplified by ancillary evidence are handled with tact and some theorizing. It seems that in order to address scholarly theories of "accommodation" and fatalism, Johnson's cotton-bound "slave community" did not succumb to the regime but adopted caring and cooperation as defensive and resistance strategies. Otherwise, Johnson's typical slave appears to be malnourished, ragged, intimidated and routinely whipped or beaten. The reader will find no benevolent masters in Johnson's composite plantation culture.

Johnson is a polished writer. His fondness for allusion in some of his fourteen chapter titles, leads, for example to the self-evident "The Steamboat Sublime," "Dominion," "Carceral Landscape," and "The Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny." He also uses detail effectively to illustrate a particular theme or topic. In one example he traces the fate of a bale of cotton with great facility by following the trail from the worn fingers of the slave picker across thousands of miles to the appraisal of the bale's value by a Liverpool broker. Johnson's chapters on the Mississippi's unique hydrology, seasonal shifts in river usage, on steamboat technology, and the logistics of a thousand plus miles of commerce and communication include a lively analysis of the sociology of the river's class- and race-layered culture.

Wealth made for cosmopolitan affectations but the absence of sufficient food production, rudimentary manufacturing and strong banking and insurance infrastructure denied the Cotton Kingdom the economic autonomy it sought. If the spectre of a Mississippi version of Haiti kept planters awake at night, so too did worry over their future as simply "hewers of wood and drawers of water." The planter classes were in fact wrapped in the ultimate parochialism of their "civilization."

Eventually the river's dominance was threatened with east- and west-oriented railroads. Moreover, as Johnson clearly shows, the great enterprise could not avoid tariffs, the politics of sectionalism, bitter debates over western extension, and the Cotton Kingdom's dependency on economic and political forces beyond its borders. Nevertheless, the racialist logic of the "peculiar institution" combined with cotton wealth made for grand imperial illusions. The Lower Mississippi's "Manifest Destiny" did not include California or Oregon or even Kansas for that matter, but rather the Caribbean and Central America. In addition to a desire for free trade, some of the region's planters and journalists sought expansion into Cuba and Nicaragua and a reopening of the African slave trade, which had been constitutionally closed since 1808. That grandiose reasoning envisioned a flood of cheaper African slaves, which in turn would depress prices in the domestic slave trade. In a perverse version of democracy, lowering the cost would make slaves available to non-slaveholding whites so that they might exercise their racial status in property. Those notions remained as stillborn dreams. William Wilson's Nicaragua adventure cost him his life. As for Cuba, Cotton Kingdom boosters supported General Narciso Lopez's disastrous 1851 invasion of Cuba to free the island from Spanish control. Johnson's dramatic treatment of the ill-fated, tragi-comedy and the death of Lopez is one of the book's highlights.

The Cotton Kingdom could not break its subservience to the Liverpool cotton market. New York rose to dominate the trans-shipment of much outgoing cotton and most of the imports headed to the cotton states. Yet for all the obvious strains on the Cotton Kingdom this remarkable society did not collapse from those strains. It took the Civil War to destroy it, leaving behind a remarkable chapter in American social, intellectual, and economic history

River of Dark Dreams adds to the crowded field of ante-bellum historiography. Its 900 plus endnotes is a storehouse of contemporary evidence and topical academic literature, and the lively, intelligent flow of the writing is a reminder that effective scholarly work can also be a pleasure to read. Johnson's talent for dramatic narrative enlivens his cast of dreamers and schemers, brutes, promoters, and megalomaniacs who always appear in the shadow of the pained, proud ubiquitous slave. Johnson needs a brief annotated bibliography to go with its copious notes because his conclusions are sure to arouse debate in the academy. In any case this important and thoroughly engaging book is a welcome examination of American historical identity.

Eric Nellis

University of British Columbia
COPYRIGHT 2013 University of Toronto Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Nellis, Eric
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
Previous Article:La Nouvelle-Orleans: Croissance demographique, Integrations urbaine et sociale (1803-1860).
Next Article:The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters