A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line part 6

This is a last minor point, then in a future post I will attempt to sum up Chapter 2.

Zinn does this weird thing where he first says that Africans were a natural choice for enslavement in the New World because they were easier to enslave than either Native American or Europeans. But then, he spends the last several pages of the chapter discuss the rebelliousness of black slaves and all the ways in which it was expensive and full of hassle and required much government subsidization to keep slavery going.

[The early Virginia settlers] couldn’t force Indians to work for them, as Columbus had done. They were outnumbered, and while, with superior firearms, they could massacre Indians, they would face massacre in return. They could not capture them and keep them enslaved; the Indians were tough, resourceful, defiant, and at home in these woods, as the transplanted Englishmen were not (Zinn 25).

Black slaves were the answer. And it was natural to consider imported blacks as slaves, even if the institution of slavery would not be regularized and legalized for several decades (Zinn 25).

Their helplessness made enslavement easier. The Indians were on their own land. The whites were in their own European culture. The blacks had been torn from their land and culture, forced into a situation where the heritage of language, dress, custom, family relations, was bit by bit obliterated except for the remnants that blacks could hold on to by sheer, extraordinary persistence (Zinn 25).

Then we get page after page of their rebelliousness.

Still, under the most difficult conditions, under pain of mutilation and death, throughout their two hundred years of enslavement in North America, these Afro-Americans continued to rebel.

Fear of slave revolt seems to have been a permanent fact of plantation life. William Byrd, a wealthy Virginia slaveowner, wrote in 1736: We have already at least 10,000 men of these descendants of Ham, fit to bear arms, and these numbers increase every day, as well by birth as by importation. And in case there should arise a man of desperate fortune, he might with more advantage than Cataline kindle a servile war . . . and tinge our rivers wide as they are with blood.

This is an aside, but there is a lot of talk of the death in the colonies. I would like to see how many people were dying back in Europe every winter. Probably not as many a in American colonies, but a lot i’m sure. the point being the era was a rough one, opeople were consanttly being offed. So Zinn talking about the lack of labor of whatever is possibly a joke.

One last thing. Zinn concludes ultimately that slavery in America was a result of historical factors, and is not a – as he calls it – natural. If by this he means slavery is not moral, then I agree. If he means to imply that there are unique historical factors in the Americas which lead to slavery, he is wrong. As we have seen, slavery existed across all races and cultures and across all of history. It was (and still is in many places today) primarily a class issue, not a race issue.

Here is Zinn:

We see now a complex web of historical threads to ensnare blacks for slavery in America: the desperation of starving settlers, the special helplessness of the displaced African, the powerful incentive of profit for slave trader and planter, the temptation of superior status for poor whites, the elaborate controls against escape and rebellion, the legal and social punishment of black and white collaboration.

The point is that the elements of this web are historical, not “natural.” This does not mean that they are easily disentangled, dismantled. (Zinn 37)

On to Chapter 3, Persons of Mean and Vile Condition.

A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line part 5

Zinn dismisses the moral agency of the African slave traders when he writes:

[African slaves] were captured in the interior (frequently by blacks caught up in the slave trade themselves), sold on the coast, then shoved into pens with blacks of other tribes, often speaking different languages (Zinn 27).

No, African slaves were not “frequently” captured by other Africans, unless “frequently” is a synonym for “exclusively.” European could not go in to the African continent. The challenges of the language barriers and threat of being killed by the people’s whose land you were trespassing through aside, Europeans moving through the interior would die from disease if they move across the continent. The Atlantic slave trade was only possible because slavery already existed as an institution in Africa and because warring tribes would enslave each other. For centuries prior to the advent of the Atlantic slave trade by the Portuguese in the slave 15th century, Africans had been moving captured slaves to the northern and eastern coasts of the continent for sale into the Arabic slave trade.

But we don’t get any of this context from Zinn. Instead Zinn glosses over this reality:

The conditions of capture and sale were crushing affirmations to the black African of his helplessness in the face of superior force. The marches to the coast, sometimes for 1,000 miles, with people shackled around the neck, under whip and gun, were death marches, in which two of every five blacks died (Zinn 28).

That “superior force” had nothing to do with European slave traders. These slaves were forced to the coast by other African tribes.

But Zinn doesn’t make that clear, because, as the title of the chapter suggests, for Zinn slavery is a color issue, i.e., a race issue.

Later in the chapter he attempts to psychoanalyze the European settlers of the New World, to discover if their drive enslave Africans was a result of, as Zinn puts it, “”natural” antipathy of white against black.”

But Zinn is dishonest when he writes “We have no way of testing the behavior of whites and blacks toward one another under favorable conditions—with no history of subordination, no money incentive for exploitation and enslavement, no desperation for survival requiring forced labor (Zinn 30).”

Not only does Zinn’s own book include a couple of dry anecdotes about blacks and whites marrying and starting families during that era, as I wrote in this previous post, European’s such as Francis Drake saw slavery as an abomination, not as some natural way.

A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line part 4

Zinn Page 25:

Everything in the experience of the first white settlers [from Britain to the New World] acted as a pressure for the enslavement of blacks.

And it was natural to consider imported blacks as slaves, even if the institution of slavery would not be regularized and legalized for several decades. Because, by 1619, a million blacks had already been brought from Africa to South America and the Caribbean, to the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, to work as slaves.Fifty years before Columbus, the Portuguese took ten African blacks to Lisbon—this was the start of a regular trade in slaves. African blacks had been stamped as slave labor for a hundred years.

My initial reaction to this point by Zinn was scepticism at how the events unfolding in Spain and Portugal’s slice of the New World could be that influential on a few people from Britain settling the New World thousands of miles away.

Here is from my first notes on this part of Zinn’s book:

How would some shit happens thousands of miles away hundreds of years earlier have any direct relevance on English religious migrants in North America?

I could not have turned out more wrong. But not in the way one might expect. Indeed, the evolution of Spanish colonialism impacted the British explorers of the New World and their backers at home – private and government alike. Spain’s harsh treatment of Natives and Africans alike was turning Britons off to slavery!

Edmund S. Morgan shows how the group that backed the early Virginia settlements were opposed to Spain’s slave practices, not inspired by them:

The various reports of Drake’s activities in the Caribbean suggest that liberating victims of Spanish oppression was part of the plan. With Drake’s help, it seems, the vision of Hakluyt and Raleigh was beginning to materialize: England was bringing freedom to the New World. To be sure, it was coming as a means to an end; Drake and Raleigh were both interested in power, profit, and plunder. But freedom has frequently had to make its way in the world by serving as a means to an end, and it has often proved a powerful means.

When the first permanent English settlers arrived in America in 1607, their sponsors had not given up hope of an integrated biracial community, in which indigent Englishmen would work side by side with willing natives, under gentle English government.

A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line continued…

In the second of installment of our deconstruction of Chapter 2 of Zinn’s book, we look at a rather odd excerpt. Zinn attempts to show that the early British settlers of the New World felt drawn to slavery due to the harsh years the colonists experienced. The hardship drew them to slavery, apparently. First we will look at an extended excerpt from Zinn. Then I will make some comments:

Everything in the experience of the first white settlers acted as a pressure for the enslavement of blacks.

The Virginians of 1619 were desperate for labor, to grow enough food to stay alive. Among them were survivors from the winter of 1609–1610, the “starving time,” when, crazed for want of food, they roamed the woods for nuts and berries, dug up graves to eat the corpses, and died in batches until five hundred colonists were reduced to sixty.

In the Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia is a document of 1619 which tells of the first twelve years of the Jamestown colony. The first settlement had a hundred persons, who had one small ladle of barley per meal. When more people arrived, there was even less food. Many of the people lived in cavelike holes dug into the ground, and in the winter of 1609–1610, they were

. . . driven thru insufferable hunger to eat those things which nature most abhorred, the flesh and excrements of man as well of our own nation as of an Indian, digged by some out of his grave after he had lain buried three days and wholly devoured him; others, envying the better state of body of any whom hunger has not yet so much wasted as their own, lay wait and threatened to kill and eat them; one among them slew his wife as she slept in his bosom, cut her in pieces, salted her and fed upon her till he had clean devoured all parts saving her head.

Zinn tells us about how the settlers at Jamestown were starving in the early years. The so called “starving time” in the Winter of 1609-1610 was particularly dreadful. But, then in the very next paragraph, Zinn talks about the settlers growing so much tobacco they needed extra labor:

The Virginians needed labor, to grow corn for subsistence, to grow tobacco for export. They had just figured out how to grow tobacco, and in 1617 they sent off the first cargo to England. Finding that, like all pleasurable drugs tainted with moral disapproval, it brought a high price, the planters, despite their high religious talk, were not going to ask questions about something so profitable.

In 1610, the settlers were eating their spouses to stay alive, but in 1617 they were exporting tobacco? I must be missing something? Or rather, Zinn must be omitting something. And he is. The early years of the Jamestown colony were brutally spartan for a reason, and it wasn’t the lack of slave labor. The first several years of the colony as communist, with all property being held in common. The result was a lack of incentive for anyone to work combined with rampant thieving. That is the cause of the “Starving Time.”

By 1614, new leadership had come to the colony and done away with the initial system, instead parceling the land out to individuals and families and allowing them to keep all the fruits of their labor but for a small amount set aside for newly arriving settlers, so that they may have grain for their first winter. The result was a great surplus of grain. And within a couple years time, the ability for the settlers to grow cash crops such as tobacco.

The laziness of the settlers in the early years of Jamestown wasn’t an inducement for slavery, it was an inducement for more freedom. By that logic, every unemployed basement dwelling millennial would be pressured into taking slaves if their mom were to cut rhetorical umbilical cord.

And the Virginians at Jamestown in 1619 were no longer desperate to for enough food to stay alive. It was still a hard life in the colony, but with the land reforms, the “starving times” were largely a thing of the past.

In part three of Drawing the Color Line, we look at Zinn’s backwards rationalization for why black slavery took hold in British Colonies.

A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line part 3

Next Zinn attempts to add additional context to why the British settlers in Virginia didn’t take the Native Americans as slaves:

They couldn’t force Indians to work for them, as Columbus had done. They were outnumbered, and while, with superior firearms, they could massacre Indians, they would face massacre in return. They could not capture them and keep them enslaved; the Indians were tough, resourceful, defiant, and at home in these woods, as the transplanted Englishmen were not.

Everything Zinn writes above may be true. But it was no less true of the Spanish, or of the Native Americans the Spanish first encountered. Here Zinn really makes no argument at all.

All Zinn would have to do is go back and read Chapter 1 of his own book to see that Columbus’ men were outnumbered, and the natives of Caribbean were at home while the Spaniards were not.

This particular paragraph by Zinn is more baffling than most. Since usually we can understand the underlying cause of Zinn’s errors – his bias. But here, such a mistake doesn’t even necessarily fit with his worldview except in so far as to help him build a case for the inevitability of the British settlers importing black slaves.

In part 4 of Drawing the Color Line we look at Zinn’s poor showing as a historian in all its glory.