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.

A People’s History – Chapter 1, on women in Native American society

Here is Zinn on women’s role in Iroquois society:

Women were important and respected in Iroquois society. Families were matrilineal. That is, the family line went down through the female members, whose husbands joined the family, while sons who married then joined their wives’ families. Each extended family lived in a “long house.” When a woman wanted a divorce, she set her husband’s things outside the door. Families were grouped in clans, and a dozen or more clans might make up a village. The senior women in the village named the men who represented the clans at village and tribal councils. They also named the forty-nine chiefs who were the ruling council for the Five Nation confederacy of the Iroquois. The women attended clan meetings, stood behind the circle of men who spoke and voted, and removed the men from office if they strayed too far from the wishes of the women. The women tended the crops and took general charge of village affairs while the men were always hunting or fishing. And since they supplied the moccasins and food for warring expeditions, they had some control over military matters. As Gary B. Nash notes in his fascinating study of early America, Red, White, and Black: “Thus power was shared between the sexes and the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society.” (Zinn 20)

And here is Edmund S. Morgan in American Slavery, American Freedom  regarding the Native Americans around the Virginia colonies:

House and furniture alike could be put together without heavy labor. Building them was women’s work.

Men provided clothing in the form of skins taken in the hunt. But Indians, like well-to-do Englishmen, apparently regarded hunting as sport. Hunting grounds might be some distance from the village; and when hunting season came round, the whole tribe picked up and moved, the women preceding the men in order to build temporary housing. The hunt itself was a cooperative venture among the men, in which they set fire to an area, enclosing a group of deer or driving them into the water, where they could be killed from canoes. The men were also in charge of fishing, which they did with weirs and nets, as well as with spears and hooks. But the Virginia Indians did not rely on hunting or fishing for most of their food. They relied principally on the nuts and fruits they gathered and on the corn, beans, and squashes or melons that they grew. Tending the crops was also women’s work.

Indeed, nearly any activity that could be designated as work at all was left to the women. They were the principal means of production in Indian Virginia, Having acquired a wife (for whom he may have had to pay a bride price), a man counted on her to support him. He could make canoes, weapons, and weirs without losing his dignity, but the only other labor he ordinarily engaged in was clearing fields for planting, and the method employed made this less than arduous. Clearing consisted merely of girdling the trees and burning brush around them to hasten their death. The next year the women worked the ground between the trees, using a crooked stick as a hoe and planting corn, beans, squash, and melons all together in little hills. (Morgan 51)

Edmund S. Morgan is not some far right wing or some obscure irrelevant historian. He was Emeritus Professor of History at Yale University, where he taught from 1955 to 1986. Additionally, Morgan is directly quoted by Zinn no less than five times through A People’s History of the United States.

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

I put the last part of Chapter 1 on hold for a few weeks. Was getting exhausting correcting every single sentence.

So I’m going to start posting some stuff on Chapter 2. Chapter 2 of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is called Drawing The Color Line. The chapter is Zinn’s imagining of the origins of racism and racial tensions in the United States. It is a chapter about the origins of the Atlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery in the New World, particularly in British colonies of North America.

These posts on Chapter 2 will appear over the next couple weeks in no particular order. I may publish a more coherent response to Chapter 2 of Zinn’s book in the future. But, for now, it will just be my initial notes.

One of Zinn’s theses in Chapter 2 is that slavery in the America’s was uniquely bad in all the world. He writes:

African slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from plantation or mining slavery in the Americas, which was lifelong, morally crippling, destructive of family ties, without hope of any future. African slavery lacked two elements that made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave. (Zinn 27)

There is a lot to unpack in those few short sentences, so bear with me.

Zinn finds American slavery to be “the most cruel form of slavery in history” for two reasons: it was apparently driven by capitalism or free markets – which I will get to in a minute – and it was underpinned by racism.

My first thought is that Zinn’s argument is a bit of a tautology. ‘Why was American slavery so bad? Because of the racism. Why did America have such a problem with racism? Because slavery.’

Beyond that, I could ask the question posed by Zinn any number of ways. I could say ‘American slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from slavery in Arabia. American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the castration of all men and boys, and the sexual exploitation slavery of the women.’

And really, I could restate this sort of argument a dozen times over with different points.

Stefan Molyneux over at Freedomain Radio has already done several of the restatements for me: 

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While many children were born to slaves in the Americas, and millions of their descendants are citizens in Brazil and the USA to this day, very few descendants of the slaves that ended up in the Middle East survive.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While two out of every three slaves shipped across the Atlantic were men, the proportions were reversed in the Muslim slave trade. Two women for every man were enslaved by the Muslims.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While the mortality rate for slaves being transported across the Atlantic was as high as 10%, the percentage of slaves dying in transit in the Trans-Sahara and East African slave trade was between 80 and 90%.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While almost all the slaves shipped across the Atlantic were for agricultural work, most of the slaves for the Muslim Middle East were for sexual exploitation as concubines, in harems, and military service.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “Most slaves who went to the Americas could marry and have families, most of the male slaves destined for the Middle East were castrated; most of the children born to the women were killed at birth.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

Now, if you found yourself reading the paragraphs above and asking “What is the Arabian slave trade?” Then I highly recommend you watch or read Molyneux’s entire presentation on slavery. I will try to avoid completely regurgitating his work here.

Zinn tells readers about the horrifying death count from the Atlantic slave trade, and the tallies are just gruesome:

By 1800, 10 to 15 million blacks had been transported as slaves to the Americas, representing perhaps one-third of those originally seized in Africa. It is roughly estimated that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization, at the hands of slave traders and plantation owners in Western Europe and America, the countries deemed the most advanced in the world (Zinn 29).

What we aren’t told is the broader context of the global slave trade. For example that Muslims enslaved over 150 million Africans and at least 50 million people from other parts of the world, and that very nearly every slave taken from Africa to the Muslim world died within a few years of capture. According to Stefan Molyneux,

In about 1810, Louis Frank observed in Tunisia that most Black children died in infancy and that infinitesimally few reached the age of manhood. A British observer in Egypt, some thirty years later, found conditions even worse. He said, ‘I have heard it estimated that five or six years are sufficient to carry off a generation of slaves, at the end of which time the whole has to be replenished.’

And now onto Zinn’s declaration that  it was “capitalistic agriculture” which drove the American slave trade. Let’s put it right up front, capitalism and free markets are the antithesis of slavery. Only with government intervention and backing could slavery exist. Otherwise slaves would simply go find other work. Again, Molyneux:

The Atlantic slave trade, rather being the result of a market process, developed under the confluence of two non-market factors. First of all, slavery already existed in the tribal African societies, which were the sources of the slaves, before the arrival of the Europeans. Second, the slave trade was not founded by private firms but was established by the colonial powers which instituted monopolies to exploit the indigenous slavery. The Dutch West India Company was chartered in 1621, and the Royal Company of Adventurers for the Importation of Negroes was formed in 1662. (Molyneux, Slavery 33:56)

More over, it required all sorts of non-capitalistic, non-free market supports to keep slavery going in the British colonies of North America and later in the United States: government forced slave catching gangs and legal prohibition on manumission to name but two.

So, was American slavery “the most cruel form of slavery in history”? I will leave that to question to someone more wise than I.

What is certain is slavery was NOT a byproduct of capitalism or free markets. Slavery is the exact opposite of free markets.

Beyond that, I’m not sure how much the slaves being forced into mining camps or sugar plantations or cotton fields in the Americas or the slaves in the Muslim world having their penis and testicles removed and their children aborted at birth were concerned with the level of racism in the hearts of their slave masters.

Was it some consolation to the men and women being sold into bondage that their masters still saw them as human beings as they castrated and raped them?