Reading Diary, 4/7 -10/7

Reading Diary, 4/7 -10/7

This week’s reading was the chunky first half of Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps (1995), by William Dusinberre, a study of life on the Gowrie estate, a tidal rice plantation on the Georgia coast, between 1831 and 1865. This plantation and the slaves upon it belonged, as did so much of the property in the nineteenth-century South, to a man who was born and bred to rule before marriage and inheritance secured his fortune, a man named Charles Manigault. Rice plantation slavery was the most deadly kind in America, more feared among slaves than even cotton-picking or hacking at sugar cane, and yet without Them Dark Days (which I once started at university but didn’t have time to finish), I would know nothing about this hidden history.

Given a wealth of sources on a given subject, the historian can impress us in two ways. First, with numbers, and second, with biographical narratives. Dusinberre devastated me with both. An investigation of the fates of pregnant slaves and their offspring at Gowrie is the plainest instance of the captivating effect that these two methods can produce when used in succession. Dusinberre starts with the stark numbers, which are scarcely comprehensible: between 1833 and 1864, 128 infants were born to Gowrie slaves or were bought and imported to Gowrie, of whom 90% died before the age of sixteen. Only 13 of those 128 children lived to adulthood. These are Dusinberre’s own calculations, based on remarkably complete plantation records, that he presents in a chapter called ‘The Charnel House’, but he knows that they alone are not enough to give a full picture. So he backs up the abhorrent statistics with the stories of a number of the slave women who, quite apart from having regularly been twice or three times widowed, may have become pregnant ten times without bearing a child to raise. The most common family grouping at Gowrie, Dusinberre says, was a husband and wife with no surviving children.

Some of the primary causes of such dismal life expectancy among slaves were inherent to the local environment and the demands of the arduous manual work necessary to cultivate rice there. The climate on the island was “miasmal” and unconducive to the hard labour demanded in the summer. Throughout that season, too, swarms of mosquitoes carried the endemic, chronic malaria that was never properly diagnosed. However, while Charles Manigault and his son Louis closely attended the running of the plantation and scrutinised the same alarming figures that Dusinberre has recovered, many of the choices made in slave management also served to exacerbate these natural perils. For example, while some slaves bore a natural immunity to malaria (the sickle cell trait), most were susceptible and suffered from its debilitating effects, yet the Manigaults would rarely if ever consent to spare pocket change for medical advice or emergency intervention. (The Manigaults themselves, of course, like all genteel Southern planters, would not dare set foot on the plantation at Gowrie between the months of May and November, for fear of disease and inhospitable climate, opting instead to remain safe and cool in a city like Charleston.) Moreover, for more than a decade after Charles Manigault bought Gowrie, no alternative water source was provided to dehydrated field hands, and they would drink from the shallow, tide-affected river. Death from enteric diseases such as dysentery were common.

Even amid the horrors, Dusinberre’s focus is pure and his eye clear. He allows his writing to convey little judgement of these people, especially the plainly odious Manigaults. To read a historian who records injustice as impartially as Dusinberre is a lesson for me. When writing about something like slavery, one almost always wants to elicit a feeling of bitterness towards the masters, and vast sympathy for the enslaved, because it makes a reader tractable. The historian achieves that response by allowing research to speak for itself, presenting facts they have gleaned and letting rancour build naturally. Otherwise, if the writer’s voice expresses too clear an opinion, I as a reader feel that I am being led, and my impulse is to buck the pre-defined track that is set for me, so that I can consider my eventual conclusion truly my own. Them Dark Days provides ample proof that the effective teaching of this history via the written word actually requires a strict and maybe counter-intuitive non-engagement with the reader. As a student, when I would try to differentiate my approach to writing for courses in literature and then in history, this was one technique I never mastered. My excessive pride in a confessional style got in the way, and I was obliged to ignore a lot of presumably helpful comments from the ‘actual historians’ who taught me.

Though he is reticent, Dusinberre does draw some conclusions, each of which he works very hard to earn. When these summary judgements come, they arise not out of any pre-conceived ideology that he is retro-fitting to suit the evidence, rather they grow inevitably out of the evidence presented. And while he is deferent where necessary to earlier research, Dusinberre retains a healthy iconoclasm towards the few giants who loom over the study of American slavery. In other words, he shovels the mud, he makes his own bricks, he builds his own house.

Reckoning with the overall question of how Gowrie functioned as a profitable enterprise, Dusinberre recognises that the equation may seem not to balance. If the Manigaults were, as some apologists would suggest, paternalistic towards their slaves, and would therefore be inclined to absorb some financial losses so long as the people they owned led tolerable lives and appreciated their masters, why the disregard for medicine and potable water? And if they were primitive capitalists, bent only on profit, then why allow their single most valuable asset, their slaves, to suffer, and their children just to die? Dusinberre’s answer is that Gowrie and the Manigaults present to us a different model altogether: “slavery produced its own ethics”, he writes, and upon these was built a system of plantation capitalism, wherein profit was indeed pursued for its own sake, but the basic understanding of the labour force did not hold. While cruelty entailed capital loss for the Manigaults when slaves died needlessly, the idea is that it also served a critical purpose in maintaining the balance of power on a plantation where the black population dwarfed the white at all times. As Dusinberre puts it, “the masters, seeking to reduce their slaves to subordination, aimed to close from their bondsmen and women most avenues for personal growth. The Manigault records suggest that the stunting of human potential, no less than the profligate waste of human life itself, exacted a dismal toll in Gowrie’s swamps” (177). Dusinberre is clouding the analyses of historians whose research is driven purely by data, who might overlook the incalculable suffering that has no place in tables or graphs.

The first half of Them Dark Days lays out the many strategies the Manigaults employed to retain unquestioned dominion, both for the sake of their self-identification as masters and to ensure the proper, profit-driving subordination of their slaves. Here, I have presented maybe only one or two of them. I hope, at least, that I have shown enough to show why Dusinberre is surely right to argue, against historians who try to overlay a model of Marxist societal advancement onto he Southern timeline, that “[t]he abolition of slavery in 1865—after a dreadful, fratricidal war inspired by those who sought to perpetuate the system—was not just a minor shift in the form of labor exploitation” (177). The slave system, as employed to uphold rice cultivation in America, presented to its victims unique horrors, ones which emancipation alone could not resolve.

 

It is a fact that routine cruelty was (and, diversified, remains) the fuel for modern life. The systematic exploitation of underclasses on every continent in the last two centuries alone, especially since the dawn of large-scale manufacture and industry, has supplied middle-class comfort. Some, from the same smug crowd who think so-called race-blindness would be a cure for something, might say that this is an useless expression of guilt, a futile taking up of Kipling’s “white man’s burden” a hundred years too late, when all we can usefully do today is move forward, away from the stain of unpleasantness. But I say thank goodness for historians, who do not allow us to force a comforting wedge between our times and those past, and who see that coming to terms with history often demands of us, the privileged, not a sharing of guilt but a reckoning with ancestral complicity. They see that it is not enough to know that injustice took place—if the unexamined life is not worth living, nor is it worth lamenting. I want to know what I owe to people.

 

Image: Southern Things

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