“It’s the Devil!”—Slavery, Civil War, and King Cotton
Among the 100+ works in last month's release of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia are an antebellum account of Caribbean travel written by a New Yorker, slave narratives written before and after the American Civil War, and satirical works on U.S. history by 19th-century English humorists and cartoonists.
The Winter of 1840 in St. Croix, with an Excursion to Tortola and St. Thomas (1840)
By James Smith
As appealing as wintering in the Caribbean may sound, James Smith’s description of his voyage to the Danish colonies illustrates many of the harsh realities of the period. Sailing south of St. Bartholomew’s and Saba, Smith reports,
Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave (1852)
By James Williams
James Williams’ early life is a story of betrayal, cruelty, and violence. It begins:
Upon the death of George Larrimore, Sr., Williams became the property of his childhood playmate, George Larrimore, Jr., who quickly misled Williams, a house slave. Told the Larrimore family was relocating to Alabama, Williams thought he was sent with his master ahead of the family to help prepare for the move. Instead he was left in Alabama to be the slave driver for the new Larrimore Alabama plantation. Williams wrote:
I stood silent and horror-struck. Could it be that the man whom I had served faithfully from our mutual boyhood, whose slightest wish had been my law, to serve whom I would have laid down my life, while I had confidence in his integrity—could it be that he had so cruelly and wickedly deceived me?
As slave driver, Williams was forced to whip men and women and to track runaway slaves with bloodhounds. Williams wrote of the plight of one re-captured runaway:
He was then whipped and placed in the stocks, where he was kept three days. On the third morning as I passed the stocks, I stopped to look at him. His head hung down over the chain which supported his neck. I spoke, but he did not answer. He was dead in the stocks!
Later, accused of lessening the punishments he is ordered to administer, Williams was himself ordered to be whipped. Facing 250 lashes, he escaped the plantation and fled to the North where he was able to tell his story. The validity of Williams’ narrative was called into question quickly after it was published and remained in doubt for over 170 years. However, in “Re-collecting Jim,” a recent Common-place article examining the veracity of slave narratives in general, Susanna Ashton, Clemson University professor of English, suggests Williams’ tale is largely true.
The Comic History of the United States from a Period Prior to the Discovery of America to Times Long Subsequent to the Present (1870)
By John D. Sherwood
John D. Sherwood’s lighthearted approach to American history includes this amusing description of Washington, D.C., at the onset of the Civil War. It begins with a reference to the Baltimore Riot of 1861 in which members of the Massachusetts militia en route to Washington were attacked by anti-war Democrats and Confederate sympathizers:
The American War Cartoons (1874)
By Matt Morgan
Matt Morgan’s illustrated account of the Civil War offers a European perspective of the conflict and surrounding issues. One such issue, referred to as King Cotton, was the exportation of cotton by the South to Europe. The benefits to the Confederacy of cotton exports were twofold: it would not only ruin the textile industry of New England, but would also force Great Britain and France, whose industrial economy depended on cotton textiles, to support the Confederate States. That dependency is satirized by the image of a “Manchester millionaire” appealing “to the complacent darkey grinning upon his throne of ‘Carolina Sea,’ with the pathetic words, ‘Am not I a Man and a Brother?’”
Autobiography of James L. Smith including, also, Reminiscences of Slave Life, Recollections of the War, Education of Freedmen, Causes of the Exodus, etc. (1881)
By James Lindsay Smith
James Lindsay Smith’s thrilling autobiography includes a dramatic description of a near-death experience during his escape from slavery. Traveling on his own and in the middle of the night, Smith tells what happened when he “came to the portion of the road that had been cut through a very high hill, called the ‘deep cut,’ which was in a curve…”:
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