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Friday, March 21, 2008

Men in chains 3


Livy’s history was the hunt and peck book for generations of philosophes. Machiavelli wrote his discourses about it; Montesquieu studied it for L’esprit de lois; and, I’d contend, Rousseau opens his Du Contrat Social, an essay that begins with an epigraph from the Aeneid, with a reference to it: “L'homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers.” As LI has been pointing out (with my usual autistic artistry, winding theme around theme) in my Man in Chains posts, the chain looms large in the history of freedom – and it seems that the ideologues of freedom have been a little too hasty in consigning the chain to the figurative, all the better to speak of freedom as a matter of will, or of rights. But the figurative does seem to operate a return of the repressed, a memory of irons, of yokes, of chains, which runs through Rousseau’s essay and contacts the plebian notion of freedom, as expressed in such fons et origo texts as Livy’s history.

In George Dow’s Slave Ships and Slaving, there’s an account by J.B. Romagne of life aboard La Rodeur, a slave ship that entered the Calabar river in 1819, and loaded up with Africans, intending to sell them in Guadaloupe. This was life in the chains completely:

“ Since we have been at this place, Bonny Town in the Bonny river, on the coagt of Africa, I have become more accustomed to the howling of these Negroes. At first, it alarmed me, and I could not sleep. The Captain says that if they behave well they will be much better off at Guadaloupe; and I am sure, I wish the ignorant creatures would come quietly and have it over. Today, one of the blacks whom they were forcing into the hold, suddenly knocked down a sailor and attempted to leap overboard. He was caught, however, by the leg by another of the crew, and the sailor, rising up in a passion, hamstrung him with a cutlass. The Captain, seeing this, knocked the butcher flat upon the deck with a handspike. “I will teach you to keep your temper’, said he, with an oath. “He was the best slave in the lot.’ I ran to the main chains and looked over; for they had dropped the black into the sea when they saw that he was useless. He continued to swim, even after he ahd sunk under the water, for I saw the red track extending shoreward; but by and by, it stopped, widened, faded, and I saw it no more.


Dow records an auction of items ‘suitable for a Guinea voyage’, held at the Merchant’s Coffee house:

One iron furnace and copper, 27 cases with bottles, 83 pairs of shackles, 11 neck collars, 22 handcuffs for the traveling chain, 4 long chains for slaves, 54 rings, 2 travelling chains, 1 corn mill 7 four pound basons, 6 two pound basons, 3 brass pans, etc., etc.”

In Livy, Book 2, a section is devoted to the first secession of the Plebs – which forms the background, incidentally, to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus – which occurred as the plebians and the patricians fought over liberty in the city after the successful conclusion of three small wars, the final one against the Volscians. The disturbances in the city, according to Livy, were always about the same thing – debt. The first story that gives rise to uproar is this one:

“An old man, bearing visible proofs of all the evils he had suffered, suddenly appeared in the Forum. His clothing was covered with filth, his personal appearance was made still more loathsome by a corpse-like pallor and emaciation, his unkempt beard and hair made him look like a savage. In spite of this disfigurement he was recognised by the pitying bystanders; they said that he had been a centurion, and mentioned other military distinctions he possessed. He bared his breast and showed the scars which witnessed to many fights in which he had borne an honourable part. The crowd had now almost grown to the dimensions of an Assembly of the people. He was asked, `Whence came that garb, whence that disfigurement?' He stated that whilst serving in the Sabine war he had not only lost the produce of his land through the depredations of the enemy, but his farm had been burnt, all his property plundered, his cattle driven away, the war-tax demanded when he was least able to pay it, and he had got into debt. This debt had been vastly increased through usury and had stripped him first of his father's and grandfather's farm, then of his other property, and at last like a pestilence had reached his person. He had been carried off by his creditor, not into slavery only, but into an underground workshop, a living death.
Then he showed his back scored with recent marks of the lash.

On seeing and hearing all this a great outcry arose; the excitement was not confined to the Forum, it spread every where throughout the City. Men who were in bondage for debt and those who had been released rushed from all sides into the public streets and invoked `the protection of the Quirites.' The formula in which a man appealed to his fellow-citizens for help."


Livy mixes news of the wars with news of the uproars of the plebians. Finally a dictator was chosen, and the Volscians were defeated. But still there was debt, the increasing power of the creditors over the debtors.

“The moneylenders possessed such influence and had taken such skillful precautions that they rendered the commons and even the Dictator himself powerless. After the consul Vetusius had returned, Valerius introduced, as the very first business of the senate, the treatment of the men who had been marching to victory, and moved a resolution as to what decision they ought to come to with regard to the debtors. His motion was negatived, on which he said, `I am not acceptable as an advocate of concord. Depend upon it, you will very soon wish that the Roman plebs had champions like me. As far as I am concerned, I will no longer encourage my fellow-citizens in vain hopes nor will I be Dictator in vain. Internal dissensions and foreign wars have made this office necessary to the commonwealth; peace has now been secured abroad, at home it is made impossible. I would rather be involved in the revolution as a private citizen than as Dictator.' So saying, he left the House and resigned his dictatorship. The reason was quite clear to the plebs; he had resigned office because he was indignant at the way they were treated.”

It was then that the plebians made the famous decision to withdraw in a body from Rome. The patricians sent Menenius Agrippa, to address them, “an eloquent man, and acceptable to the plebs as being himself of plebeian origin. He was admitted into the camp, and it is reported that he simply told them the following fable in primitive and uncouth fashion. `In the days when all the parts of the human body were not as now agreeing together, but each member took its own course and spoke its own speech, the other members, indignant at seeing that everything acquired by their care and labour and ministry went to the belly, whilst it, undisturbed in the middle of them, did nothing but enjoy the pleasures provided for it, entered into a conspiracy; the hands were not to bring food to the mouth, the mouth was not to accept it when offered, the teeth were not to masticate it. Whilst, in their resentment, they were anxious to coerce the belly by starving it, the members themselves wasted away, and the whole body was reduced to the last stage of exhaustion. Then it became evident that the belly rendered no idle service, and the nourishment it received was no greater than that which it bestowed by returning to all parts of the body this blood by which we live and are strong, equally distributed into the veins, after being matured by the digestion of the food.' By using this comparison, and showing how the internal disaffection amongst the parts of the body resembled the animosity of the plebeians against the patricians, he succeeded in winning over his audience.”

Thus, the famous apology of Menenius Agrippa. It is striking to me that the stomach, which is described as the hub of the body – it returns nourishment by way of blood to all parts of the body – is maintained by the chain-like actions of the body’s ‘accidents’, its minors, its rude mechanicals – Hands to mouth, teeth to mouth, mouth to stomach. Here the body divides into two, one part of which is linked together by a chain of debt that must be paid to support the other part, the center and hub. An invisible chain links together all those acts by which we survive, and the body’s possibles – its particulars, its bits – become, each separately, slaves, insofar as the slave is defined, practically, as the one who is in irons. Until, of course, we are useless: “…for I saw the red track extending shoreward; but by and by, it stopped, widened, faded, and I saw it no more”

9 comments:

P.M.Lawrence said...

'An invisible chain links together all those acts by which we survive, and the body’s possibles – its particulars, its bits – become, each separately, slaves, insofar as the slave is defined, practically, as the one who is in irons. Until, of course, we are useless: “…for I saw the red track extending shoreward; but by and by, it stopped, widened, faded, and I saw it no more”'.

Avoiding this sort of suffering, of course, is part of the reason why civilised societies had provisions in their slave laws preventing slaves being freed against their will, so that those who became useless wouldn't be turned out to perish (the other part being, to minimise slave unrest at the prospect).

roger said...

Since in all Southern states in the U.S., blacks could not testify in court, leaves sort of a big gap in the law, don't you think? Making one suspect that such laws were for show - just as the 1685 code noir in Saint-Domingue contained a host of provisions forbidding most of the practices that were routine on Haitian sugar plantation until overturned by the successful expulsion of the whites.

It is amazing what a hollow shell laws become in a l'univers concentrationaire.

P.M.Lawrence said...

No, the laws were not for show; they had the practical purpose and real achievement of reducing slave unrest. There was a slave revolt in the British West Indies because of the threat of emancipation, until the transitional tutelage arrangements were made clear. Granted, just such destitution was thrust upon the coolies that had replaced those slaves, when the indenture system was reformed out from under them without the final gratuity or passage home they would have received at the normal end of their indentures (as recorded by V.S.Naipaul), but as Winston Churchill remarked, it would have been a terminological inexactitude to call them slaves - so, there was no reason for them to get slavery's benefits.

Even Islam had such laws; Burton explains them in a footnote clarifying something... odd... in the Tale of the Third (? uncertain) Eunuch, when that unfortunate explained how he came into his estate while a slave boy. After greatly harming and offending his master, the master decided he was more trouble than he was worth and proposed turning him loose. The slave reminded his master that he couldn't do it without consent (here fell the footnote), so the master simply bludgeoned him unconscious and sent for a barber who, doubling as a surgeon, castrated the unconscious boy.

Now, I know we cannot take a story as an authority in itself, but this was supporting background material to add verisimilitude; we can take it that Islam would not be surprised at beating a slave unconscious and castrating him, or that this should seem more lawful and practical than freeing him against his will, the simpler, cheaper and otherwise preferable alternative.

roger said...

Yes, the laws were for show. Evidence from the British caribbean in the shadow of looming emancipation notwithstanding, the Southern slave codes were a farce, the code noir was systematically flouted in the greatest slave factory in the Western Hemisphere, Saint-Domingue, and Arab slavery is a vast subject about which there are varying codes and customs. Orlando Patterson presents the authoritative account of manumission in Slavery and Social Death - but the logic of your position, I have to say, is a little absurd. Of course, the slave who was freed would have a hard time compared to the peasant because in most of the world up until very recently, one depended on one's family as one got older. And guess what? The slave's family was either - in slavery in the neighborhood, in slavery far distant from the slave, or in Africa. So the argument is, of course, pretty absurd to begin with.

Not all slave systems were meat factories like the Saint-Domingue plantation system, but all slave systems depended much less on unenforceable law and much more on economic rationality and conventions that would shame the slave owner. And even those were weak - Robert E. Lee's family, for instance, were known as "good" masters, but they didn't hesistate to sell their slaves when they needed money to slavetraders who sold them West.

P.M.Lawrence said...

Sigh.

In general, when masters went beyond what the law allowed, which of course they were tempted to do, they were throwing a cost on the wider public. Slave laws were often ineffective, for that reason - but still valuable for the society that had slaves, by minimising the trouble having them around caused. There was a public interest in enforcing them, even if that was often difficult; they were not adopted for show but for public order, just ineffective in many cases. And, of course, different societies had different systems; Roman slaves were even entitled to pay they could save towards buying their freedom, the "peculium". Consider what would have happened in a Roman household that withheld this...

Unlike other parts of the slave codes, there was a feature to the provisions against involuntary emancipation that made them enforceable: the victims were not slaves in a position where their masters could control any justice that could reach them. Furthermore, there was a constituency that objected to slaves being freed when they were no longer of use: those who feared having them around if they were ineligible for relief, and who feared paying for relief if they were. (This, of course, is largely why places like Virginia required free blacks to leave, while free states like Illinois were reluctant to have them arrive.)

The argument is not an absurdity; it is a real consequence of a system then obtaining. If absurdity there be, it lies in the system, not in what I present. Emancipation could harm its recipients. Not only did this befall the coolies I mentioned, missionaries described it among former convicts in French Guiana; convicts feared freedom at the end of a long sentence, from seeing the plight of these libérés (who were still confined to the colony but no longer receiving even the poor board and lodging of convicts), and they feared doublage, an administrative punishment doubling their sentences that prevented them being able bodied at the end of their sentences. There was nothing absurd about freedom being a threat to some slaves.

roger said...

Nothing absurd in individual cases, but the case you are making makes little sense, Mr. Lawrence. As long as a slave is vendable, there is a huge hole in the notion that the involuntary emancipation of slaves was a problem. Since they could be sold, those who resist emancipation could simply be stuffed in the pipeline. And the sales, in the American case, tended to be westward. Why? Because the slave system became rougher and less selective as you moved west. Thus, a slave that, for instance, didn't want to be separated from his family and 'resisted' emancipation could easily be dealt with by the next slave trader that came along.

Emancipation would have contingent casualties, of that you are no doubt correct, but the casualties would not be the result of some human slave code being annulled, but of improvisational master-slave arrangements being disturbed - quite a different thing. Your example from Guiana is a perfect example of why an argument that singles out a humanistic strain in a code without examining the code in context is a poor use of analytic energy - it is reminiscent of the Stalin era practice of giving "pardons" to convicts who "volunteered" to continue working on convict labor projects. Freedom, here, simply names another form of punishment.

P.M.Lawrence said...

"...the case you are making makes little sense..." How so? If you are suggesting there is some internal contradiction, what is it? If some discrepancy with observation, what? But if you are simply stating that it is contrary to common sense or something of that sort, you are making theory trump fact.

"As long as a slave is vendable..." - who said they were, at any rate at a price to cover transaction costs? Slavery in England was abolished after a court case in which a visitor from overseas turned a sick slave out, but tried to reclaim him after a kind stranger looked after him and brought him back to health.

"Your example from Guiana is a perfect example..." Which example? I cited both French and British Guiana, in the convicts and the coolies. French Guiana lacked such provisions, and British Guiana had only had slave codes for slaves. Those examples were to highlight the chronic problems that arose from not having similar provisions for things that were not technically slavery; they are a reference comparison. You accurately condemn the improvisational problems, failing to note that these cases contrast with those where slave codes had such arrangements, they do not illustrate what happened when they were in place.

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, your example of the abolition of slavery in England doesn't have to do with slave codes, but with the abolition of slavery, as you yourself say - the enforcement of a code that brings about the abolition of the object of the code is a very odd code indeed. The enforcement of laws concerning speed limits do not bring about the abolition of driving.

However, we are getting somewhere. Your case from England seems to demonstrate that either the slave system is such that slaves can be sold - in which case slave codes can be easily flouted - or not, in which case the inadequacy of the slave code is such that slavery itself is abolished. The system would make no sense, from the slaveholder's point of view, if the slaveholder were forced to feed and care for slaves against his or her will.

To understand the slave systems in the new world, the key is that the slave can be sold. In geographically smaller societies, such as Trinidad, selling slaves was not the threat that it was in, say, Georgia, but it was an element that governed the features of slave families - which is why, in fact, in Saint-Domingue the domestic supply of slaves was never adequate. Women had no reason to have children, and would try as much as they could to abort them, unless they escaped to a Maroon society.

The Spanish code was generally considered the most humane, but it was modified or simply ignored in high profit areas, such as Cuba. The British, notoriously, when they took Trinidad from the Spanish, introduced their own code, which abolished the Spanish route to manumission for slaves - they could no longer purchase their freedom - and fined planters if, for instance, they did not make their slaves work on Saturdays. As A. Meredith John points out in a study of Trinidad demography, under the new British code "led to the deterioration of the conditions that the slaves had enjoyed under Spanish law." In the British and American systems in particular, manumission became much rarer.

But, you might say, ah ha, the Spanish code then was this humane system, thus showing that civilized human beings did modify the slave system. But only when the system was small, as in Trinidad, and only so long as the produce of slave labor did not lead to great wealth for the planters. Hugh Thomas, in his history of Cuba, reports that the 1789 code, which was the same humane code that worked in Trinidad, was a "dead letter" in Cuba. "instruction in the Catholic religion and attendance of priests on feast days; the proportion of men to women and hours and years of work; the punishment and the health provisions - all these were ignored." As Thomas points out, the slave code was even published in Cuba because the slave owners were afraid the slaves might see it.

P.M.Lawrence said...

"Mr. Lawrence, your example of the abolition of slavery in England doesn't have to do with slave codes, but with the abolition of slavery, as you yourself say" - No!

I did not give an example of the abolition of slavery in England, I gave an example of the events that led to the abolition of slavery in England, to illustrate that when there were no effective provisions against involuntary emancipation, it could indeed happen that slaves were freed against their wills rather than being sold somewhere. It is a counter-example refuting your assertion about that. I have been trying to penetrate your blind spot in this matter, what some have called "invincible ignorance".

As for "Your case from England seems to demonstrate that either the slave system is such that slaves can be sold... or not, in which case the inadequacy of the slave code is such that slavery itself is abolished", that is a false dichotomy. That is how things played out in that time and place, but it is quite clearly not enough to generalise from like that.

"The system would make no sense, from the slaveholder's point of view, if the slaveholder were forced to feed and care for slaves against his or her will" - you are applying a micro rather than a macro measure. It did indeed make sense to have such arrangements, because the usual case was that a parcel of slaves remained more valuable in aggregate when those who became useless were cared for - carrot was cheaper than stick. Think of it as a form of social security at plantation level.

The rest is accurate, but remains a digression; accuracy does not save it from being a digression. (For what it's worth, codes of the late 18th century, when adopted, were often adopted for show by the adopters, but on the one hand those who enacted them meant them, and on the other hand places like Mauritius and Réunion cared so little for show that they were provoked into rebellion rather than adopt them - hypocrisy just wasn't that compelling.)

You might like to read the introductory part of Nassau Senior's work on Wages, available on the internet, where he goes into the economics of slave areas. It gives some useful background. We know from history that the usual evolution was away from chattel slavery, via serfdom where people were attached to the land (and could be supported in infirmity by their neighbours, but not evicted in practice), to landlordism in which they could be evicted more easily. Slavery made more sense when free labour could conveniently set up on its own (which led to reaching a modus vivendi with maroons, escaped slaves and their descendants who had done just that, to kick the ladder away after them and - poacher turned gamekeeper - keep out later runaways), and landlordism made more sense when free labour had to take what was offered - and then, less explicit stick being needed, less carrot was justified. In his North America Trollope records that custom had brought Kentucky to the middle stage by the time of the American Civil War.