The Forgotten Black Settlers Who Helped Settle the American Midwest

The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers & the Struggle for Equality

Anna-Lisa Cox

Hatchette Book Group (2018)

Book Review

This is a fascinating book about the freed African American slaves who helped settle the Northwest Territory* and the vicious white backlash that deprived many of them of their farms and, in some cases, their lives. Interesting how the vital role of African Americans in settling the Midwestern United States has totally vanished from modern history books.

African American scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois was the first to note, in 1906, the important role role of freed slaves in settling, defending and clearing the dense forests of the Northwest Territory.

The 1787 Northwest Ordinance both banned slavery throughout the Northwest Territory and allowed African Americans to vote in local and territorial elections.

Cox’s book traces the gradual prohibition of slavery in all northern states after the the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in 1807 (except New Jersey, where slavery persisted until the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation). In nearly every case, legislation ending slavery followed on from favorable court rulings when slaves sued to win their freedom.

Cox also examines the pressures leading slaves, having purchased their freedom, to migrate to the Northwest Territory. Southern Blacks were fleeing the constant threat of whites kidnapping and re-enslaving them. Northern Blacks came to escape deadly mob violence (in which white mobs burned Blacks out of their homes, churches and schools) that plagued Northern cities with large African American populations.

The white backlash that eventually stripped Black Northwest Territory settlers of civil rights they had enjoyed for decades was driven by a number of factors: 1) the 1799-1815 Napoleonic Wars, during which France sought to reinstate slavery in all  its colonies, 2) the rabidly racist leadership of Ohio’s first governor William Henry Harrison (who unsuccessfully campaigned to make Ohio a slave state), President Andrew Jackson and his Vice-president Martin van Buren (who openly encouraged white mobs to attack Black farmers in Ohio and Indiana), and the outright greed of land developers who sought to profit from slave labor in converting Northwest and Louisiana Purchase territory into prime agricultural land.

In the end, all Northwest Territory states (except Wisconsin) enacted Black Code Laws that required African American settlers to post $500 bond – which they forfeited if white farmers attacked them. As each of them achieved statehood, their new state constitutions stripped Black settlers of their right to vote and their right to testify against whites in court. The latter made it impossible to convict whites for mob violence. Eventually Indiana, Ohio and Illinois banned all new immigration of Black settlers.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and 1857 (Supreme Court) Dred Scott decision made life for freed slaves in the Northwest Territory even more precarious. The former made it possible for whites to kidnap free African Americans in the North and sell them into slavery in the South. The latter decreed that no person of African descent could ever be considered a US citizen.


*The Northwest Territory encompassed most British pre-war colonial territory west of the Appalachians, north of the Ohio River and south of the Canadian border  – ie the modern day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and the eastern part of Minnesota.

 

 

Hidden History: How 13 Million Kidnapped Africans Built Global Capitalism

Slavery Routes – Part 2 From Sugar to Revolution

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

Part 2 of Slavery Routes covers the so-called “Sugar Wars”* and the entry of the rest of Europe (Holland, Prussia, Denmark, England, Spain, France)  into Portugal’s lucrative slave trade. It also explores the role of European banks and insurance companies in making this expansion possible. Slave traders always undertook cross-Atlantic voyages on credit, which meant they had to be insured against losing their “cargo.” Insurance companies (Lloyd’s of London was the most prominent) were happy to ensure an enterprise in which a trader stood to triple his stake.

In this way, the slave trade provided the financial capital for both European and American capitalism.

Too Valuable to Kill

Rebellions by captive slaves were continual on both sides of the Atlantic. Because it took four years of plantation work to pay off the price of a captive, rebellious slaves were too valuable to kill. Instead ship captains and plantation owners became quite ingenious in devising brutal methods to compel submission.

In 1685 Louis XIV of France (funny I majored in French history and they never mentioned this) enacted the Code Noir, which made it legal to beat slaves but not torture them or mutilate their limbs.

The European Abolition Movement

By the late 1780s there was growing awareness and opposition in European society against the brutal conditions of the Middle Passage.** Britain’s abolition movement gained considerable momentum following the 1783 lawsuit in which a slave trader sued his insurance company for refusing to reimburse him after he threw his cargo of 133 living slaves overboard.

The English outlawed the slave trade in 1807. By 1815 there navy was strong enough to prevent other European nations from engaging in slave trading.

In all, 13 million Africans were kidnapped to the New World between 1520 and 1815.

The video can’t be embedded but can be seen free at the following link:

From Sugar to Revolution


*”Sugar Wars” refers to a series of naval conflicts between European nations seeking the upper hand in the slave market.

**The Middle Passage was the stage of the triangular trade (resulting in large exports of sugar to Europe) in which millions of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic as slaves.

The Lost Civilizations of Africa

Africa

Directed by Basil Davidson (1984)

Film Review

Africa is a 1984 documentary exploring the great civilizations of Africa. In it, late historian Basil Davidson demolishes the myths Europeans concocted about Africa to justify the 400 year slave trade – these myths concerning a continent of subhuman savages persist to the present day. Davidson reviews archeological evidence, ancient African and Europeans artwork and historical records and contemporary tribal traditions that survive from past civilizations.

The documentary is divided into 8 episodes of approximately 25 minutes each.

Episode 1 Different But Equal – studies the depiction of blacks in medieval and renaissance European paintings to show how the concept of race was created in the 16th century to justify the immensely profitable enslavement of human paintings. He starts with an examination of cave paintings that point to a highly advanced Saharan civilization prior to the Sahara’s desertification (around 7,000–8,000 years ago   and the prominence of black-skinned the 3,000-year  civilization Egypt enjoyed under the pharaohs.

Episode 2 Mastering a Continent – focuses on Kushites and the great Nubian civilization to the south of Egypt. The latter converted to Christianity and persisted until the 11th century when it was destroyed (by Saracens) during the Crusades.

Episode 3 Caravans of Gold – discusses the vast commercial trade network (extending as far as India) centered in Timbuktu (Mali) and the Ashanti civilization (in modern day Ghana). In the 14th century, Mali converted to Islam. Under the guidance of Muslim scholars, Timbuktu became a global center of Islamic scholarship in law, literature and science.

Episode 4 The King and the City Within – describes the civilizations of Huaser, Benin and Ethe in modern day Nigeria.

Episode 5 The Bible and the Gun – covers the arrival of the Europeans and the devastating of slavery on long established African civilizations. Over 400 years, the African continent lost approximately 15 million skilled craftsmen and farmers. As the slave trade declined in the 18th and 19th century, Europeans opened up Africa’s interior in order to exploit its rich natural resources. As in Latin American and Asia, Christian missionaries played a fundamental role in this process.

Episode 6 The Magnificent African Cake – gives an overview of the extensive European military campaigns that flattened African resistance to colonization. By 1914, Liberia and Ethiopia were the only two countries not under European military control.

Episode 7 The Rise of Nationalism – relates how forced conscription in World War I and World War II radically changed Africans’ view of Europeans and fueled demands for independence. The Gold Coast (later renamed Ghana by President Dr Kwame Nkrumah) would launch the first independence struggle in 1945. Davidson contrasts this with the more bloody independence struggles in Kenya, Algeria and other countries with substantial(European) settler populations.

Episode  8 Legacy – explores how the adoption of European-style Parliamentary systems proved disastrous for many African countries. Davidson blames this on the fact that Parliamentary government is based on a well established class divisions. It worked poorly in Africa owing to the continent’s historic tendency towards egalitarianism.

 

Britain’s Struggle to Abolish the Slave Trade

abolition

Abolition: The Struggle to Abolish Slavery in the British Colonies

By Richard S Reddie

Lion Hudson (2007)

Book Review

Reddie devotes most of his book to debunking common myths Europeans perpetuate to justify chattel slavery and the current plight of the African diaspora. First and foremost is the prevailing myth that Africa was a savage and backwards continent prior to the arrival of the first Europeans.

Prior to reading this book, I had never heard of the Nubian, Great Zimbabwe, Ghana, Songhay or Mali civilizations. Archival records suggests that Africa, not the Middle East, was the cradle of civilization. The pioneering Greek scientists Archimedes and Pythagoras both spent their youth studying in Egypt. There’s also fairly strong evidence that East Africans began producing steel before Europeans did.

Of the millions of slaves forcibly transported to the Americas, 40% ended up in Brazil, 40% in the Caribbean, 15% in Spanish territories and 5% in North America. Many Caribbean slaves were subsequently relocated from sugar plantations to North American cotton plantations.

Africans in the New World would outnumber Europeans by five to one until 1820. This population imbalance meant violent slave rebellions were a constant phenomenon.

This is the second myth Reddie debunks: that Europeans were primarily responsible for ending slavery. Citing a wealth of historical sources, he makes an ironclad case that Africans were primarily responsible for liberating themselves.

Even during the horrific Middle Passage, there was a major revolt in approximately one of every ten ships that left Africa. Reddie maintains it was mainly the fear of armed resistance that caused Europeans to terrorize their slaves with beatings, branding and mutilation.

Reddie details the bloody 1791 uprising in St Domingue (now Haiti), in which St Domingue slaves both freed themselves and won independence from France. All the new world colonies experienced frequent slave revolts, with those of Jamaica and Guyana deserving special mention for the number of Europeans killed.

Abolition! also discusses the grassroots organizing led by Quakers, evangelical Methodists and other religious groups leading to the 1807 law banning the British transatlantic slave trade. Although men such as William Wilberforce receive most of the credit, the abolition movement was mostly led by women.

The fight to end slavery altogether in British colonies would take another 27 years. Wilberforce opposed ending slavery itself as he believed slaves needed to be “properly prepared” before being granted their freedom.

How Slaveholders Received the Biggest Bailout in British History

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners

BBC (2015)

Film Review

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners is about the $20 million (present equivalent $17 billion) pound bailout the British paid to ex-slaveholders in 1834 when they abolished slavery. The documentary is based on University College London research into the British Slave Compensation Commission archive. The latter lists each of 46,000 British slaveholders who claimed compensation for “loss of property” when they were forced to free their slaves.

The 1834 law banning slavery didn’t apply to US slaves, as the US was no longer a British colony. It only applied to 800,000 slaves in the Caribbean and other British colonies. The archive lists the name of each slaveholder, the number of slaves they freed and the amount of compensation they received. It was the largest government bailout in British history.

Of the 800,000 slaves, approximately half were owned by 6,000 absentee slave owners, who lived in Britain and paid plantations managers to run their plantations. Many were industrial barons who used the wealth they amassed through slavery to establish major banks, railroads and shipping companies. Many were women, widows who inherited slaves from their husbands, or lower middle class merchants who only owned one or two slaves. A few were ex-slaves, the mixed raced descendents of plantation owners who raped female slaves. Thirty-seven were members of the House of Lords; about half that number Members of Parliament. A few were abolitionists who had rejected the pro-slavery claim that slaves were property.

Too Big to Fail

Part 1 describes the formation of British slave colonies in Barbados, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands and the massive wealth creation that enabled the slave industry to run the British economy for two centuries.

Part 2 discusses the abolition movement led by William Wilberforce, which led Britain to ban the slave trade in 1807, and the massive popular campaign leading to total abolition in 1834. The pro-slavery lobby used the same argument as banks used to justify the 2008 bailout: slaveholders were deeply indebted and without the bailout the British credit system would have collapsed.

The University College London has digitalized the Slave Compensation Commission archive to enable people of British heritage to search whether they have ancestors who owned slaves:

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/

A search of my surname Bramhall turned up no hits. This doesn’t surprise me as the Bramhalls in England were persecuted Catholics.

A search of my paternal grandmother’s maiden name (Gallagher) turns up one hit: William Gallagher, who received 46 pounds 15 shillings for one slave in Cape of Good Hope.

A search of her mother’s maiden name (Fitzgibbon) also turns up one hit: Rebecca Fitzgibbon, who received 73 pounds 1 shilling and 2 pence for two slaves in Honduras.