Hidden History: The 19th Century Slave Rebellions that Rocked the Southern Economy

Gabriel's Rebellion Marker, E-115

Episode 7: The Birth of the Cotton South

A New History of the American South

Dr Edward Ayers (2018)

Film Review

This lecture mainly highlights the slave rebellions of the late 18th and early 19th century,  the western migration patterns of Southern colonists and the development of the South’s cotton economy.

During and after the Revolutionary War large numbers of slave rebellions were devastating to the Southern economy. In some cases entire plantations defected to the British, who promised slaves their freedom. Anticipating Britain’s prohibition on the North Atlantic slave trade*, after 1800 American slave traders steeply increased their import of African slaves. As slaves began to outnumber white settlers, rebellions also increased. Inspired by the 1791 revolution that ended slavery in Haiti, Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800 was the largest Virginia  rebellion. The uprising was delayed by bad weather and ultimately put down by the Virginia militia.

Westward expansion was driven mainly by soil depletion in the coastal states, a growing population of settlers and the lure of easy profits. Daniel Boone led one of the first organized westward migrations in 1769, through a Native American trail the settlers renamed the Cumberland Gap. After Native Americans drove them back several times, settlers formed the first permanent Kentucky settlement in 1775.

Kentucky (1792) and Tennessee (1796) would be the first new states west of the Appalachians, with most new settlers migrating from the North via the Shenandoah Valley. Simultaneously, Louisiana’s Natchez District, formed by British loyalists in the 1770s, was also thriving. Both Virginia and South Carolina lost more than half their population after 1800 to western settlements, when the loss of British markets after the Revolutionary War caused their tobacco, indigo and rice economies to collapse.

With traditional Southern exports to Britain curtailed, new settlements were forced to find new crops. According to Ayers, cotton cultivation dates back to ancient Egypt, where it was produced for the priestly class. Although the Jamestown colony (1607) tried to grow cotton, there was a British embargo on cotton imports to protect their wool producers.

The great success of cotton in the South after 1800 stemmed in part from the discovery of a new rot resistant strain and Eli Whitney’s invention of a cotton gin to automate the labor intensive chore of separating cotton seed and fibers.**

Large cotton plantations originally appeared in central Georgia, after Native Americans signed treaties in 1783 and 1796 opening this land up to European farmers, as well as  Natchez Mississippi. Prior to 1800, vast areas of Mississippi, Alabama and western Georgia were still occupied by Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek tribes; Florida was still controlled by the Seminoles and Spanish; and Texas was still part of Mexico.

The 1790s also gave rise to the mass production of sugar in the South. Although Jesuit priests first introduced sugar to Louisiana in in 1751, the growing season there  was too short prior to the development of a new technology enabling growers to crystalize sugar from immature cane. Following the Haitian Revolution, thousands of European sugar planters fled to Louisiana. By 1830, the region had 691 sugar plantations. Northern speculators also flocked to the state, and by 1850 the number had reached 1500.

All these new plantations needed slaves, and with the end of the North Atlantic Slave trade in 1808, profiteers made fortunes “harvesting” existing states from failed farms in coastal states. Originally planters force marched their slaves into the western territories.  With the advent of the commercial steam engine, they traveled by steam boat or train.

*Taking effect in 1808.

**Whitney’s invention was an improvement on the “roller gin,” originally invented by Native Americans in the 16th century

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The Industrial Revolution and Modernity

Impacts of the Industrial Revolution that Are Still ...

Episode 32: The Industrial Revolution and Modernity

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin mainly focuses on the role of Britain in ushering in the Industrial revolution, a process that “swept away millenia of cottage industries and created a global population explosion.”  Britain was also the birthplace of communism, owing to the deplorable conditions faced by its working class.

The unique characteristics, according to Benjamin that made Britain the birthplace of the industrial revolution were money,* cheap labor,** raw materials, an energy source (ie coal and the rivers and canals to transport it) and the strong natural defenses typical of an island nation.

Between 1500 and 1660, a shortage of wood led to a growing demand for coal for heating and cooking. Routine flooding of Britain’s coal mines led Thomas Newcoman to invent Europe’s first steam engine to pump them out.

Improved by James Watt in 1776, it was widely adopted in the textile industry to power looms, driving down the cost of cloth by 80%. By 1850, a half million workers (of a total 12 million population) worked in Britain’s largest industry textiles.

The steam engine, along with the (1856) development of the Bessemer process for mass producing steel, also enabled massive expansion of Britain’s railroads and shipbuilding industry. As the largest city in the world, London hosted the first World’s Fair in 1851.

Belgium, France, Prussia and the US were the next countries to join the industrial revolution. The US industrialized textile production in the 1820s. Although the US government facilitated railway expansion by granting free land for tracks, the railroads themselves were financed by European banks. The country’s steel industry also industrialized quickly, with the US Steel budget three times that of the federal government by 1901.

Japan was the next country to industrialize, automating farming and silk production around 1900. The Japanese addressed their lack of fossil fuel resources by invading Korea and Manchuria (and triggering war with China and Russia in the process).

Russia was really slow to industrialize. In 1861 when Tsar Alexander II freed the serfs, Russia was still a primarily agrarian state. His son Alexander III would launch construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad in 1891.

According to Benjamin, the industrial revolution would lead to the creation of the modern nation-state with its powerful administrative bureaucracy, greater control of the economy and intrusion into people’s lives and higher taxes (for public services like education).  France, following the 1789 French Revolution, would be the first modern nation-state. The greater emphasis on human rights (or at least lip service to human rights) was another characteristic of the modern nation-state – with France, Britain, Denmark and eventually the US and Russia eventually eliminating slavery.

One of the ugliest outcomes of the industrial revolution was the total subjugation of non-industrial nations by the industrial North, largely via colonization. Benjamin mainly focuses on the example of India and China.

Benjamin also mentions the role of Dickens and reformists, such as the Luddites and Swing Riots, and revolutionaries, such as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, in pushing back against the deplorable working and living conditions the industrial revolution imposed on working people. The same year Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto, there were revolutions in Paris, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Denmark, and Britain.

Although all these revolutions were eventually crushed, the ruling elites were forced to address deplorable living conditions by expanding suffrage (prior to 1848, voting was limited to land-owning male citizens), legalizing trade unions, enacting labor laws improving work conditions and encouraging emigration (to the New World and other remote colonies) to ease population pressures.

*In 1694, by King William of Orange granted the private Bank of England the power to create paper money in excess of its gold and silver money holdings. See 97% Owned

**The Enclosure Acts (enacted between 1604 and 1914) forced 50% of England’s agrarian workforce off communally farmed lands and into towns and cities as a source of cheap labor. See Forgotten History: The Theft of the Commons

Film can be viewed free on Kanopy.