IN 1834, the slave trader Isaac Franklin wrote to a colleague that “the old Lady and Susan”—a pair of slaves—“could soon pay for themselves by keeping a whore house. . . . It might be . . . established at your place [in] Alexandria or Baltimore for the exclusive use of the [concern] and [its] agents.” Such a blunt acknowledgment of the sexual exploitation of enslaved women was unusual but not unique in the antebellum South, as Ned and Constance Sublette make clear in “The American Slave Coast,” an often heart-wrenching descent into one of the darkest corners of slavery’s history.
Slavery’s defenders hypocritically claimed that emancipation would lead to rampant “miscegenation,” although race mixing was extremely rare in the free North but ubiquitous in the South, where the rape of enslaved women was a way of life. Hundreds of thousands of mulattoes were the physical proof: in 1860, they made up at least 13% of the nation’s black population. The Sublettes quote the South Carolina diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, who dryly observed in 1861: “Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—& every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in every body’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds.”
The Sublettes make clear that slavery was, in effect, the South’s version of the American dream: More slaves equaled more wealth and higher status. The four million enslaved in 1860 were not merely a labor force, the authors observe; “they were the South’s capital stock,” worth between $2 billion and $4 billion in mid-19th century terms and perhaps 10 times that amount in today’s dollars.
There was no such crime as rape against a slave: A slave owner had full right to do whatever he wished with his property, “and sexual use was part of the portfolio of privileges,” the Sublettes write. The authors note that, beyond the opportunity for unrestrained sexual activity, “the existence of a market in young people created a financial incentive for slaveowners to intrude into the reproductive lives of enslaved women.” At least some plantations seem to have employed “breeding men” as studs, or “stock Negroes.” The Sublettes quote a former Louisiana slave, Lueatha Mansfield, who in old age told an interviewer that if a slave owner “saw a fine woman or man on another plantation, he would buy him or her for breeding purposes in order to continue to have good able workers. If he didn’t bring them on the same farm, he would arrange for them to breed from each other.”
Evidence of systematic breeding remains anecdotal, however. The Sublettes found no evidence of plantations devoted explicitly to breeding. They point out that such a system would make no economic sense, since “human beings grow too slowly to raise them as a cash-producing monocrop.” But, they conclude, “that doesn’t mean slave breeding didn’t take place on a broad scale, only that it wasn’t practiced as an isolated profession.” They segue to the much more expansive proposition that, especially after the curtailment of the overseas slave trade in 1808, “antebellum slavery was in the aggregate a slave-breeding system.” This may be true in the most general sense, but it is an oversimplification that does not really illuminate, implicitly making slaves’ reproduction everywhere seem congruent with a calculated process of controlled breeding.
To make their case, the authors devote most of their book to a lengthy and often digressive account of slavery’s entire history in North America. They begin with 16th-century slave trading and move on to the arrival of the first African slaves in Jamestown and the development of slavery in the Chesapeake region and in Barbados. Their broad exposition includes the creation of a legal regime to define the status of imported Africans; the slaveholding of some of the Founding Fathers; the slave trading of Andrew Jackson (he was the only president to have personally driven a “coffle,” or convoy, of chained slaves); and the ideology of Manifest Destiny, which inspired Americans with a vision of the nation as a transcontinental power and in its specifically Southern iteration included the spread of slavery all the way to the Pacific Ocean. These subjects may well be familiar to readers versed in the larger history of slavery.
Fortunately, the Sublettes’ usually crisp prose keeps their narrative moving at a comfortable pace, while their boundless curiosity sometimes leads to unexpectedly interesting places. They offer enlightening discussion of slavery’s intersection with early newspapers, in which ads for slave sales and runaways were a significant source of revenue. They show the ways in which transferable credit and experimental paper money were used to facilitate slave sales at a time when little specie was available in the colonies. They also provide an excellent account of the political rivalry between South Carolina, which supported the importation of cheap slaves from Africa to feed the port of Charleston and its profitable slave pens, and Virginia, which wanted to end the foreign slave trade because it increased the value of her own “surplus” slaves.
The Sublettes make clear that slavery was, in effect, the South’s version of the American dream: More slaves equaled more wealth and higher status. The four million enslaved in 1860 were not merely a labor force, the authors observe; “they were the South’s capital stock,” worth between $2 billion and $4 billion in mid-19th century terms and perhaps 10 times that amount in today’s dollars. Emancipation thus left the South economically supine after the Civil War. As the Sublettes concisely put it: “The security for hundreds of millions of dollars in debt walked away, leaving the obligations valueless, the credit structure imploded, . . . and the planters owning worthless land.” As valuable as it is to be reminded of such facts, more fine-grained examinations of the business of slavery will be in found in “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom” (2013) by Walter Johnson and “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” (2014) by Edward E. Baptist.
Unfortunately, the individual experiences of enslaved women and their families tends too often to get lost in the Sublettes’ larger scheme of history. What is more, they pay little attention to the effect on men of the exploitation on the women in their lives. Men were either forced to acquiesce (or even watch) while their wives and daughters were raped by whites or savagely punished for daring to try to protect them. When we hear the voices of enslaved women, or face their plight directly, however, the Sublettes’ narrative really comes alive.
Most of the victims still remain nameless, such as a mother who was interviewed by a curious congressman at Isaac Franklin’s slave pen, in Washington, D.C., in 1829. The woman, the congressman reported, had given birth to “eight or nine” children by her free husband, but each one had been sold away by her owner when the children had reached the age of 10 or 12. The woman having passed the age of fertility, she too was now being put on the market. Her fate is unknown, but her sale no doubt contributed its mite to Franklin’s immense fortune as the most successful slave trader in America in his day. When he died in 1846, he left his wife an estate valued at more than $700,000 in contemporary terms, along with a vast plantation, known as “Angola,” in Louisiana. The plantation site, the Sublettes note, is today occupied by the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where its inmates, 76% of whom are black, perform unmechanized field labor not much different from that done by their ancestors in slavery days.