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Of Cotton and "Hands" Engaging River of Dark Dreams Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom Part I

A soil manured with black blood from two hundred years of oppression and exploitation until it sprang with an incredible paradox of peaceful greenery and crimson flowers and sugar cane sapling size and three times the height of man... valuable pound for pound… as if nature held a balance and kept a book and offered a recompense for the torn limbs and outraged hearts…’ -William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Colonel Thomas Sutpen likens “it” to an erupting volcano. Sitting atop his horse, hearing “the air trembling and throb at night with the drums and the chanting…” It was “the heart of the earth itself he heard,” calling forth from him an acknowledgment of its depths soaked in “violence,” “injustice,” and “black blood.” Maybe not outright compassion. Or empathy, even. Just an acknowledgment that the spilling of blood and the indifference toward suffering is an abomination, a crime against the very Earth that gave birth to all life on the planet.

And yet, “apprenticing” in Saint-Dominique, overseeing the earth and the laboring human beings beneath him as he rode atop his horse, the future slaveholder oscillates between anger and fear. Years later, to a fellow neighbor and Civil War veteran in Mississippi, General Compson, Supten admits to feeling this “incredible paradox” rising from the earth, too. But what could it mean? What role could it possibly have in his life?

Riding across the plantation owned by his mentor and boss, Sutpen concludes that this “incredible paradox” was originating from within him - not the earth itself! For what could the trembling and throbbing of air and earth at night refer to, if not to him, and him alone? Whatever was “boiling and readying to rise up violently underneath him” spoke to his dreams! Didn’t he, Sutpen, find himself suddenly “riding peacefully” - despite the distance drumbeats beneath his feet?

He, Sutpen, had discovered a “design”! Was it not a caricature of his dream? His own rising volcano of innocence? “I was quite calm, quite calm,” he told Gen. Compson, while he listened to the earth speak to him of a “man’s” destiny, of his “destiny.” And then the “design” unfolded before him. a glorious “design” in which he was at the center of a grand enterprise, of great extravagance. Out enterprising all others!

To see it through, he explains to the general, he would need to acquire “money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family - incidentally of course, a wife.”

And why not? Sutpen recalls for the general how he came to discover his innocence while learning about the difference not only between white and Black men, but also “between white men and white men.” Even before he arrived in Saint-Dominique, something nestled within him, angered him, and filled him with hate. He remembers running to escape it but to no avail. It took hold of him, at the front door of the big house, the moment a “n----r” told him, the son of a poor tenant farmer, but white nonetheless, to go to the back door! To the back door! Go!

The plantation becomes an organizational design of “labor and nature,” where the nightmare in Jefferson’s dream (the uprising of the enslaved) becomes the nightmare (the violence of enslavement) in the dreams of freedom for Black people.

The “incredible paradox” must have been there in Virginia. Had to have been since he realized, in retrospect, that it wasn’t the “nigger anymore than it had been the nigger that his father had helped to whip that night. ”

At that moment, ready to relay his father’s message to the Black face, he hears, instead of words, an “explosion. ” Before the door closes in his face,”something in him escaped.”

Something in him escaped.

In the novel, Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner’s fictive Col. Thomas Sutpen has a dream…

My father was a cotton picker in Arkansas. When exactly, I don’t know. For how long, a month, a year? I don’t know. I don’t know if he had a dream. He would have picked cotton before I was born in the early 1950s. His story of picking cotton told by an older sister. And why not? Memory of those days wasn’t to be shared with future generations who imagine the humanity surrounded by the whiteness of an American kingdom while listening to the down beat of drums and the whistle of trains passing on their way north…

The Cotton Kingdom begins with a dream - but not my father’s dream.

Thomas Jefferson dreams of populating the earth with yeoman farmers, writes historian, Walter Johnson, in River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. His dream for America begins in a vision of a nation secured and cultivated by yeoman farmers. “These yeoman farmers would be self-sufficient, equal, and independent - masters of their own destiny.” Their hard work and sacrifice “would give birth to independence, maturity, freedom.” The philosopher visionary president of the US, Jefferson was thinking of white yeoman farmers and not the Black people working in his fields at Monticello. Jefferson’s dream of a landscape populated by white yeoman farmers would require land, money, wives. And enslaved Blacks.

That’s the conundrum for a liberal-minded person like Jefferson – the “incredible paradox” he writes about in works describing potential of Virginia’s landscape to yield a life for his ruling class while he has listened for years to feel the seismic waves and the shifting of earth itself underneath his feet.

Jefferson writes of an American soil producing “wheat, rye, barley, oats, buck-wheat, broom corn, and Indian corn” while “we,” he continues, cultivate melons, potatoes, ground nuts, and tobacco (Notes on Virginia). The “gardens” produce figs, tomatoes, pomegranates, apples, pears, and cherries - all as if the “we,” Americans, in their fields and gardens, are already white yeoman farmers instead of people, participating by force in a dream and neither as yeoman farmers nor as gardeners but as enslaved people.

In 1803, the news from Saint-Dominique is worse: the newly formed governance there, now called by the former enslaved Blacks, Haiti, managed to drive the last European slaveholder and French troops out of country. Jefferson worries that in due time, the drumbeats may well sound the loudest in the American colonies. Jefferson writes in Notes of fearing “a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events.” A seismic shift?

It’s no surprise that when Jefferson packs his bags to visit France and negotiate for the purchase of the Louisiana territory in 1803, he has Black people on his mind. The liberal dreamer, president of the United States, Jefferson, wasn’t compelled to confer with the Indigenous people who had served as guardians and cultivators of the land for centuries. Jefferson has a dream, America has a dream, a “design,” And the Indigenous were like the “mistake” that “rendered it impossible” for them to be “incorporated” in the American design - as free human beings, subjects, co-existing on the earth, enjoying the same liberties as white Americans.

Jefferson had the business of Empire to tend to in France.

In River of Dreams, Johnson notes that when Jefferson spoke or wrote about liberty, he had “in mind a liberty of a very particular sort,” a liberty that didn’t exclude the necessity of removing Indigenous people and continuing to deny liberty to Black people.

In subsequent years, the necessity of conquest and enslavement provides an excuse for someone such as an Andrew Jackson whose life’s mission was to be the agent by which the ideology of white supremacy spread through the colonies and beyond. When Jackson comes along, he spends the next 15 years, first as a general in the army, and then as governor of Florida, and finally as president, “supervising the ethnic cleansing and racial pacification of the southeastern United States.”

While Jackson executes his policy to remove Indigenous people, a new crop of people are creating new opportunities - thanks to the recently “cleared” land. Surveyors are paid by the mile to work “their way across landscape, marking boundary lines and making detailed notes about the land those boundaries contained.” And the surveyors can hardly keep up with Jackson’s “ethnic cleansing” campaign.

Beginning in 1831 with the Choctaw, then in 1837 with the Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and ending in 1838 with the removal of the Cherokee, made to walk along what’s known as the “Trail of Tears,” Jackson “added over 100 million acres to the public domain.” This is still a beginning in a land by and for the people - except when a people have designated themselves as the superior beings, others may stay, if useful to the design, but others, still, must be removed as worthless to the goal of American Empire. As Johnson writes, “tens of thousands died in the process.”

But who is counting the bodies? For those with the capital, all that mattered was the purchase of more land, filled with more people, “purchased” and worked to death or to a condition in which they were no longer of worth to slaveholders.

The flow of capital puts the Mississippi Valley on the world’s map as one of the richest economies of the first half of the nineteenth century, Johnson writes. The “Cotton Kingdom” gave new life to slavery in the United States.” In 1800, there were 100,000 or so enslaved Blacks living within borders of present day Mississippi and Louisiana. In 1840, there were 250,000 and in 1860, 750,000. “The specter of Haiti” haunted the Mississippi Valley, Johnson explains, sending whites into a buying spree. More land and more laborers to work the land! More laborers, more land!

A ship building industry springs up, and by the 1840s, the New Orleans, so goes the legend, is the first steamboat built to trade in cotton. More steamboats follow, traveling to and from ports in New Orleans, New York, and Liverpool. These steamboats are built and set out by owners, individuals called “investors.” More investors meant more boats, bigger boats, and more cargo clogging the ports as financial opportunities depend on the efficiency of a well planned out schedule. Trouble was brewing.

But in the meantime, money had to move. And fast! Connecting the ports of New Orleans to those in New York or in Liverpool was one thing, but exchanging capital for bales of cotton was another matter. The solution: paper!

Investors turned to paper, to its production, which, in turn, would supply the cotton industry with currency in the form of banknotes. Banknotes, Johnson explains, were “printed markers of an amount of money that was notionally deposited in the bank whose name was on their face - the Merchant’s Bank of Philadelphia, the Farmer’s Bank of Tennessee, the Citizen’s Bank of Louisiana.” Banknotes created the need for expertise in all things pertaining to financing the cotton trade.

Expansion is dizzying! Surrounding America’s primary bread winning industry – that “peculiar institution” - the Mississippi Valley becomes a hub of commercial trade in cotton. “Hundreds of thousands of bales of cotton and hogsheads, of sugar would pay their price” and metropolitan markets represented in the Atlantic world: Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Havana, Marseilles, and Liverpool, reap profits such as the world has never seen.

As money flows, so does the flow of human languages across the Atlantic ports, reflecting the reality of a global enterprise. At the various ports in the US, sightseers on a causal stroll would hear French, Spanish, English, and sometimes German languages, spoken by Blacks, mulattoes, “quartre unes,” and whites. On the market, standing chained on the auction boxes, were of course, people - for sale. Boats on the levees carried cargoes full of Africans to be auctioned at the markets. The world had come to trade in the currency of cotton picked on fields by Black people - and trade in the buying of the people themselves!

By 1850, writes Johnson, New Orleans” was the third-largest city in the country (the largest in the South).” The business of cotton was booming in so many ways; for it was a time of massive economic growth for merchants, bankers, planters, steamboat builders, engineers, pilots, city clerks, and accountants. The building of hotels meant that there would be a need for entertainment, and entertainment meant offering the capitalist class refined culture, like that in European nations. So along the Mississippi River, the ladies and gentlemen of the South and North could wine and dine, and then attend theaters, ballrooms, operas, and musical concerts. Just like the well-to-do in Paris or London.

The ladies and gentlemen, even in their finery, could attend the slave markets, too. There were big ones and small ones in the Mississippi Valley. As Johnson explains, “at Donaldsonville, Clinton, and East Baton Rouge in Louisiana; at Natchez, Vicksburg, and Jackson in Mississippi; at every roadside tavern, country courthouse, and crossroads across the lower South,” there are slave markets where a slave or two could be purchased - like any other item on sale. As Johnson adds, “promises made in the Mississippi Valley were backed by the value of slaves and fulfilled in their labor. If the dollar was the universal equivalent of the steamboat world, as often as not its value turned out to be backed by flesh rather than gold.”

There were, nonetheless, “snags,” accidents, the trouble waiting to happen: steamboats packed with merchandise, hopelessly trapped nowhere near destination. Steamboat accidents required the skills of insurance adjusters from insurance agencies specializing in the cotton trade. Those citizens recording the largest investments aboard a sunken steamboat would receive a different valuation regarding loss than would a citizen less valued or not valued at all. In other words, a return on a capitalist investment would be the American way of protecting class interests.

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Enslaved Blacks, serving as personal assistants and errand “boys,” lost limbs or were crushed hauling goods, scrubbing and scrapping the decks of steamboats. Their “owners” were compensated. So, too, if an enslaved Black decided to distance himself even farther from the plantation and escape from the dock of a steamboat, then citizens who are investors or slaveholders would be compensated for their loss of property. And there would be lawyers and courtrooms specializing in settling losses among those members of society who were valued - monetarily.

On the other hand, free Blacks had no monetary value.

The accidents continued to increase financial losses for capitalists. As Johnson explains, the explosions, “sinkings,” “snaggings,” fires, collisions were “evidence of the undertow of the steamboat era: risks known, but ignored; fears, at the margins of hope. They were evidence of the violence that the commercial boosters called history.” But the Cotton Kingdom must go on!

Surveyors were sent out to scout the land, locating places were tracks could be nailed in place, making a pathway for railroad trains.

By the 1850s, the railroads were tapping into the river trade bypassing “New Orleans and carrying cotton directly eastward to markets.”

The Mississippi Valley, Johnson writes, began falling off the world map.

But it’s only a shift in the capitalists’ gears!

In River of Dark Dreams, Walter Johnson’s discussion about cotton and empire and the buying and selling human beings - my ancestors. It’s about those “hands…”

In 1811, the ports of New Orleans are filled with the business of white men exchanging goods and cotton and Black men and women. Here and there they are a visible mass, huddled over bills of sale. There, too, are enslaved Blacks from Saint-Dominique, eager to exchange news on the resistance, speaking in low voices with native Blacks, serving as dock laborers and personal servants. The two groups, a sampling of the Black Diaspora in the Western Hemisphere. Were they whispering ideas about liberty?

Nonetheless, Black humanity at the ports was not unnoticed. As a scrutinized people, Blacks were observed by white Americans and they imagined talk not of the business at hand but instead of insurrection. White people “had been hearing rumors that an insurrection was being planned among their slaves,” writes Johnson, and they began to complain. How is it that Blacks, once of good nature and obedient, were now “insolent and disobedient”? Look at them there “engaged in secret conversation when they ought to have been engaged in their business.”

Yet, uprisings happened. One of the biggest and earliest, writes Johnson, is led by an enslaved Black, Charles Deslondes. Alarmed, the planter class as well as the white population in general, many of whom had come to trust Black people in their homes, with their children, determined to send a message to Black people considering the possibility of freedom on American soil. On one day, writes Johnson, “sixteen slaves and seven white men” were put to death “without any pretense of a trial.” And for the first time in its history, the US Army (along with volunteer militia) was deployed against a slave revolt.

When captured, Deslondes was executed on the battlefield. Others, captured and hanged! For some, hanging wasn’t enough. Their heads were severed from their bodies and “exposed at one of the lower gates of the city.” That is, at the gates entering New Orleans. Anyone passing the gates would look on those rotting heads, and, as Johnson writes, would be reminded “of the inexorability of the emergent order.” It won’t be the last time in the history of the US that “national security and white supremacy were synthesized into state policy and military violence.”

The “new thing on the face of the earth, created in Rodney, Mississippi, around 1820… was a hybrid… [a blend of] Georgia and Siamese cotton,” planted in Mississippi from the end of the eighteenth century, Johnson writes. In the ensuing century, he continues, Mexican cotton was introduced to the region in the nineteenth century. This hybrid was patented as “Petit Gulf cotton,” and became, for merchants and “lucky planters” trading in this breed of cotton, a lucrative source of income.

Pickability guaranteed the quality and value of a brand of cotton - and Petit Gulf was “pickable”! “Immune to cotton rot,” Petit Gulf, Johnson explains, “produced long, fine cotton fibers,” making it exceptionally marketable. In turn, the planters looked to “hands” that could make the dream come true.

Shape “hands” and the world will demand the cotton called, Petit Gulf!

With Petit Gulf, nature, the planters believe, has already adjusted to the “mechanical capabilities of the human hand.” All that’s required now are the appropriate “hands” to pick the best brand of cotton that produces the most wealth. Once a system develops, by trial and error, the Mississippi Valley produces not only the best brand of cotton in the Western Hemisphere but also a narrative, the American Cotton Planter, for planters to reproduce success.

The world had come to trade in the currency of cotton picked on fields by Black people - and trade in the buying of the people themselves!

The best laborers are those between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five years old. Darker skinned is more preferable for field work than lighter skinned Blacks. Lighter skinned Blacks and mulattoes are sent to the “house” and trained as “house servants, mechanics, body-servants, carriage-drivers, negro-drivers, or overseers. “Among the darker skinned Blacks, care must be taken to select the appropriate “hands.”

To produce a good crop of cotton, the bales are “calculated” per “hand.”

In the chapter titled, “Dominion,” Johnson explains, “the ‘hand’ was the standard measure that slaveholders used when calculating the rate of exchange between labor and land. Cotton planters began the year by calculating ‘to the hand. ’ By multiplying the number of hands times the number of acres each hand could be expected - would be forced - to tend, they planned their sowing.”

Therefore, the appropriate shape of “hands” must be considered key to the success of bales of Petit Gulf, and, in turn, the success of the Cotton Kingdom.

Healthy adult men and women, for example, were accounted as “full hands”; however, suckling women were accounted “half hands.” Those children in their first years in the fields were accounted “quarter hands,” and the tiny ones were of no value at all.

And children? Children, writes Johnson, were raised at the “margins of the cotton crop.” According to a memoir of Charles Ball, mothers, while working in the fields, tended to babies they placed along the side of the fence.” When the rest of us went to get water, they [the mothers] would go give suck to their children.” Young children would often have to be “tied to keep them from crawling away.” Very young Black children, too, could be seen alongside old enslaved Blacks and nursing mothers, as what was labeled the “trash gang.”

In the cotton fields, idleness wasn’t tolerated: “hands” were expected to keep to the task before them. The training of human beings to the cotton fields in the Mississippi Valley required that each become as mindless as a cog on a piece of factory machinery. “In effect,” Johnson explains, their “senses, their muscles, and their minds were reeducated to suit their work.” Here in Cotton Kingdom is the “serial conversion of human beings into lineal holdings.” And as such, Black hands could be molded into whatever the slaveholder required for the production of wealth. The plantation becomes an organizational design of “labor and nature,” where the nightmare in Jefferson’s dream (the uprising of the enslaved) becomes the nightmare (the violence of enslavement) in the dreams of freedom for Black people.

In this foreign landscape, African and their descendants are subjected to organized as well as arbitrary violence, for “behind closed doors, in outbuildings, or in the woods at the margins of the fields, the choreography of service, surveillance, and space defined a landscape of sexual violence.”

Citing passages from diaries of former enslaved Blacks, Johnson further muddies the images of the good and the clean, the innocence of cotton production in the Mississippi Valley with the utterly grotesque - infecting every bale of cotton. In between the white fields of fabric are, as Toni Morrison referenced, “repressed darkness” concealed behind every bill of sale, every ledger entry, attributed, ironically, to those Black bodies - and never the minds conceiving the system of cruelty and brutality.

There is the teenager, Henry Bibb, forced to fan the mistress of the plantation –while “she slept.” A slaveholder nails the penis of an enslaved man to his bedpost. Solomon Northrup recalled a slaveholder who would come to the fields, making “clear his ‘lewd intentions’ by ‘motioning and grimacing,’ he ‘beckoned a woman named Patsey to leave her work and come over to him.” “Summoned to a barn to look for ‘nests,’ an enslaved woman named Mary finds the slaveholder’s son demanding that she ‘bed’ among the ‘hay and submit to his lustful passions.’”

The worms an enslaved failed to catch, might end up being placed in his or her mouth. An enslaved could be beaten with a bullwhip or pitchfork, as often than not, “tools,” Johnson explains, were turned into “weapons” used against Black people. As Johnson writes, “the satisfaction that [whites] got from violence - threatening, separating, torturing, degrading, raping - depended on the fact that their victims were human beings capable of registering slaveholding power in their pain, terror, grief, submission, and even resistance.” What, then, is so paradoxical about a history, that is, to paraphrase Macbeth, so deep in blood?

Jefferson wrote of the impact of white children witnessing the cruelty and brutality of their parents directed at Black people, men and women. Jefferson writes, in Notes on Virginia, “from his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do.” This madness of “innocence” is passed on from one generation to the next. What is “stamped” on the minds of these children if not, as Jefferson observed, an exercise in “tyranny” on a daily bases?

The historical imprint of white violence on Black bodies has traditionally unified white America against a common foe. European immigrants to the US had only to hitch their whiteness to the “innocence” mythology as did many of the Founding Fathers and slaveholders before them who considered their “innocence” a “refinement,” to use Johnson’s term, reason for setting whites apart from Blacks and animals. The staged reality seemed to suggest as much. Anyone doubting the righteousness of the planters in the Cotton Kingdom, need only look among the “domestic animals” to find “enslaved human beings,” living “specifically, with cattle and pigs”!

Images such as these of American violence traveled far and wide - first among the “hearts and minds” of whites in surrounding communities. The violence inherent in the Cotton Kingdom not only provided a source of wealth for planters, merchants, bankers, insurance brokers, financiers, ship builders - the multitude that came to depend upon the cotton industry for their livelihood. It also became a cultural norm throughout the US.

Legend has it that there once was a Kingdom of Cotton in America…

The “mistakes” of the original design, that is, the presence of free roaming, landowning Indigenous people, was corrected while Black people, reduced to “hands,” struggled to rebel.

But resistance never dies.

Lenore Daniels

The Black Commentator