Forces of Greed

I have been reading much history, most recently Ada Ferrer’s Cuba: An American History (Scribner, 2021) for which she won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for History.  She provides a panoramic view of the business of slavery.

James DeWolf, a US Senator, was one of the major players in the business of slavery.  Based in Bristol, RI, just five miles from where I grew up in Portsmouth, RI, he and other New Englanders had no plantations needing slaves, but made enormous profits providing forced labor to southern plantation owners.

There was certainly no respect for Blacks.  However, their motivation was greed rather than racial disdain.  They were buying Africans for $7 each, transporting them across the Atlantic, with a high percentage of deaths in transit, and selling them for $1,200 each in Cuba to the owners of sugar plantations.  Owners were often US citizens.

Even once slavery was no longer legal, DeWolf and his ilk sustained their business by buying off authorities.  Many people were earning bribes and gifts by ignoring the slave trade.  Eventually, Blacks comprised the majority of people in Cuba.  Once they were freed, the effect was profound, but that is another story.

Slaves were the dominant asset value of the Southern states, eclipsing the financial assets of the north.  The value of crops of cotton and other commodities totally depended on free slave labor.  Consequently, the wealth of the south depended on sustaining slavery.  This was also true of the Cuban sugar plantations.

White supremacy and the notion of states’ rights played a role in the Civil War, and the angst during Reconstruction.  However, the predominant force was greed in the sense of forcing others to work — for free – to the benefit of those in control.  Philosophical and sociological arguments might be interesting.  However, exploitation was the dominant force.

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