This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on August 20, 2014. On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Horne says that the defense of massive profits from the slave trade and fear of slave rebellions was an important impetus for the American Revolution.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and Reality Asserts Itself. We’re going to continue our discussion with Gerald Horne. But first I’m going to read a quote, which I read at the beginning of the first segment:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
That was Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, written in 1852.
Well, one of the things weighing on the brains of Americans is the concept of whiteness. At least half of voting America voted against Barack Obama, and many of them, according to polling, voted against him because he was black. It’s an underlying theme of American culture and politics, anything from gun control to how one looks at crime and mass incarceration rates: racism runs deep and permeates the American psyche.
But much of it comes from this nightmare weighing on people’s brains from the past.
And here’s a quote from Gerald Horne’s book.
“The construction of ‘whiteness’ or the forging of bonds between and among European settlers across class, gender, ethnic, and religious lines was a concrete response to the real dangers faced by all of these migrants in the face of often violent rebellions from enslaved Africans and their indigenous comrades.”
Now joining us to talk about these slave rebellions and the role they played in the creation of America is Gerald Horne. Gerald’s published over 30 books. He is a former executive director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers. And as I said, his most recent book is The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America.
Thanks for joining us again.
GERALD HORNE, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: Thank you for inviting me.
JAY: So there’s–lots of people talk about the American Revolution in terms of class, in terms of class struggle. But the class usually talked about is this American elite, the rising American owner class, and how they wanted freedom and they wanted to be free of British colonialism. There’s not a heck of a lot of talk of what role working people played in this, but there’s almost no talk about what the black slaves played. And, in fact, instead of describing the revolution as this great explosion of democracy, you call it a “counter-revolution”. So we’re going to work our way through your book. So start the story.
HORNE: Well, the short response is that the revolt against British rule in mainland North America in 1776 was inspired in no small part by the fact that London was moving towards abolition of slavery, as evidenced by Somerset’s case in June 1772, which among other things tended to ban slavery in England. And there was a perception on the mainland that it would be easy for that ruling to work its way across the Atlantic to the North American mainland settlements.
JAY: And why were the British heading towards abolition?
HORNE: Well, there hangs a tale. It depends on where you want me to enter the story. The short answer is that Britain was under enormous competitive pressure to move away from slavery. This was due in part to the fact that the Spanish in Florida, which they controlled intermittently from the 1500s up until 1821, had been arming Africans throughout that entire period and had been sending Africans from Spanish Florida, and also from Spanish Cuba, to pillage, plunder, and devastate British settlements in the Carolinas, in Georgia, in Virginia. This was putting pressure on Britain to likewise arm Africans, not least because there was a perception in London that some of those who were under London’s jurisdiction, such as the Irish, for example, who had been colonized hundreds of years previously, were not necessarily reliable politically, nor the Scots, who may be seceding from the U.K. within weeks and who had only come under London’s jurisdiction in 1707.
JAY: Yeah, I mean, the Scots were far closer to the French than they were to the English.
And so there was a real perception that these nationals of the U.K. were not reliable politically. And then there was the competitive pressure from Spain, and also a certain kind of competitive pressure from the French in Quebec as well, because oftentimes in New York State, and also in the colony that was Massachusetts, you would have French trying to stir up the Africans in that part of North America against the British.
However, this idea that the British were going to move towards abolition of slavery, not to mention arming Africans, encountered a wall of resistance in the North American settlements, because their idea was not to arm Africans; their idea was to manacle and handcuff and march at gunpoint into the fields every African in sight. So this was part of the fissure that develops between the metropolis in London and the settlements that is detonated in July 1776.
Now, of course, you could go back further to talk about how that story actually begins, which was with another revolution, the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, which among other things causes a reduction in power of the monarch, the king, as against the rising influence and power of the merchant class. This has a particular relevance to the African slave trade, because the Royal African Company had been under the thumb of the monarch. But what happens with the Glorious Revolution is what I call the inauguration of free trade in Africans. The trade is deregulated, so to speak, free trade is inaugurated, which causes the merchants to descend upon the African continent with the demented energy of crazed bees, manacling and handcuffing every African in sight, dragging them across the Atlantic, particularly to the Caribbean–Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua–which up until the middle of the 18th century London felt was more valuable than the mainland.
However, the problem there was that oftentimes in these islands the Africans were outnumbering the Europeans by a ratio of 20 to 1, which created fertile conditions for slave rebellions, which broke out with repetitive monotony–Antigua, 1709, 1736; the maroons in Jamaica, who had basically escaped London’s jurisdiction and were basically seeming to auger the collapse of the entire colonial project in Jamaica, which, because of its sugar, was seen as one of the most valuable pieces of real estate on Planet Earth. So London was facing pressure to either have abolition of slavery in a helter-skelter manner, being chased out of the Caribbean by angry Africans, or more measured abolition. But abolition, whether helter-skelter or measured, was on the agenda, and that was not pleasing to mainland settlers.
JAY: Mainland being the United States mainland.
HORNE: Exactly. North American mainland.
JAY: I mean the colonies at the time.
HORNE: Exactly, many of whom–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Madison, Patrick Henry–were all slave owners. Even a future U.S. president, who was not necessarily involved in slavery, John Adams, was a lawyer for slave owners. John Hancock, whose name appears on the founding document, was one of the key slaveholders in Massachusetts, for example.
You have to realize that slavery was not a sideshow. There’s evidence to suggest that slave voyages and slavery itself was one of the most lucrative enterprises ever devised in the brain of human beings, sometimes profits of 1,700 percent. As you know, living in North America, there are those today within a stone’s throw of the studio who would sell their firstborn for a profit of 1,700 percent, let alone an African they did not know.
JAY: Let me ask you one sort of economic question here. You know, generally speaking, I mean, Europe had gone through a whole stage of slave society and moves to feudalism. Serfdom was a better, was a more consistent way, with the technology of the time, of exploiting labor than slavery was. I mean, slaves rebel, and sometimes they break their tools and plows, and serfs are a little more controllable, in theory. Why was slavery such a–seem so productive, in a sense, in North America, and especially in the South?
HORNE: Well, U.S. historians today generally argue that despite these, quote, problems you’ve just articulated, slavery remained profitable up to the time it was abolished in the United States in 1865. And an entire superstructure had developed to justify slavery. What I mean is the ideology that Africans were inferior, that if Africans weren’t enslaved, they would butcher each other.
JAY: You’ve got to dehumanize those you enslave.
HORNE: Of course. But this also provides momentum and an impetus to continue slavery as well, because many people felt that they were rescuing these Africans from a benighted African continent by bringing them across the Atlantic. They were being, quote, Christianized, unquote. And so, therefore, it was seen as something of a benevolent enterprise by all too many.
JAY: So the reason all this matters is ’cause you’re arguing much of the structural racism and the strength of the far right, particularly in white south of the United States, this is part of this–it’s an outgrowth of this history. This culture has been created. As we–in the quote, it weighs on people’s minds; they’re born into this and kind of nurtured and educated in this culture of white supremacy and whiteness as a concept. So this ain’t just about some history for the sake of isn’t this interesting; this is about what we’re facing today has its roots here, and if we want to get at it, you need to know the root. So start us off with where the book starts.
HORNE: Well, you may recall that just a few moments ago, in talking about growing up in St. Louis, I made a reference to something I called the black scare. And I cited examples of this fear about black people in North America–they’ll carjack you, they’ll eat her babies, and all of the rest. And this becomes problematic when the time comes to organize people on a class basis, when you have this racial divide and this racial fear and racial hysteria. It oftentimes, such as in Louisiana in 1991, causes people to vote for the far right, that is to say, white Americans. As I talk about in the book–.
JAY: Just to remind people, this is when they vote for–Daryl Duke?
HORNE: David Duke.
JAY: David Duke.
HORNE: A Nazi and a Klansman.
JAY: He’s a Nazi, yeah.
HORNE: Yeah. I mean, it’s quite remarkable. It requires deep and intense study.
If you look at how and why loyal subjects of the British Crown revolted in North America against constituted authority–that’s what a revolution is–you have to understand that in a place like North Carolina, for example, one of the major reasons they revolted was fear of the black scare, which I just talked about, with regard to the 20th century and the 21st century. That is to say, there was a fear that Britain was going to arm Africans to squash and discipline settler discontent–settler discontent, for example, over taxes, for example, which is–this is where the traditional story enters the picture.
JAY: And Africans had a reason to do this, ’cause the English are moving towards abolition, and so they’re offered the chance of freedom if they make this alliance.
HORNE: They thought that either way you get a better deal. You have to realize that history oftentimes does not present pristine and simple choices between good guys and bad guys. Oftentimes it’s choosing between who has a dirty shirt and who has a very dirty shirt. And with regard to 1776, many of the Africans decided that Britain just had a dirty shirt and settlers had a very dirty search shirt. It’s not unlike the so-called Anglo-Boer war, 1899 to 1902 in South Africa, where settlers, so-called Boer settlers, descendents of Dutch migrants, revolted against British rule. And you’ll find that virtually to a man and woman, the African majority in South Africa sided with the Union Jack, they sided with the British. It’s not because they thought the British were heroes or good guys. It’s just that they felt that they had the cleanest dirty shirt, so to speak, compared to the Boer settlers. And they were probably right. And I dare say that with regard to 1776, it should not come as a surprise that almost by an order of magnitude the African sided with the Crown against the settlers, which also helps to explain the continuing animus against people of African descent, not least descendents of mainland enslaved Africans, because of the fact that we–and I use the term we rebelled against this supposedly heroic project establishing the United States of America.
It also sheds light on the fact of why I say in the book that racism, the term I use and probably used in this conversation, is a necessary but insufficient explanation of what has befallen people of African descent in North America, because if racism were sufficient, then it wouldn’t–do little to explain why it was that in the 1950s and 1960s, when African diplomats started coming to the United States and coming to this area and traveling up the highway from Washington to New York and stopping in segregated enterprises in Maryland, that the State Department wanted to give these African diplomats buttons to wear on their lapels so that they could be distinguished from we U.S. Negroes. Now, if these people were racist, they’d treat the African diplomats terribly too, ’cause they’re dark-skinned, sometimes darker than I am. But they’re making distinctions between and amongst them. I think partly the condition of black people can be explained as a political condition as much as it can be explained as a condition of racism.
JAY: The book’s–the title of the first chapter is “How Caribbean Slavery Came to the Mainland”. And I think a lot of what’s unique about your work is this unraveling or explanation of the close association to what happened to the Caribbean and the United States and the slave trade back and forth.
HORNE: Absolutely. You have to realize that these colonies were not a unitary project, they were not one unit, that is to say, mainland in North America, Jamaica, or Antigua, Barbados, but there was a certain commonality and unity between and amongst them. And surely when you had slave revolts, as you had frequently in the Caribbean because of the ratios, sometimes the Europeans being outnumbered 20 to 1, the settlers in these Caribbean islands made a great trek from Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados in particular, to the North American mainland, oftentimes bringing their Africans in tow, oftentimes helping to bolster the European secular enterprise in the Carolinas and in Virginia in helping to give a shot of adrenaline to the slave system in North America. That’s part of the explanation of how there is this unity of interests between the Caribbean and the North American mainland.
JAY: And you mention it in the earlier segment, but talk a bit more just how important the slave rebellions were in the shaping of the politics of the time.
HORNE: Well, first of all, it helps to infuse the black scare. I mean, when I was writing this book, some of my editors were suggesting to me that I was going overboard in talking about African resistance–shipboard insurrections, mass poisoning plots. Poison, for example, was a particular tool of enslaved women under slavery.
JAY: They’re preparing the food for the slave masters.
HORNE: Exactly. Arson is a continuing problem. Having your throat slit in the middle of the night is a continuing problem. And so, obviously, this is helping to infuse the black scare. People have become afraid of dark-skinned people, some might say for good reason.
But it’s the system under which all of these people are forced to labor that’s creating this violence. And one can make an argument that this systemic violence is still with us to a degree, helping to shed light on the amazing number of gun crimes in the United States, the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which has been interpreted, as you know, to give citizens the right to bring their guns openly into a Starbucks in Texas, for example. I think you can’t understand what seem to be bizarre episodes unless you understand the roots of these bizarre episodes.
JAY: So this period of the tremendous growth and expansion of the slave economy and the massive profits achieved, it’s the basis of–is it–how much, I guess is the question, is it the basis of what then becomes the industrialization of America and the banking system and all the–what becomes the more modern infrastructure?
HORNE: This is not a new idea, even though I think it’s something I try to dig into on perhaps a deeper and more profound level than has been dug into previously, that is to say that Eric Williams, a founding father of Trinidad and Tobago, in his book Capitalism and Slavery that came out seven years ago wrote about this. Walter Rodney, the late, great Guyanese historian, wrote about this in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. You cited Karl Marx at the top of this interview. Of course, Karl Marx wrote about this in Capital about how the system of capitalism enters upon the world stage with the blood of Africans gushing from every pore. In terms of what Marx talks about in terms of primitive accumulation, the fuel that leads to the takeoff of the system, it largely comes from the African slave trade. Slavery was not a sideshow. It was not a sectional issue. What I mean by sectional issue is that it wasn’t just a product of the South, Virginia going southward, because it was financed from the North, New York in particular, but also Rhode Island, also Boston. Not only that, but it was not only financed from these areas; oftentimes the ships left from these areas. And so, therefore, when you had shipboard insurrections, there were nationals from Rhode Island who were being massacred, which helped to unite those Rhode Islanders on the basis of antipathy towards Africans with Virginians and Georgians and Carolinians. So slavery provides the fuel for the development of this modern society that some are able to enjoy, which is one of the reasons why when I used to have conversations with certain friends from abroad about how they wanted to build a society like the United States, well, I would say, well, you know, find millions of people to work for free for a few centuries and you can have a modern society too.
And I think that this is oftentimes lost sight of, particularly when it comes to talking about reparations for slavery, the free labor that Africans provided to this country. Many people would suggest, well, my relatives only came here 30 years ago, so what do I have to do with slavery? But you’re enjoying a society which was built upon the backs not only of enslaved Africans, but I should also say built upon the back of land that was taken from the indigenous population. And one of the points I try to stress in this particular book is not only the fact that slavery was an impetus for 1776, but also a proclamation that London had made in circa 1763 to keep the settlers from moving steadily west, seizing the land of the indigenous, because that led to clashes, which led to London having to send redcoats. And London was trying to contain India at that particular moment in history. It was jousting with the Spanish in Cartagena [crosstalk]
JAY: There’s a big debate going on in amongst the English elite at the time whether this whole colonial project isn’t just a boat anchor. This whole thing’s just costing too much.
HORNE: You are correct. And so when these settlers are then pushing further west, coming into conflict with Native Americans and First Nations peoples, indigenous people, it’s draining the Exchequer in London. And that’s leading to a fissure, that’s leading to a split of opinion between mainland North American opinion and settled opinion in London, which erupts in a revolt against British rule, leading to formation of the United States of America.
JAY: Okay. Alright. We’re going to continue this discussion with Gerald Horne on Reality Asserts Itself. So please join us for the next segment, and thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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“Gerald Horne is an American historian who holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston.”