THE FATE OF THE GULLAHS

Here is another story, about two ships bringing a very different kind of immigrant to the Americas. Both left from the little island of Gorée, off the coast of Senegal. One was bound for Bahia in northern Brazil, the other for Charleston, South Carolina. Both carried African slaves – just a tiny fraction of the 8 million who crossed the Atlantic between 1450 and 1820. Nearly two-thirds of migrants to the Americas between 1500 and 1760 were slaves, increasing from a fifth prior to 1580 and peaking at just under three-quarters between 1700 and 1760.74

At first sight, slavery was one of the few institutions that North and South America had in common. The Southern tobacco farm and the Brazilian engenho alike came to rely on imported African slaves, once it became clear that they were cheaper and could be worked harder than indentured Europeans in the North and native Americans in the South. From the King of Dahomey down, the African sellers of slaves made no distinction; they were as happy to serve British slave-buyers as Portuguese, or for that matter their traditional Arab clients. A trans-Saharan slave trade dated back to the second century AD, after all. The Portuguese found fully functional slave markets when they arrived in Benin in 1500.75 From the vantage point of a captive African held in the slave house at Gorée, it seemed to make little difference whether he was loaded on to the ship bound for North or South America. The probability of his dying in transit (roughly one in six, since we know that 16 per cent did not survive the ordeal) was about the same.

Nevertheless, there were important differences between the forms of slavery that evolved in the New World. Slavery had been an integral part of the Mediterranean economy since ancient times and had revived in the era of the Crusades, whereas in England it had essentially died out. The status of villeinage had ceased to feature in the common law at a time when the Portuguese were opening a new sea route from the West African slave markets to the Mediterranean and establishing the first Atlantic sugar plantations, first in the Madeiras (1455) and then on São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea (1500).76 The first African slaves arrived in Brazil as early as 1538; there were none in the future United States before 1619, when 350 arrived at Jamestown, having been taken as booty from a Spanish ship bound for Veracruz.77 There were no sugar plantations in North America; and these – the engenhos of Bahia and Pernambuco – were undoubtedly the places where working conditions for slaves were harshest, because of the peculiarly labour-intensive characteristics of pre-industrial sugar cultivation.* The goldmines of southern Brazil (such as Minas Gerais) were not much better, nor the coffee plantations of the early nineteenth century. Many more Africans were shipped to Brazil than to the southern United States. Indeed, Brazil swiftly outstripped the Caribbean as the world’s principal centre of sugar production, producing nearly 16,000 tons a year as early as 1600. (It was only later that production in Santo Domingo and Cuba reached comparable levels.)78 Although the economy diversified over time from sugar production to mining, coffee growing and basic manufacturing, slaves continued to be imported in preference to free migrants, and slavery was the normal form of labour in almost every economic sector.79 So important was slavery to Brazil that by 1825 people of African origin or descent accounted for 56 per cent of the population, compared with 22 per cent in Spanish America and 17 per cent in North America. Long after the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself in the English-speaking world, the Brazilians continued with both, importing more than a million new slaves between 1808 and 1888, despite an Anglo-Brazilian treaty of 1826 that was supposed to end the trade. By the 1850s, when British naval interventions began seriously to disrupt the transatlantic traffic, the Brazilian slave population was double what it had been in 1793.

The lot of slaves in pre-revolutionary Latin America was not wholly wretched. Royal and religious authority could and did intervene to mitigate the condition of the slaves, just as it could limit other private property rights. The Roman Catholic presumption was that slavery was at best a necessary evil; it could not alter the fact that Africans had souls. Slaves on Latin American plantations could more easily secure manumission than those on Virginian tobacco farms. In Bahia slaves themselves purchased half of all manumissions.80 By 1872 three-quarters of blacks and mulattos in Brazil were free.81 In Cuba and Mexico a slave could even have his price declared and buy his freedom in instalments.82 Brazilian slaves were also said to enjoy more days off (thirty-five saints’ days as well as every Sunday) than their counterparts in the British West Indies.83 Beginning in Brazil, it became the norm in Latin America for slaves to have their own plots of land.

Not too rosy a picture should be painted, to be sure. When exports were booming, some Brazilian sugar plantations operated twenty hours a day, seven days a week, and slaves were quite literally worked to death. It was a Brazilian plantation-owner who declared that ‘when he bought a slave, it was with the intention of using him for a year, longer than which few could survive, but that he got enough work out of him not only to repay this initial investment, but even to show a good profit’.84 As in the Caribbean, planters lived in constant fear of slave revolts and relied on exemplary brutality to maintain discipline. A common punishment on some Brazilian plantations was the novenas, a flogging over nine consecutive nights, during which the victim’s wounds were rubbed with salt and urine.85 In eighteenth-century Minas Gerais it was not unknown for the severed heads of fugitive slaves to be displayed at the roadside. Small wonder average life expectancy for a Brazilian slave was just twenty-three as late as the 1850s; a slave had to last only five years for his owner to earn twice his initial investment.86 On the other hand, Brazilian slaves at least enjoyed the right to marry, which was denied to slaves under British (and Dutch) law. And the tendency of both the Portuguese and the Spanish slave codes was to become less draconian over time.

In North America slave-owners felt empowered to treat all their ‘chattels’ as they saw fit, regardless of whether they were human beings or plots of land. As the population of slaves grew – reaching a peak of nearly a third of the British American population by 1760 – the authorities drew an ever sharper distinction between white indentured labourers, whose period of servitude was usually set at five or six years, and black slaves, who were obliged to serve for their whole lives. Legislation enacted in Maryland in 1663 was unambiguous: ‘All Negroes or other slaves in the province … shall serve durante vitae; and all children born of any Negro or other slave shall be slaves as their fathers were.’87 And North American slavery became stricter over time. A Virginian law of 1669 declared it no felony if a master killed his slave. A South Carolina law of 1726 explicitly stated that slaves were ‘chattels’ (later ‘chattels personal’). Corporal punishment was not only sanctioned but codified.88 It reached the point that fugitive slaves from Carolina began to cross the border into Spanish Florida, where the Governor allowed them to establish an autonomous settlement, provided they converted to Catholicism.89 This was a remarkable development, given that – as we have seen – chattel slavery had died out in England centuries before, illustrating how European institutions were perfectly capable of mutating on American soil. A Virginian magistrate neatly captured the tension at the heart of the ‘peculiar institution’ when he declared: ‘Slaves are not only property, but they are rational beings, and entitled to the humanity of the Court, when it can be exercised without invading the rights of property.’90 Slave-traders laid themselves open to attack by abolitionists only when they overstepped a very elevated threshold, as the captain of the Liverpool ship the Zong did when, in 1782, he threw 133 slaves overboard, alive and chained, because of a shortage of water on board. Significantly, he was first prosecuted for insurance fraud before Olaudah Equiano alerted the abolitionist Granville Sharp to the real nature of the crime that had been committed.91

An especially striking difference between North and South was the North American taboo against racial interbreeding – ‘miscegenation’, as it was once known. Latin America accepted from early on the reality of interracial unions, classifying their various products (mestizos, the offspring of Spanish men and Indian women; mulattos, born of unions of creoles and blacks; and zambos, the children of Indians and blacks) in increasingly elaborate hierarchies. Pizarro himself had taken an Inca wife, Inés Huayllas Yupanqui, who bore him a daughter Doña Francisca.92 By 1811 these various ‘half-breeds’ – the English term was intended to be pejorative – constituted more than a third of the population of Spanish America, a share equal to the indigenous population, and more than creoles of pure Hispanic origin, who accounted for less than a fifth. In eighteenth-century Brazil mulattos accounted for just 6 per cent of the predominantly African plantation workforce, but a fifth of the more skilled artisanal and managerial positions; they were the subaltern class of the Portuguese Empire.

In the United States, by contrast, elaborate efforts were made to prohibit (or at least deny the legitimacy of) such unions. This was partly a practical consequence of another difference. When the British emigrated to America, they often took their womenfolk with them. When Spanish and Portuguese men crossed the Atlantic, they generally travelled alone. For example, of the 15,000 names recorded in the ‘Catálogo de Pasajeros a Indias’, a list of Spanish passengers who embarked for the New World between 1509 and 1559, only 10 per cent were female. The results were not difficult to foresee. Scientists led by Andrés Ruiz-Linares have studied individual mitochondrial DNA samples from thirteen Latin American mestizo populations in seven countries from Chile to Mexico. The results show clearly that, right across Latin America, European men took indigenous and African women as mates, not the other way round.93 Case studies of places like Medellín in Colombia – where the population is often regarded as ‘purely’ Hispanic – support this finding. In one sample, Y-chromosome lineages (inherited from the father) were found to be around 94 per cent European, 5 per cent African and just 1 per cent Amerindian, whereas mitochondrial DNA lineages (inherited from the mother) were 90 per cent Amerindian, 8 per cent African and 2 per cent European.94

It was not that miscegenation did not happen in North America. It did. Thomas Jefferson is only the most famous American to have fathered children by one of his slaves. There were approximately 60,000 mulattos in British America by the end of the colonial era. Today between a fifth and a quarter of the DNA of most African-Americans in the United States can be traced back to Europeans. But the model that took root in the colonial period was essentially binary. An individual with even a ‘drop’ of African-American blood – in Virginia, a single black grandparent – was categorized as black no matter how pale her skin or Caucasian her physiognomy. Interracial marriage was treated as a punishable offence in Virginia from as early as 1630 and was legally prohibited in 1662; the colony of Maryland had passed similar legislation a year earlier. Such laws were enacted by five other North American colonies. In the century after the foundation of the United States, no fewer than thirty-eight states banned interracial marriages. As late as 1915, twenty-eight states retained such statutes; ten of them had gone so far as to make the prohibition on miscegenation constitutional. There was even an attempt, in December 1912, to amend the US constitution so as to prohibit miscegenation ‘for ever’.95

The Racial Structure of the New World, 1570–1935

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NOTE: Data on mixed-race populations unavailable.

It made a big difference, then, where African slaves went. Those bound for Latin America ended up in something of a racial melting pot where a male slave had a reasonable chance of gaining his freedom if he survived the first few years of hard labour and a female slave had a non-trivial probability of producing a child of mixed race. Those consigned to the United States entered a society where the distinction between white and black was much more strictly defined and upheld.

As we have seen, it was John Locke who had made private property the foundation of political life in Carolina. But it was not only landed property he had in mind. In article 110 of his ‘Fundamental Constitutions’, he had stated clearly: ‘Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.’ For Locke, the ownership of human beings was as much a part of the colonial project as the ownership of land. And these human beings would be neither landowners nor voters. Subsequent law-makers strove to maintain this distinction. Section X of the South Carolina Slave Code of 1740 authorized a white person to detain and examine any slave found outside a house or plantation who was not accompanied by a white person. Section XXXVI prohibited slaves from leaving their plantation, especially on Saturday nights, Sundays and holidays. Slaves who violated the law could be subjected to a ‘moderate whipping’. Section XLV prohibited white persons from teaching slaves to read and write.

The profound effects of such laws are discernible in parts of the United States even today. The Gullah Coast stretches from Sandy Island, South Carolina, to Amelia Island, Florida. People here have their own distinctive patois, cuisine and musical style.96 Some anthropologists believe that ‘Gullah’ is a corruption of ‘Angola’, where the inhabitants’ ancestors may have come from. It is possible. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, a very high proportion of all the slaves transported to the Americas – perhaps as many as 44 per cent – came from the part of Africa contemporaries called Angola (the modern country plus the region between the Cameroons and the north bank of the Congo River).97 A third of the slaves who passed through Charleston were from Angola.98 Most of these were taken from the Mbundu people of the Ndongo kingdom, whose ruler, the ngola, gives the modern country its name. They ended up scattered all over the Americas, from Brazil to the Bahamas to the Carolinas.

That there are still discernible echoes of Angola in South Carolina – including traces of the Kimbundu language – is in itself significant. The people living here are directly descended from Angolan slaves and not much has happened to dilute their gene pool. The survival of Gullah culture testifies to the remarkable endurance of the colour line in states like South Carolina. By contrast, Angolans who were sent to South America had a significantly better chance of escaping from the prison of enslavement – sometimes literally, in the case of the fugitives from Pernambuco who founded their own independent colony of Quilombo, also known as Little Angola, in Palmares, deep in the jungle of the north-east Brazilian state of Alagoas. At its height, this little kingdom had a population of more than 10,000 and an elected chief, the ‘Ganga Zumba’. Established in the early 1600s, it was not conquered by Portuguese forces until 1694. The fate of ‘Gullah’ Jack Pritchard, an Angolan slave who planned to launch an uprising against the buckra (whites) in Charleston in 1822, was very different. He was hanged. Ironically, the Land of the Free looked like being, for around a fifth of its population, the Land of the Permanently Unfree. North of the Rio Grande, slavery had become hereditary.

In the end, of course, the anomaly of slavery in a supposedly free society could only be resolved by war between the pro-slavery states of the South and the anti-slavery states of the North. Only British naval intervention on the side of the Confederacy could have defeated the upholders of the Union and that was never very likely. Yet, although the Civil War ended slavery, many Americans continued to believe for more than a century that they owed their prosperity to the dividing line between white and black. As early as the 1820s, Edward Everett would write in North American Review:

We have no concern with South America; we have no sympathy, we can have no well founded political sympathy with them. We are sprung from different stocks … Not all the treaties we could make, nor the commissioners we could send out, nor the money we could lend them, would transform their … Bolivars into Washingtons.99

To a later generation of white supremacists, segregation was the key reason why the United States had prospered, while the ‘mongrel’ peoples of Latin America were mired in poverty (not to mention, in some cases, communism).

With the rallying cry ‘Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!’ Alabama Governor George Wallace put racial separateness at the heart of the American success story as recently as 1963, in his inaugural gubernatorial address:

This nation was never meant to be a unit of one … but a united of the many … that is the exact reason our freedom loving forefathers established the states, so as to divide the rights and powers among the states, insuring that no central power could gain master government control …

And so it was meant in our racial lives … each race within its own framework has the freedom to teach … to instruct … to develop … to ask for and receive deserved help from others of separate racial stations. This is the great freedom of our American founding fathers … but if we amalgamate into the one unit as advocated by the communist philosophers … then the enrichment of our lives … the freedom for our development … is gone forever. We become, therefore, a mongrel unit of one under a single all powerful government … and we stand for everything … and for nothing.

Such arguments were far from unappealing at the time: 10 million voters (13.5 per cent of the total) voted for Wallace and his American Independent Party when he ran for the presidency in 1968.

Yet the idea that the success of the United States was contingent on racial segregation was nonsense. It was quite wrong to believe, as Wallace did, that the United States was more prosperous and stable than Venezuela or Brazil because of anti-miscegenation laws and the whole range of colour bars that kept white and black Americans apart in neighbourhoods, hospitals, schools, colleges, workplaces, parks, swimming pools, restaurants and even cemeteries. On the contrary, North America was better off than South America purely and simply because the British model of widely distributed private property rights and democracy worked better than the Spanish model of concentrated wealth and authoritarianism. Far from being indispensable to its success, slavery and segregation were handicaps to American development, their legacy still painfully apparent in the social problems – teenage pregnancy, educational underachievement, drug abuse and disproportionate incarceration – that now bedevil so many African-American communities.

Today, a man with an African father and a white mother – a man who would have been called a casta in Simón Bolívar’s day – is the President of the United States, having defeated a decorated war hero of classic Scotch-Irish origin even in the state of Virginia. That is something that would have seemed a fantastically remote possibility as recently as thirty years ago, when I first visited the American South. It is easy to forget that, as late as 1967, for example, sixteen states still had laws prohibiting racial intermarriage. It was only with the Supreme Court judgment in the aptly named Loving v. Virginia that legal prohibitions on interracial marriage were ruled unconstitutional throughout the United States. Even then, Tennessee did not formally repeal the relevant article of its constitution until March 1978 and Mississippi put off doing so until December 1987. American racial attitudes have changed profoundly since that time. A whole time-honoured complex of words and thoughts can no longer publicly be uttered.

At the same time, the people in the streets of many North American cities increasingly resemble those in South America. Continuing migration from Latin America, especially Mexico, means that in forty years’ time non-Hispanic whites will probably be a minority of the US population.100 By that time the country may be practically if not legally bilingual. And American society is also becoming racially blended as never before. The US census distinguishes between four ‘racial’ categories: ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘Native American’ and ‘Asian or Pacific Islander’. On this basis, one in every twenty children in the United States is of mixed origin, in that their parents do not both belong to the same racial category. The number of such mixed-race couples quadrupled between 1990 and 2000, to roughly 1.5 million. Seen in this light, Barack Obama’s election in 2008 appears far less surprising.

Meanwhile, one of the most dynamic economies in the world is that of multi-coloured Brazil. The key to success in Brazil – still among the world’s most unequal societies – has been long-overdue reform to give a rising share of the population a chance to own property and make money. After more than a century of over-reliance on protectionism, import substitution and other forms of state intervention, most of Latin America – with the sorry exception of Venezuela – has achieved higher growth since the 1980s with a combination of privatization, foreign investment and export orientation.101 The days when the region’s economies veered between hyperinflation and debt default appear to be receding into the past. In 1950 South America’s gross domestic product was less than a fifth of US GDP. Today it is approaching a third.

Five hundred years since the process of conquest and colonization began, in other words, the yawning divide between Anglo-America and Latin America finally seems to be closing. Throughout the Western hemisphere, a single American civilization is finally emerging – a kind of belated fulfilment of Bolívar’s original pan-American dream.

This, however, is to anticipate a great deal. For the high tide of theories of racial distinction was not in fact in the nineteenth century but in the first half of the twentieth. To appreciate why it was that race became such a preoccupation of the West’s interaction with other civilizations, we must now turn to Africa itself, which was to become the focal point of European imperial expansion in the period. In the speech with which this chapter began, Churchill – whose own imperial career had started in the Sudan and South Africa – asked a question that was in many ways central to the lives of an entire generation of empire-builders: ‘Why should not the same principles which have shaped the free, ordered, tolerant civilization of the British Isles and British Empire be found serviceable in the organization of this anxious world?’ Civilization as he understood it had successfully taken root in North America – as successfully in those parts that remained under British rule as in the United States. It had flourished in the arid wilderness of Australia. Why not in Africa, too?

In America four European powers had tried their hands at planting their civilizations in foreign soil (five if we count the Dutch in Guiana and ‘New Amsterdam’, six if we count the Swedes in Saint-Barthélemy, seven including the Danes in the Virgin Islands, and eight with the Russian settlements in Alaska and California), with widely varying degrees of success. In the race to do the same in Africa, there were to be even more competitors. And Britain’s biggest rival in this race turned out to be the country it had so successfully eclipsed in America: France.

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