Sunday, July 19, 2015

American History 101: Blood Money (USA as Well as CSA)

            "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography," Ambrose Bierce is said to have said, and we might add nowadays that multiple murders, shootings, and figurative battles over emotion-laden symbols is God's way of teaching Americans a bit of history.

            Among the more useful lessons that can be taught may come from the backlash against removing Confederate (CSA) flags and memorials through a more legitimate variation on the argument tu quoque — "You're one too!" — that points out the evils committed under the flag of the United States (USA), and notes how slavery flourished because of complacency, complicity, collusion, and corruption extending far beyond the South.*

            We talk today of "blood diamonds": diamonds from combat zones in Africa whose purchase helps brutal warlords in their massacres. Well, in England and much of the United States one could talk of "blood sugar" in England and the northern American colonies and not refer to people's glucose levels but to the brutal exploitation of slave labor in the Caribbean plantation system that supplied the sugar. Similarly for tobacco in what became the United States, and then, finally, cotton.

            It was indirect, but elegant people putting sugar in their coffee and tea and learning to "drink" tobacco — that was the early expression — were complicit in the slave trade (plus other exploitation for the coffee and tea). Less culpable were more ordinary folk later producing cotton fabric and being able to buy cheap textiles: people complicit in "blood cotton."

            Far more directly sin-laden was the wealth generated by trade by northern colonies and then under the United States converting blood sugar and molasses to rum to slaves in the Triangular Trade: "a pattern of colonial commerce in which slaves were bought on the African Gold Coast with New England rum and then traded in the West Indies for sugar or molasses, which was brought back to New England to be manufactured into rum." Although some of the rum went to other purposes: as Benjamin Franklin said, in his Autobiography of the local Indian tribes, with only a bit of hyperbole: "[…] if it be the design of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for cultivators of the earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means. It has already annihilated all the tribes who formerly inhabited the sea-coast" (1771-90, Part III, p. 57).

            Cotton is a useful product, and sugar is a "food-drug," not just a drug. With tobacco and rum, however, colonial America and later the United States were engaging in trade in psychoactive addictive drugs produced by slaves, including the hard drug ethyl alcohol that from colonial times to the present has been devastating to many Native Americans.

            Et bloody cetera.

            So we do indeed need to look back at the sins of the CSA, but to do so without hypocrisy, all White Americans (and some of the Black economic elite) need to acknowledge how much of our present wealth is blood money, the product of good old USA crimes against humanity.

          * "Under the flag of the United States" could get literal. In Smuggler Nation, Peter Andreas points out that during the period in the 19th c. in which slavery was widespread but the slave trade illegal, US flagged vessels were the ships of choice for what had become illicit shipping of slaves. The US government resisted British attempts to stop and search even blatant slavers on the grounds that freedom from search on the high seas was more important than ending the slave trade.

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