slave capitalism


In 1835, at the height of the Southern cotton boom, the master class of the Mississipi Delta region had an attack of its worst phobia: fear of slave rebellion. One slaveholder in the countryside saw some of her slaves acting unusually, seeming defiant, appearing to plot. She began to eavesdrop and overheard one slave fantasize about being “her own mistress.” In another conversation, she caught the word “kill.” Her son squeezed a slave for information and drew out details of a coming insurrection. The masters sounded the alarm: patrols were instituted, investigators fanned out, the countryside came alive with tipsters. Evidence invariably consisted of seeing slaves where they oughtn’t to have been—in the slaveholder phrase, “skulking around.” The suspects gave up under torture, confessing plans for securing arms, robbing banks, butchering masters. As the investigation wore on, the ruling class created an ad hoc executive committee, which generated, piece by piece, its own worst nightmare. Although “circumstantial” is too kind a word for the evidence, and the investigators enjoyed no formal legal status, they nonetheless executed twenty-three suspects without controversy.

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