Spelling “Free Black Labor” in Greater Britain and Virginia, 1866

by zunguzungu

One good response to Virginia governor Bob McDonnell’s weird slavery-free vision of Confederate history is man-bites-dog apathy; as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it this morning, “This is who they are”:

The GOP is, effectively, the party of willfully unlettered Utopians…That the party of unadulterated quackery also believes that Birth Of A Nation is more true to the Civil War than Battle Cry Of Freedom, is to be expected. Ignorance does not respect boundaries. It is, at times, qualified and those who know more, often struggle to say more. But people who believe that the Census is actually a covert attempt to put Americans in concentration camps, are also likely to believe that slavery was incidental to the Civil War. This is who they are–the proud and ignorant.

Another response is to declare April “West Virginia Appreciation Month” and honor the “patriotism of those nearly three dozen Virginia counties that refused to make war in defense of white supremacy,” as Dave Noon suggests, and I’m all about that. But another is to get our feet dirty in the swamp of weird insanity that is confederate history. So, for reasons of my own, let me take you back to a particular corner of it that I’ve gotten interested in, white reconstruction as a model for the British Empire.

For example, Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke’s fascinatingly odd Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries (a book he published in 1868 after having toured the US and the British colonies in ’66 and ’67) starts in Virginia. And among other things, it gives us a fascinating first-hand account of the immediate post-bellum United States, taken while the cannons and bodies were (metaphorically) almost still warm. As he sails into Hampton Roads, his first port of call in Virginia, for example, he recalls:

“we nearly ran upon the wrecks of the Federal frigates Cumberland and Congress, sunk by the rebel ram Merrimac in the first great naval action of the war; but soon after, by a sort of poetic justice, we almost drifted into the black hull of the Merrimac herself. Great gangs of negroes were labouring laughingly at the removal, by blasting, of the sunken ships.”

And you get some fascinating bits of reporting on the sorts of things defeated southerners would say to an English visitor in 1866:

” You’re from England. Now, all that they tell you’s darned lies. We’re just as secesh as we ever was, only so many’s killed that we can’t fight—that’s all, I reckon.” ” We ain’t going to fight the North and West again,” said an ex-colonel of rebel infantry ; ” next time we fight, ’twill be us and the West against the Yanks. We’ll keep the old flag then, and be darned to them.” ” If it hadn’t been for the politicians, we shouldn’t have seceded at all, I reckon: we should just have kept the old flag and the constitution, and the Yanks would have seceded from us. Reckon we’d have let ’em go.” ” Wall, boys, s’pose we liquor,” closed in the colonel, shooting out his old quid, and filling in with another. ” We’d have fought for a lifetime if the cussed Southerners hadn’t deserted like they did.”

I asked who these ” Southerners” were to whom such disrespect was being shown. ” You didn’t think Virginia was a Southern State over in Britain, did you ? ’cause Virginia’s a border State, sir. We didn’t go to secede at all; it was them blasted Southerners that brought it on us. First, they wouldn’t give a command to General Robert E. Lee, then they made us do all the fighting for ’em, and then, when the pinch came, they left us in the lurch. Why, sir, I saw three Mississippi regiments surrender without a blow—yes, sir. That’s right down good whisky; jess you sample it.” Here the steamwhistle of the Saratoga sounded with its deep bray. ” Reckon you’ll have to hurry up to make connexions,” said one of my new friends, and I hurried off, not without a fear lest some of the group should shoot after me, to avenge the affront of my quitting them before the mixing of the drinks.

I love that kind of stuff, the texture of a historical experience unmediated by the centuries between then and now; Virginia in 1866 is an alien planet to me because I live in California in 2010, but the sights and smells and conversations are just as alien to Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke (then a rising British politician whose career would be doomed by a divorce scandal); he‘s just as disoriented as I would be, and am, seeing things not as a historian, but as a visitor, confused and curious. That’s a good perspective to try to inhabit sometimes.

Not that he doesn’t have his own agendas or ideological goggles, of course; good lord does he. I originally got interested in this book because Dilke’s account is of a “Greater Britain” which is precisely not co-extensive with the singular administrative political unit of the British Empire; as an assemblage of “English-speaking countries,” in fact, it not only looks forward to the cultural (rather than political) “English-Speaking Peoples” framework through which Winston Churchill would write his massive histories almost a century later, and he gives — as Churchill did — a particular centrality to the United States within British history and future destiny. In the final lines of the preface, for instance, he writes that:

Through America, England is speaking to the world. Sketches of Saxondom may be of interest even upon humbler grounds: the development of the England of Elizabeth is to be found, not in the Britain of Victoria, but in half the habitable globe. If two small islands are by courtesy styled “Great,” America, Australia, India, must form a “Greater Britain.”

The fact that he makes America into the most important part of “Greater Britain” is a fascinating move given that the British-supported confederate rebellion had just been soundly defeated, and particularly so given how much imperial expansion Great Britain has ahead of it (the scramble for Africa, for instance — which Dilke would himself have a hand in — is still a decade away). But the fact that he looks at the confederate states and the problem of reconstruction as a kind of model for thinking through the future problems of the British empire is even more fascinating; “America,” for him, is the problem of a multi-racial society (in whatever sense), which Britain, as it expanded throughout the world, was struggling to figure out what to do with.

As he puts it later in the book (a book which will include every part of the British Empire he can get to):

Everywhere we have found that the difficulties which impede the progress to universal dominion of the English people lie in the conflict with the cheaper races. The result of our survey is such as to give us reason for the belief that race distinctions will long continue, that miscegenation will go but little way towards blending races; that the dearer are, on the whole, likely to destroy the cheaper peoples, and that Saxondom will rise triumphant from I the doubtful struggle.

By “cheaper” and “dearer races” he’s talking about the different wages white and black people will work for, and the fear that, since non-white people will work for lower wages than white people, mixing the labor pools of whites and blacks will produce a degradation of the white working class. For him, this is more or less the same problem in India, Jamaica, Australia, California, and Virginia. And, mostly, America convinces him that this will be a triumphant battle. When he looks to the cities of the Atlantic seaboard, for instance, he is initially concerned by “the apparent Latinization of the English in America.” But he is quickly reassured; while Atlantic cities are filling up with immigrants from catholic countries, he eventually argues that:

“before [a visiting Englishmen] leaves the country, he comes to see that this is at most a local fact, and that the true moral of America is the vigour of the English race—the defeat of the cheaper by the dearer peoples, the victory of the man whose food costs four shillings a day over the man whose food costs four pence. Excluding the Atlantic cities, the English in America are absorbing the Germans and the Celts, destroying the Red Indians, and checking the advance of the Chinese.

His optimistic vision of the future of Greater Britain is, therefore, some lovely combination of extermination and assimilation, the Saxon race‘s cultural conquest of the white world and extermination of the non-white world, which is happening, before his eyes, in the US first:

“In America, the peoples of the world are being fused together, but they are run into an English mould: Alfred’s laws and Chaucer’s tongue are theirs whether they would or no. There are men who say that Britain in her age will claim the glory of having planted greater Englands across the seas. They fail to perceive that she has done more than found plantations of her own—that she has imposed her institutions upon the offshoots of Germany, of Ireland, of Scandinavia, and of Spain.

But underneath all that triumphalism is something else, something darker and more disturbing to him:

The American problem is this : Does the law, in a modified shape, hold good, in spite of the destruction of the native population ? Is it true that the negroes, now that they are free, are commencing slowly to die out ? that the New Englanders are dying fast, and their places being supplied by immigrants ? Can the English in America, in the long run, survive the common fate of all migrating races ? Is it true that, if the American settlers continue to exist, it will be at the price of being no longer English, but Red Indian ? It is certain that the English families long in the land have the features of the extirpated race; on the Other hand, in the negroes there is at present no trace of any change, save in their becoming dark-brown instead of black.

This is the other half, a bizarrely dreading account of inevitably spreading non-whiteness, white people are degenerating while the black people refuse to die off or assimilate. And after moments like these, the rest of the book more or less ignores them, returning to happy platitudes about white manifest destiny. He learns to forget — as post-reconstruction America would, in fact — what he saw in Virginia in 1866, the uncomfortable specter of freed blacks happily working while idle whites sit around and gripe:

When we were securely moored at Norfolk pier, I set off upon an inspection of the second city of Virginia. Again not a white man was to be seen, but hundreds of negroes were working in the heat, building, repairing, road-making, and happily chattering the while. At last, turning a corner, I came on an hotel, and, as a consequence, on a bar and its crowd of swaggering whites—” Johnny Rebs ” all, you might see by the breadth of their brims, for across the Atlantic a broad-brim denotes less the man of peace than the ex-member of a Southern guerilla band, Morgan’s, Mosby’s, or Stuart’s. No Southerner will wear the Yankee ” stove-pipe ” hat; a Panama or Palmetto for him, he says, though he keeps to the long black coat that rules from Maine to the Rio Grande.

These Southerners were all alike—all were upright, tall, and heavily moustached ; all had long black hair  and glittering eyes, and I looked instinctively for the baldric and the rapier. It -needed no second glance to assure me that, as far as the men of Norfolk were concerned, the saying of our Yankee skipper was not far from truth: ” The last idea that enters the mind of a Southerner is that of doing work.”

They were but a pack of “mean whites,” ” North Carolina crackers,” but their views were those which I found dominant in all ranks at Richmond, and up the country in Virginia. After all, the Southern planters are not ‘The South,’: which for political purposes is composed of the ” mean whites,” of the Irish of the towns, and of the South-Western men— Missourians, Kentuckians, and Texans—fiercely anti-Northern; without being in sentiment what we should call Southern : certainly not representatives of the ” Southern Chivalry.” The ” mean whites,” or ” poor trash,” are the whites who are not planters—members of the slave-holding race who never held a slave—white men looked down upon by the negroes. It is a necessary result of the despotic government of one race by another that the poor members of the dominant people are universally despised: the “destitute Europeans” of Bombay, the “white loafers” of the Punjaub, are familiar cases. Where slavery exists, the ” poor trash ” class must inevitably be both large and wretched: primogeniture is necessary to keep the plantations sufficiently great to allow for the payment of overseers and the supporting in luxury of the planter family, and younger sons and their descendants are not only left destitute, but debarred from earning their bread by honest industry, for in a slave country, labour is degrading.

The Southern planters were gentlemen, possessed of many aristocratic virtues, along with every aristocratic vice; but to each planter there were nine ” mean whites,” who, though grossly ignorant, full of insolence, given to the use of the knife and pistol upon the slightest provocation, were until the election of Lincoln to the presidency as completely the rulers of America as they were afterwards the leaders of the rebellion.

But the most telling passage for me, is this one — which occurred in the ellipsis above — in which we see most clearly how the problem of black free labor literally disappears under racism. When he asks the assembled whites about what kind of work the free blacks do, they literally cannot answer him. Though he has seen almost nothing in the entire town but black industrious labor, free black labor is so unthinkable to the ” poor trash” that when he points it out, they erase his very words with a spelling lesson on race hatred:

Strangers are scarce in Norfolk, and it was not long before I found an excuse for entering into conversation with the “citizens.” My first question was not received with much cordiality by my new acquaintance. “How do the negroes work? Wall, we spells nigger with two ‘g’s,’ I reckon.” Virginians, I must explain, are used to ” reckon” as much as are New Englanders to ” guess,” while Western men ” calculate ” as often as they cease to swear.) ” How does the niggers work? Wall, niggers is darned fools, certain, but they ain’t quite sich fools as to work while the Yanks will feed ’em. No, sir, not quite sich fools as that.” Hardly deeming it wise to point to the negroes working in the sun-blaze within a hundred yards, while we sat rocking ourselves in the verandah of the inn, I changed my tack, and asked whether things were settling down in Norfolk…