Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Book Review: The Weeping Time

I don't have time to accept many book review requests, but I was glad that I got the chance to read The Weeping Time by Anne C. Bailey, coming out at the end of this month from Cambridge University Press. The book is a detailed study of the largest slave auction which is recorded in US history: 436 people (including some mothers with infants just a few weeks old) sold off on March 2nd and 3rd, 1859 in the process of liquidating much of the estate of Pierce Butler Jr. of the Butler Plantation.

To be sold at auction, and separated from family and community, was one of the many recurring cruelties of the slave regime in America, but this event stood particularly large in the histories of the people who were put up for auction on those two days because the Butler estate had prior to this been known for never selling its slaves. The same enslaved families had lived on the Georgia sea island estates for generations, and even spoke their own semi-separate dialect infused with words and structures from their native West Africa.

Bailey, a professor of history and Africana studies at Binghamton University SUNY, makes this history all the more fascinating by keeping her focus so close. We meet Jeffrey and Dorcas, a young couple in love. Jeffrey is sold for $1,310 on the first day and tries to persuade his new master to buy Dorcas so that they can stay together. He first makes a personal appeal (that they love each other, will be true servants, and will have many healthy children for him) which gets no traction, then takes another approach telling him of what a prime rice hand she is, easily worth $1,200. His buyer seems persuaded by this approach, but then at the last moment Dorcas is included with a family of four for a single price, and the buyer loses interest. As the auctioneer's hammer falls, separating Dorcas from him forever, Jeffrey pulls off his hat, drops to his knees, and weeps.

Another young couple, Dembo and Frances, aged twenty and nineteen, manage to pull off a coup: finding a minister among the buyers attending the auction they persuade him to marry them. They are then sold as a lot together, for $1,320 each, to a cotton planter from Alabama, separated from their extended families but able to remain together.

We have these details about the auction itself because Mortimer Thompson, a northern reporter, posed as a buyer at the auction and then wrote a detailed account for the New York Tribune. Coming as it did less than three years before the Civil War was to break out and four years before the emancipation proclamation, the story of the slaves put up for auction (some of whom would return to the area of the Butler Estate after the Civil War in order to find loved ones they had been separated from in the auction) is closely entangled with the escalating tensions over slavery in the United States. The sale itself was itself in some ways tied up with the debate over slavery. Pierce Butler Jr. lived in Philadelphia most of his life and lived of the proceeds of the slave plantations he inherited in Georgia. In Philadelphia he gambled and spent away his money, and also married British actress Fanny Kemble. Kemble was strongly anti-slavery and wrote about her visit to Butler's plantation. Her opposition to slavery was one of the several differences cited in their divorce, which was one step on the road to Butler's eventual financial collapse and the sale of his estate.

The Weeping Time provides a ground level view into slavery as it shaped the lives of the specific people on this estate, from their ancestry on the rice coast of Africa, to their generations of enslavement on the Butler estate, to the sudden disruption of their lives due to the financial misfortunes of an absentee owner. It's a fairly quick read at 175 pages, and does an important service of making this history about people rather than just "the peculiar institution" in some abstract sense.

No comments: