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Originally published Friday, January 16, 2015 at 5:45 AM

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New books about slavery, cotton and commerce

Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn points to several new books about slavery, including a fascinating biography of William Wells Brown, an escaped slave who became a novelist, memoirist, abolitionist and performer.

Seattle Times book editor


Lit Life

In the South of my childhood, a field of cotton on a sunny fall day was a beautiful sight — the whitest of white bolls against a blue sky.

Unless you were picking it. Before the age of mechanized cultivation, my parents hand-picked cotton on their parents’ farms. Their memories were of backbreaking work, requiring a constant stoop and hands scored by painful pricks from the spiny bolls. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ancestors, who toiled as slaves in the fields of Georgia, endured much worse.

As we celebrate King’s legacy this weekend, it’s worth remembering that slavery was not just a condition — it was an economic institution. Several new books, published within the last year by prominent scholars, provide new information, both on slavery and on its role in the international cotton trade, which was as fundamental to 19th-century world economics as oil is to ours today.

“William Wells Brown: An African American Life” by Ezra Greenspan(Norton).This new biography of Wells, a 19th-century novelist, memoirist, abolitionist and performer, paints a harrowing picture of slavery, as seen through the eyes of a young man who lived through it, escaped it, wrote about it and advocated against it.

Brown was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1814, but after his owners moved to Missouri the young man was jobbed out by his master to other employers (he worked, his master collected the wages). One job involved working for a slave trader on a boat that collected slaves for sale and transported them down the Mississippi River to the markets of New Orleans (the phrase “sold down the river” derives from this practice).

Wells eventually escaped, taught himself to read, aided fugitive slaves, traveled widely and wrote novels and travelogues — indeed, one of the pleasures of this book is Greenspan’s recreation of a young, boisterous 19th-century America. One of Wells’ books was “Clotel,” a novel based on the lives of the children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. This and other works by Brown have been collected in “William Wells Brown: Clotel & Other Writings”(Library of America).

“The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward E. Baptist(Basic Books).This book by a Cornell University history professor has been praised for its analysis of how slavery drove growth in the early American economy.

Some earlier historians suggested that slavery was largely unprofitable, implying that it would eventually have died out without the intervention of America’s Civil War. Baptist argues otherwise. He presents a detailed case, showing how the American economy benefitted from profits gained by forced labor and financial instruments that enabled investors to profit from slavery (the 19th century Bank of the United States, repository of federal funds, lent money to slave traders). Baptist is explicit about the level of violence used to enforce slave labor in the Deep South, from whippings to waterboarding to sexual humiliation — what we would today call torture.

“Empire of Cotton: A Global History” by Sven Beckert(Knopf).This comprehensive new history by Beckert, a Harvard historian, tells the story of how the cultivation and sale of raw cotton, and the mass production of cotton cloth, drove the world economy. Once Portuguese slave traders began capturing and selling Africans in the 1400s, the practice exploded. Eventually, slave-produced Southern cotton helped birth the Industrial Revolution, as English merchants bought cotton from America to feed the textile mills of England. In turn, slave merchants used cotton cloth to pay the slave traders, who transported more slaves to America to grow and pick cotton, completing a circle of profit, exploitation and oppression.

Today, cotton production has largely migrated overseas (more than half is grown in China and India), but harsh labor practices persist (Beckert writes that up to two million children are put to work in Uzbekistan each year to cultivate and harvest cotton).

“The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor” by Martin Meredith(Public Affairs). Author Meredith’s attempt at a comprehensive history of Africa, including slavery and the slave trade, a fact of life and a linchpin of the African economy until slavery was mostly abolished worldwide. Reviewed in the Jan. 11 Seattle Times.

“Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day” by Carrie Gibson(Atlantic Monthly Press). British author Gibson, an independent Cambridge-educated historian, has just published this new book on five centuries of tumultuous Caribbean history. During the colonial period, slaves were shipped wholesale to the Caribbean to enrich the bottom lines of colonial planters from England, France, and other European countries. The luxurious way of life that slavery supported slowly gave way, as enslaved people demanded freedom and struggled for independence. Little known fact: after Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, slave-owning planters received their own “reparations,” sharing £20 million in government compensation.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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