Monday, January 6, 2014

"America's Longest Siege" by Kelly Joseph (2013)

The Siege of Charleston really began long before the American Civil War. In some respects the city was under siege since the first day it was settled by the English colonists who found themselves pitted against Spanish and French settlers along with their Native American allies. That was in 1669.

By 1739 they would be fighting with their own slaves in the Stono Rebellion, which began when the Spanish lured the slaves from Georgia and South Carolina with the promise of freedom. The result was that Georgia and South Carolina both invaded Florida to retrieve their slaves.

The following year brought the great fire of 1740, which many believed to have been started by slaves, and burned the whole commercial district to the ground. With these auspicious beginnings, author Joseph Kelly begins a tour de force accounting of the history of South Carolina through the Civil War and Reconstruction, drawing upon the rich history of the state to explain some of the seeming idiosyncrasies of the South Carolina we know today.

A good book will always lead you to explore further than the boundaries of its own cover; and to that effect Mr. Kelly has done a superb job. I consider myself to be a fair armchair historian, yet I found myself looking for more information on some points at least 5 times while reading this book. That means this book taught me some things which I did not know before, while clarifying the things I already know in a highly entertaining fashion.

Charles Town; the name would not change until after the Revolution; was a major battleground of the war, with many key players hailing from the state. The author explores the lives of father and son Henry and John Laurens, and their attitudes concerning slavery. This brings into play the different practices which prevailed at the time; from simple serfdom to the more complex arrangements of manumission, whereby a slave could purchase his own freedom; and even some “liberal” masters who allowed their slaves to worship freely. That practice was based on a belief called “gradualism”, which held that the African slave could gradually become intellectually acclimated to a life of freedom. Of course this totally ignores the fact that the slaves were free until they were enslaved.

One of the best chapters in this book concerns Vesey Denmark and his so called rebellion, for which he was hung. This man managed to win a lottery while a slave, collecting $1,500 in 1799. He immediately bought his own freedom and lived the life of a free man in Charleston. One day a slave at the docks heard another slave talk about the rebellion in Haiti, in which the slaves had massacred their masters and taken their freedom. Vesey Denmark had nothing at all to do with this. When the slave who had heard this talk ran home and told his master it set into motion a chain of events resulting in the torture of 134 slaves in order to gain a confession about the plans for a rebellion which did not even exist except in the minds of the inquisitors themselves. 34 men, including Vesey Denmark, were hung as a result.

Urban slavery is explored in a way that is remarkable not only for the author’s technique in writing about it, but also because of the circuitous thinking which had to have taken place in order to justify the practice to oneself. In an urban setting, with houses so close, it was not considered “proper” to beat a slave. It wasn't so much out of consideration for the slave as it was for the sake of appearances with one’s neighbor. With few exceptions though, the lot of the urban slave was not that much different than that of his plantation counterpart. Neither was truly free.

The 1822 Negro Seaman Act is explored here as well. This was a South Carolina law requiring that any seaman of African descent; free or not; and working aboard  any ship; foreign or domestic; be jailed and held prisoner when the ship entered port in the state of South Carolina. It was fought in court and became the landmark case of Gibbons vs. Ogden which stated that the federal government was responsible for regulating interstate commerce, which the Negro Seaman Act was clearly in violation of. (This was one of the times I had to leave the book and reacquaint myself with something. And note that even  Gibbons vs. Ogden relies upon treating the slaves as an issue of commerce, rather than human rights.)

The author also finds time to juxtapose what is happening in America with what is happening elsewhere at the same time. For instance, very early on in the book he points out that slavery was abolished on the island of Great Britain in 1772, a full 4 years before our own Declaration of Independence would be written. This I already knew. But what I learned is how it came about.

On June 22nd of that year Chief Justice of the Courts, William Lord Mansfield, found that John Somerset; who had been a slave since age 8 and was currently the property of an English tax collector; had been transported to England as a servant. He escaped and spent 50 days hiding in the slums of London before being arrested and tried. The result was the court decision which held that involuntary servitude could not exist on the English Isles proper. This was akin to our own struggles with the Fugitive Slave Act and the Missouri Compromise 50 years later, and I found it to be very informative.

The connection between Irish-Catholics and their struggle with the English crown has certain similarities to the struggle of slaves and the rise of the Abolitionist Movement here in America. It’s no surprise that so many Irish-Americans fought against slavery in the Civil War. What is interesting though is that so many Irish fought for it in South Carolina, in spite of the slave like conditions at home which had forced so many of them to flee to America in the first place.

This book has so much to offer, and does so in a highly readable and engaging style. A TV mini-series based upon this book would not be ill received. All of the color and flash necessary to hold your attention are here. Be that as it may, this book will have you engrossed from the very first page to the last.

No comments:

Post a Comment