Week 5/Making of a Slave Conspiracy

William Dusinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2000).

In Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, William Dusinberre describes the horrific experiences of slaves working on rice plantations in the South Carolina and Georgia low-country by focusing exclusively on three of the biggest plantations in the antebellum South, Charles Manigault’s Gowrie, Pierce Butler’s Butler Island, and Robert Allston’s Chicora Wood.  Dusinberre utilizes the extremely detailed plantation records and diaries of these massive plantations, and to a far lesser extent Francis Kemble’s impressions of Butler Island based on her interactions with slaves there in 1838 and the WPA interviews conducted a century later.

Dusinberre seems to be writing in order to remind general readers and scholars alike how truly brutal, violent, and horrifying slavery was – though I’m not sure who exactly forgot this – in response to more recent historiographical trends that highlight the establishment of slave communities and cultures, and the maintenance of slave agency.  In doing so, however, Dusinberre seems to refute the last fifty years of historiography, arguing that the violent and deadly nature of work in the rice swamps and planters’ brutally capitalistic nature prevented slaves from developing the institutions this historiography has highlighted; his assertion that slaves “adapted their conduct to their masters’ whims” is disturbingly Stanley Elkins-esque (433-4).

Further, Dusinberre’s argument that low-country rice plantations are capitalistic rather than paternalistic seems off-base; he seems to conflate paternalism with benevolence.  His assertion that the legacy of Eugene Genovese’s scholarship is that it allows southern whites to “take pride…in their ancestors’ paternalism” seems to distort the term’s meaning (431).

But to return to Dusinberre’s denial of the development of meaningful slave communities and cultures in low-country Georgia and South Carolina: while his expert analysis of the plantation records, diaries, and letters, combining qualitative and quantitative methods, absolutely supports his assertions about the extraordinarily high mortality rates, the difficulty in maintaining a traditional, nuclear family, and the generally violent, dangerous nature of work on rice plantations, I do not think his evidentiary base allows him to really make claims about slave communities and cultures.  The only black sources he uses are the writings of the white wife of an absentee planter, and interviews conducted by a white woman with elderly former slaves – hardly the best sources to assess the existence of slave culture and community.

Michael P. Johnson’s article “Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspirators,” and the subsequent responses has important implications for how historians interpret the events of the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy, in regard to who led a conspiracy against whom.  Johnson argues that the insurrection was more of a creation of the white members of the court than a reality designed by Vesey.  One of the members of this court, as Johnson points out in his response article “On Reading Evidence,” was Nathaniel Heyward, one of the many “wealthy, powerful slaveowners,” on the court, who “owned upwards of 1,000 slaves” (194).  Heyward was also friends and related through marriage to the Manigault family, owners of the Gowrie plantation examined by Dusinberre.  Given the brutality and violence outlined by Dusinberre on a rice plantation similar to the one owned by Heyward, it is not hard to imagine how the “determined and vengeful white slaveholders who knew what they were looking for… whipped, threatened, and colluded with cooperative black witnesses until they found it” (194).

One thought on “Week 5/Making of a Slave Conspiracy

  1. Enjoyed your insightful response to what I realize was a very big book!

    I think one of the things the Michael Johnson article raises is the whole question of how to get at the internal workings of slave communities or free black communities when our documentary sources are so problematic to begin with. As you point out, Dusinberre has to fall back on WPA narratives and the like. But is it possible Johnson also gives us a way to read against the grain and discover something even in the white sources about what black actors were thinking and doing?

    Your comparison of Dusinberre’s argument to Elkins’s also made me wonder what you think of Dusinberre in light of Walter Johnson’s article. Johnson clearly rejects Elkins, but also wants historians to be attentive to the possibility that some slaves were sometimes “collaborators” instead of “resisters” or were constrained by their circumstances (the “condition of enslaved humanity”) in ways that severely limited their choices. This raises the question of how to take Walter Johnson’s position without endorsing Elkins–is there a middle ground? Could Dusinberre be seen as part of that middle ground or do you think he goes over the cliff into Elkins territory?

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