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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/March 1900/The Transplantation of a Race

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | March 1900





MARCH, 1900.



THE experiments which have been intentionally or accidentally made in transplanting organic species from the countries in which they have been developed to others of diverse soil, climate, and inhabitants are always of much interest to the naturalist—each of them affords indications of some value as to the relations of species to what we term "environment." In almost all instances we find that the transplanted forms undergo changes in consequence of the alteration of their circumstances. It is true that certain of our domesticated animals, such as the horse, the dog, and most cattle, follow men from the Arctic to the Antarctic Circle, and that sundry insect pests appear to demand nothing of Nature save the presence of man; yet, as a whole, the creatures we have turned to use, both plant and animal alike, have shown themselves incapable of accommodating themselves to conditions of temperature differing much from those in which they were developed. With hardly an exception, species or varieties which have been developed in the tropics perish when called on to withstand the winter of higher latitudes. Few, indeed, do well when taken to stations where the heat or the humidity differs greatly from that to which they are accustomed.

The intolerance of organisms to climatal changes is nowhere more evident than in the varieties, or species, as we would term them, of mankind. It is a well-attested fact that none of the tropical races has ever of its own instance colonized in the temperate zones. It is also clear that none of the northern peoples have ever become fully acclimated within the tropical realm. The colonies which have been founded there by the Teutonic folk, including the English group therein, have been lamentable failures, the pure-blooded strains dying out in a few generations. The people of southern Europe have been a little more successful in the equatorial regions, probably because their blood has there to a great extent become mingled with that of tropical origin. These general conclusions concerning the climatal limitations of man would be unassailable were it not for the history of the negro in North America. In his case we have the one masterful exception to the rule, otherwise good, that creatures bred near the equator can not endure boreal conditions.

The negroes who came to North America had to undergo as complete a transition as ever fell to the lot of man, without the least chance to undergo an acclimatizing process. They were brought from the hottest part of the earth to the region where the winter's cold is of almost arctic severity—from an exceedingly humid to a very dry air. They came to service under alien taskmasters, strange to them in speech and in purpose. They had to betake themselves to unaccustomed food and to clothing such as they had never worn before. Rarely could one of the creatures find about him a familiar face of friend, parent, or child, or an object that recalled his past life to him. It was an appalling change. Only those who know how the negro cleaves to all the dear, familiar things of life, how fond he is of warmth and friiendliness, can conceive the physical and mental shock that this introduction to new conditions meant to them. To people of our own race it could have meant death. But these wonderful folk appear to have withstood the trials of their deportation in a marvelous way. They showed no peculiar liability to disease. Their longevity or period of usefulness was not diminished, or their fecundity obviously impaired. So far as I have been able to learn, nostalgia was not a source of mortality, as it would have been with any Aryan population. The price they brought in the market and the satisfaction of their purchasers with their qualities shows that they were from the first almost ideal laborers. If we compare the Algonkin Indian, in appearance a sturdy fellow, with these negroes, we see of what stuff the blacks are made. A touch of housework and of honest toil took the breath of the aborigines away, but these tropical exotics fell to their tasks and trials far better than the men of our own kind could have done.

At their first coming, or soon afterward, the negroes were distributed along the coast of our country from the Carolinas to Nova Scotia. So far as I have been able to find, there appears to have been no distinct difference in their tolerance of the climate in any part of this varied district. There are still negroes in the maritime provinces who are said to be the descendants of those who came upon the ground certainly more than a century ago. They are good specimens of their stock. So, too, along the New England coast and in New York there is a sufficient number of the progeny of those once held as slaves to make it clear that the failure to become a considerable part of the population in that district is not due to any incapacity to withstand the climate. The failure of the negro to increase in this field can be accounted for in other ways—by the effects of race prejudice, nowhere stronger than in this part of the country, and by the vice and misery that overtake a despised lower class.

It early became evident that slavery was to be of no permanent economic advantage to any part of the colonies within the glaciated district, say from central New Jersey northward. In that portion of the coastal belt the state of the surface and the character of the crops alike tended to make the ownership of slaves unprofitable. The farms were necessarily small. They became in a natural way establishments worked by the head of the house, with the help of his children. Such other help as was needed was, in the course of two generations, readily had from hired white men and women. It was otherwise in the tobacco-planting region to the southward. The cultivation of that plant, to meet the extraordinary demands that Europe made for it, gave slavery its chance to become established in this country. But for that industry the institution would most likely have taken but slight root, and the territory as far south as North Carolina would have been in social order not very different from Pennsylvania, New York, and the New England settlements. But, owing to some peculiar, as yet unrecognized, adjustments of climate and soil, tobacco for pipes has a quality when grown in the Virginia district such as it has nowhere else in the world, and the world turned to smoking it with a disregard for expense that made each laborer in the field worth some hundred dollars a year. Moreover, the production of good tobacco requires much care, which extends over about a year from the time the seed is planted. Some parts of the work demand a measure of judgment such as intelligent negroes readily acquire. They are indeed better fitted for the task than white men, for they are commonly more interested in their tasks than whites of the laboring class. The result was that before the period of the Revolution slavery was firmly established in the tobacco-planting colonies of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. It was already the foundation of their only considerable industry.

Although the production of tobacco had made slavery a great economical success in the limited field where the best product was to be had, it is doubtful if the institution would have attained to any widespread importance but for the development of another form of planting—that of cotton. Thus, in Kentucky, where the crops, with the exception of a coarse tobacco, are the same as in the other Northern States of the Union, the institution, despite the long-continued scarcity of labor, never attained any very great development. The slaves were generally used for household service, but to no great extent in the fields, and in such employment only in the districts where the soil was of such great fertility that large quantities of grain were raised for export. In one third of that Commonwealth negroes were, and remain to this day, quite unknown. The invention of the cotton gin ended all hope that slavery might be limited to a part of the seacoast region, for nearly all of the lowland regions of the South, as well as some of the upland country north to the southern border of Kentucky and Virginia, are admirably suited to that crop—producing, indeed, a better "staple" than that of any other country. This industry, even more than that of raising tobacco, called for abundant labor which could be absolutely commanded and severely tasked in the season of extreme heats. For this work the negro proved to be the only fit man, for while the whites can do this work they prefer other employment. Thus it came about that the power of slavery in this country became rooted in its soil. The facts show that, based on an ample foundation of experience, the judgment of the Southern people was to the effect that this creature of the tropics was a better laborer in their fields than the men of their own race. Much has been said about the dislike of the white man for work in association with negroes. The failure of the whites to have a larger share in the agriculture of the South has been attributed to this cause. This seems to me clearly an error. The dislike to the association of races in labor is, in the slaveholding States, less than in the North. There can be no question that if the Southern folk could have made white laborers profitable they would have preferred to employ them, for the reason that the plantations would have required less fixed capital for their operation. The fact was and is that the negro is there a better laboring man in the field than the white. Under the conditions he is more enduring, more contented, and more trustworthy than the men of our own race.

The large development of the cotton industry in this country came after the importation of negroes from Africa had ceased to be as completely unrestricted as it was at first. The prohibition of the traffic came indeed before the needs of laborers in the more Southern and Western slave States had been met. For a while there was some surreptitious importation, which in a small way continued down to the middle of this century, but this smuggling was quite insufficient to supply the market of the new States with slaves. The result was that the border slaveholding States became to a considerable extent the breeding grounds for men and women who were to be at maturity exported to the great plantations of Alabama and Mississippi, there to be herded by overseers in gangs of hundreds, with no hope of ever returning to their kindred. With this interdiction of the foreign slave trade the evils of the former situation became magnified into horrors. The folk who were brought from Africa came from a state of savagery to one of relative comfort. When once adjusted to their new conditions, their lot was on the whole greatly bettered. But their descendants, who had become attached to the places where they were born with the peculiar affection the better of them had for their homes, being accustomed to masters who on the whole were gentle, were now to undergo a worse deportation than that which made them slaves. It is not too much to say that the deeper evils of the system to the slaves themselves, as well as to their masters, began with this miserable slave trade that went on within the limits of this country, and was about at its height when the civil war began.

It can not be denied that even in the best stages of slaveholding there had been a good deal of commerce in slaves where the feelings of these chattels were in no wise regarded. Still, there was a prevailing sentiment among all the slaveholders of the gentler sort that it was in a way disgraceful to part families. I distinctly recall, when I was a lad, some years before the civil war, my maternal grandfather often charged me to remember that I came of a people who had never bought or sold a slave except to keep families together. I know that this was a common feeling among the better men of Kentucky and Virginia, and that the practice of rearing negroes for the Southern market filled them with sorrow and indignation. Yet the change was the inevitable result of the system and of the advancing commercialism which separated the plantation life more and more from that of the owner's household. At the time when the civil war began the institution of slavery was, from the commercial point of view, eminently successful. Notwithstanding the occasional appearance of the spendthrift slave owner in Northern pleasure resorts or in Europe, the great plantations were generally in charge of able business men, who won a large interest on their investments and who were developing the system of planting in a way which, though it appeared to those who were accustomed to close tillage as shiftless, was really well adjusted to the conditions. Not one fourth of the land of the Southern States that was well fitted for the work of slaves had been brought into use. The blacks who were carefully managed in all that regarded their health and in their morals, so far as might affect their breeding, were in admirable physical condition, and rapidly increasing in numbers. It is doubtful if ever a peasant class was so well cared for or so freed from avoidable diseases. The growing protest against the institution, so far as it operated in the South, was practically limited to the border States, mainly to Kentucky, where alone did a considerable number of well-born men set themselves against it. There is good reason to believe that if the civil war had not occurred the end of the nineteenth century would have seen a negro population in the South much more numerous than we now have there. Experience has shown that the American cotton crop is little affected by foreign competition, so that it would have maintained the success of the institution.

Although the system of slavery was by a chance of Nature so firmly planted on the cotton fields as to give it entire dominance in the South, and something like control of the Federal Union, there was one geographic condition that menaced its future, and in the end did much to insure its downfall in the events of the civil war, and most likely would have brought about its end even if the Confederacy had been established. This was the form and extent of the Appalachian uplands between the Potomac and the Ohio on the north and Alabama and Georgia in the South. In this area of nearly one hundred and fifty thousand square miles in extent the surface lies at an average height of some fifteen hundred feet above the sea; the good arable land is found mostly in narrow valleys suited only for household farms, totally unfit for the systematic agriculture in which alone negroes could be profitably employed as slaves. Into this area drifted the class of small farmers who by one chance and another had never been able to enter or to maintain themselves in the aristocratic class of slaveholders. These mountaineers—they may better be termed the hill people of the South—were an eminently peculiar people. They are not to be compared with the "poor white trash"—i.e., the downfallen and dependent whites, who were broken men in spirit, scarce above the slaves in quality. These poor whites were often, if not generally, either the weaker strains of the militant families or the descendants of the people who had been imported into this country by the land companies or sent out as peons.

Partly because of their separation from the slaveholding class and partly because of the circumstances of their origin, the people of the Southern highlands formed a curiously separated class. They retained the quality of their English stock, as they had brought it with them—an independence, a carelessness as to life, and a humor for quarreling with those who were set above them whenever their liberties or their license seemed to be threatened. Even their customs and utensils held with curious adhesion to the usages of earlier centuries. Thus, in 1878, I found, in a secluded valley of south-western Virginia, men hunting squirrels and rabbits with the old English short bow. These were not the contrivances of boys or of to-day, but were made and strung and the arrows hefted in the ancient manner. The men, one of them old, were admirably skilled in their use; they assured me that, like their fathers before them, they had ever used the bow and arrow for small game, reserving the costly ammunition of the rifle for deer and bear. These hill folk were, in a passive but obdurate manner, opposed to slavery, and even more to negroes. There are still many counties in this district where a negro has never dwelt. In some parts of it I have had people gather from twenty miles away to stare at my black camp servants, as the folk of central Africa are said to do at a white man.

At the outbreak of the civil war the Appalachian upland was still thinly peopled; it was, however, fitted to maintain a population of some millions. If the Confederacy had won its independence, its plantation districts, with a relatively small voting population, would soon have had to settle an account with the people of the hills. As it was, the existence of this folk in a great ridge of country extending from the Northern States to within two hundred miles of the Gulf of Mexico was an element of weakness which went far to give success to the Federal arms. It kept Kentucky from seceding, prevented the region of West Virginia from being of any value to the rebellion, and weakened its control in several other States. In all, somewhere near one hundred thousand recruits came to the Federal army from this part of the South. It is not improbable that to this folk we may attribute the failure of the great revolt. That they turned thus against the people of their own States to cast in their lot with those who were strangers to them shows their feelings toward the institution of slavery; it indicated where they would have stood if the Confederacy had been established.

It is not easy to picture the condition of the negro population in 1860. There is a common notion that it was consciously and bitterly suffering from its subjugation—ready to rise in arms against its oppressors. This view was indeed shared by the Southern people, who lived in clironic fear of insurrections. The error of it arose from the fallacious notion that the people of another race must feel and act as we would under like circumstances. The facts showed that the negro mind does not work in the fashion of our own. He had, it is true, suffered from slavery, but not as men of our race would have suffered. Against its deprivations and such direct cruelty as he experienced, not often great, he could set the simple comforts and small pleasures which are so much to him. That he was on the whole fairly contented with his lot, that his relations with his masters were on the whole friendly, is shown by his remarkable conduct during and since the civil war. If the accepted account of the negro had been true, if he had been for generations groaning in servitude while he passionately longed for liberty, the South should have flamed in insurrection at the first touch of war. We should have seen a repetition of the horrors of many a servile insurrection. It is a most notable fact that, during the four years of the great contention, when the blacks had every opportunity to rise, there was no real mark of a disposition to turn upon their masters. On thousands of Southern farms the fighting men left their women and children in the keeping of their slaves, while they went forth for a cause whose success meant that those slaves could never be free.

That the negroes desired to be free is plain enough. The fact that they fled in such numbers to our camps shows this. Their failure to revolt must be taken as an indication that their relations with their masters measured on their own instinctive standards were on the whole affectionate. They had the strength to have made an end of the war at a stroke. They were brave enough for such action. That they did not take it after the manner of their kindred of Santo Domingo is the best possible testimony as to the generally sympathetic relation which existed between master and slaves. Of this no better test can be imagined than that which the final stages of the institution afforded.

In taking account of the history of the slave in this Union it is not amiss for me to bear testimony as to the spirit with which the body of our slave owners met the singular obligations of their positions. There were here and there base men who abused their trust as masters—some, indeed, who never perceived its existence. But of the very many slave owners whom I can remember I can recall but three who failed to recognize the burden that fate had put upon them and to deal with it much as they dealt with the other cares of their households—conscientiously and mercifully, though often in the rude whacking way in which parents of old dealt with their children; so far as slavery was a household affair, and even where the farm employed no more hands than could be gathered in a house "quarter," the people were commonly subject to an anxious scrutiny as regarded their moral and religious training. Here and there, especially when there were young white men about, the result was the deplorable mixture of the races. There is no question but that this was extensive, though the amount of it is exaggerated. Yet it was common enough to degrade the whites and to make of itself a sufficient reason for ending the institution, however profitable it might otherwise have been. Men of no race are safely to be trusted with such power. The social evil was the heaviest part of the load which the high-minded slave owners had to bear. It was shared in even larger measure by his wife and daughters. How heavy the cross was can only be known to those who remember the conditions of that unhappy time.

The result of the hopeless effort to keep the slaves in decent ways and to prevent the pollution of their sons was to make nearly every right-minded slaveholder at heart an abolitionist. Although the men, and even the women, who suffered most would have been disposed to slay any one who suggested that they shared the opinions of the detested antislavery folk, nearly every one in his heart reprobated the institution and in his mind was revolving some scheme, generally fanciful, by which an end of it might be made. They were in the unhappy position where overwhelming self-interest fought with their moral sense. Now and then some one of them passed the critical point and entered into the fold of the accursed abolitionists; but others, after the manner of average men, paltered with the situation, waiting for fate to decide the matter. In the meantime, they strove as best they could to lift these people to a higher estate.

In many ways the standard of care by which the conduct of a master in relation to his slaves was judged was high. He was expected to clothe them in a fit manner, keep them from the nocturnal wanderings, termed "running," so common a trait in these children of the tropics, to see that they were decently married, that they went to church in a dutiful way, and, above all, that they were not abused by other whites, particularly by other slaveholders. To strike or even to vilify the slaves of another was a very serious thing. The offended person knew well that it was his part to make his complaint to the servant's master. Where the negroes exceeded in number those needed for household and personal service—there were often a dozen or two thus employed in families of no great wealth—there was a division between the house people and the "hands." Those in the former group were selected folk, often belonging to families that had been associated with those of their masters for a century or more. Such servants had rights that none could dispute. Not uncommonly their elders were the actual rulers of the establishment. These family slaves often received some little schooling, even when the laws forbade that slaves should be taught to read and write. The children of the household servants were allowed freely to play with those of their masters until the young people were about twelve years old. The boys of both often had their rough-and-tumble games together until they were young men. The field laborers, where the class was separate, had less perfect connection with their masters. They usually came to the family storeroom for the daily issued rations, which they received from the hands of the mistress or the daughter of the house. They were visited when sick, and their complaints were heard. They were free to all of the many festivities of the holiday time.

It is impossible to conceive of a more effective schooling for the African people than was given this adoption into the households, and often into the hearts, of high-minded masters. A like opportunity never before came and will never again come to so lowly a folk. The effect of this educative contact with the superior race is, as before noted, to be seen in the temper of the negroes during and after the civil war. Upon the high-minded master the effect of the institution was in many ways enlarging. A man is morally what his cares have made him, and of these the dutiful slaveholder has more than an average share. He grew in the power of command and in the habit of doing justice to many fellow-beings. He lived a large life. The qualities bred of his station have been of profit to his folk and time. All this is true of slavery of the domestic sort. It is not so in like manner of the great plantations which came with the development of the cotton and sugar industries. It was characteristic of the northern part of the South until it began to be the place of supply for the rapidly developing plantation district.

So long as the negro could look forward to life in the place and with the people of his birth his simple, careless nature opened to him little to bring a sense of danger. He was to live on until he passed in to the Elysium of the hereafter, of which he had no doubt whatever. Gradually there came, in the overcrowding of the farms and the diminishing fertility of the wasted land, the need of reducing the number of slaves. Then each year came the dreaded visits of the "trader," who was like a visible angel of death, to lead one or more into the far unknown country. Before the plantation demand for slaves began there were, of course, sales of slaves, but they commonly went as families, and not to places to them inconceivably remote. These could hope for Christmas reunions and other exchanges, but when the negro was "sold South" the place and people that had known him would know him no more. My first impression of the iniquity of slavery came from the anxious questions of negroes as to the danger of their being sold to Alabama, that State being then the supposed destination of all those who were out of favor. They naturally strove to make interest with children whom they thought could successfully intercede for them.

There were several very diverse consequences arising from the exportation of slaves from the border States to the far South. It shook the confidence of the negro as to his safety in all that was dearest to him, and thus did much to degrade the relation between him and his master. It served, cruel as it was, to elevate the relatively uncivilized blacks of the more Southern districts, where the newly imported laborers were mostly accumulated. It curiously operated to elevate the quality of the blacks in what was termed the slave-breeding States, those where the institution had longest been established. This was due to the selection of those of lower grade for the market. As it became necessary to part with slaves, a choice was naturally made of men and women who had least endeared themselves to the household. Save in rare cases, the trader sought rather the lusty youths for their brawn than the more delicate, refined house people. Moreover, where a fellow had shown a tendency to any vice, the choice fell on him. In this way for two or three generations a weeding process went on, with the result that the negroes who were left in the districts where the work was done acquired a quality noticeably better than those on the Southern plantations. The difference is almost that we would look for between two distinct races. The faces of the selected folk are more intelligent, the lines of their bodies finer, their moral and intellectual quality very much above those of their lower kindred. They are at their best, in very numerous instances, as gentle as the elect of our own race.

Where, as in the Southern plantations, the institution of slavery was deliberately made the basis of large commercial interests, the motives were wholly different from whatever existed in the early and better days, when the slaves were appendages of a household. Even on the largest tobacco plantations the numbers were not such as to exclude a share of contact with friendly whites. But on the great properties of the South the negro was not to any extent subject to the influences which had in the earlier stage of his apprenticeship done so much for him. Worked in gangs that were counted by the hundreds, seeing no whites except the overseers, they tended to lose what little culture they had gained. Their peculiar but perfectly intelligible speech began a degradation into a puzzling jargon. African superstitions, little if any trace of which remained among their kindred in Virginia and Kentucky, regained their hold. Marriage and a respect therefor, which had been tolerably well affirmed, tended to disappear. All trace of good thus vanished from the system.

Although the great plantation, of the Mississippi type, was a relatively novel feature in American slaveholding, it was evidently the only largely profitable method of using slave labor. In the household system the care of the children, the aged, and the infirm, the unbusinesslike management of the labor, and the tendency to slipshod methods which with negroes can only be corrected by strict discipline, made ordinary farming unremunerative. It is evident that the profit, other than that in mere money, which the institution in the earlier state had brought to master and slave was rapidly diminishing, and that any further maintenance of it would have been calamitous. Though we may regret that it was ended by the civil war, it is difficult to see any other way in which it could have been terminated, or any profit which could have been gained by postponing the crisis.