A Small Business in the Slave Trade
“Enveloped in darkness…”
“What to do or where to go I know not – I am surrounded by difficulty…I am enveloped in darkness; but still, strange to say, I live upon hope, the friend of man.”
This rather poignant complaint by a 19th century farmer to his wife might have reflected years of drought and crop failures, a plague of locusts, or the loss of a child. Actually, he was complaining about his difficulties in selling off a “coffle” of slaves that he had driven over a thousand miles – on foot – to market. As author Edward Ball comments, “It is peculiar that a man can pity himself for being unable to sell a roomful of teenagers he has known since their birth but…that’s what it was.”
It’s hard to get your mind around the casual wickedness that was the slave trade in the United States. In his recent Smithsonian article, “Slavery’s Trail of Tears,” Ball does it, in part, by juxtaposing the corporate-scale operations of Isaac Franklin and John Armfield, “the undisputed tycoons of the domestic slave trade,” with the one-time human selling expedition, in 1847-48, of William Waller, the Virginia farmer quoted in my opening paragraph. Bell discovered Waller’s letters to his wife in the archives of the Virginia Historical society.
“Coffle,” Ball notes, is “a once-common word that, like so much of the vocabulary of slavery, has been effaced from the language.” It denotes a number of people – or animals – chained together in a line. Waller’s coffle consisted of roughly 20 slaves including at least four children, as well as Sarah, a young mother with a 2-year-old daughter. Sarah had been forcibly separated from her husband and mother, who were left behind on the farm. There were also three sisters, whose only hope was that they might be sold to the same master so as not to be separated.
“During the 50 years of the Slave Trail, perhaps half a million people born in the United States were sold in New Orleans, more than all the Africans brought to the country during two centuries of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. New Orleans, the biggest slave market in the country had about 50 people-selling companies in the 1840’s.”
—— Edward Ball, “Slavery’s Trail of Tears”
The greater part of Ball’s article focuses on the vastly larger-scale operations of Franklin & Armfield and professional slave traders like them (and like those who kidnapped and enslaved Solomon Northrup, whose memoir Twelve Years a Slave, was the basis of the 2013 film.) I think that I was myself more interested in William Waller’s story because it represents what Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, called “the banality of evil.” Waller comes across, in his letters, as an everyman figure – an ordinary farmer and family man, yet a man prepared to destroy the lives of those under his control to maintain his own economic status. He is a man, moreover, who knows that his peers will not only approve of his actions, but would no doubt think him strange if he did otherwise.
In his letters home, Waller describes his slaves as happy and “in fine spirits,” yet the 1847-48 trip took about six months, and it’s likely that they spent most if not all of that time chained together, under armed guard, beaten if they could not keep up the pace; the men perhaps handcuffed as well; beset by insects; sleeping on the ground in all weather – knowing that at the end of the trip they would likely be separated from everyone and everything they had ever known, and finally, at the end of the long journey, to be thrown on the mercy of unknown new masters.
Ball notes that it was typical for small traders headed for the slave markets of the deep south to sell one or two slaves along the way to pay their expenses, but the cotton market was down, so additional slaves were not in demand and Waller was unable to make any sales for much of the trip. It was then that he wrote of being “enveloped in darkness.”
Through a friend who had moved to Raymond, Mississippi, Waller was able to sell several of his slaves there (Sarah and her daughter went for $800.) Receiving the news, his wife wrote back that she was “much pleased,” but added, “I wish you could have sold more of them.” Waller then moved on to New Orleans where he finally succeeded in selling the remainder for $8,000, He lamented to his wife that “I have not obtained as much as I expected, but I try and be satisfied.” His total sales came to $12,675, a little more than $6o0 each.
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