Social History of Knowledge in the Slaveholding Atlantic World


A review of Plantation Technocrats: A Social History of Knowledge in the Slaveholding Atlantic World, 1830-1865, by Daniel Rood

It would be impossible to deny the role of slavery in the development of modern industrial capitalism. Slave colonies provided Europe with sugar and tobacco, with a source of labor, with a place to send its surplus population, and with an investment upon which to build merchant fortunes. But as Dan Rood points out in his ambitious Plantation Technocrats, in all accounts of slavery as an economic system it “prefigures, foreshadows, and props up, but is always prior-to or other-than ‘true’ capitalism” (p. 14), with the implicit or explicit corollary that industrial development inevitably brings slavery to an end. But as Rood shows, there was nothing at all incompatible about slavery and industry. In fact, the world of slavery was where new industrial professions and forms of expert knowledge, like engineering and chemistry, took shape. His dissertation traces many of these experts in their travels around the Atlantic world. In doing so Rood is also making bigger arguments about how the nineteenth century world economy was organized, and about the relation of slave economies to free ones.

The Atlantic world was not, he writes, divided into colonial or “peripheral” places orbiting metropolitan or “core” sites. Instead he sees it crisscrossed by many economic “circuits” that connected various parts of the Atlantic world in defiance of easy distinctions between core and periphery. Moreover, a single place might express multiple identities, simultaneously selling raw materials, as a colony would, in one circuit, while exporting complex manufactures, as a metropole would, in another. It is just such nimble, “semiperipheral” places, like Virginia, Cuba, and Brazil that interest Rood, and it is not a coincidence that all had long traditions of slavery. Far from rendering them unsuitable for industry, slavery brought a cultural “creolization” that could make them creative and vital sites of industrial experimentation. Rood shows how slavery actually fostered an atmosphere of experiment that characterized the new professional identities of engineers, chemists, and other experts who went to work there.

The first of Rood’s four chapters, “Plantation Laboratories: Industrial Experiments in the Cuban Sugar-Mill, 1830-1860”, argues that Cuban plantations became sites of a new kind of industrial experiment, and indeed the “industrialization of experiment” itself, in the early nineteenth century. He leaves behind more abstract debates about whether knowledge could be indigenous or exogenous to peripheral or semiperipheral zones to show in detail how the plantation became the site of chemical-industrial trials. In such trials, credibility depended on appeals to grounded local knowledge at one moment and to overseas authority at the next, and the marketability of inventions and improvements depended on their having been subjected to the rigors of actual plantation work.

Claims of “mobility” and “groundedness” became resources in disputes about improvements to sugar production, and planters, experts, and other interested individuals became expert at privileging whichever position they happened to occupy. The planter and distiller Miguel Arango y Quesada, for example, could criticize the idea for improving distillation that José Luis Casaseca had cooked up in his Havana laboratory rather than on a plantation, while simultaneously poking him for being unfamiliar with scholarly “French authors” (p. 50). Meanwhile, Casaseca could criticize his Parisian colleagues (or rather those whom he hoped would become his Parisian colleagues) for their “ignorance” of “the influence of the tropical climate” and of the technical state of most Cuban plantations, to whom they had tried to sell a “miraculous” replacement for quicklime (p. 35).

If it were true that slavery and industrialism were incompatible, one would have expected these experiments  to be designed to eliminate the role of slaves. Yet it was “rule-of-thumb” artisans and craftsmen whom the engineers and chemists claimed they were trying to “scientifically” cut out of the production process. In fact, Rood writes, “One of the ideological achievements of the plantation laboratory was to describe reality in a way that elided labor altogether, making slaves, coolies, even sugar-masters invisible” (p. 10). Hiding the reality of human labor was especially crucial, because as experiment moved from the plantation to Cuban industry at large, they turned the plantation and indeed the whole island into a machine expected to produce precise numerical data.

In the second chapter, “Atlantic Counterpoint: Iron and Sugar, Engineering and Slavery between Cuba and the United States, 1840-1865”, Dan Rood moves to the Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond, which built some of Cuba’s first railroads, to argue that the explosive growth and rapidity of technical change in the Cuban sugar industry during the middle of the nineteenth century inspired industrial experimentation elsewhere in its circuit. But sugar planters produced a relatively standardized commodity, while the early railroad engineers were in uncharted waters. Nothing was standardized, there were no spares or inventories, and every order was custom. In particular, the importance of large orders to firms like Tredegar meant the development of unique machines and new assembly procedures.

This experimentation and industrial growth relied on slaves at home and abroad. Lacking inventories of standardized spare parts, it was inspections conducted by slaves that told Tredegar what elements of the railroad wore quickly in the Cuban climate and what needed replacement. Moreover, slavery was the terrain on which new professional identities were mapped.  Placing and fulfilling large railroad orders required dense personal contacts among engineers — Tredegar won the Havana Railroad contract through old connections on the Baltimore & Ohio — and these networks often allowed technocratic experts to intrude on what were traditionally craftsmen’s domains. Yet as the railroad’s engineer advised his counterpart Tredegar, they could also conspire to blame craftsmen when things went pear-shaped. Virginia ironworks were thus “pulled into Cuba’s orbit”, as the engineers’ experimental culture that began in Cuba was carried to Virginia via “Atlantic-wide social networks” (pp. 108, 83). Technical accomplishment, “reversing the direction of causation often assumed by historians” (p. 84), went from a supposedly less-developed to a more-developed zone.

Richmond and Cuba were both devoted to slave labor, and Rood persuasively argues that industrial experiment and slavery were interdependent rather than incompatible. Tredegar was surely driven to experiment in order to supply the Cuba’s experimenting plantations, and the sea between Cuba and the United States was crossed by a web of personal and business connections. Rood suggests that a kind of culture of experimentation spread across the networks he describes.

In Chapter 3, “Mapping an Atlantic ‘Now’: Technicians of Space-Time in the Slaveholding Atlantic World, 1830-1860”, Rood takes us to Brazil, whose economy was strongly tied with that of the Upper South. This existing circuit led Richmond engineers to South America to build railroads in the coffee-growing Rio hinterlands. (“One is forced to consider”, Rood drily notes, “that it was men from the Slave South who brought industrial know-how and Northern Yankees who imported African slaves to Brazil” (p. 132).) But his emphasis is on the temporal-spatial mapping that emerged from this commerce, as part of a conscious effort to “synchronize” slave plantation systems with the Atlantic economy as a whole. This, too, is part of his larger argument about industrial experts, for “the modern, bourgeois, clock-conscious, actuarial professional individual” emerged from the slaveholding Atlantic world just like engineers and chemists did (p. 134). In this way, “the mode of knowing characterizing the entire Atlantic economy of the industrial era had the brand of slavery affixed upon it” (p. 135).

The travails and in particular the diary of Richard Morton, an engineer and surveyor who mapped the route for the Dom Pedro II railroad, allow Rood to show how important it was for experts like Morton to negotiate physical, geographic, economic, and human terrains, and to confidently project their future state. Rood is not the first to note that mapping of all kinds gives historians as well as contemporaries “the seductive glimmer of hegemony where it may not have existed” (p. 142). Mapping was a miserable experience and depended on the labor and preexisting nous of slaves or natives. Yet Morton saw everything he did as both a vindication of his own engineering worldview and a repudiation of Brazilian backwardness; the whole point of his project was to replace what locals knew with timed trains and synchronized plantations.

The US naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury, meanwhile, explicitly saw his oceanography as a project to ensure slavery’s survival in Brazil. As his new nautical charts of wind-guided routes became more popular, ship-owners poured more data into his charts. Maury created standardized logs for naval and commercial ships, turning them all into his instruments — and their captains, he argued, into fair and moral men. This was crucial: proper shipboard treatment of sailors allowed proslavery forces to claim by analogy that slavery could be paternalistic and fair. Maury also sought navigable river routes deep into the Amazon, hoping to find there the untapped land that would keep slavery economically viable. Both Maury and Morton, Rood argues, made maps that nonetheless fundamentally incorporated a temporal element, whether “three-dimensional” forecasts of space, time, and capital, or charts of changing winds, and both sought to synchronize the economies of slavery with the rest of the Atlantic.

The final chapter, “Economic Co-Evolution: Slavery, Technology, and Middle-Class Consumption in the Richmond-Rio Circuit, 1760-1860”, writes a new, Southern history of grain, showing how the slaveholding world led the development of new and industrial forms of business, and how economic circuits functioned without having anything to do with a metropole. The British Empire had long used the mid-Atlantic slaveholding colonies as sources of wheat for its sugar islands, but by the 1840s, Brazil had become the top US customer, surpassing Cuba, Haiti, and the West Indies. Virginia’s climate and soil were particularly suited to a kind of grain that would not rot in tropical humidity, and Richmond’s mills routed it to Baltimore, whose port’s quality control was sufficiently shoddy to attract undiscriminating slave-owners as buyers. The amount of detail on the US-Brazil trade is very impressive.

This was the “techno-economic environment” (p. 227) that produced two of industrial agriculture’s prized inventions. The rise of the urban and entrepreneurial merchant mill brought with it a familiar cast of industrial experts, and mills became larger, faster, and increasingly automated. In fact Oliver Evans’s new mill design in the 1790s may have been the first “continuous production” factory. Running in one giant powered loop, Evans’s mill, with its smoothed flow of material, became an extension of the transportation improvements that were speeding the flows outside it. The culture of engineering innovation kept improving the design, so that by the Civil War wheat was a bigger cash crop than tobacco in Richmond. Meanwhile, the consolidation of producers and purchasers brought new pressure on “customary” practices of those responsible for assigning grain its value, much as it had for other commodities like tobacco and sugar.

Also like the stories of other commodities, consolidation and the growth of railroads and canals hit rural and small-town milling hardest. Wealthy farmers bought up more land and became large slaveholding planters, cutting out intermediaries like canalmen, and “depersonalizing” the wheat economy. Brazil experienced a parallel process. Grain made Richmond powerful at the expense of other Virginia cities, while Rio became the center of its province’s coffee economy. In the midst of slavery, industrial Virginia grew wheat so that Brazil could grow coffee, and vice versa. Yet the slave-owning hinterland, at least in Virginia, was a place of manufacturing, smithing, and selling expertise — all of which created a culture of technical improvement that produced Cyrus McCormick’s famous mechanical reaper and made it a wild success.

In his last paragraph Dan Rood suggests that, although we are familiar with the image of slaves in cotton and sugar fields, the mythic power of “amber waves of grain” has made it awkward for Americans to acknowledge the place of slavery in that part of their country’s history. But is it useful, or even possible, to distinguish between parts of the Atlantic world in which slavery was legal and parts where it was not? At least by the nineteenth century the economy of the industrial world was built on slavery, and if not chattel slavery per se then on prices kept low by imperial oppression and cruelty from Ireland to India. Does the “brand of slavery” really affix more strongly to the McCormick reaper, from slave Virginia, than to some invention of a Northern state whose wealth came from slave finance? Rood’s dissertation goes a long way to correcting the mistaken belief of historians and social scientists that a slave economy is always “backward, stagnant, [and] not conducive to important technological/industrial developments” (p. 253).  Instead, he shows, that world could be a cradle of experiment, and of something that looks uncomfortably like progress.

David Roth Singerman
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dissertation Information

University of California, Irvine. 2010. 265pp. Primary Advisor: Alice Fahs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like