W.A. Link: United States reconstruction across the Americas

United States reconstruction across the Americas.

Link, William A.
144 S.
€ 39,35
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Gerald Horne, University of Houston

This slim volume consists of three essays on Brazil, Mexico and Jamaica by, respectively, Rafael Marquese, Don H. Doyle and Edward B. Rugamer. The editor asserts: “It is the contention of this volume that Reconstruction, with all its implication for national self-identity, cannot be understood unless we extend our analysis beyond national borders .” (p. 3) This is a worthy assertion and consistent with the current welcome trend of “internationalizing” the study of U.S. history. Of course, this task is not as simple to execute as it appears at first blush. For example, the editor writes that “the purchase of Alaska from Russia in the spring of 1867, reflected this policy of decolonization, according to Doyle” though it actually reflects the transfer of this vast territory from one colonial master to another. (p.6)

The contribution on Brazil is on much firmer ground in articulating the ramified ties between slavery in the U.S. and Brazil. After all, for the longest period, U.S. slave traders were transporting one boatload after another to this South American giant, especially in the 1840s.U.S. nationals consumed vast amounts of the Brazilian coffee the enslaved produced. Thus, Marquese observes “how the reconfiguration of the North American capitalist order in the Reconstruction era was an essential constituent part of the crisis of the Second Slavery [in Brazil] and the passage from empire to republic in Brazil.” (p. 39) In other words, as the U.S. marched toward abolition, Brazil—with which it was linked umbilically—was driven likewise. This raises the related point that a wider volume could easily be produced that extends the purview to encompass Cuba—or for that matter, a good deal of South America. Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836 not least because the latter nation was moving speedily toward abolition of slavery. The Lone Star State then came under severe pressure from Britain and Haiti—not to mention abolitionist forces in Mexico and the U.S. itself—before it crawled into the Union in 1845.
Texas then seceded in 1861, though there were a dedicated corps of anti-secessionist forces who were hardly abolitionist but, instead aligned with the mostly forgotten Knights of the Golden Circle, who sought to expand the remit of slavery throughout the hemisphere. In some ways, William Walker and his abortive takeover of Nicaragua in the 1850s anticipates the KGC.

In many ways, Texas was the bulwark of the confederacy: “Without Matamoros”, just across the border in Mexico, writes Doyle, “the South could never have sustained its rebellion.” (p. 60) It became a prime site for exports—and imports—especially as Paris, which had seized the opportunity to seize Mexico, as Washington’s attention was diverted by internal conflict. Postwar, Texas, the slave state that escaped relatively unscathed, became a refuge for erstwhile slaveholders and their former property. What unfolded then was an attempt by former anti-U.S. rebels to gather in Mexico, in league with the French usurpers, in order to mount guerrilla war against their vanquishers, while continuing a kind of bonded labor. Many of the peers of these hard-bitten refugees fled to Brazil post-1865 with the enslaved in tow, where slavery continued until the 1880s—just as others fled to Cuba similarly where enslavement had continued. In turn, Washington rallied to the side of anti-French forces in Mexico, up to and including arming them—“sending an estimated 30, 000 guns from the Baton Rouge arsenal alone”—(p. 69) and moving thousands of troops to the border in addition.

Intriguingly, the French puppet leader, Maximilian, was executed on the iconic date of 19 June 1867—and there hangs a tale. For nowadays in the U.S. “Juneteenth” 1865 is being adopted as a day to mark the end of slavery, presumably when bonded labor in Galveston were apprised of their new status as “free.” But as the foregoing suggests, the story is a bit more complicated in that rebels were hardly reconciled to defeat as of June 1865 and their fevered dreams only began to recede decisively with the other “Juneteenth”—1867. The potency of abolitionist forces in London helped to forestall the possibility that the British Empire would intervene during the U.S. Civil War on behalf of the rebels. The author sketched how dependent abolitionism in the U.S. was upon its trans-Atlantic counterpart. “American abolitionism,” says Rugamer, “would develop and grow, but only after British abolitionists had successfully pushed through legislation that abolished slaveholding throughout Britain’s Caribbean colonies.”(p. 86)

This insight has multiple ramifications. It suggests that the strength of abolitionism—or even antiracism, its presumed companion—may have been overestimated in the U.S., leading to misplaced optimism about the postwar dispensation in the U.S. itself. Understandably, this is not the thrust of Rugamer’s essay, which focuses on an egregious episode of the sordid history of the British Empire in the Caribbean. The massacre of Jamaicans of African descent occurred in the fall of 1865 as the U.S. itself was grappling with the new role of its own recently freed enslaved population. When enslavement was barred in Jamaica in the 1830s, this simultaneously gave an immense boost to abolitionism in the U.S. itself, while slaveholders pointed to real and imagined difficulties of the post-slavery dispensation.
The author seeks to continue this linkage when he writes, “in this tumultuous moment in 1865 we can observe the distinct processes of emancipation—in… Jamaica and the American South—become a deeply woven history of Atlantic emancipation, a history with great geographic breadth that does not follow a clean, chronological line.” (p. 99) Included in this litany is Jamaica’s neighbor—Haiti—whose liberation from slavery consummated in 1804, set the pace for abolition in the 1830s, 1865—and finally in Brazil in 1888.

This latter point serves to underscore the approach of this book in that scholarship is ill-served by seeking to contain slavery and abolition within national—or nationalistic—borders. Increasingly, this realization is dawning in the U.S. and this valuable book helps to explain why this is the case.

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