Dealers in human flesh

‘I was much struck with the general well-to-do look of [the slaves], for I had imagined they would have wretched, down-trodden appearance showing marks of ill-usage, and be afraid to look up at strangers; instead of which I found them well dressed, well fed, and apparently happy and contented; but I was looking on the surface only, I suppose.’

Thus writes a Special Correspondent of the Illustrated London News, sent to Richmond, Virginia, USA in 1861 to report on the slave auctions. To gain entrance to an auction he had to promise not to libel or misrepresent the Southerners on pain of being tarred and feathered! This is part of his long report:

‘The auction-rooms for the sale of negroes are situated in the main streets, and are generally the ground floors of the building; the entrance-door opens straight into the street, and the sale-room is similar to any other auction-room. I observed that placards, advertisements and notices as to the business carried on are dispensed with, the only indications of the trade being a small red flag hanging from the front door-post, and a piece of paper upon which is written with pen and ink this simple announcement – ‘Negroes for sale at auction this day at ten o’clock’ … Besides this written notice and the heading to a sheet of letter-paper, I saw nothing in print or writing having reference to the sale of negroes – no catalogues nor descriptions of lots; nor could I find any advertisements in the local papers …

‘I had a good opportunity to look at the crowd of men about me who dealt in human flesh, and I am bound to say that I saw nothing very dreadful in their appearance; they carried neither revolvers nor whips. They were not a gentlemanly-looking lot of men certainly, but seemed quiet, respectable people, such as one might meet at a sale of books or old china in any part of London. At length a fine-looking coloured man was put forward. He walked straight up to the block, mounted it, and put himself in a most dignified attitude … He was a remarkably good-looking man, and I felt sure that a sculptor would have pronounced him by far the best-looking man in the room.

‘A few steps lead to the top of the block and upon one of these the auctioneer or crier, as he is called, stands, and a red-faced, impudent, vulgar-looking individual he was in this case … He described the negro as sound in wind and limb, as being a good farm hand, could guide a plough, shoe a horse, and mend a hoe, but he was not a first-rate smith. Then the biddings commenced, and 800 dollars were offered.’

The ILN reporter’s contact claimed that the slave owners had been ‘most foully slandered by Mrs Beecher Stowe’ (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and that ‘the Northerners were continually threatening immediate abolition and proposing to use force to carry out their views; that they [the Southerners] were determined to meet force by force, and that there was, in consequence, little chance of peace between them.’ The American Civil War broke out in April 1861, soon after the ILN article appeared, and in 1865 it ended, the Confederate (slave) states having been defeated.

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