Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World

Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World

Ownby, Ted

Thomas C. Buchanan, Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC (2004), 272 pp., US$32.50.

This attractive social history tells the stories of slaves and free blacks who worked and travelled along the Mississippi river. The title deliberately complicates Mark Twain’s memoir Life on the Mississippi, and part of the goal of the book is to get beyond romantic conceptions of the freedom of early river life. The relatively brief volume uses travel literature, abolitionist literature, some legal sources, newspapers, and some steamboat records to move through chapters on city life, work, family, escape, forms of resistance, and emancipation.

The work’s greatest contributions to the history of transport likely lie in two areas. One is Buchanan’s careful description of the various jobs free and enslaved African-American men and women worked on the Mississippi river. Cooks and waiters, chambermaids, porters and stewards, firemen, deckhands, and roustabouts worked in what the author calls ‘one of the most unique environments in antebellum America’ (p. 79).

Second, the book’s argument addresses the tensions and possible contradictions that travel and transport offered. Could one start over in a new place? Maybe, if one moved from slavery to freedom, and maybe, if the local economy and society provided a reasonable place for African-Americans to work and live. But transport sometimes dramatised differences between slave and free, black and white, even while river travel held potential for work, pay, and enjoyment, and even escape to freedom.

Buchanan consistently emphasises that travel and connection to cities challenged boundaries and complicated identities. Both slaves and free blacks could negotiate for improved wages, both went from slave territory to free territory and back, both could spend money and enjoy themselves in the relative anonymity of urban life, and both met more people and encountered a wider range of opportunities and strategies for individual and group resistance than most slaves. The author does an excellent job connecting transport to the specific economic setting and also the potential pleasures of the various cities along the Mississippi river.

River travel often held contradictions, or at least the potential for different directions, for African-Americans. Steam travel on the Mississippi river, for most African-Americans, meant going down river toward large-scale plantation slavery, especially dreadful material conditions, and distance from the potential for freedom. But the river also held potential for going the other way, toward free territory. Travel could separate families and, less often, it allowed individuals to reunite families.

This well written and compelling volume exemplifies much of what the best historians of slavery are writing. Buchanan, like many of the best recent scholars, stresses that slavery varied by occupation and location, studies contingencies of place and time, tells vivid stories of individual personalities and possibilities. To dramatise river life through the lives of individual people, the author begins each chapter with a scene from William Wells Brown’s Narrative, and he devotes a chapter to the travelling adventures of the Madison Henderson gang, who made a living through theft before being caught and executed. Most important, the book tells a broad story of agency and creativity, all the while never minimising the brutalities and limitations of the institution of slavery and the reality of racism. Most of the relative freedoms of river life were precarious, and this book, which begins and ends with a critique of one romance of river life, works hard to make sure it is not creating another type of romance.

Ted Ownby, University of Mississippi, Oxford

Copyright Manchester University Press Mar 2006

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