Rosenthal on Johnson, 'River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom'

Walter Johnson. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. 560 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-04555-2.

Reviewed by Caitlin Rosenthal (Department of History, University of California-Berkeley)
Published on H-Business (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Tracey Deutsch

Slavery, Capitalism, and Empire in the Global Mississippi Valley

Like his 1999 Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market, Walter Johnson’s recent River of Dark Dreams is an eloquent and horrifying book. Where Soul by Soul examined the tight confines of New Orleans slave pens, Johnson’s new book opens up on the vast expanses of the Mississippi River valley. Broader in scope (and length—the book spans fourteen chapters), River of Dark Dreams is far more ambitious if somewhat less tightly constructed. This is a book to wrestle with.

Bridging environmental history and the cultural history of empire, River of Dark Dreams describes the evolving geography and political economy of the Mississippi River from the late eighteenth century to the American Civil War. Johnson argues that over the antebellum period, the increasingly commercial Mississippi valley became more closely aligned with the Caribbean and South America. Planters and merchants actively pursued an expanding geographic scope for slavery, their efforts culminating in attempts to reopen the slave trade on the eve of the Civil War.

The early chapters of River of Dark Dreams (chapters 1-2) describe the importance of the Haitian revolution and the shadow of fear it cast over the slaveowning Atlantic world. St. Domingue, “the richest colony in the world,” had been the foothold for French aspirations in the Western Hemisphere (p. 22). In Napoleon’s imperial visions, the Mississippi valley would serve St. Domingue, providing food and supplies to support a colony devoted to sugar monoculture. The most successful slave revolt in history spoiled these expectations, diminishing the value of the Mississippi valley to the French and opening up new territory for the expansion of American agriculture. After the Louisiana Purchase, an army of surveyors, clerks, bankers, and auctioneers sliced and priced the valley into large tracts of land.

Planters expanded west both despite and because of the threat of slave rebellion. A current of terror pulses through the book: slaves feared their enslavers, but masters also feared their human capital. White anxieties could spin out of control at the slightest sign of revolt. Ironically, the specter of uprising propelled the expansion of bonded labor. For, as Johnson eloquently observes, retreat was not an option. When prices fell or the soil failed, human capital “would not simply rust or lie fallow. It would starve. It would steal. It would revolt” (p. 13).

Against this backdrop, Johnson turns to a series of chapters (chapters 3-5) about the role of the Mississippi River as a conduit for goods and people. Steamboat capacity expanded rapidly over the early nineteenth century as captains and inventors deployed a mix of technical and experimental knowledge. In 1814, the 268-mile journey upstream from New Orleans to Natchez took more than six days. By 1844, the Sultana made the trip in a record nineteen hours and forty-five minutes (p. 79). Johnson’s depiction of the river as explosive and unpredictable fits into his portrait of southern capitalism: the river was as dynamic and dangerous as the plantations it knit together. Because they did not have to build tracks, steamboat captains required relatively little capital, and they could organize individually rather than as joint stock companies. This structure facilitated a frenzy of entrepreneurial activity, but also accidents and overcrowding.

From here, Johnson turns to the development of plantation technologies in the Mississippi valley (chapters 6-9), writing evocatively about the environmental refigurings engendered in cotton production. He describes how planters pursuing higher yields introduced new strains of cotton like “Petit Gulf” for their “pickability.” As they adopted these varieties, Johnson describes, they molded plant to person and person to plant, melding agricultural science and labor management. Viewed through this lens, the plantation “was not simply a way of organizing labor, but a way of organizing nature” (p. 154). Slaveholders also used dogs and horses to control the sensory landscape of the Deep South. These animals enhanced planters’ sight, smell, and hearing, enabling them to track men and women who escaped into the swamplands that surrounded plantations.

In these middle chapters, Johnson also describes plantation management practices, exploring the relationship between quantification and violence. Business and economic historians will find these chapters interesting, though at times the basic details of plantation management get lost in lofty language. For example, Johnson gestures to a “trinomial accounting of acres, bales, and hands” but does not offer precise descriptions of recordkeeping practices or how they were changing over time (p. 153). Still, these chapters invite further research on the ways that mid-nineteenth-century practices for grading commodities like cotton found further application in the disciplining of human chattel.

In the late chapters of River of Dark Dreams (chapters 10-13), Johnson makes his most important contributions to reimagining the geographic scope of the Mississippi valley. He describes plans to connect the Mississippi valley more closely to the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Johnson recounts debates over the annexation of Cuba, the potential of Brazil as a safety valve for the rapidly growing population of American slaves, and the fight over slavery in Nicaragua. Along the way he shows how southern imperial visions mapped on to the Mississippi River itself. One striking example is Captain Matthew Maury’s description of the Amazon River as a tributary of the global Mississippi. Maury wrote that “in consequence of the Gulf Stream, the mouth of the Mississippi is really the Florida Pass,” where the waters of the Amazon “flowed through the same channel” (p. 299). Framed not by land but by flows of water and capital, the basins of the Amazon and the Mississippi united in service to a slaveholder’s empire.

River of Dark Dreams concludes with an account of efforts to reopen the slave trade in the late 1850s (chapter 14), a choice that underlines the vitality of southern aspirations. Slavery was not just strong on the eve of the Civil War: it was expanding. Johnson opens River of Dark Dreams with a sobering quotation from W. E. B. Du Bois: “The slave barons looked behind them and saw to their dismay that there could be no backward step. The slavery of the new Cotton Kingdom in the nineteenth century must either die or conquer a nation—it could not hesitate or pause” (p. 1). Johnson’s conclusion reveals how close the cotton kingdom came to realizing this vision.

Closing with these failed efforts sets up the dark commercialism of slavery as a prelude to something that did not actually happen. Even as Johnson illuminates a counterfactual Mississippi where slavery might have flourished, he directs attention away from real continuities with postbellum America. The legacy of slavery should be sought not just in the untold history of what might have been but also in the development of the American economy as it actually unfolded both before and after the Civil War.

River of Dark Dreams joins an exciting wave of research that returns to the political economy of slavery. Recent texts on the American South include John Majewski, Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation (2009) and Lorena S. Walsh, Motives of Honor, Pleasure, and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607-1763 (2010), and for the West Indies, B. W. Higman’s Plantation Jamaica, 1750-1850: Capital and Control in a Colonial Economy (2005) and Justin Roberts’s Slavery and Enlightenment in the British Atlantic, 1750-1807 (2013)Johnson enriches the field, artfully bridging geographic divides. But River of Dark Dreams also represents a missed opportunity to bridge disciplinary divides and engage with research in economics departments. Though the work of economic historians of slavery asks very different questions than Johnson, incorporating their findings would have enriched the study. For example, in his analysis of the development of new strains of cotton, Johnson would have benefited from more engagement with the research of Paul W. Rhode and Alan L. Olmstead, whose recent Creating Abundance: Biological Innovation and American Agricultural Development (2008) documents the role of biological innovation in American agricultural development.

Also somewhat disappointing is Johnson’s description of plantations as producing only salable commodities. He writes, “in an economy where both planting and productivity were measured by a calculation of bales per hand per acre, allocation of either land or labor away from cotton and toward corn, cattle, or hogs represented an unaccountable loss in the minds of cotton-crazed planters” (p. 177). Though historians at one time believed that the plantations of the Deep South produced little food, plowing all of their resources into cotton, we now know that this misconception resulted from trade statistics that did not fully account for the extent to which midwestern foodstuffs that arrived in New Orleans were re-exported to consumers outside the South.[1] Many plantations produced large amounts of food, and indeed growing corn and raising hogs complemented planters’ efforts to grow more cotton. Corn and cotton were counter cyclical, requiring labor at different times of the year.[2]

Though Johnson acknowledges that some plantations produced food, he overemphasizes the extent of cotton monoculture. Describing plantations’ more diverse output might have reshaped Johnson’s analysis without undercutting his larger conclusion. Planters grew food precisely because they hoped to maximize the output of their human capital. They followed the logic of labor as capital with chilling sophistication, growing food to nourish their investments even as they also deployed hunger as a tool for management.

These critiques should not detract from the volume’s overall contribution. This is a landmark text, rich with ideas. If not as artfully constructed as Soul by Soul, River of Dark Dreams is far more ambitious in scope. It is also equally successful in the ways it immerses readers in the daily muck and brutality of the slave system. “The Cotton Kingdom was built out of sun, water, and soil; animal energy, human labor, and mother wit; grain, flesh, and cotton; pain, hunger, and fatigue; blood, milk, semen, and shit” (p. 9). Johnson’s thick descriptions of the economic machinery of slavery paint a vivid picture of both the South as it was and of a Mississippi empire that might have been. At times, his vivid language teeters on the edge of luridness, but this is part of his critique of capitalism. The Deep South was as dynamic as it was violent, nursing a kind of capitalism where terrifying brutality went hand in hand with innovation.


[1]. See, for example, Robert E. Gallman, “Self-Sufficiency in the Cotton Economy of the Antebellum South,” Agricultural History 44, no. 1 (January 1, 1970): 5–23; Diane Lindstrom, “Southern Dependence upon Interregional Grain Supplies: A Review of the Trade Flows, 1840-1860,” Agricultural History 44, no. 1 (January 1, 1970): 101–113; and Albert Fishlow, “Antebellum Interregional Trade Reconsidered,” The American Economic Review 54, no. 3 (May 1, 1964): 352–364.

[2]. Jacob Metzer, “Rational Management, Modern Business Practices, and Economies of Scale in the Ante-bellum Southern Plantations,” Explorations in Economic History 12, no. 2 (1975): 123–150.

Printable Version:

Citation: Caitlin Rosenthal. Review of Johnson, Walter, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. H-Business, H-Net Reviews. February, 2015.

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