Commodity Chains and Chained Commodities: Following the Money of American Slavery in the 1830s

By following the odyssey of Sam Watts, an enslaved twenty-two-year-old man first bought in Virginia in 1831, VFH Fellow Calvin Schermerhorn examines how slavery was intimately tied to Northern and transatlantic financial institutions and international credit markets. Watts was a cooper or barrel maker, one of thousands to depart the Old Dominion that year for a life of toil and hardship in the lower South. Schermerhorn presents Watt’s journey through the jails and sales venues of the United States slave trade, all made possible by what Schermerhorn terms a “revolution in finance.” It gave northern merchant houses and British investment bankers interests in slavery and gave Americans the credit they craved to buy lands, slaves, and finance improvements.

This chain of credit linked bondspersons to global commodity chains of cotton, sugar, and the debt instruments that paid for them. Watts’s story is about the paper money used to buy and sell him, the chain of debt that linked the bank to which he was mortgaged to a premier British investment bank, and the sugar supply chain that distributed Louisiana sugar to New York and Europe. Schermerhorn’s case study puts in perspective the far-flung financial and trade networks so obscured in memories and representations of United States slavery.

Calvin Schermerhorn is a historian of nineteenth-century America focusing on networks and narratives of slavery, capitalism, and African American life. After receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2008, he joined the faculty of Arizona State University.

The story of Sam Watts is part of a forthcoming book with Yale University Press that explains American capitalist development in terms of the U.S. interstate slave trade. Schermerhorn’s other book project, United States Slavery: A Family History, details transformations in slavery through changes in family life from the American Revolution to Reconstruction. For more information, contact Ann White Spencer, aspencer@virginia.

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