The Cotton Boom and Saint Maggie
In the Saint Maggie Series, my characters Nate and Emily Johnson are black. Nate is a freeman, born and raised in New Jersey. Emily was born a slave in Maryland but brought to New Jersey by her mother. The other characters are also a mix of self-emancipators and freeborn: Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe (Saint Maggie through A Time To Heal), Anna and Pete Wilson and Moses Galloway (Walk by Faith); Edward Caldwell (Seeing the Elephant and The Good Community); Joe (Seeing the Elephant), Rosa Hamilton (The Enlistment & The Good Community); and Mary and Addie Brooks (The Good Community).
However, the shadow of slavery is not far from any of them, even those who are freeborn. And, although my characters have fictional histories, real history lies behind them. It’s important that I write a little about why slavery became such an entrenched “institution.”
In the late 1700s England was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and had become capable of producing cheap cotton textiles. This capability created an enormous market for cotton. American cotton producers would have been delighted to fill the British demand were it not for one thing: upland or short-staple cotton, the cotton that provided the greatest yield per acre, was seedy. In fact, its seeds clung so stubbornly to its fiber that pulling them out by hand was terribly time-consuming. One worker only could remove about one pound of seeds per day. If cotton producers wanted to take advantage of the British demand for their crop, something needed to change.
That change came in 1792 in the form of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The genius of the cotton “gin,” or cotton engine, was that it had a roller studded with metal teeth that picked the cotton up and carried it to a metal grill. The grill scraped the off the teeth, simultaneously loosening those stubborn seeds and causing them to drop away.
The cotton gin was amazingly efficient. A gin cranked by one slave could do the work of twelve. And if a water wheel powered the cotton gin, it could do the work of hundreds of slaves. The invention caused American cotton exports to explode. The amount shipped to England jumped from almost nothing in the early 1790s to twenty million pounds of cotton by 1801.
One would think that such an invention ought to result in the reduction of the need for slave labor. Sadly, that was not the case. The need for enslaved peoples’ labor increased as the cotton economy spread from the coastal states to the Mississippi Territory and all the way to Texas. Someone had to plant and tend and harvest all that cotton. And that “someone” meant enslaved laborers, fully entrenching slavery into the Southern economy. As a result, the total number of slaves nearly quadrupled from 1800 to 1860. By 1860, thirteen percent of the population of the United States (395,538 human beings total) was enslaved and owned by eight percent of the families.
Slavery then is the background of the families of the people of color in the Saint Maggie series. Even if they lived in the North rather than the South, they most likely would have been enslaved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, in the case of states like New Jersey, into the nineteenth century. And, because of this, they become voices for justice, liberty, and rights in the Saint Maggie series.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder