Although typically treated separately, slavery and the environment naturally intersect in complex and powerful ways, leaving lasting effects from the period of emancipation through modern-day reckonings with racial justice. David Silkenat’s Scars on the Land provides an environmental history of slavery in the American South from the colonial period to the Civil War. The below extract from his book, sets the scene and considers how the environment shaped the lives of enslaved people.
A fugitive from bondage in Mississippi, William Anderson observed in 1857 that “it is almost impossible for slaves to escape from that part of the South, to the Northern States. There are a great many things to encounter in escaping, vis: large and small rivers, lakes, panthers, bears, snakes, alligators, white and black men, blood hounds, guns, and, above all, the dangers of starvation.” In enumerating the many barriers to freedom, Anderson lumped together natural and human obstacles. He understood that slavery’s shackles were not just man-made; enslaved people toiled in an environment that conspired with slave owners to keep African Americans in bondage. At the same time, Anderson and other enslaved people knew the Southern environment in a way their enslavers never could. By day, they plucked worms from tobacco leaves, trod barefoot in the mud as they hoed rice fields, and felt the late summer sun on their backs as they picked cotton. By night, they clandestinely took to the woods and swamps to trap opossums and turtles, to visit relatives living on adjacent plantations, and to escape to freedom.
“While environmental destruction fueled slavery’s expansion, no environment could long survive intensive slave labor.”
While the Southern environment provided the context for the peculiar institution, enslaved labor remade the landscape. One simple calculation had profound consequences: rather than measuring productivity based on outputs per acre, Southern planters sought to maximize how much labor they could extract from their enslaved workforce. They saw the landscape as disposable, relocating to more fertile prospects once they had leached the soils and cut down the forests. The expanding enslaved frontier irrevocably transformed the environment. On its leading edge, slavery laid waste to fragile ecosystems, draining swamps and clearing forests to plant crops and fuel steamships. On its trailing edge, slavery left eroded hillsides, rivers clogged with sterile soil, and the extinction of native species. Although the precise mechanisms and effects varied in Virginia’s tobacco fields, Louisiana’s swamps, and North Carolina’s pine forests, slavery exacted the same swift price. The scars manifested themselves in different ways, but the land too fell victim to the slave owner’s lash.
Slavery more than nature defined the South as a region. Geographers have identified dozens of distinct ecosystems within the American South, encompassing a vast variety of soil types, weather patterns, and biota. Two centuries of human bondage cemented these diverse biomes into a distinct cultural region. When they sought to establish a slaveholders’ republic in 1861, Southern partisans saw enslaved labor as the thread that linked the Eastern Coastal Plain, the Appalachian Piedmont, and the Mississippi Delta. “The South is now in the formation of a Slave Republic,” wrote L. W. Spratt, the editor of the Charleston Mercury, in February 1861. Its commitment to human bondage defined “the South as a geographical section” and provided what Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens described as the “cornerstone” of the new republic. Its advocates championed the South’s ecological diversity as an asset, one that enslaved labor could exploit. “What a soil, and climate, and variety of productions,” boasted Daniel M. Barringer in April 1861, shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter. Urging his fellow North Carolinians to join the newly established Southern Confederacy, Barringer saw its future in the expanding slave frontier, where “almost everywhere an inviting soil, capable of every variety of production and, in many portions of the Confederacy, still of virgin fertility—with every good climate of the world, and very little of the bad.” For Spratt, Stephens, Barringer, and other Confederate nationalists, slavery undergirded the world they hoped to defend. As historian Ira Berlin has observed, the ethos of a slave society infused and infected all aspects of its social order: law, family, custom, religion, politics, and art. Slavery also shaped how white and Black Southerners came to view the land itself and their relationship to it.