- American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation by Matthew Pratt Guterl
Once a year, the small Brazilian town of Americana celebrates Festa Confederada, a spirited commemoration of the town’s earliest settlers, men and women who had fled the ruins of the former Confederacy after the American Civil War and set sail for South America. The founders had sought to recreate an Old South lifestyle that no longer existed to the north in one of the few remaining places in the western hemisphere where slavery still survived. In choosing Brazil, they drew upon exhaustive research, reconnaissance, and extensive personal connections. Though only 10 percent of today’s residents of Americana trace their ancestry to the original Confederados, the annual festa remains a fascinating event, complete with reenactors dressed as Confederate soldiers, fried chicken and biscuits, the prominent display of the Confederate battle flag, and residents with surnames like Calhoun and Yancey mingling Portuguese and English in conversation.
In his new work, Matthew Pratt Guterl offers a compelling explanation for the existence of southern outposts like Americana way, way down south in Dixie and skillfully traces the intricate connections that incorporated slaveholders in the American South into a broader “master class of the Americas” (6). Writing in response to the historiographic trend that portrays the antebellum South as an isolated and “peculiar” society, Guterl demonstrates that many [End Page 84] southerners consciously thought of themselves within a global context, one that emphasized a common past of bondage and mastery as well as a shared dread of future emancipation. Guterl shows that whether by ship, overland travel, literature, the press, a sense of shared geographic space, or, often, hopes of future annexation, many masters of the Old South linked themselves to a much broader slaveholding community, a class of “dramatically hemispheric and cosmopolitan” New World masters (5).
As relations between the North and South grew increasingly tense in the late antebellum years, the connections within the American Mediterranean remained significant. North American masters turned their attention to history of the Caribbean and South America as they plotted their own next steps. Slavery had been abolished for decades in Jamaica and Haiti, followed by, in many southerners’ estimations, disastrous results. Accordingly, as they debated the future of slavery and citizenship, their deliberations were flavored with an awareness of earlier “failures” in the Caribbean. The legislated emancipation in Jamaica had “proven” that former slaves would not work without compulsion, and the Haitian revolution and resulting free black republic loomed as a festering inspiration to revolt among their own bondmen. In both cases, cash-crop agriculture failed entirely after slavery. Yet southern masters also looked to Cuba and Brazil, the last places besides the American South where large-scale plantation slavery coupled with a heritage of white supremacy survived. Indeed, as many masters saw it, Cuba could potentially be the next Texas for an expansionist slave South, with even more short-term potential. After the Civil War, besides retaining bound labor, these territories also avoided the turmoil of Radical Reconstruction.
Thus, southern masters had long observed hemispheric slavery with a schizophrenic mixture of both hunger and repulsion. As they confronted the long-feared transition to free labor after the Civil War, they did so armed with a thorough knowledge of the previous experiences of other New World masters. Most dealt with the new order among the ruins of the defeated South and in many cases drew on the lessons of Jamaican and Haitian emancipations as they tried to order their new post-emancipation lives. Others, like the confederados of Americana, fled further south to where bondage yet survived, in an attempt to recreate the world they had lost and to flee the postbellum “world turned upside down.” In the fascinating stories of this Confederate diaspora, Guterl records “the last breath of the slaveholding Old South” (81).
Despite its hemispheric scope, however, American Mediterranean is [End Page 85] explicitly and deliberately not a work of comparative history. Though acknowledging the...