American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation

By Smith, Miles | South Carolina Historical Magazine, January-April 2011 | Go to article overview

American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation


Smith, Miles, South Carolina Historical Magazine


American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation. By Matthew Pratt Guterl. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. Pp. 237; $39.95, cloth.)

Atthe outset of the American Civil War, the South was one of several slave societies in the Western Hemisphere. In Cuba, in other locales in the Caribbean, and in Brazil, master classes sought stability and prosperity. Although historians such as Peter Kolchin and William Frechling acknowledged the presence of other slaveholding societies during the nineteenth century, no one has attempted a history of the circum-Caribbean master class until Matthew Guterl. As the author convincingly argues, slaveholders in the American South, the Caribbean, and Brazil communicated and interacted through commerce, print media, travel, and even visions of conquest. Before the Civil War, southerners gave money and emotional support to the idea of a Caribbean slave empire that included their own plantations, those in Cuba, and hypothetical conquests in Central America. Indeed, after the war many pursued the dream to its logical conclusion. When slavery ended in the United States, some American representatives of the circum-Caribbean master class moved their lives and livelihoods south to Cuba and Brazil. Their legacy fared poorly, and few stayed in their new slave realms long enough to make a lasting socio-economic impact or recreate the southern slave culture. Despite posterity assigning their legacy to relative obscurity, their impact became apparent in forms of historical memory such as literature and in the postwar political and racial legacy of the South.

Guterl provides evidence that the South was not an isolated slaveholding outpost. Travel by slaveholding families across the Gulf of Mexico created an awareness of the fraternity among the hemispheric master class. Mobile, Alabama, belle and socialite Octavia Walton (known to contemporaries as "Madame Le Vert") voyaged to Cuba and other Caribbean islands. Havana figured prominently in her journals. She enthusiastically supported the efforts of aie filibuster os, who hoped to liberate the island from its Spanish overlords, and she constantly hailed the gentlemanly appearance of Cuba's creole population. Walton considered Cuba part of "America" and described her sadness at departing before a sojourn in Europe.

Family served asa surprisingly prominent mode of tying American and Caribbean slaveholders to each other. Guterl gives as an example the case of Ambrosio Gonzalez's marriage to Harriet Rutledge Elliott of Beaufort, South Carolina. Gonzalez's childhood and education in Havana eventually prepared him for study in the United States. Upon arrival he made little progress inlearningEnglish,buthebefriendedayoungLouisianan,P.G.T.Beauregard, who introduced him into the almost familiar world of the slaveholding Gulf States. The relationship of Havana and New Orleans (and the rest of the Gulf South) serves as a prominent theme throughout the book. Although New Orleans became increasingly Anglo in culture and language, Guterl's point is well taken. Louisiana continued to attract Caribbean exiles throughout the nineteenth century. …

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