Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Book Review: Our Man in Charleston

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's SecretAgent in the Civil War South
Christopher Dickey
Broadway Books,  2015

This has been a year of history books for me, so when the opportunity arose to get a review copy of yet another book in that non-fiction area I naturally took it. I confess, too, that the subject matter is one that I, a southerner and descendent of slave-owners, should be more aware of: the years (and motivations) immediately leading up to the Civil War. 

Our Man in Charleston traces the American career of Robert Bunch, the New York-raised British consul who arrived in Charleston in 1853 as a newlywed and left the ruined city ten years later. He had done all he could to undermine the South's “peculiar institution,” keeping his own distaste for slavery and the inhuman culture it supported so well-hidden that the city's most rabid pro-secession newspaper mourned his departure. The Federal government, too, under the impression that this diplomatic activist who consistently worked to undermine Confederate efforts to revive the slave trade had actually been a spy for the South, had ordered his removal from office. (His presumed sympathy for the southern cause, of course, had opened many doors for him and provided the Queen's government with invaluable inside information.)

I learned a great many things from this book: I had been under the impression that Britain's only real interest in the American South concerned the cotton trade, but the Negro Seaman's Act (first passed in South Carolina) actually put every black sailor in the Royal Navy at risk. Charleston did not want any free men of color infecting the local slave population with ideas of rebellion, and so black sailors onboard British vessels docked in the Port of Charleston were jailed (“for security”) until the ship was to depart, at which time a fee would be paid for the sailor's redemption. Naturally, any unransomed seamen were subject to sale as slaves. One of Consul Bunch's ongoing struggles involved winning political points in order to have this Act overturned.

Slave trading had long been illegal in the British Empire, but slave-ships flying the American flag enjoyed a kind of diplomatic immunity: They could not be stopped, boarded or searched by British patrols. Likewise, when the United States attempted to limit the importation of slaves from Africa, slaving ships would simply run the British flag. Thousands continued to die miserable deaths on the Middle Passage while British diplomats attempted to resolve the problem, at the very time that radical secessionists in the South were determined to keep the ships running. Virginia and other slave-owning states were not enthusiastic about importing new slaves, since it lowered the value of their human “breeding stocks.” (It was precisely this that most angered—and motivated—Consul Bunch.) Even more, Great Britain by this time found slavery so morally repugnant that many in the government were ready to give up the economic advantage offered by southern cotton if it came at such a human cost. There was an entire Slave Trade Department receiving Bunch's dispatches by diplomatic courier. (Besides, cotton was beginning to come from Egypt and India.)

The only thing this impressively researched volume of American history didn't do was maintain my interest. I drove myself to finish it simply to honor the commitment I had made in accepting the review copy. It could be in part that there were just so many names and dates, posts and places (from New York to Fort Sumter to Cuba to the coast of Africa and up to Great Britain, with occasional forays to Kentucky or Paris) that I was not able to keep them all straight. It could also be that apart from the crushing descriptions of the slave trade (many from Bunch's own pen), there was too little of the human element in the story. It all felt a bit distant, I suppose. As much as I enjoy history, maybe there was too much here for my taste!

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