DG MARTIN COLUMN: How slavery ruined the South’s environment

Published 2:34 pm Monday, July 25, 2022

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We have taken down the Silent Sam Civil War monument on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus and the statues of Confederate soldiers on many courthouse plazas.

But there are other monuments to the Civil War and slavery that cannot be removed — unfortunately.

D.G. Martin

In “Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South,” David Silkenat explains how over a 200-year period slavery made possible environmental disasters that cursed and continue to curse our region.

Silkenat says the slave owners in America’s South saw their landscape as disposable.

Using intensive farming methods made possible by slavery, southern plantation owners wore out their farms. Rather than rehabilitating the land as they exploited it, they simply bought new land to replace what had been ruined.

Sometimes, the replacement land could be purchased nearby. Other times, the owners and slaves from worn-out plantations would move from North Carolina to fresh lands in Alabama or Mississippi, with the enslaved people walking all the way.

In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson noted in 1793 that he did not use manure to fertilize or replenish his worn-out tobacco fields “because we can buy an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old acre.”

Twenty years later Jefferson acknowledged that the intensive farming by his slaves had left his soils inert.

But the environmental damage associated with slavery was not limited to farmlands.

In North Carolina, for instance, intensive enslaved labor made possible the exploitation and destruction of the magnificent longleaf pine forests that covered our state. To secure the pitch and tar from the pine trees, enslaved labor tapped, and scratched the surface, taking the “blood” the trees needed to sustain themselves, leaving only ghosts of once-magnificent forests.

Silkenat wrote, “Intensive extraction conspired with environmental factors to expedite the forests’ destruction. Scarification caused by repeating chipping made the trees vulnerable to wood-boring insects such as the ips beetle, the turpentine bore, and the black turpentine beetle. Stripped of their bark, the pine trees stood defenseless against these insects. A turpentine-borer epidemic in 1848-1849 along the Cape Fear River devastated the heart of North Carolina’s longleaf pine.”

Also, in North Carolina, the use of enslaved labor during the gold rush days before the Civil War made possible the extraction of gold but left a ruined landscape behind.

In South Carolina, the rice plantations that made that state wealthy before the Civil War, required an enormous commitment of enslaved labor to dig and manage the canals and other waterways that provided the right conditions for the crop. Those canals and their upkeep, adjustment, and repairs destroyed the natural environment and left the coastal lands permanently affected.

Similarly, along the Mississippi River, the construction of levees to protect farmlands from flooding required enslaved labor. Continuing maintenance and repair demanded a long-term commitment of enslaved labor. The adjustments to the normal ebb and flow of the river still make for the continuing disruption of the great river’s natural flow.

In cotton and tobacco fields, hardwood and pine forests, rice fields, goldmines, rivers and levees, slavery brought about even more damage to the environment. Although the author sets out many more examples of damage, he acknowledges that “the environmental devastation chronicled in this book pales in comparison to the brutality of American slavery on human bodies and souls. Yet looking at slavery through an environmental lens reveals how the chattel principle poisoned everything it touched.”

Note: The book’s author, David Silkenat, a senior lecturer in American history at the University of Edinburgh, has strong North Carolina connections. His wife’s parents live in Chapel Hill. His father-in-law, Willis Whichard, was a North Carolina supreme court justice and dean of Campbell University’s law school. Whichard is the author of an important new book, “A Consequential Life: David Lowry Swain, Nineteenth-Century North Carolina, and Their University.”

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”