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Just Happy to Be Here, Sir!


The previous post noted that when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea created an anti-American propaganda film, it reached for images from the history of Virginia, in particular of slavery, to make its point. One of those images comes from the February 16, 1861, issue of the Illustrated London News and depicts a slave auction in Richmond. What’s interesting, though, is that while the North Korean use of the engraving presumes an understanding that slavery is evil, the artist, G. H. Andrews, actually intended the opposite!
How do we know? For starters, look at the other image of a slave auction he drew (above). The enslaved man is well-groomed, well-dressed, and well, smiling. Even his posture is something to behold. He doesn’t seem to mind at all that he is being inspected like a horse. The scene around him, meanwhile, is quite orderly and civilized, what with the reading of New York papers and all.
Andrews’s description of the auction, in his story for the Illustrated London News, only confirms this impression. Having entered the auction house a few minutes before the appointed hour, he writes, “I had a good opportunity to look at the crowd of men about me who dealt in human flesh, and I am bound to say that I saw nothing very dreadful in their appearance; they carried neither revolvers nor whips. They were not a gentlemanly-looking lot of men certainly, but seemed quiet, respectable, people, such as one might meet at a sale of books or old china in any part of London.”
The tension here should be evident: the scene is quiet and ordinary, except that one might expect whips and revolvers. Why? And while the men’s business is deemed respectable, it still requires the writer to compare human beings to books and old china.
These sorts of tensions course throughout Andrews’s account. For instance, he arrived in Richmond to write about slave auctions only to be informed by a friend that the locals treated this sort of intrusion as “rather a serious matter.” Stung by Northern criticisms and feeling “grossly libelled and misrepresented” by journalists, elite white Virginians were not inclined to treat curious out-of-towners “in a kindly spirit; on the contrary, they rather manifested a desire to tar and feather them.”
Ouch. Don’t think that this threat of violence went unnoticed. Andrews writes that a “sensation of stickiness had come over me in consequence of his tar-and-feather allusions,” and when Andrews’s friend introduced another man to the negotiations, Andrews “felt rather frightened at first, not forgetting what I had heard of these people’s fondness for tarring and feathering.”
All anxiety seemed to float away, though, as Andrews was assured that slavery was indeed “a very dreadful institution; but, having got it, and all their property embarked with it, it was not to be supposed they could give everything up at once at the bidding of New England parsons.” Certainly not! And anyway, look around. The black men and women in the streets of Richmond, though enslaved, nevertheless were “all looking happy and contented.” Inside a tobacco factory, Andrews witnessed slaves “working, and in some cases singing most merrily.” He noticed no fear on the part of slaves; in fact, “master and servant seemed to be on friendly terms with each other, and I do not believe, from what I saw, that these workpeople were badly treated, generally.”
Notice the avoidance of the word “slave.” Or any kind of special thought given to the admission, on the part of one Richmonder, that at least some of these merry workers represented a threat to rise against their masters in a bloody insurrection. Most, of course, would be faithful to their masters … “Yet, said he, in spite of all this affection for my wife, my children, and myself, if a rising of the negro population took place I would not trust one of them; they would murder us all in our beds if they could, and then howl in sorrow and misery over the bodies of their victims; they would blindly, and without reflection, follow others, doing what they did, and be deeply sorry for it afterwards.”
This is the quotation you should read as you look at the image above or the one from the previous post. It contains within it so much of the horror and contradiction of slavery, and all with no irony intended!
BELOW THE JUMP: Find an image of the page on which much of Andrews’s story, and the slave-inspection image, appeared. Click to enlarge.

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