“Cuffy,” “Fancy Maids,” and “One-Eyed Men”: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States

“Cuffy,” “Fancy Maids,” and “One-Eyed Men”:  Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States

The American Historical Review
Volume 106, Number 5 (Decenber 2001)
pages 1619-1650 (55 paragraphs)

Edward E. Baptist, Associate Professor of History
Cornell University

In January 1834, the slave trader Isaac Franklin wrote from New Orleans to his Richmond partner and slave buyer, Rice Ballard: “The fancy girl, from Charlattsvilla [Charlottesville], will you send her out or shall I charge you $1100 for her. Say quick, I wanted to see her . . . I thought that an old Robber might be satisfied with two or three maids.” Franklin implied that his partner was holding the young woman, one of many “fancy maids” handled by the firm of Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard, for his own sexual use. Unwilling, the jest implied, to share his enslaved sex objects, Ballard was keeping the desirable Charlottesville maid in Richmond instead of passing her on to his partners so that they might take their turn of pleasure. The joke, and the desire it did not seek to disguise, was business as usual. In this case, the business was a slave-trading partnership, and systematic rape and sexual abuse of slave women were part of the normal practice of the men who ran the firm—and the normal practice of many of their planter customers as well. Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard supplied field hands and carpenters to the raw new plantations of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas in the 1830s, but they also supplied planters with many a “fancy maid.” In fact, the letter quoted went on to suggest, tongue in cheek, that such women were in such heavy demand that the firm might do better selling coerced sex retail rather than wholesale. Referring to two enslaved women, Franklin mused self-indulgently on the conversion of female labor into slavers’ money: “The old Lady and Susan could soon pay for themselves by keeping a whore house.” Yet what did Franklin indulge most? Was sexual or monetary greed the trump suit in his own decision-making? Perhaps, he continued, in the vein of aggressive sexual banter that pervades the traders’ letters, the partners would rather see the house “located and established at your place, Alexandria, or Baltimore for the Exclusive benefit of the consern&[its] agents.”

Franklin and his colleagues passionately wanted “mulatto” women, and black people generally: as bodies to rape and bodies to sell. If these men were more than mere exceptions in the society in which they lived—and I shall argue that they illustrate that society’s half-denied and half-remembered assumptions about commerce and rape—then the stakes of explaining their desires are high. What sort of society did slaveowning white men create in the antebellum U.S. South? What sorts of ideas and psychological forces cemented their devotion to the supposedly pre-modern institution of racial slavery to a deep involvement in the rapid commercial expansion that reached a peak during the 1830s?

The present essay seeks to explain the ideas about slavery, rape, and commerce embedded in and produced by the passionate desires of Franklin and his partners. For some years, historians interpreting the institutions and ideology of nineteenth-century southern slavery have focused their attentions on explaining slaveholders’ paternalist defenses of their planter institution. Like some of their sources, such histories have often explicitly or implicitly portrayed the domestic slave trade as a contradiction within an otherwise stable system. Recent works have returned the issue of that trade to the forefront, arguing that the commerce in human beings was an inescapable and essential feature of the region’s pre–Civil War society and culture. In the drop of water that is the correspondence between Franklin, Ballard, and their associates, one might perceive a need to push historians’ revisions of the slave South’s whole world further still. Indeed, these men reveal themselves as being so devoted to their picture of the slave trade as a fetishized commodification of human beings that we may need to insist on such a mystification as one of the necessary bases of the economic expansion of the pre–Civil War South. They also assert, especially through their frequent discussions of the rape of light-skinned enslaved women, or “fancy maids,” their own relentlessly sexualized vision of the trade. Finally, the traders insist in accidental testimony that sexual fetishes and commodity fetishism intertwined with such intimacy that coerced sex was the secret meaning of the commerce in human beings, while commodification swelled its actors with the power of rape. Such complexities lead one to wonder if historians might do well to reinterpret the antebellum South—a society in which the slave trade was a motor of rapid geographical and economic expansion—as a complex of inseparable fetishisms…

…The white world’s obsession with black female sexuality began, of course, long before the U.S. domestic slave trade, or even the United States itself. From the beginning of the European-African encounter, attempts to claim that black female bodies were disgusting because they did not obey European gender roles rang hollow. During the seventeenth-century rise of the plantation complex, black women became by law the sexual prey of all white men. Later, would-be patriarchs of the eighteenth century, such as Virginia’s William Byrd II, attempted to exert sexual control over black women as part of wider projects of household and self-dominion. By the nineteenth century, the belief that black women were inherently sexually aggressive, in contrast to allegedly chaste white females, increased their attractiveness to white men, even as white men publicly proclaimed their disgust with African-American women and their love for the pure and passive belle. Many encounters, rather than a single Freudian trauma of infantile sexuality, shaped the complex obsession with black women. Then the rejected black female body returned in the fixation on the fancy maid.

The rise of the domestic slave trade after 1790, as new lands opened up in the South and new demands for plantation produce—namely, cotton—arose in the Atlantic world, created a particular commercialized category of enslaved women that focused white fixations. Within the trade, light-skinned or mulatto “fancy maids” became to many white men the perfect symbols of slavery’s history, while also ensuring that being “a smooth hand with Cuff” helped make one a “one-eyed man.” To men such as the slave traders discussed here, women like the Charlottesville maid evoked a process of power and pleasure, remembered and forgotten in an ambiguous, simultaneous experience parallel to that which characterized the traders’ commodity-fetish relationship to “Cuffy.” Indeed, coercion, the trade, and the pairing of sexual imagery with women of mixed African and European ancestry were always close companions. Northern and British visitors to pre–Civil War New Orleans rarely failed to write about “yellow” women, “fancy maids,” and nearly white octoroons sold as both house servants and sexual companions in the slave trade. Some observers claimed to have knowledge of special auctions at which young, attractive, usually light-skinned women were sold at rates four to five times the price of equivalent female field laborers. Travelers and other writers constantly returned to the simultaneously offensive and exciting sight of coerced interracial sex, especially between white men and light-skinned “fancy” women…

…Yet the specific white focus on “fancy” or obviously mixed-race women relentlessly returns us to the place of history, especially its memory and its understanding, as the remembering that was present in the traders’ sexual fetishes. The exploitation of enslaved women of African and mixed African-European backgrounds was a part of plantation society long before the ideology of sentimental feminine domesticity could have ever unleashed male anxieties. And the same exploitation undoubtedly contributed, in ways not yet sufficiently investigated by cultural historians, to the ideal of the independent master. The traders’ own words remind us that “land pirates” believed that they became “one-eyed men” through the rape of women who symbolized the past, present, and future of slaveowning men. This becoming was a not-so-secret history that mixed anxiety and pleasure, attraction and control. Fancy maids, more than other enslaved women, embodied a history of rape in the pre-emancipation nineteenth-century South, one that reveals white anxieties about dependence on blacks but that allowed white men to assert and reassert their power and control.

People of mixed racial heritage, or “mulattoes,” symbolized the dependence of white men on black labor, both in the field and in the bed. Marked by their very skin color and other features as products of the white-black encounter in the South, mulatto women were obviously white and not-white, like “our white Caroline.” They were products of the long encounter between white exploiters of labor and black sources of labor, productive and reproductive. Their commodification reminded all that, in the South, every child of an enslaved mother was some form of slave laborer, an arrangement that enabled plantation slavery to function. Every enslaved man, woman, and child was a repository of reproductive capital and a source of production. The white political economy of the South would have collapsed without the legal and cultural fictions that assigned the “mulatto” and other children of African women to the created categories “black” and “enslaved.” Women like the “fair maid Martha,” and “the Yellow Girl Charlott” also, in their phenotypes, illustrated the long past of white sexual assault. “Mulatto” women thus embodied white dependency and white power, and offered men the chance to recapitulate and reexamine the past that had produced both white power and mixed-race individuals. Unwillingly, such women introduced a pornographic history, one obscene yet for that very reason more lusted-after, into the parlors, bedrooms, and above all, the markets of the elite white man’s world. They made flesh the years of white men desiring and depending on women (and men) who were supposedly less than civilized, Christian, or even human.

If the presence of “mulattoes” poorly concealed dependence, in both the past and present, on black labor, the presence of fancy maids allowed white men to remember and reassert a sort of control over both past and present. The history of rape, obvious to all, though openly spoken by few, was the remembered meaning of the fetish of the “fancy maid” in the white male mind. Assaults repeated and thus confirmed a history that had produced white men who bought and sold black women and men, and had made mulattoes as well. The historic penis, the one-eyed man, of earlier generations had in fact fathered the fancy maid—creating in the flesh a symbol of the history of coerced sexuality to which white men like the slave traders could return to at will. Like the Freudian fetishisms that do not produce neuroses, this symbolic relationship was the sexualized prose of the slave traders’ world. It worked for them…

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