M Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Steamboats and the Rise of King Cotton by Robert Gudmestad

Steamboats and the Rise of King Cotton by Robert Gudmestad (2011, 312 pages)

Steamboats and the Rise of King Cotton by Robert Gudmestad is a very interesting and comprehensive treatment of the history and vast social and political consequences brought on in the American south by the rise of the steamboat as the primary means of transport along the rivers of the region, including the huge Mississippi River, America's longest.  The book covers the period from 1811 to 1875

I think most people when asked about steamboats and the American south will think of Mark Twain who was for a while a river boat captain (and took his pen name from a trade expression for marking depth in the river) and old Hollywood movies where everybody goes crazy when the steamboat pulls into town.  In the movies the boats are very glamorous and look like floating five star 19th century French hotels.   You have to be on the look out for riverboat gamblers and the women are all right our of Gone With the Wind in the days long before the Civil War.   Gudmestad in his very well written book with full documentation for his claims shows us the real story of how steamboats were vehicles for the slave trade, helped move 1000s of Indians from their ancestral lands so the whites could take them over, and tells us of the terrible conditions all but the wealthiest passengers faced, with many sleeping on the deck in all kinds of weather.  Slavers were big customers of steamboats and it is hard to reconcile the Hollywood image of Steamboats with the slaves who were chained in place.  The trip was a big escape risk for their owners.

There are a lot of very interesting things about American history in  Steamboats and the Rise of King Cotton.   It was fascinating to learn how slaves were also used to run the boat, doing the worse kind of work.   It looks like the best job a slave could hope for was to be a waiter on a steamboat that had first class passengers.   In time many steamships began to compete with each other to build up their reputations as luxury trips, just like cruise lines do now.

Working on a crew ship was dangerous and bad for your health.  Many crew members, who often could not swim, fell overboard, lots of ships boilers blew up.  Female slaves worked as maids and were often raped by passengers and crew members and they had no legal recourse as slaves could not testify against whites.  Some slaves did learn how to "talk like white people" and some did earn enough in tips and such to buy their freedom.

Because the dominance of the steamboat and all of the rivers in the American south the southern states did not develop the railroads the northern states did and this left them at a big disadvantage during the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) because they could not move troops and supplies nearly as well.

I decided not to explain the central thesis of the book.   The author has done that very well and I am totally convinced by his claims.

The author talks a lot the role of the steamship in the lives of the Irish Americans of the time.   In 1859  twenty five percent of the crews on steamships were typically Irish.   Many Irish joined the ships as crew members in places like Memphis and ended up getting off all over the American south where they made homes.   Gudmestad did say that sometimes the bigger steamships would make bulk deals to carry groups of up to five hundred Irish immigrants at a time.  I really would have liked to know more about how these arrangements where made and where the Irish were going.   Clearly steamboats helped immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere spread from the Northern ports to all of America and I wish the author had told us more about the role of steamships in this.  He also tells us that the other passengers on the ships looked down on the Irish as loud and loving their whiskey.

Steamboats and the Rise of King Cotton by Robert Gudmestad was a very interesting book that I think most people interested in he history of the American south will enjoy and learn from.    It is very well documented and written.

In the interest of full disclosure I was provided a free Kindle edition of this book by the publisher Louisiana State University Press through Netgalley.

Robert Gudmestad earned his PhD from Louisiana State University and is currently an associate professor at Colorado State University.

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