Book review: The Saddler’s Legacy, by Rosslyn Elliott

For summer reading that is both pleasurable and thought-provoking, I recommend a series of books which I just finished reading: Rosslyn Elliott’s “The Saddler’s Legacy.” The three volumes are Fairer than Morning (copyright 2011), Sweeter than Birdsong (2012), and Lovelier than Daylight (2012), all published by Thomas Nelson. The titles and cover art suggest that the books are romances, and indeed Elliott uses the style of a romance novel to tell her stories. But all three are also historical fiction, carefully researched, filled with adventure, and relevant to contemporary issues. They are set in Westerville, Ohio, with occasional visits to larger American cities, and they describe events in three generations of the same family, the Hanbys.

Fairer than Morning begins in the summer of 1823. Ann Miller is being wooed by Eli Bowen, but she meets Will Hanby, a saddle-maker’s apprentice. The romance is predictable (as is the case for all three novels), but around that skeleton Elliott builds a tale of working conditions in the early nineteenth century and questions about the system of justice, both issues that still matter in the twenty-first century. Her characters are strong and complicated, not cardboard cutouts. Most of them are Christian, but Elliott is not preachy in her writing. As she tells her story, she allows readers to reach their own conclusions about what is happening.

My favorite of the three is the middle book, Sweeter than Birdsong. Kate Winter, a student at Otterbein College in 1855, is painfully shy. Ben Hanby is a musician at the college. Fate throws them together, as they become involved in the Underground Railroad, that network of safehouses that supported escaped African American slaves on their path to freedom. It seemed that I could relate to both Kate and Ben with their talents and with their challenges.

The final volume, Lovelier than Daylight, is set during the Westerville Whiskey War of 1875, a battle of prohibitionists against the saloon industry. Susanna Hanby is one of the prohibitionists; Johann Giere is the son and heir of a brewer. When Susanna’s sister Ruth disappears along with Ruth’s six children, it appears that Ruth’s alcoholic husband is somehow to blame. But Johann, an aspiring newspaper reporter, is best equipped among Susanna’s acquaintances to track down Ruth and the children. Elliott handles the questions of prohibition, social justice, and violence with clear insight into the complexity of human behavior, complexity which leads to no easy answers.

All three books are engaging. Elliott never becomes lost in the details. The research behind her writing provides everyday lifestyles as well as historic persons and events. The characters are strong enough to keep a reader’s interest. I bought my copies through amazon.com. J.

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Sugar: the spice that changed history–part three

Long ago, sugar became the most popular Asian spice in Europe. During the 1400s, Portuguese investors built large sugar plantations on islands near Africa. Work on these plantations was done by slaves from Africa. When the lands of the western hemisphere were discovered by Europeans, sugar farming was the first industry to be transported to the New World. Millions of Africans were brought to work on sugar plantations (as well as tobacco farms, cotton farms, and so forth) between 1500 and 1800.

Slavery has existed since ancient times. Slavery was considered natural in all parts of the world. Conditions of slavery were regulated by governments; in most places, slaves maintained certain rights under the law. Slavery is mentioned in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. It is not specifically condemned in the Bible, although the Law of Moses forbids one Israelite from owning another Israelite as a slave.

Plantation slavery was harsher and crueler than most previous forms of slavery. Early death was expected of slaves, and plantation owners figured on an average of five years of work from a slave before he had to be replaced. Treatment of slaves was different on different plantations, but brutal beatings, separation of families, and other abusive treatments were common. Some slave owners did not want their slaves to learn about Christianity, because the owners knew that Christian slaves would merit better treatment as human beings. Most slave owners did not want their slaves to know how to read and write, because illiteracy made them easier to control.

Opposition to slavery existed before the nineteenth century, but at first it had little success. By no coincidence, abolition first took hold in Great Britain, the country where the Industrial Revolution began. Slavery was not opposed successfully until machines were designed that could replace the work of slaves. Only then did European and American societies begin to recognize the human rights of workers. Slave trading from Africa was banned at first, and eventually slavery was entirely abolished. In the United States, a four year Civil War was needed to bring slavery to an end. Other countries, such as Brazil and Cuba, continued to allow slavery for years after the United States ended the practice. In some places, slavery continued to be practiced legally until the 1960s.

Industrialization made abolition possible. Industrialization also found new ways to process sugar. What had once been a spice now became an essential ingredient in many factory-produced foods and beverages. Sodas, breakfast cereals, candy bars, salad dressings, barbecue sauces—all of these contain high amounts of sugar, and during the twentieth century, they became increasingly large parts of people’s diets. Sugar is highly addictive, and the more sugar people consume, the more they want. Businesses succeed by giving people what they want, and over the past several generations, people have wanted a lot of sugar.

The politics of sugar turned a corner on January 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union assumed that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and, therefore, “the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” Castro overthrew a government that was allied with the United States, so the Eisenhower administration assumed that he was a communist. Getting no help from the United States to set up a new government, Castro decided to agree that he was a communist, and he turned to the Soviet Union for help. The United States placed an embargo on Cuban exports, including cigars, rum, and sugar. These products became popular in the Soviet Union and its allies, while the United States and its allies needed to find a new supply of sugar.

While some sugar was available from other Caribbean islands, not enough cane sugar was being grown to meet the desires of the Western world. Therefore, American factories began to produce sugar from beets and from corn. Much of the sweet stuff Americans eat today is sweetened by high fructose corn syrup. We pour it on our pancakes and waffles, we spread it on our sandwiches and burgers, and we pour it on our salads. Our desserts and snacks are filled with sugar, much of it made from corn.

The medical reaction to sugar in the modern diet will be covered in part four. J.

Sugar: the spice that changed history–part two

Portuguese sailors explored the African coast in the fifteenth century, wanting to purchase gold without dealing with the sub-Saharan empires, which placed a surcharge on the precious metal. Coastal Africans were willing to exchange any commodity they had for European products, including horses and guns. They offered ivory, and they offered slaves. Once the Portuguese explorers found uninhabited islands nearby, they were happy to purchase slaves so they could establish sugar fields. The Africans were happy to sell slaves, not from their own tribes, but from neighboring tribes—captured prisoners of war. As the Atlantic slave trade grew, some African nations deliberately went to war with their neighbors to provide themselves with more slaves to sell to the Europeans.

The Portuguese sought a route around Africa so they could buy spices and other Asian products without paying a surcharge to west Asian merchants and governments of Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, an Italian sailor proposed to the government of Spain that he could take ships directly to China and India by crossing the ocean to the west. Christopher Columbus did not have to prove to anyone that the world is round—educated people in Europe, Asia, and Africa had known the shape of the world for more than a thousand years. Greek scholars had even determined the size of the world with reasonable accuracy by measuring shadows in different cities. Most sailors did not want to try the western route because of the size of the world—European ships could not carry enough food and fresh water to supply their crews for such a long voyage. Columbus overestimated the size of Asia. He also suggested that the curve of the Earth is different measuring north to south than measuring east to west. (Had he been correct, the world would be shaped more like an egg than like an orange.) Columbus wanted gold from Asia, but he also wanted spices, including sugar. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand gave Columbus the money he needed for three ships, and in the following years he made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and back again.

When Columbus first landed in the Caribbean Islands, he thought he was in Indonesia, and he called the people living there Indians. He found no gold and no sugar, but he found islands where sugar could be grown. Although Columbus never publicly admitted his mistake, others quickly realized that he had found land previously unknown to Europeans. They referred to the islands of the Caribbean as the West Indies, calling the islands of Indonesia the East Indies. Spain and Portugal, and later Great Britain and the Netherlands, copied the farming system first made by the Portuguese on islands near Africa, and soon a vast sugar industry was operating.

The Portuguese system involved many African slaves supervised by a few European landowners and managers. Slavery was not invented by the Portuguese; it has existed since ancient times. People became slaves due to debt, or to crimes, or to being prisoners of war; often slaves had rights protected by law. Some had respected duties such as managing the property of the rich or teaching their children; in some cases, certain slaves owned slaves of their own. The new system, prompted by an appetite for sugar, created the plantations and haciendas of the New World. In addition to sugar, American plantations also began raising tobacco, cotton, coffee, and rubber. When the local population was found insufficient for working the plantations (largely because of their lack of immunity to smallpox and measles), Europeans began transporting more Africans into the western hemisphere. In fact, between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to live in the Americas.

Until recently, history books said that we will never know the number of Africans removed by the slave trade. Researchers finally realized, though, that the slave trade was a business, and that there must be business records stored somewhere. Once they knew what documents they needed, they knew where to find them, and now it is known that roughly thirteen million Africans were forced into slavery during those three centuries. Even more appalling is the fact that the loss of one quarter of those thirteen million lives in transit across the ocean was considered a legitimate cost of doing business.J.

To fly or not to fly (the Confederate flag)

When people in the United States choose to display the Confederate flag, other people are offended. Those who defend the display of the flag say that they are celebrating the culture of a region; they say that there is nothing inherently racist or otherwise offensive about the flag. Those who are offended respond that the flag represents an attempt by some states to leave the Union so they could preserve the institution of slavery, an institution that (as practiced in the United States) was distinctly racist.

Defenders of the flag say that the Civil War was not really about slavery. They say it was really about the rights of states to make their own rules without interference from the national government. Slavery happened to be the issue wherein interference was perceived, but (they say) southerners were not so much fighting to retain slavery as they were fighting to retain independence promised to them (they say) in the United States Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln was opposed personally to slavery. However, he said that the Civil War was not about slavery–it was about keeping the country united. Lincoln said he would be willing to tolerate the continuing reality of slavery if it would hold the country together; and Lincoln said that he was sending soldiers into rebellious states to preserve the Union. Contrary to popular opinion, Lincoln did not free the slaves. His Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves in states that were members of the Confederacy and thus (from Lincoln’s point of view) in opposition to their national government. Four slave states remained in the Union during the Civil War, and Lincoln’s Proclamation did not affect slaves in those states. Slavery was ended in the United States by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was proposed in Congress while Lincoln was alive, but was not ratified until after he had died.

If Lincoln said that he was not fighting against slavery, does that mean that the southerners were not fighting to keep slavery? To answer that question, one must research the reasons given by southern leaders when they chose to secede from the Union and to fight, if necessary, for a new nation, the Confederate States. Because I have family and friends living in Arkansas, and because the history of Arkansas’s secession is rather interesting, I will use that state’s secession as a model for this research.

When Lincoln was elected and some southern states chose to secede from the United States and form the Confederate States, Arkansas had been a state for only twenty-five years. Residents were divided over the issue of secession. While slaves were found in every county of the state, most of the slaves in Arkansas were in the southeastern half of the state, which had flat land suitable for large cotton plantations. The northwest half of the state–featuring the Ozark and Ouachita mountains–held many citizens who favored remaining in the United States rather than joining the Confederate States. Accordingly, the state government decided to hold a convention, with delegates chosen by the voters of the state, to decide whether to secede or to remain.

When they gathered in Little Rock in March, 1861, the number of delegates supporting secession and the number of delegates supporting the Union were roughly equal. The convention conducted its regular business, electing officers and the like, while observers tried to guess what the final vote would decide. On March 11, those favoring secession gave their reasons. They listed six objections to remaining in the Union. These were:

  • In the northern states, a new political party had recently formed, and its central and controlling idea was hostility to the institution of “African slavery.” The newly elected President and Vice President were members of this party.
  • The government of the United States was threatening to deny the southern states protection to “slave property” by declaring that any states added to the Union would not allow slavery. (Up to this time, the country had carefully added one slave state and one free state around the same time, keeping the United States Senate balanced between the two positions. Michigan became a state shortly after Arkansas did so.)
  • Northern politicians claimed that Congress had the power to abolish slavery in the territories, in the District of Columbia, and in forts, arsenals, and dock yards owned by the government, even in southern states.
  • The United States government obstructed faithful execution of its own fugitive slave laws (which required the return of an escaped slave to his or her owner, even if he or she had reached a free state).
  • The United States government denied citizens of southern states the right of transit through free states with their slaves and the right to hold those slaves while sojourning temporarily in free states.
  • The United States government “degraded American citizens” by allowing “equality with Negroes at the ballot box.”

Directly or indirectly, all six of these reasons are connected to slavery.

As the convention continued to meet, it remained clear that the delegates were almost equally divided. After several more days, the convention decided to schedule an election for August in which all the voters of Arkansas could choose between secession or remaining in the Union. With this accomplished, the convention adjourned and the delegates returned home.

The next month, the Civil War began, as shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. President Lincoln sent out a message calling for soldiers from each of the states that had not seceded to join the United States Army. The governor of Arkansas refused to provide a single soldier to fight against fellow southerners. Instead, he called the convention back into session. Meeting on May 6, the delegates called for a vote the proposal that had been made on March 11. Perhaps some of them had forgotten the reasons given on March 11; more likely they didn’t care. The vote in favor of the motion to secede was 65 to five. Four of the delegates who voted no then changed their vote, seeking unanimity. Only one of the seventy refused to support leaving the United States and joining the Confederacy.

In this way, and for these reasons, Arkansas entered the Civil War. Next week, I will describe how the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas rather than at Fort Sumter. J.