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“What a ‘Negro Trader’ trader has to undergo . . .”
A slaver seeks some sympathy for his business dilemmas. 

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Detail, 1849 letter of Robert Hawkins to John Hawkins
1849 letter of Robert Hawkins to John Hawkins
Illustration of a slave auction in the South, July 1861

The Briscoe Center recently acquired a letter by the slave trader Robert Hawkins. In the letter he admonishes his father, John Hawkins, about his purchase of an enslaved woman named Harriet. “You are a bad hand to buy . . . you certainly did not look at her when you bought her.”

However, while the younger Hawkins expresses dismay at Harriet’s condition, his concern is for himself, not her. “She is the worst marked woman on the back I ever saw and will not sell.” For Hawkins, Harriet’s marks mean nothing more than a botched business deal.

Robert Hawkins was a slave trader who operated in antebellum Mississippi.The youngest of nine siblings, his family owned 17 slaves but dealt in the brutish business of many more. His business model was simple: His father supplied him with slaves, trafficking them from Virginia to the deep South, where Hawkins sold them on at a hefty profit. His 1849 letter is full of details that delineate the abhorrent nature of America’s trade in human beings. Perhaps the most bewildering of all is the marked ambivalence that Hawkins displays in the face of suffering.

Hawkins operated at the zenith of the American slave trade. The Southern economy was booming, and Southern elites used their power in Congress to stymie abolitionist legislation. With the annexation of Texas and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo after the Mexican-American War, the 1840s saw more western land open up for the expansion of slavery. The “peculiar institution” didn’t seem so peculiar at all: it was stronger than ever, creating opportunities for small-time peddlers like Hawkins.

His main client was Nathaniel Ware, a wealthy lawyer, politician, banker, and landowner. In his letter home, Hawkins berates his father for a sending him and Ware “unsound” persons like Harriet. Charles, Mariah, and Luisa were likewise categorized but without elaboration, other than to send a warning to one John M. Gills (presumably a client of Hawkins’s father) that he would “be on him in the spring for damages.” In other portions of the letter Hawkins goes into more detail regarding what he meant by “unsound.” For example, “Anthony” is described as “one of the hardest subjects yet,” with “a swelling under the throat, the effects of scrofula” that has diminished his eyesight. “If you ever buy another Negro strip him and see that there are not scars or swelling about the throat, back, legs, not soar shins, not deformity of any sort,” wrote Hawkins.

The letter is a jarring reminder of the slave trade’s brutality and callousness, with little trace of empathy or irony. Instead, Hawkins pivots from macabre details about the effects of disease and violence to the concerns of the slaving class. His client Ware, “does not grumble” about the condition of his human cargo—instead he trades and swaps them like stock, either forward at a loss or back to the original suppliers with the threat of a lawsuit. In a stupendous statement, Hawkins longs for the “happy time twill be” when he has sold the remaining 24 slaves in his possession and is “free once more.” In the meantime, he complains vehemently so that his father “can see what a negro trader has to undergo.”

Despite the bland repugnance of its author’s attitude and actions, the letter provides students and scholars with a stark, bleak, and detailed vignette about the slave trade, as well as the psychology of those who partook in it. For example, Hawkins writes about the relationship between the crop cycle and the slave market—recent flooding had incited fears of a ruined cotton harvest, which meant “negroes . . . are a dull sale.” He also discusses how Ware used the threat of violence to force through transactions—those who had in principle agreed to a price but later proved squeamish were threatened with “his cane and made [to] pay damages” if they reneged on a sale. The letter also deals with other aspects of life in antebellum Mississippi, including Hawkins’s own marriage prospects. He claims that some days he is introduced to dozens of women—“I am very polite and treat them well as I can.” But he is in no rush to settle down,  claiming that “most all of the men are under their wives,” in Mississippi, and “nearly all the property belongs to the female race in this country.”

Finally, in his postscript, Hawkins asks his father to share news with the family plantation’s “servants” in Virginia: a slave named Price had been sold and was now “well and a happy married man,” with an owner who was “very much pleased with him, and . . . would not take $2000 for him.” On a certain level, these lines add a personal quality to an inhumane relationship. Nevertheless, as always with Hawkins, dollars and deals are never far from the surface. These faintly human touches do not mitigate the inhumanity of slavery—they merely add to its absurdity.