Thursday, 11 August 2016

REVIEW: "Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South" by Christopher Dickey

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South
by Christopher Dickey
Broadway Books
ISBN: 978-0307887283
Copyright July 2016
Paperback, 400 Pages

Our Man in Charleston is a principally engrossing narrative. The book offers an overwhelmingly compelling, poignant and vivid account of the African transatlantic slave trade within the context of the Secession climate under the tenure of American President James Buchanan, the officialization of the Secession with the signing of the Ordinance of Secession and the formation of the Confederate States of America, the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as the successor to Buchanan, and certainly the American Civil War.

A moderately-paced book, the reader will enjoy the opportunity to vicariously experience the prevailing undercurrent regarding slavery and the slave trade in the American South through the perspective of Robert Bunch, a British Consul stationed in Charleston, South Carolina.

Certain parts of the book indeed give the reader the impression as if one was watching a movie on events leading up to the American Civil War, especially so due to the intimate details furnished by the author on the various figures and characters relevant to the narrative, and even more so as the reader is offered privy into the most private thoughts, opinions and correspondences of Consul Bunch.

Very cohesively written, highly readable, and absent of unnecessarily dense material or technical information, the book is perfect for the general reader passionate about history or more specifically, American history, and who favor historical accounts written with a pronounced narrative flair.

The author unmistakably supports an abolitionist stance toward slavery which manifests distinctly throughout the book. Dickey also displayed a clear admiration for Consul Bunch, who was fittingly positioned as the main protagonist of the narrative—one who wrote from “the epicenter of secession and surrounded by ferocious partisans of,” and who became Her Majesty's “most important” representative in, the new Confederacy. The author even once reverently referred to Bunch as being “a mix of moralist and careerist.”

The book does a commendable job detailing the “slavocracy” of the American South and the South's ultimate failure in building the “slaveholding empire” it so ambitiously desired and sought. The narrative was enlivened with such terms as “Fire-Eaters” which aptly refers to extremist pro-slavery politicians.

Critical issues pertaining to the narrative of the slave trade in America are excellently explored. It was certainly fascinating to learn for example, of the British abolitionists who deployed the Royal Navy's Africa Squadron, and the American anti-slaving patrols posted off the coast of Cuba and West Africa; and the significance of the “Africanization of Cuba” scare to the slaveholding American South.

The African slave trade is vividly and poignantly painted in the book with the notable use of strong words with negative connotations—the “execrable traffic” of the slave trade; the “inhuman savagery” of the Middle Passage; the “quotidian barbarity” of slavery; the “spectacle of atrocity” aboard slave ships; the “most painful, humiliating and degrading” scene of slave auctions; and certainly, the “unforgivable inhumanity” of slave owners, along with the “ferocious arrogance” of the slavers.

The author also boldly proclaimed the unbelievably horrid conditions of slave ships in the most graphic, not to mention effective, manner possible—“vomit and urine and feces and blood had seeped deep into the raw wood of the sunless, slapped-together slave decks in the hold, staining them indelibly with filth.”

Consul Bunch—one of the fourteen consuls posted by Britain in the United States, and one of the seven allocated to the slave states—was one whom abhorrence toward the slaveholding state of South Carolina was immensely spotlighted in the book. Bunch viewed Charleston as “a society almost devoid of sanity,” and wrote about the “the frightful atrocities” of slaveholding. He was the embodiment of Great Britain's interest and commitment to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, and exemplified one caught in the midst of the resulting tenuous and intricate U.S.-British relations. An extraordinarily captivating detail, Consul Bunch was also tasked with the formidable, if not virtually impossible, mission of amending or even ending the “abominable” Negro Seamen Act which menaced black British seamen.

Satisfactory commentary and discussion was furnished regarding the Southern slaveholding states. Succinctly put and effectual, the author noted that as a matter of economic self-preservation, emancipation was unthinkable for the South's elites. If slavery were abolished, they'd be bankrupt, pure and simple.” The author covered other interesting issues including the pervasive fear of West Indian blacks inspiring and inciting local slaves to insurrection, or even the intriguing economic value of slaves in the South—they were considered the “standard measure of prosperity, the safest investment, and the most profitable commodity for speculation.”

The book also contains the occasional and brief, but incredibly interesting, mentions or allusions to specific historical pieces of information. A decidedly memorable instance was when the author described the Southern secessionists seeing themselves as “reliving the legendary American Revolution, when the colonies separated themselves from British tyranny.”

Remarkably intellectually-stimulating and preciously galvanizing one's curiosity, the book cursorily discussed the Crimean War, including for example the Treaty of Paris that ended it. The book also made brief allusions to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and to the U.S. Neutrality Act of 1818—the act which “made it a felony to recruit Americans on U.S. territory to fight in foreign wars.” One ought not to underestimate the potentiality of such seemingly perfunctory mentions in actually spurring the adventurous reader with an insatiable appetite for knowledge and to learn, to conduct independent research on the individual subject matters.

The greatest downside concerns the pace of the book, which appeared to be too slow, and thus slightly boring, at several occasions. The slower paced portions of the book interspersed amidst other distinctly more engaging content only made the tediousness seem even more pronounced.

Surely, the immense research and details included in the book are commendable. To each individual reader however, there exists a very fine line distinguishing an abundance of details relevant to and which appropriately enhances the richness of the narrative and the reading experience versus the overwhelming inclusion of rather uninteresting and even wearisome details that only appeared to drag on the narrative and thus negatively impact the pleasure derived from reading the book.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for this review. 

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