Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Published in March 1852, it sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and 1 million copies in Britain. It was translated in Polish, Hungarian and Russian. By 1861 sales had reached 4,5 million.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned by most of the Southern states which subjected Harriet to vicious abuse. They claimed blacks are inferior to whites; that the Bible justified slavery as did the US Constitution. They claimed slaves were well housed and fed and were better off than the ‘wage slaves’ of the North’s factories.

Harriet cast African slaves as naturally inclined to the teachings of Christianity. Her casting of the central character, Tom, as a converted Christian was rejected by critics as “audacious trash’ that a ‘savage’ could make that transition.

Her solution that slaves should be emancipated to Liberia was rejected by prominent former slave and author Frederick Douglass who insisted that the slaves belonged in America.

The book revitalised the abolitionist movement and served to show up the apathy of the Christian world of the free North.

As literature, the book is a compendium of sermon, debate, drama, tragedy, brutality, callousness and indifference. Whatever criticisms are made of it, the dehumanised existence within the slave system is starkly presented along with the deeply flawed ideology on which Southern slavery was based.

Specific issues that make indelible marks on the reader are:

  • The breeding of fatherless, motherless slave infants for sale. ‘Topsy,’ the little girl featured, never knew family or love. Instead she was conditioned into never being anything but “a nigger” who can never do any good and must be regularly whipped to ensure that she remains docile and reminded of her inferiority. As she says: “They can’t nobody love niggers.”
  • The horror of the slave market: being auctioned off at the notorious New Orleans slave market was an experience fraught with shame, fear and despair. Shame because potential buyers physically probed the slave’s body especially young females. Fear because of the unknown nature of buyers and how they would treat the ‘merchandise’ they were buying. Despair because invariably family members or long-standing friends would be separately sold off never to see or hear from each other again.
  • Whipperies: these were places that carried out punishment on behalf of slave masters who did not wish to personally subject their slaves to a whipping. They were manned by sadistic types who relished their task. A slave sent to a whippery would be given a note as to the number or extent of lashes to be administered. Infection from blood-clotted backs was a commonly suffered..
  • Slave masters: The character called St Clare treats his household slaves like family and is on the point of signing Tom’s emancipation papers when he dies. Horror then seizes his slaves because they realise that they will be sold off as part of St Clare’s estate. Taken to the slave market in chains, they were individually sold off with no regard to husband, wife or child being separated from each other. Legree, the slave owner who buys Tom amongst other “purchases,” is heartless, depraved sadist who employs two powerfully built slaves to beat up and whip those who, on a whim, he wants punished. His housing and treatment of his slaves is appallingly inhuman.
  • Christianity amongst the slaves: Stowe portrays a strong attachment to the Bible which, of course, contrasts with the hypocrisy of many of the slave owners in terms of Christ’s teaching. Tom, the central slave character, is a devout Christian who bears his brutal torture and beating without curse or revenge, so much so that he sees the after-life as his only objective in life. His dying words were “coming home at last.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin should be read by anyone interested in American history and who thinks they know something about the issue of slavery. No matter how fine Robert E Lee was as a Southern General in the Civil War, the fact that he fought for the Confederacy and its slavery institution, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book provides a perspective which is justifiably damning in the extreme.

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