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‘And Six Pence’
Unconquered by Cecil B. DeMille, with Gary Cooper and Paulette Goddard, 1947 Based on a novel by Neil H. Swanson

A pressgang breaks into a home in England to take away a sick man to serve the Royal Navy. Abbey Hale tries to fight off the press gang, resulting in an officer’s death and she is sold into bondage.

This may have happened and could have happened, but represents at once a hyperbolic appeal to the audience and an overshadowing of why most women were sold into slavery from England to The Plantations, usually for the crimes of being orphaned, homeless, penniless, unowned or unmarried. Set in 1763, a year of turmoil on the frontier, the take of this fictional women represents very real circumstances. Seven years earlier Mary Sprigg wrote a heart-rending letter home to her father who had apparently sold her into bondage for some form of disobedience, where she had it much worse than the fictional Abbey Hale, who was nevertheless based on a real women who was still alive to write about her enslavement at the eve of the American Civil War.

The magistrate sentences the protagonist,

“…Transported, to serve not less than 14 years as an indentured slave, to be auctioned to the highest bidder, slavery in the colonies or the gallows,”

The terms of 7 and 14 years are accurate, the number of lashes set at 30 as well, as is the free use of the term slave. However the comic frivolity of the middle passage, the sold men and women joking about on deck rather than being shackled below was terribly inaccurate. The term bond-slave is proper, with the bond before it referring to the contractual aspect, as opposed to a kidnapped person or an African.

While the demeanor of the underclass is not authentic, that of the upper class is properly severe and varied of ethos, with one man against slavery on principal, some neutral and some adamantly for it. The employment of black sailors, gun sales to Indians, the presence of black servants and the customized tomahawks imported for sale to the Indians and, furs going to sea on the boat that brought the guns and white slaves to port, that is accurate. There are less lies by omission than in most history books and the plight of the black slave left with a crueler master than the one he helped raise was well done. The conversation between Washington and the protagonist about being taught math by a convict and the auction off in which there is an argument about breaking up a family and the open selling of wives are very accurate. The tavern maid being told that spilling grog would add a year onto her time was dead on, as was the extensive alliance-making between English, Irish and Scottish criminals and government agents and Indians was very accurate, as was the flat reference of Abbey as a “girl” and “property.”

The white Indian squaw Hannah is one nod to the rampant race-mixing between the Indians and English and the outfits are authentic and the use of dark-haired white men with a slight tan as Indians makes the point by accident better than it could be made. What was entirely wrong was the western style use of horses in the Allegheny forest and the modern paced time compression of days passing when months would have in fact been required for the events to unfold.

The plot, loosely revolving around Pontiac’s Rebellion, is flatly ridiculous.

“Men and women weren’t made to be bought like yards of cloth,” a line delivered by Captain Holden [Gary Cooper] makes the abolitionist case concisely as did the Swiss officer in the English King’s service siding with slavers over undocumented frontiersmen based on fake documents is authentic. The actions of the Garth character deftly managing an alliance of Indian tribes against settlers and English forts was really a Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary reality [happening decades later] which was misplaced here, something English agents did against runaways before the Revolution and against Americans during and after.

There is a real problem with the mixing of Indian hair styles and attire from different regions west of the Mississippi and a century later. Remarkably, the movie preserved, not only a line by Benjamin Franklin, but the fact that double-selling a save was a hanging offense, a custom that would end up being preserved as “the skin game,” of which one of Solomon Northup’s traffickers, who was acquitted on charges of abducting him, claimed Solomon was involved in.

One fallacy is the belief by the settlers that white women are universally tormented and killed, something that was only done sometimes by eastern woodland Indians of this period, who preferred to adopt them or sell them. There was a common reality of brutal rape, torture and slaughter of white women by natives of the far west in the 19th century which was not the case in the region and period depicted in the film. However, extensive brutal torture was practiced by Eastern woodland Indians on men, particularly the prominent officers. They would have burned Holden at the stake after torturing him. The Dog barking is entirely fictional as Indians did not have barking dog.

They did get the physicality of the Indians pretty high for that movie-making era. As much as Guya Suta looks like a half Irish savage he us not nearly as smart as actual Indians were, especially since many of the chiefs of that era were white or part white and knew all about European weapons and tools. Especially the properties of iron, which was worshipped. The Indians are really made painfully stupid in the film and brutish, which would have only been the case if they were 100% English and Irish rather than 40%.

That said, the canoe use is well done by the two stunt doubles in the lead canoe of the central chase of the epic. The canoe work of the Indian chase groups as well as their appearance was very well done. Of course, the central stunt was ridiculous, but it was Hollywood.

The Indian ideographs were accurately represented, along with the attitude towards the use of the term bond and slave. The two terms were not used conjoined but separately. Where in the film the enslaved person is called bondslave by their owners and traffickers, and referred to themselves as slaves, in actuality they were officially known as bondsmen and bondwomen, a term not forgotten by this artificially intelligent dictionary checking my spelling as I type but institutionally forgotten by we who use it.

The cabins, stockades, taverns and other frontier props were excellently wrought, the dialogue fairly banal and the lapse in and out of romance and adventure downright irritating. The siege itself is reminiscent, in outline and in its savage context, of those of New York in the French and Indian War. The viewer will be treated to an improbable, Hollywood, WWII, movie-style ending to Last of the Mohicans.

What astonishes was that such material was still lingering in a popular novel and at least one movie, the knowledge so diligently buried and so easily, since, during the age when the practice of English selling each other into bondage was so commonplace it rarely warranted pointing out among the philosophers of the period.

Recently I had a conversation with a young man who writes for Counter Currents, who put forward his opinion that the truth is too complex for most to fathom and therefore we are best served by putting forward only that segment of the truth that serves our purpose. I agree with the first part of is statement but not the second, so remain cursed to stumble along in the chronological gloom and report on that which I may ascertain.

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