Greenville, Mississippi. Saturday 11th October
You will, doubtless, recall the debates about exactly when we would reach the south? It was not food, or blues, or accent or culture, but rather a state of mind. Well, when you reach the delta in Mississippi, one thing becomes abundantly clear immediately – King Cotton rules the land.
You come down the east bank of the river, through Missouri, and see rolling hills and yet more miles of corn and soy. You then descend onto a plain, flat landscape that stretches on and on with hardly a tree to break the view. You notice that instead of tall rows of corn stalks, bulging with fat cobs or fields of short, stubby bushes with pods of beans (the ones that, steamed, cost £5 a bowl in London restaurants – oh how the locals here laugh at that!), you suddenly see straggly, knee height bushes that appear to be decorated for Christmas. Then you get a little closer and you see mile upon mile of these extraordinary balls of cotton. I could not resist getting out to feel these funny little plants and, sure enough, they feel exactly like cotton balls, except protected by sharp hulls underneath, which spike and cut your fingers if you are not very careful. This is still the dominant crop here and has been since 1800. Let me give you some perspective.
The population in 1800 in Mississippi was 8,850, of which 3,349 were slaves. The cotton exported was 0. By 1860, the population was 791,305 of which, 436,631 were slaves. Cotton exported, 535,100,000 pounds. The wealth created, and very much the underpinning rationale behind maintaining slavery, was astounding. The price of cotton went from 5c to $2 regardless of the increase in production. But before you condemn the south alone in this hideous picture, remember that the bankers of New York lent money and provided insurance for the industry, the shippers in Boston and New England did very, very well. And the vast majority of the crop was bought by the mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire and fortunes made. There were more millionaires per capita in Greenville, MS than New York City. But no longer. Mississippi is the poorest state in the union, but its character shines through and guess what? Cotton is still king…..
In other news, three more days done here and we should all rise and applaud my mate Simon Hotchin. I mentioned earlier that he was a hurdler at college, so that should have been an indicator that he was a non-rower. He took on the challenge and threw himself into learning to skiff. He was already very fit and strong, but as others will tell you, technique and timing are hard to master without months of training. Being Simon, he just got on with it and out he came, ready to pile in. He immediately offered to row an extra day, and so he did. So a big, big round of applause for his sequence of 50, 31 and 32 miles, with hardly a scar to show (but not wholly unhappy to be out of the boat today!).
Of the three days, he readily acknowledged that the middle day was hardest. He was stiff and sore after 50 miles, but the middle day (yesterday) was a very tough headwind with standing waves and tugboat after tugboat pushing huge barges to churn the water. By contrast, today was a breeze, after thunderstorms through the night and early morning, we had a low stress day of 32 miles with little headwind for once.
Simon reckons he likes this skiffing lark and intends to train back at the Skiff Club in London. As ever, I am amazed at the attitude of these guys. I suppose there is an element of self-selecting nutcases willing to take this on in the first place, but the fact that most of my friends turn out to be latter day Oliver Twists – they want more – is a revelation.
Two more join us tonight – Jim Eyre and David Ellis. Doubtless they will be a touch nervous, but doubtless like all the others, they will embrace the challenge and not only come through but thrive.