When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America

    When Karine Jean-Pierre was appointed as the first Black press secretary of the White House recently, people around the world hailed it as a major landmark in America’s racism-scarred history.

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    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 1

    While we know that US history is written in the blood spilled by hundreds of thousands of African and African-American slaves, there are a few dark stories that are still hardly talked about.

    It is in the context of the White House’s celebratory announcement that we bring you one such racism story that is gut-wrenching and unnerving, to say the least.

    Black slavery and the rampant abuse of African slaves were part of North American culture long before the US cut loose from British colonialists in 1776. That dark history goes all the way back to the early 1500s.

    The particular slice of America’s slave history that we are revisiting in this article covers the period from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

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    Blood-curdling as it may sound, there was a widely accepted and celebrated trend at that time in America of White people openly using Black babies as baits to lure alligators and crocodiles for hunting and recreation purposes.

    Yes, you read it right.

    Babies were taken away or forcefully hired from African and African-American slave families by reptile hunters, usually White men. After that, the armed hunters deployed the babies as baits for reptiles in swampy grasslands.

    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 2
    A postcard describing the ritual (Credit: History On The Net/ Andscape)
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 3
    Illustration of an alligator bait entrapment (Credit: Ferris State University, US)

    Some hunters used to tie the Black babies up in rope and teasingly dangle them in reptile-infested zones, while many others used to let the unsuspecting babies crawl or sit tight as baits on the edges of waterholes frequented by man-eating reptiles.

    Tempted by the smell of fresh prey, killer gators came out in the open and walked into traps laid out by the hunters, who then shot down the hungry reptiles. The animals used to be hunted for their skin and for pure entertainment.

    Dubbed in American popular culture at that time as ‘pickaninnies’ or ‘piccaninnies’, the Black babies who were used as gator baits were treated as expendable. In many cases, they were eaten up or killed by the alligators during the entrapment, while in some cases, the baby baits that survived the ordeal were handed back to their parents – who were given a fee for having rented out their babies to the hunters for the ritual.

    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 4
    Black babies described as “alligator baits” in a photo frame (Credit: Ferris State University, US)

    What was equally atrocious as this American hunting tradition was its wide acceptability across the North American continent. There was no question of an outcry there over the ritual. Instead, it was well accepted by the White-dominated American press, the government, and educated circles.

    Newspapers used to report on the practice as mere events, writing about it only from the perspective of the White hunters. The papers, mostly piloted by White people, never criticised the practice. It was the other way round. Newspapers used to run advertisements about offers for hunters to hire Black babies in order to use them as “alligator baits”.

    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 5
    An advertisement board on display (Credit: Ferris State University, US)
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 6
    Alligator bait memorabilia (Credit: History On The Net)
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 7
    A postcard, found in Florida, pokes fun at a Black kid (Credit: History On The Net)
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 8
    A figurine depicting a gator and a Black child (Credit: History On The Net)
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 9
    A hand fan with racist depiction (Credit: History On The Net)

    The practice was cherished so much that postcards, posters, and memorabilia were created, sold and circulated. Postcards and posters ran illustrations and demonstrations of the baby bait set-up, showing petrified Black babies on the verge of getting attacked by alligators while White hunters looked on from a safe distance, ready to fire from their rifles.

    The press used to cover the topic as if it were a town square fair. The Washington Times had published an article on June 3, 1908 under the headline “Bait Alligators with Pickaninnies”. In the piece, the reporter wrote: “Zoo Specimen Coaxed to Summer Quarters by Plump Little Africans.”

    Take note of the kind of words used by the newspaper to describe Black kids taken away from their parents – “Plump Little Africans”.

    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 10
    The Washington Times article (Credit: Library of Congress, US)

    According to the article, the zookeeper at the New York Zoological Gardens sent two Black children into an enclosure where about 25 crocodiles and alligators lived. When the hungry reptiles started chasing after the kids, zoo officials were amused at the sight. The Black children were used as pawns to lure and draw the animals out in the open, so that they could be viewed by people during the summer.

    Notice the language used in the article: “…two small colored children happened to drift through the reptile house… [the zookeeper] pressed them into service… [reptiles had an] epicurean fondness for the Black man.”

    Years later, on September 21, 1923, the Oakland Tribune newspaper reported a similarly disturbing incident as if it were some routine news update. The Tribune reported the hire-for-bait episode like this: “Pickaninny bait lures voracious gator to death… and mother gets her baby back in perfect condition. And $2.”

    In October 1919, something even more disturbing was recorded. The Richmond Times published a nasty joke about the babies-as-bait ritual, writing: “We understand the Florida authorities are going to prohibit the use of live pickaninnies as alligator bait. They say they’ve got to do something to check the rapid disappearance of the alligator through indigestion.” The so-called joke was titled: “Game Protection”.

    Wait, the stories get worse.

    In January 1922, a Minnesota-based newspaper called The New Ulm Review published a build-up article on the Brown County Fair. In the piece, the reporter wrote that a gator chasing a Black child is one of many other attractions during the fireworks. “…there will also be a big colored alligator pursuing a fleeing pickaninny, and many other beautiful designs,” the article says.

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    A racist postcard (Credit: Quadell/ WikiCommons)
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 12
    A song about baby baits (Credit: History On The Net)
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 13
    A postcard with the tell-tale caption ‘Alligator Bait’ (Credit: New York Public Library)
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 14
    A racist postcard, found in Florida (Credit: History On The Net)

    There are many more documented instances of the alligator bait tradition in White-dominated America, like this October 1902 article in The St. Louis Republic in which the reporter wrote that a float at a parade carried a display reading: “…monstrous alligator swallowing a fat pickaninny.”

    In fact, to briefly move the spotlight away from the US, Western colonialists on the Indian subcontinent, too, introduced the ghastly practice of using indigenous babies as reptile baits. According to the little documentation that we have, such cases happened in erstwhile Ceylon, which is modern-day Sri Lanka.

    On January 21, 1888, a London-based newspaper called The Graphic published a set of illustrations depicting three instances: (1) a hunter measuring the tracks of a reptile; (2) a man and an indigenous family engaging in a conversation over the latter’s baby; (3) a hunter firing his weapon at a crocodile that was chasing after a baby bait.

    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 15
    Illustrations in The Graphic (Credit: Ferris State University, US)

    Between 1888 and 1890, a few newspapers in the United States reported about an advertisement that had originally appeared in Ceylon Catholic Messenger. The advertisement was titled: “Wanted fat babies for crocodile bait”. According to an unverified account by Mower County Transcript on July 23, 1890, Ceylonese parents used to allegedly “rent their babies out to be used as bait to lure crocodiles for a small consideration, and it is not difficult for an English crocodile hunter to secure the bait”.

    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 16
    A news report about Englishmen using babies as bait in Ceylon
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 16
    A news report related to gator baits (Credit: Library of Congress, US)
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 17
    A news report about the same trend in Ceylon (Credit: Library of Congress, US)

    Due to the unusual popularity of this inhuman tradition in mainstream circles in the US at that time, the term “alligator bait” had become a slur that was slapped on Africans and African-Americans. The US-based Ferris State University’s website claims, on a discussion page, that there are indeed several examples of this trend.

    The highly respected New York Times, too, was in sync with the times. In 1917, it published a review article on toys, writing: “In view of the improved call for stuffed boy and girl Negro dolls, the ‘alligator bait’ is expected to have a big run.” That NYT article is titled: “Outlook for Toys”.

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    A poem celebrating baby baits (Credit: Ferris State University, US)
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    A postcard, found in Florida, pokes fun at Black people (Credit: History On The Net)
    When Black Babies Were Used As Alligator Baits In America 20
    A book by writer Paul Gregory on the dark tradition (Credit: Book Depository)

    It’s true that Black people have endured centuries of humiliation and are now rising to the top, reaching the top courts, the topmost political offices, and stealing the thunder in the competitive world of culture, sport, entrepreneurship, cinema, music and many other fields.

    But every time White America flashes its fangs at its Black population, remember that it’s not a one-off departure from norm. Dark histories, such as the one about alligator baits, remind us that the roots of racism in the US, the biggest empire of our times, are way too deep to be uprooted for good.

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    A racist advertisement for stain remover (Credit: History On The Net)

    Nadim is an author, journalist and editor who spent his career collecting compelling stories across India, West Asia, Africa and Europe. He worked at Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, The Statesman and Muscat Daily. Based out of Delhi-NCR, Kolkata-born Nadim wrote the 2019 book Secret Notes From Iran: Diary Of An Undercover Journalist and also co-authored Into The Sunset: Rediscovering Greece with Ratna. This article was originally published on Empire Diaries.

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    8 COMMENTS

    1. What complete and utter nonsense. Not a word of truth to these absurd allegations, all you’re doing is stoking the racial fires lit by Obama and his ilk. I just marked Great Game India as spam.

    2. This article reminds me of a joke made by a neighbor kid when I was in elementary school in St Louis, Mo. in the 1960s — something about blacks waterskiing as “trolling for gators.” We’ve come a long way and while horrified at the images in this article, in no way is the US worse than other societies including Africans who sold their own to slave traders.

    3. ⁣Most Slaves In America Were White.
      ⁣White slaves transported to the colonies suffered a staggering loss of life in the 17th and 18th century. During the voyage to America, the white slaves were kept below deck for the entire nine to twelve week journey. They were chained with 50 other men to a board, with padlocked collars around their necks. The weeks of confinement below deck in the ship’s stifling hold often resulted in outbreaks of contagious disease,cholera and dysentery.
      Ships carrying white slaves to America often lost half their slaves to death. According to historian Sharon V. Salinger of the University of California, Riverside, “Scattered data reveal that the mortality for [white] servants at certain times equaled that for [black] slaves in the ‘middle passage,’ and during other periods actually exceeded the death rate for [Black] slaves.”
      Ms. Salinger affirms a death rate of ten to twenty percent over the entire 18th century for black slaves on board ships en route to America compared with a death rate of 25% for white slaves.
      ⁣https://politicalvelcraft.org/2011/11/30/most-slaves-in-america-were-white/

    4. A half to two thirds of the original Colonists of North America were Slaves.57% of Children in working class Manchester died before their fifth birthday in 1840.
      ⁣Ulrich B. Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South explains that white enslavement was crucial to the development of the Negro slave system. The system set up for the white slaves governed, organized and controlled the system for the black slaves. Black slaves were “late comers fitted into a system already developed.” Pp 25-26. John Pory declared in 1619, “white slaves are our principle wealth.”
      People from the British Isles were kidnapped, put in chains and crammed into ships that transported hundreds of them at a time. Their destination was Virginia Boston, New York, Barbados and the West Indies. The white slaves were treated the same or worse than the black slave. The white slave did not fetch a good price at the auction blocks. Bridenbaugh wrote in his accounting on page 118, that having paid a bigger price for the Negro, the planters treated the black better than they did their “Christian” white servant. Even the Negroes recognized this and did not hesitate to show their contempt for those white men who, they could see worse off than themselves.
      The white slave did not fetch a good price at the auction blocks. Bridenbaugh wrote in his accounting on page 118, that having paid a bigger price for the Negro, the planters treated the black better than they did their “Christian” white servant. Even the Negroes recognized this and did not hesitate to show their contempt for those white men who, they could see, were worse off than themselves.
      https://www.educationviews.org/white-slaves-america/comment-page-1/
      ⁣More White Slaves were taken to Africa than Blacks to America.White Slaves in North Africa were guarded by Black Guards that is where the word Blaggard comes from, they were chained to the wall at night.”However, by far the worst fate for a Barbary slave was being assigned to man the oars of galleys. Rowers were shackled where they sat, vhgnever allowed to leave. Sleeping, eating, defecation and urination took place at the seat. Overseers would crack the whip over the bare backs of any slaves considered not to be working hard enough.

    5. No mention of the slavery still practiced in most Muslim countries.
      Or the slave-like conditions most pioneers suffered during the founding of this country.
      As for alligator bait black babies…..this author would like it’s readers to think the practice was widespread.
      It wasn’t, and as a matter of fact, at a well read 68, it’s the first I’ve heard of it.
      I call bullshit.

    6. Thank you, Eddie 88, to the link to ‘Most Slaves in America Were White’ …. it is factual and eye-opening. ….. … shalom, al jenkins

    7. REALLY Great link, thank you Allan, to ‘White Slaves In America’ – – should be standard reading materiel in every 8th Grade Class. …….. …. shalom, al jenkins

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