Cotton-picking tales of life up north

Slavery and Emancipation
June 13, 2003

History teachers interested in slavery once faced a simple problem: how to assemble appropriate materials that would provide suitable reading for undergraduates. Yet, at the same time, there was a growing volume of scholarly material becoming available, especially about slavery in North America, which confirmed the importance of slavery in the shaping of the Americas. Today, the challenge is to know how to thread your way through a mountain of available material.

One surviving problem remains: the distorted image of slavery itself. Teach US students, and it is immediately clear that slavery, to them, means North American slavery. And it is true that some of the most exciting historiography of slavery has concerned itself with slavery in North America. But in terms of numbers - of Africans imported and of economic centrality to local society at large - Brazil and the Caribbean dominated the story of Atlantic slavery. Indeed, North America imported the smallest proportion of Africans from among the main slave societies in the Americas.

The need now is to direct students to books that operate as texts and sources. Courses that can be shaped around particular books become ever-more attractive. This volume is a case in point, and seeks to accomplish both these tasks. The book comprises 14 parts, each of which consists of major documents about the specific theme (for example, origins and race, planters, cotton) and a key scholarly article or chapter dealing with that and related issues.

The student should be able to sift through the primary material reprinted here and weigh the evidence against what a prominent historian has to say on the subject.

This volume is a good idea, well executed and welcome in that it brings a great deal of scattered and inaccessible material into a readily available format. It is a well-thought-out documentary collection, prefaced with crisp and judicious commentary, each part rounded off by an important essay.

The concentration throughout is on North America. It would have been useful had the editors pointed out the broader world of slavery: that North America was only one of many slave societies in the Americas.

US slavery, in origins, development and consequence, really does look different when viewed in its broader hemispheric setting. That aside, this book is an excellent starting point for students of North American slavery.

James Walvin is professor of history, University of York.

Slavery and Emancipation

Editor - Rick Halpern and Enrico Dal Lago
ISBN - 0 631 21734 7 and 21735 5
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
Pages - 416

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