Thousands dying for a smoke

Many Thousands Gone
March 3, 2000

Students of slavery in the Americas have been faced by a veritable blizzard of scholarship in recent years. In English alone, the volume of published scholarship has been extraordinary. Much of it, of course, has been highly specialised research; the findings of the most minute of historical investigations. It is quite simply difficult to keep in touch with the full range of this scholarly output. And it is equally difficult to know where to place this specific scholarship within a general appreciation of slavery itself. To make matters more troublesome still, some of the most important findings about Atlantic slavery have come from Africanists. It is now clear enough that many of the answers to the problems confronting students of Atlantic slavery will be found not in the Americas but in Africa. Or rather they seem to be located in that complex world where Africans, Europeans and Americans came together, mingled and transformed the world of the Atlantic littoral.

The study of Atlantic slavery needs, then, to be located within history of three continents (Europe, Africa and the Americas). The development of African slavery in the Americas was called into being by European settler societies, goaded by metropolitan European interests (and money), and by trading and maritime groups along the West African coast. And all for what? To convert the luxuriant wilderness of critical areas of the Americas to profitable agricultural development, in the main by supplying the western world (thence the whole globe) with produce they had previously managed without - most notably tobacco and sugar cane.

Recent slave scholarship in the Americas has also forced historians to strive for a more subtle analysis and approach to slavery. Not least, it is perfectly clear that slavery differed enormously across time and space. What was true of one slave society was very different in another. There were fundamental differences between those societies that tolerated slaves and those that became slave societies, rooted in and fundamentally structured around the local system of slavery. Nor were slave societies the same. The tobacco-based Chesapeake slave societies differed enormously from the rice-based Low Country of South Carolina. And the Lower Mississippi was as different again. Moreover, within each slave society, slavery broke down into a profusion of types, from the brute field hands who bore the brunt of the military-type discipline in the fields, through to the very different world of urban slaves, and those myriad slaves who survived almost as independent workers, on and around the plantations, and in urban centres.

Not surprisingly, few historians try to bring together this diversity of historical experience to make sense of the whole. Most historians of American slavery are happiest on their own specific and specialist patch. Occasionally, however, we are rewarded with a brave soul willing to impose shape and direction on what has become, for many, a prodigiously confusing historiography. Ira Berlin, like the very best historians who have tackled the problem, brings to the task a formidable record as a researcher and writer in more specialised areas of slave and post-slave studies. The result of Berlin's labours is a vital book, not simply in making sense of historical complexity, but in advancing a new and distinctive argument about the shaping of North America.

Many Thousands Gone has a modest subtitle, The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America . But beneath that simple heading we are presented with a sophisticated argument that imposes shape on historical diversity without in the least riding roughshod over the specific local and regional differences that fragment the American slave experience. This is a deceptive book, for it is not simply a general account of slavery in North America. It is a subtle - and beautifully written - argument about the phases of slave history and of that sharp differentiation across time and place that makes slavery so hard to contain within a more generalised format. Berlin manages this through a persuasive blueprint for the subsequent development of the book. Divided into three major sections - what he calls the Charter Generations, the Plantation Generations and finally the Revolutionary Generations - each section is then cross-sliced by a detailed study of the four major regions he has defined: the Chesapeake, the North, the Low Country and finally the Lower Mississippi Valley.

What emerges is the most original and most persuasive overall study of North American slavery for a very long time. Earlier scholars have tended to freeze-frame chronological change (this was notoriously E. D. Genovese's major failing) or to telescope together remarkably different slave cultures. One of Berlin's great achievements is to avoid both of these dangers. Moreover, Berlin is a very fine stylist, gently wooing the reader to his argument by the sheer reasonableness and lucidity of his prose. The study of slavery, rooted in brutality and nurtured by draconian violence, tends to prompt outraged or irritated literary responses, even among seasoned historians. Berlin never takes that route, but the reader is never left in any doubt about the true nature of the subject under review.

The argument at the core of the book - the centrality of black slavery (in all its temporal and regional complexity) in the shaping of North American history - has an importance that goes far beyond the specialist interests of slave historians themselves. What Berlin makes clear, in an original and compelling argument, is the degree to which African slaves - and their local-born offspring - were integral to the shaping of North American life. All this took place before the rise of King Cotton, long before that new revolution in American slavery - the development of the cotton plantations of the South - drove armies of slaves south and west from the old slave regions to produce the cotton that was used to clothe the wider world.

Berlin's book tells the earlier story. But it has a resonance for what was to follow in the 19th century. It is moreover a book with powerful implications for anyone interested in the wider history of America. It is, quite simply, a book of major importance (and beautifully produced by Belknap Press and Harvard) for all historians of North America.

James Walvin is professor of history, University of York.

Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

Author - Ira Berlin
ISBN - 0 674 81092 0 and 00211 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £18.50 and £10.50
Pages - 497

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