A review of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Harvard, 1998) by Ira Berlin

For an understanding of the Atlantic-African slave trades and the origins of the peculiar institution in North America, Prof. Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone is a must read (along with Hugh Thomas’ The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 [1997] ). An expert in African-American history at the U. of Maryland and long-time editor of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 ( 4 vols., 1982-1993), Berlin brings to the task of explaining what today seems impossible to imagine his own considerable talents as a(n)historian and a welcome objectivity. The answers he provides are thus more nuanced and perhaps not as satisfying as some would like to hear. “New World slavery,” he notes, “did not have its origins in a conspiracy to dishonor, shame, brutalize, or reduce slaves on some perverse scale of humanity-although it did all of these at one time or another….” At bottom, and the root of it all, was greed on the part of all involved (African, European, and Muslim) who sought wealth for personal and for imperial reasons.

Reflecting more recent research including that of West African scholars, Berlin admits to black African complicity in the slave trade. Crucial in this respect were the “Atlantic Creoles” who “first emerged around the trading factories or feitorias that European expansionists established along the coast of Africa in the fifteenth century.” Serving as middlemen, these European-Africans became predominant in the exchange of slaves and goods between African potentates and Europeans because of their multi-lingual talents. In time, “Atlantic Creoles” became independent traders in their own right and followed the slave trade to the Caribbean and the Americas where they continued their indispensable roles. Besides enriching themselves, this group of mixed-ancestry people also populated Iberian cities such as Seville and Lisbon. As a group apart and shunned alike by Africans and Europeans, however, “Atlantic Creoles” also suffered enslavement due to “Debt, crime, immorality or official disfavor.”

Fascinating as this part of the story is (and readers can buy the book for more surprising details), Berlin has still more to tell about slavery in North America. Again we encounter the “Atlantic Creoles” this time as the first African settlers in Virginia most of whom but not all were slaves. Comprising the “charter generation” of blacks in America, these Creoles by 1670 became successful and prosperous as landowners and sometimes as slaveowners precisely (and ironically) because of their multi-culturalism (the example of Anthony Johnson of Maryland is most instructive in this regard).

Berlin’s discussion of the “Atlantic Creoles” and the “charter generation” of Africans in America sets the stage for the rest of his study wherein he distinguishes between “societies with slaves” (as in early Virginia and Maryland and the North) and “slave societies” (the colonial tobacco-rice plantation system of 1670-1740 and the later cotton South after 1800). In between was the “Revolutionary generation” of 1770-1800 and the first African-Americans or those born in North America. Thus, too, his central theme that slavery was not a static condition but an ever-changing one that varied over time and by region depending upon the origins of the enslaved, their numbers in relations to whites, and the type of agriculture that was practiced among many other factors.

Going beyond conventional formulations of “Africans to African Americans” or from “slavery to freedom,” Berlin identifies instead three “distinctive experiences” that illustrate the changing nature of slavery in North America in four different regions over two centuries (the Chesapeake, the North, lowcountry S.C., Ga., and Fla., and the lower Mississippi Valley). What slavery was or was not in each of these regions varied. In general, the charter and Revolutionary generations were able to negotiate more freedom within the “peculiar institution” in terms of work, mobility, family life, material status, and even emancipation. This was not the case with the “plantation generation” of 1670-1750 also for many different reasons: after 1670 slave labor was exported directly from Africa at the same time that the staple-producing plantation system emerged with a distinctive master class. The resulting clash of new economic imperatives and alien cultures made for a “slave society” rather than “a society with slaves.” Unlike the Creoles who preceded them, this second generation of slaves resisted acculturation and evolved a new African identity as one of many forms of resistance.

Accommodation, then, is the story of slavery in North America as told by Prof. Berlin. As much as “slaveholders severely circumscribed the lives of enslaved people. . .they never fully defined them. Slaves were neither extensions of their owners’ will nor products of the market’s demand. The slaves’ history, like all human history, was made not only by what was done to them but also by what they did for themselves.” “In time, slaves reclaimed, and sometimes even enlarged, the rights they deemed customary.. . .”

If slavery varied over time, so too did African-American life and society with its rural versus urban communities, free blacks and slaves not to mention real differences between Creoles, Africans, and African Americans that made for important and lingering class distinctions. Race, according to Prof. Berlin, was not the only “marker” or maker of status. Family life, we’re informed, was more stable and sustainable for the charter and Revolutionary generations because of more favorable male-to-female ratios and higher birthrates and less so for the “plantation generation” (when males outnumbered females). This disparity was the product of the plantation revolution of the 1700’s and the great increase in demand for labor together with less selectivity on the part of African slave raiders. (And here began the infamous “Middle Passage” of which North America was only a marginal participant, a point that Berlin does not make explicit.)

For all the attention paid to slavery or the many different kinds of slavery, Berlin ignores the changing meanings of liberty in America and especially in France between 1776 and 1800 (and in America betweenl800 and 1861). This is not an inconsiderable omission when the supposed paradox of liberty and slavery is opined and when the American reaction to the Haitian revolution is considered. Moreover, the role of European nation-states (and especially Great Britain) in creating the first plantation system is likewise slighted. (Remember, blaming George III for slavery almost got into the declaration of Independence.) With only 385,000 to 400,000 slaveowners of a White population of 7,000,000, moreover, was the cotton South of later times a plantation society?

W. Kirk Wood

W. Kirk Wood holds a Ph.D in American History from the University of South Carolina. He taught history at Alabama State University from 1986-2010 and is the author of two books on nullification.

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