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SLAVE COUNTERPOINT: Black Culture in the Eighteenth Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. By Philip D. Morgan . University of North Carolina Press: 674 pp., $49.95 : SLAVES IN THE FAMILY. By Edward Ball . Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 504 pp., $30

March 22, 1998|BENJAMIN SCHWARZ | Benjamin Schwarz is a contributing writer to Book Review and a contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly

American history offers no more complex, peculiar and terrible subject than the colonial and antebellum slave society of South Carolina's Lowcountry. Only this region of British North America rivaled Latin America in killing off slaves as fast or faster than they reproduced. Nowhere in America were slaves so systematically repressed, and nowhere did they rise up in such numbers and with such organization. Slaves helped transform coastal South Carolina's dark malarial swamps into the most expensive American agricultural lands, making their owners perhaps the richest entrepreneurs on the continent and enabling them to build the closest thing to a truly aristocratic society in America. Yet from this most uncharacteristically American aristocracy emerged the most ferocious defense of political liberty (for white men) in all of colonial America.

Perhaps because it was so atypical and extreme, the Lowcountry's slave society has traditionally failed to attract the same attention from scholars and the general reader as colonial Virginia's or even that of Georgia's antebellum Cotton Belt or the Mississippi Delta. This situation began slowly to change in 1975 with Peter Wood's "Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina From 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion," the first comprehensive treatment of its subject. More recently, aspects of the Lowcountry's slave society have been explored in a host of specialized monographs and in two remarkable books, Peter Colcanis' "The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670-1920" and the first volume of William Dusinberre's monumental "Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Country." But all these books, with the partial exception of Dusinberre's, focus primarily on either black life or white life and don't fully recognize the Lowcountry's slave society as the product of the interactions, antagonisms and accommodations between slaves and slaveholders.

This is precisely where Philip D. Morgan's "Slave Counterpoint" succeeds and where Edward Ball's "Slaves in the Family" fails. These are two very different books--Morgan's is an academic yet accessible study, Ball's a personal memoir and family history--that explore the same broad subject: the Lowcountry's slave society. Morgan, the editor of William and Mary Quarterly, the most prestigious journal of colonial American history, and a professor at the College of William and Mary, has written a study comparing 18th century black culture in Tidewater Virginia and Maryland with that of Lowcountry South Carolina. Ball, the New York-based descendant of a wealthy Lowcountry slaveholding family, has written a history of that family and of the slaves they owned and an account of his search for and encounters with their descendants.

Although Morgan's is the more authoritative and detailed account, "Slave Counterpoint" and "Slaves in the Family" paint similar pictures of the economy of the Lowcountry rice plantations and their social and political ramifications. Whereas colonial Virginia first developed its export staple--tobacco--and then developed a labor system--slavery--to exploit it (indentured servants were the primary laborers on tobacco plantations throughout the 17th century, and Virginia became a society based primarily on slavery only at the turn of the 18th century), colonial South Carolina was initially a slave society in search of a plantation economy. Most of South Carolina's early white settlers came from Barbados, where they had already developed a slave economy based on sugar plantations. Arriving with their slaves in what was probably the most inhospitable region of British North America, whites began frantic efforts to develop a profitable export crop that their labor force could produce. Since South Carolina's coastal swamps were too far north to yield sugar and other tropical commodities, for decades plantation owners had to settle on cattle and timber as their primary exports. At the turn of the 18th century, however, South Carolina's whites finally discovered the lucrative staple that had eluded them: rice, a crop that soon defined nearly every aspect of Lowcountry economy and society.

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