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Tapestry of Shame

MANY THOUSANDS GONE: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America; \o7 By Ira Berlin\f7 ; \o7 (The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press: 498 pp., $29.95)\f7

JEWS, SLAVES, AND THE SLAVE TRADE: Setting the Record Straight;\o7 By Eli Faber\f7 ;\o7 (New York University Press: 368 pp., $27.95)\f7

November 22, 1998|PETER KOLCHIN | Peter Kolchin is the Henry Clay Reed professor of history at the University of Delaware and the author of several books, including "American Slavery, 1619-1877."

The reinterpretation of American slavery continues at a dizzying pace. At first concentrated primarily on slavery in the Southern states during the decades leading up to the Civil War, it has in recent years assumed a broader focus as scholars have turned their attention to slavery in an earlier period and have sought to place it within the context of developments on both sides of the Atlantic. Ira Berlin's "Many Thousands Gone" and Eli Faber's "Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade" are--in very different ways--fine examples of this broadened focus.

Berlin's "Many Thousands Gone" is the bigger of the two, both in length and scope. Synthesizing a generation of scholarship, Berlin provides a sweeping survey of slavery and black life in North America (the European colonies that became the United States) from the early 17th into the early 19th centuries. The result is the best general history we now have of the "peculiar institution" during its first 200 years.

Many notable themes characterize Berlin's book. Of these, the most pervasive is the extent to which slavery and race relations were historically constructed and hence varied over time and space. Although this theme is now widely accepted by historians of slavery, Berlin uses a striking new historical framework to structure his book and delineate slavery's diversity, tracing the evolution through three chronological eras of four geographically based slave "societies": the Chesapeake region, the Lowcountry of coastal South Carolina (and later Georgia and East Florida), the Lower Mississippi Valley and the North. In doing so, he presents an impressive panorama, even as he inevitably loses some of the detail and nuance of a more narrowly focused work.

Central to Berlin's argument is the distinction between a "society with slaves," that is, one in which some slaves happen to be present, and a true "slave society," in which slavery provides the underpinnings of the economy and social order. "Many Thousands Gone" is divided into three parts, each devoted to a distinctive (if vaguely defined) era. The first era, lasting roughly until the end of the 17th century, was characterized by the existence of societies with slaves. The second era, in the early and mid-18th century, saw the triumph of plantation-based agriculture and the emergence (in varying degrees) of slave societies. The third, or Revolutionary, era produced a major challenge to slavery, a challenge that was played out differently in the four geographic regions.

Indeed, one of Berlin's central points is the variation among the four societies in the way this basic chronological progression unfolded. The establishment of plantation agriculture occurred earlier in the Chesapeake, for example, where it was based on tobacco, than in the Lowcountry, where it involved cultivation of rice. The shift from a society with slaves to a slave society was incomplete in the North and in the Lower Mississippi Valley. The Revolutionary-era challenge led to the abolition of slavery in the North and the growth of a large body of free blacks in the Chesapeake, but it ultimately proved unsuccessful in the three Southern regions.

Berlin's second major theme is the extent to which slavery and race were continually reshaped through a class struggle whose precise outcome depended on local conditions. The evolution of slavery was never linear; "rights" enjoyed by slaves--such as growing their "own" produce on their "own" land--could be won, lost and won again in a never-ending renegotiation of slave relationships.

In setting forth this complex process, Berlin provides especially valuable information on people he terms "Atlantic Creoles": cosmopolitan men (and less often women) who were frequently of mixed race, multilingual and familiar with several cultures. At first the products of European trading enclaves in Africa, Atlantic Creole communities soon spread to Europe and the Americas (in cities such as Lisbon, Seville, Havana and Mexico City) and were prevalent in the societies with slaves that characterized North America in the 17th century when race relations were more flexible and access to freedom greater than they were later. The transition to true slave societies ushered in by the plantation revolution brought sweeping changes to the lives of blacks in America. As Atlantic Creoles gave way to increasing numbers of imported Africans, the exploitation of slave labor reached a new intensity: Mortality rates surged, fertility rates plunged (in part because planters imported far fewer women than men) and blacks were subjected to sharply higher levels of physical violence. At the same time, however, the swelling of the black population created the preconditions for creation of a new African American culture. Rather than a simple process of Africans becoming African Americans, there occurred a complex progression of Atlantic Creole to African to African American.

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