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Slavery in the U.S., as seen in its shackles

Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, Ira Berlin, Belknap/Harvard University Press: 400 pp., $29.95

July 13, 2003|Robin Blackburn | Robin Blackburn teaches social history at the University of Essex and is the author of "The Making of New World Slavery," among other works.

"Generations of Captivity" is a work of great authority, covering the whole history of African American slaves from Colonial origins to 1865. Ira Berlin is one of the most accomplished historians of American slavery. He has written widely and well about such subjects as the free people of color in the antebellum period and the slave experience in Colonial America. He has researched the role of blacks in the Civil War and edited the main documentary collection on this topic. The framing of the story in this book around generations defined by decisive turning points helps lend it drama and urgency, without offering the false consolation of a happy ending.

In contemporary discussions, slavery often serves as an all-purpose stand-in for social evil. But we should also be aware that historical slavery was a more changeable affair. Indeed, for a few millenniums, enslavement was a more humane solution to the problem of what to do about captives than the most common alternative: slaughtering them. Given the prevalence of warfare, an institution that allowed the sparing of captives had something to recommend it.

In fact, slavery supplied the main institutional mechanism whereby people became members of a society other than the one into which they were born. The enslaved could be ransomed, become concubines or find a type of freedom as servants or soldiers. None of this is to deny the terrible abuse that could be, and often was, visited on slaves. But it does bring out the flexible and, over generations, transitional, character of much historical slavery.

Slavery in English-speaking America became altogether more rigid and permanent. This did not happen all at once. "Generations of Captivity" supplies a vivid account of the diverse and mobile character of enslavement in the 17th century English-speaking world, especially in North America. About a fifth of the members of what Berlin calls the "charter generation," he observes, achieved manumission, and many others enjoyed considerable autonomy or won positions of trust: The enslavement of tens of thousands of Native Americans at this time was harsher.

Reworking a famous essay he published on the "Atlantic Creole" as a chapter in this book, Berlin describes the African American farmers, artisans, petty merchants, mariners and interpreters who found nonservile roles in the English, Dutch, French and Spanish colonies of 17th century North America. Africans knew craft and agricultural techniques that worked in the New World and, unlike most Europeans, were often gifted linguists, speaking at least three or four languages as well as helping to invent new tongues.

But the plantation revolution was to steamroller the variable slavery of the "charter generation," imposing a far more even and permanent species of oppression defined in starkly racial terms. Manumission became difficult and expensive; in Virginia, the freed person had to leave the colony because the planters did everything possible to reduce the number of freed people in the colony. Following the trail blazed by Caribbean sugar planters, the tobacco planters found that the slave gang, its merciless pace maintained by the lash, hugely raised output.

Notwithstanding the Atlantic slave trade, there was always a shortage of labor. The "one drop" rule (which "deemed 'black' anyone who had a drop of black blo

od") and the virtual outlawing of manumission and interracial marriage reinforced white privileges and closed what some historians, writing of Brazil, have called the "mulatto escape hatch." The descendants of slaves were denied hope of ever escaping slavery's curse.

Though North American slavery was more rigid and permanent than most traditional patterns of slavery, Berlin challenges any static or stereotypical view of Colonial or antebellum slavery by careful attention to changing contexts and to the struggles of successive generations of captives to redefine and resist their lot. The transition from the 17th century "society with slaves" to the 18th century "slave society" gave rise to revolts and conspiracies even though the planter class had the resources, allies and unity to suppress these. The epoch of the American, French and Haitian revolutions exposed fault lines in the slave systems. In the resulting turmoil, some members of the "Revolutionary Generations" won their freedom. Berlin helpfully charts the fate of African Americans in New England and the Atlantic states as well as in the plantation zone.

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