MANY THOUSANDS GONE: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America by Ira Berlin

MANY THOUSANDS GONE: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

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In a real contribution to the literature of American slavery, Berlin (History/Univ. of Maryland, College Park; co-editor, Families and Freedom, 1997) sketches the complex evolution of that institution in the American colonies and the early US. Berlin divides his account into three periods in which, he contends, slaves had vastly different experiences: the charter generations, made up of the first arrivals in the 17th and early 18th centuries, and their descendants; the plantation generations, which comprised the intermediate generations that cultivated the great staples on which the colonial American economy was based; and the revolutionary generations, which consisted of those who sought freedom in the wake of the promise of the American Revolution. In so doing, Berlin traces the development of a ""society with slaves""--that is, in which slavery was a marginal institution that represented only one among many labor sources--into a ""slave society"" in which slavery was not only central to the economy but formed the basis of all social institutions. In societies with slaves, such as the northern US, slaves enjoyed a surprising degree of autonomy, maintained their identity as Africans to a large extent, owned property, often negotiated with their masters over the terms of their enslavement, and sometimes ultimately obtained their freedom. In the deep South by contrast, the evolution of the society with slaves into a slave society was accelerated by the emergence of a planter class and consolidated by the growth of cotton as a mass export crop. Here plantation slavery began to assume the patriarchal and corporate features familiar to us today. However, as the author notes, at the beginning of the 19th century, ""the vast majority of black people, slave and free, did not reside in the black belt, grow cotton, or subscribe to Christianity."" A cogently argued, well-researched narrative that points to the complex nature of American slavery, the falsity of many of our stereotypes, and the unique world wrought by the slaves themselves.

Pub Date: Sept. 20th, 1998
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Belnap/Harvard Univ.