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In a lively interpretive history, Kolchin (History/Univ. of Delaware) succinctly traces America's institution of slavery from its Colonial beginnings to the Reconstruction era.

American slavery, Kolchin explains, didn't develop in isolation but evolved as part of a trend toward forced labor in the New World colonies, especially in the Caribbean and Brazil. In Colonial America, "the initial demand for labor was precisely that--for labor--and was largely color-blind.'' Most forced laborers were indentured servants from Great Britain; although some slavery existed as early as the founding, in the early 17th century, of the Virginia colony, not until that century's close were Africans imported in large numbers as slaves. Kolchin reveals that, while the plantation slavery of what was to become the South developed distinctively (and primarily to cultivate tobacco and cotton), it had much in common with the plantation slavery of the Caribbean (where sugar was the primary crop). By about 1770, American slavery was concentrated mostly in the South, though it existed in all of the American colonies, and, as time passed, relationships between slaves and masters changed as second- generation slaves lost much of their African culture and became Americanized. In the US--in contrast to the Caribbean--slaves lived longer, developed considerable occupational diversity, and became acculturated, particularly in their absorption of Protestantism. The Revolutionary era saw slavery threatened by Enlightenment ideology, but the institution survived more strongly than ever in the South and, during the 19th century, came to be perceived as fundamental to the Southern economy and way of life. Kolchin writes about slave life through the Civil War, and, not surprisingly, he sees slavery as leaving a legacy that has persisted throughout our own century.

A clear and briskly written survey that puts slavery in context and explains its continuing impact on American life.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-8090-2568-X
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1993


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