There are many erroneous assumptions people have about American slavery that historians have not always done a great job of dispelling. For example, people often don’t know that slavery was perfectly legal in the northern states and many northern farmers owned a significant number of slaves well into the 19th century. Thinking bigger picture, it’s also easy to assume that slavery as an institution was fundamentally static. We might think that being a slave in 1680 on a tobacco plantation in Virginia probably meant just about the same thing as being a slave on a sugar plantation in 1810 in Louisiana. Sure, the work was different, but being a slave meant being a slave. Right? In Ira Berlin’s magnificent study Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, we learn that nothing could be farther from the truth. The thing that makes this book so convincing (to me anyway) and distinguishes it from so many other books is it’s simple and effective literary structure. It’s often easy for undergraduates and even graduate students to overlook the importance of literary structure in a work of history, but it is a critical element when it comes to selling your thesis.
And his structure had better be damn good, because the implications of the opening paragraph are indeed profound. Berlin writes that “it has become fashionable to declare that race is a social construction. In the academy, this precept has gained universal and even tiresome assent… But while the belief that race is socially constructed has gained a privileged place in contemporary scholarly debates, it has won few practical battles. Few people believe it; fewer act on it. This new understanding of race has changed behavior little if at all.” Could Ira Berlin really be suggesting that his goal is show how race is socially constructed in a way that it might substantively change the way we live? Well, not really, but he does set out to clarify what historians mean when they say “race is socially constructed” and then use the book’s narrative to demonstrate how this operated throughout history. Just as the great English labor historian E. P. Thompson argued about class, Berlin asserts that race “cannot exist outside of time and place.” Thompson once famously wrote that “the English working class was present at its own making.” If the thought ever crossed his mind, Berlin (wisely) did not have the chutzpah to write something like “African Americans were present at their own making” (even though it’s true). Berlin convincingly argues that historical constructions such, as race and class (or gender for that matter), “exist on the contested social terrain in which men and women struggle to control their destinies.” If this all seems hopelessly convoluted, let me try to put it another way. By race, we’re not taking about mere skin pigmentation. Everybody knows (or should know!) that skin pigmentation is just that and nothing more. In this discussion, think of race as what it means to have certain skin pigmentation. Being black today means something very different than it did 50 years ago, 100 years ago, or 200 years ago. Paraphrasing Berlin, to understand how race is constructed differently throughout history, we need to zero into a time and place and find out what it meant to have skin pigmentation and then ask what conditions allowed those presumptions to exist. From there it is helpful to compare that place with other places from both the same time and from other times. From such a study, a broad idea of how the African American race emerged in America comes into picture.
Slavery, and indeed race, were based on a series of negotiations between master and slave. While the two sides were never equal, both sides implicitly acknowledged “a degree of legitimacy to the other.” In the end, “[s]lavery was never made, but instead was continually remade, for power – no matter how great – was never absolute, but always contingent.” Contingent on what? Time and place. And Berlin spent much of the introduction explaining some of the terms he used to help make such distinctions. For example, a “society with slaves” was any society where slavery existed alongside other forms of available labor. A “slave society,” on the other hand, was any place where slavery “stood at the center of economic production.” Depending on economic conditions, certain locales oscillated between the two. Moreover, Berlin finds three distinct chronological phases in what he argues was the “convoluted process” of establishing slavery in North America: the charter generations of slaves and their children who first arrived on the continent; the plantation generations, who came of age when certain staple crops took hold of certain regions; and the revolutionary generations, who found themselves struggling to redefine their lives during the milieu of the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions. Finally, Berlin divides North America into four regions: the North, the Chesapeake Bay (tidewater Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware), the lowcountry (South Carolina and large portions of Georgia and Florida), and the lower Mississippi Valley (Louisiana and West Florida). Many Thousands Gone contains three parts, each based on one of the chronological phases listed above. Each part contains a chapter on each geographical region. It was indeed a simple and elegant solution Berlin used show how race was historically constructed through twelve distinct and tidy chapters. The reader finds similarities and differences in how race was negotiated, perceived, and acted upon in different times and places. Social science theory meets literary structure for a knock-out punch.
Berlin begins the story of American slavery not on the Chesapeake Bay, but in Africa where white and black first met during the Age of Exploration. The first slaves who arrived in North America were creoles – a term that has often been used to describe the offspring of cultural blending. Creoles had brown skin, European names, African customs, spoke many languages, and were very fluent in the ways of the Atlantic littoral. Once in North America, creoles did not behave in the ways we typically associate with enslaved Africans. They were valuable members of burgeoning communities. Many were skilled laborers, and many worked alongside their masters. While slavery itself dictated that they were not the equals of Europeans, the extremely harsh and fluid circumstances of the new colonies proved to be a great leveling force. It was not until slaves ignorant of the ways of the Atlantic World arrived from the interior of Africa in large numbers that social barriers commonly associated with bondage became erected.
Berlin teaches us many surprising things about slavery during the first century of North America. Anybody who has studied southern history knows (or should know) that the Africans who populated the South were a very diverse group of people. But I was floored to learn that there were a substantial number of Roman Catholics among the black slaves who arrived in Charleston during the 1720s and 1730s. American history textbooks usually do not tell us that the royal family of the Kingdom of the Kongo converted to Christianity in the 15th century. For centuries, Portuguese missionaries worked hard to convert the Kongolese and they met with much success. Many of these believers wound up on the auction block in Charleston and Berlin correctly concludes that their white owners paid no heed to their religious beliefs. But the slaves themselves were neither ignorant nor oppressed such that they had no control over their own destinies. Spanish territory was merely 100 miles south of Charleston – and the Spanish provided a sanctuary for Catholics, offering the promise of freedom. Berlin writes, “During the 1720s and 1730s, these Catholic slaves and other slaves – many newly arrived in South Carolina – defected in increasing numbers. In 1733 Spanish authorities reiterated their offer of freedom, prohibiting the sale of fugitives and commending black militiamen for their service in the struggle against the British.” After the infamous Stono Rebellion of 1739, a number of Catholic refugees found their way to Florida and “Spanish officials would not surrender their co-religionists” to the British. As the number of former slaves in Florida grew, they waged a border war with their former owners in South Carolina. Eventually, the Spanish founded an all-black settlement north of St. Augustine as a line of defense against the British, a place known as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. Eventually British settlers from Carolina attacked, and the black men and women living their fought bravely, including one Francisco Menéndez who earned great fame worldwide for his life as a slave, soldier, and pirate. Furthermore, blacks, most of whom had fled slavery from South Carolina, became fully integrated into life in St. Augustine. The kind of stories that Berlin presents demonstrate that while life for slaves was certainly not easily, there were options available for slaves to redefine what it meant to be black by their own actions.
Life would unfortunately change for the worse once the plantation revolution struck large portions of the South. “The degradation of black life in mainland North America had many sources, but the largest was the growth of the plantation, a radically different form of social organization and commercial production controlled by a new class of men whose appetite for labor was nearly insatiable…they redefined the meaning of race, investing pigment – both white and black – with a far greater weight in defining status than heretofore.” Eventually, Berlin finds that the “‘two words Negro and Slave,’ had ‘by custom grown Homogeneous and convertible.'” Now all blacks were equated as slaves. Even if you were free, you were treated unequally, as a slave would be. In order to sustain such a radical shift in the social order, white supremacy would have to be forcefully and stridently institutionalized throughout North America.
And so it was.
Meanwhile, whites throughout the Thirteen Colonies began a revolution for their own independence. And blacks throughout North America successfully seized on the message of the Revolutionary Era to redefine black life. In the North, they won emancipation, albeit gradually and with an implicit racist message of inequality from white elites. In the South, some blacks won freedom from sympathetic owners. Other slaves rejected American hypocrisy and joined the fight against tyranny…as British soldiers (more on this in my next review). Others took advantage of the great disruption that the war caused throughout South Carolina and stole away to freedom. Blacks in Louisiana far from the fighting but well aware of the news of the day fled their plantations to from maroons – or paramilitary settlements of fugitive slaves deep in the bayou. By war’s end, blacks had renegotiated certain freedoms.
But another revolution was coming – one that would alter what it meant to be black for hundreds of years. Cotton would become king. A far more radical definition of racial difference was emerging. In his epilogue, Berlin explains that by the antebellum period, “Many, if not most, believed that the inferiority of black people originated not in their circumstance – be it enslavement in the South or poverty in the North – but in their nature. In this view, people of African descent were not simply less privileged but were congenitally different from people of untainted European ancestry.” How was this different from the white supremacy we saw earlier? Berlin writes, “Behind the most vicious assaults on the character of people of African descent during the first two hundred years of American slavery stood a firm belief that, given the opportunity, black people would behave precisely like whites – which was what made African and African-American slaves at once so valuable and so dangerous. The new racism rejected this logic.”
And so this new white supremacist formulation changed not only what it meant to be black, but what it meant to be white.
And the toll this has exacted on American history is great.