Vol. 21 No. 3 · 4 February 1999

How a desire for profit led to the invention of race

Eric Foner

2772 words
Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America 
by Ira Berlin.
Harvard, 512 pp., £18.50, October 1998, 0 674 81092 9
Show More
The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern 1492-1800 
by Robin Blackburn.
Verso, 602 pp., £15, April 1998, 1 85984 890 7
Show More
Show More

It is more than 130 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, but Americans have yet to arrive at a generally agreed understanding of either the history or the legacy of slavery. When a Congressman from Ohio recently proposed a national apology for the enslavement of African-Americans as a way of easing the country’s racial tensions, the result only demonstrated how polarised the historical memory of slavery has become. Most blacks felt that the step would be wholly inadequate, a device to avoid concrete measures to deal with such enduring consequences as the persistent racial gap in income, health and housing, for example. Most whites insisted that they had nothing to apologise for – after all, the last of the slaveowners had long since died. Moreover, it was endlessly reiterated, Africans sold other Africans into slavery, as if this somehow obviated white America’s responsibility for creating the most powerful slave system the world has known.

Probably the most popular film among white Americans remains Gone with the Wind (re-released last summer with great fanfare), in which slavery, for both races, seems little more than an occasion for a prolonged party. When Steven Spielberg tried recently to update the celluloid portrayal of slavery, he chose to do so via the Amistad case, which involved not American slaves but Africans who seized control of a Spanish slave ship. The rebels ended up in the United States, but their celebrated legal battle for freedom had nothing whatever to do with American slavery. In the movie, however, it provides the occasion for one of Hollywood’s happy endings, in which John Quincy Adams moves the Supreme Court to a recognition of human rights by eloquently invoking the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, this never happened. The justices did, indeed, send the Africans home, but their decision turned on maritime law and international treaty obligations, not on mankind’s inalienable right to liberty. Fifteen years later, the same court, in the Dred Scott case, declared that blacks had no rights that ‘a white man is bound to respect’ – a more characteristic expression of judicial opinion regarding slavery.

America’s historical memory of slavery tends more to amnesia, however, than romanticisation. Visitors to Washington will find a national museum that relates the story of the Holocaust, but none devoted to slavery. Other countries have not been so reticent about their own history. A few years ago, the palace of the Dukes of Brittany in Nantes hosted a compelling exhibition detailing the city’s long involvement in the slave trade. Liverpool, another great port much of whose wealth derived from the same source, is home to a permanent presentation. But don’t expect to see anytime soon a display on how New York City rose to commercial prominence by financing and transporting the products of slave labour.

This national desire to forget slavery stands in stark contrast to historians’ preoccupation with the subject – an example of the well-known disconnection between the academy and the general public. Since Kenneth Stampp launched the golden age of slavery studies with the publication in 1956 of The Peculiar Institution, no part of the American past has been the subject of so much historical scholarship. For many years, research tended to focus on the antebellum years, the age of the Cotton Kingdom and irrepressible conflict. More recently, a growing number of historians have turned their attention to slavery in colonial America, seeking to explain the system’s origins. The new books by Ira Berlin and Robin Blackburn are outstanding contributions to this literature.

Berlin, who has already written a study of free blacks in the 19th-century South, for many years directed the Freedmen and Southern Society editorial project. Documentary editing rarely receives much public attention, but this undertaking, in which a team of scholars combed through literally millions of documents in the National Archives to illuminate the drama of emancipation during the Civil War, has profoundly affected how scholars interpret that era. The first volume, on black soldiers, made it impossible to write about the conflict without taking into account how their service changed its nature. Succeeding volumes have examined the complex causes that brought down slavery, and how the transition from slave to free labour occurred in different parts of the South.

Some of the themes of Many Thousands Gone were evident in Berlin’s earlier work, especially the vital importance of regional and temporal variations within slavery. In his first book, he showed how the conditions of free blacks evolved over time, and distinguished sharply between their status in the Upper and Lower South. In this new book, too, Berlin emphasises that slavery, too often treated by historians as a static institution, was in fact constantly changing. The range of subjects he covers is impressive – from work patterns to family life, naming practices, religion, race relations and modes of resistance. But by organising his account along the axes of space and time, Berlin gives coherence to what would otherwise have been an account overwhelmed by its detail and complexity.

He divides the history into four regions and three broad time periods. The regions are the northern colonies; the Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland); the coastal low country of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida; and the lower Mississippi Valley. By including Louisiana, at various times under the control of France and Spain, and the Spanish colony of Florida, he drives home the point that the modern United States is far more than the descendant of British settlement. He also subtly undermines a familiar historical legend. In 1693, he points out, Spain offered freedom to fugitive slaves who converted to Catholicism, inspiring a significant number of blacks to flee to Florida from adjacent South Carolina. The spectacle of inhabitants of an English colony seeking liberty under Spanish rule offers a jarring counterpoint to the familiar narrative that poses Anglo-Saxon love of liberty as the mirror opposite of Spanish tyranny.

In tracing how slavery and African-American culture evolved within these regions, Berlin distinguishes three broad chronological experiences: the ‘charter generation’ (the first arrivals and their children); the plantation generation, which experienced the full brunt of slavery’s consolidation; and the revolutionary generation, which grasped the contradiction between slavery and the ideology of freedom and sought to turn the rhetoric of American patriots into an instrument of their own liberation.

Berlin’s most original section deals with those he calls ‘Atlantic Creoles’. The descendants of encounters between Europeans and Africans on the west coast of Africa beginning in the 15th century, these were literally and figuratively ‘people in the middle’. Familiar with white society’s laws, economy and religious practices, they often brokered the movement of goods and people and were among the first Africans transported to the New World.

In the earliest days of settlement, Berlin emphasises, slavery was far more open and indeterminate than it would later become. Slaves and white indentured servants worked together, drank together, engaged in sexual relations, and frequently ran away in interracial groups. Creole slaves adopted Christianity, took their masters to court, and were sometimes able to gain their freedom – they were, in brief, a recognisable part of colonial society. In many ways they were not equal to whites, but in a society of brutal exploitation that affected white indentured servants as well as black slaves, slavery was one form of inequality among many and colour did not have the salience it later achieved as a line of social division.

‘The fluidity of colonial society, the ill-defined meaning of slavery and the ambiguous notions of race,’ Berlin writes of the 17th century, ‘allowed Atlantic Creoles to carve a place for themselves’ and occasionally obtain freedom and ‘achieve a modest prosperity’. Borrowing a distinction developed by Moses Finley in his studies of ancient slavery, he calls these early settlements ‘societies with slaves’ (that is, ones in which slavery was of marginal economic importance), as opposed to ‘slave societies’, where the institution stood at the centre of economic and political life.

In some, but not all, of Berlin’s regions, the consolidation of plantation agriculture and the achievement of political dominance by the planter class inaugurated a new and far harsher era of slavery, in which routes to freedom were effectively curtailed. History, however, does not move along a linear or predetermined path, and the pace and direction of change differed markedly from place to place. In Louisiana, the French introduced the plantation at once, only to see their slave society devolve ‘backward’ into a society with slaves after an uprising of Indians and Africans in 1729 thoroughly destabilised the system and wrecked the dream of creating a plantation-based colony such as existed in the Caribbean.

In the North, the plantation never entrenched itself and the indeterminacy of the charter generation lasted into the 18th century. In the Chesapeake, initially settled in 1607, it was not until the 1680s that the society with slaves turned into a slave society. In South Carolina, the initial ‘charter’ period was little more than a fleeting moment, for as soon as planters discovered the viability and profitability of growing rice, the consolidation of the plantation and the transition to a slave society took place.

With the establishment of plantation economies came a fundamental change not only in the nature of work, access to freedom and the power and profits of the planter class, but in black culture as well. Race took on far greater social significance, as planters filled the statute books with laws distinguishing between white and black and subjected free blacks to more and more onerous regulations. Indeed, even in the Northern colonies, the situation of free blacks deteriorated in the 18th century. Throughout the colonies, ‘free’ increasingly became a term associated only with whites. It is now almost a cliché that race is ‘invented’ or ‘socially constructed’. Berlin is one of a handful of scholars who, through careful research, have shown how the invention of race took place.

The new demand for plantation labour led to a massive influx of slaves imported directly from Africa. In place of Creoles at home in two worlds, black society was increasingly composed of men and women born in Africa and culturally quite alien. Because of this ‘re-Africanisation’ of black culture, the process of assimilation had to begin over again. This happened swiftly in the Chesapeake, where a high birthrate among slaves soon produced a new generation of American-born blacks who spoke English, were familiar with white ways and, like whites, were swept up in the mid-18th-century religious revival known as the Great Awakening. It proceeded fitfully in the low country, where large groups of African-born slaves lived in virtual isolation on rice and indigo plantations, while their owners spent much of their time in Charleston town houses. Here, a sharp split developed in black society between the African-oriented rural slaves, and urban slave artisans and domestic workers, who were far more assimilated.

The American Revolution transformed slavery once again, but as always the pattern varied from place to place. Tens of thousands of slaves obtained their freedom by running away during the turmoil of war, enlisting in the Continental Army, or accompanying the British when they evacuated cities like New York, Charleston and Savannah. Blacks seized on the revolutionary ideology to point up the hypocrisy of slaveholders who trumpeted their commitment to the rights of man, and brought eloquent ‘freedom petitions’ before courts and legislatures. The Northern states took steps for gradual abolition, thus drawing a portentous geographical line across the new nation between free states and slave. Nonetheless, freedom for blacks did not mean the same as freedom for whites. Northern blacks were barred from skilled trades and, as time went on, from the right to vote, a central emblem of citizenship in a democracy.

In the Chesapeake, a considerable number of slaveholders, inspired by revolutionary ideology (and moved as well by the declining need for year-round labour as the region shifted from tobacco to grain production) voluntarily manumitted their slaves. Thus, a large free black community came into existence. In South Carolina and Georgia, however, the disruptions of the War for Independence produced not a weakening of the commitment to slavery, but the demand that the African trade be reopened. At the insistence of these states, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 forbade Congress from abolishing the importation of slaves until 1808. Given this window of opportunity, South Carolina brought in over 35,000 new slaves, reinforcing the African presence in low-country black society.

Thus, the Revolution both weakened and strengthened slavery. But the melancholy fact is that in 1810, when Berlin’s account ends, there were far more slaves in the United States than when the Declaration of Independence was written. Not only had slavery failed to wither and die, as some of the founders had hoped, but it stood poised on the eve of an era of tremendous territorial and economic expansion based on rapidly growing world demand for cotton.

Many Thousands Gone is likely to remain for years to come the standard account of the first two centuries of slavery in the area that became the United States. Also certain to have a profound impact on future scholarship is The Making of New World Slavery. While Robin Blackburn covers essentially the same time period as Berlin, his approach is truly transatlantic, situating the rise of slavery in the context of the internal histories and imperial rivalries of the major European powers, and examining its emergence and consolidation throughout the Western hemisphere.

The Making of New World Slavery is what American television likes to call a ‘prequel’. A decade ago, in The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, Blackburn explored the demise of slavery in the British, French and Spanish empires of the 19th century. Now, he examines how and why the institution, which had all but died out in Europe by the time of American colonisation, became so deeply entrenched in the New World.

Like Berlin, Blackburn argues that while slavery produced and reinforced racism, the fundamental reasons for its establishment were economic. Slavery was a by-product of the quest for profit by merchants and planters on both sides of the Atlantic, and of the voracious appetite of European consumers for products of slave labour like sugar, rice and tobacco. By virtue of being different, blacks were deemed enslavable in ways that English or French labourers never were, but it was ‘desire for gain’, Blackburn writes, not racial prejudice, that actually inspired slave trading. As for Berlin, ‘race’ for Blackburn is an evolving set of social relationships, not a fixed attitude or deus ex machina.

While Berlin devotes considerable attention to the African-American culture that arose in the New World, Blackburn is more interested in slavery’s broad economic impact. He finds planters to have been modern, profit-oriented entrepreneurs, and argues that the revenues derived from slave labour helped to finance Britain’s economic ascendancy in the 18th century. Revisiting an old debate initiated by Eric Williams’s classic Capitalism and Slavery, Blackburn emphasises the centrality of slavery to the Atlantic economy. By 1770, he estimates, profits derived from it furnished up to one-third of Britain’s capital formation.

Again like Berlin, Blackburn is sensitive to subtle differences between slave systems in different parts of the hemisphere. His powerful account, however, raises questions about the utility of Berlin’s distinction between slave societies and societies with slaves. To be sure, this seems a commonsense way of differentiating between colonies like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, where slaves accounted for less than 10 per cent of the population, and Virginia and South Carolina, where they came to dominate the labour force. Yet Blackburn reminds us of the deep reliance on slavery on the part of both the non-plantation colonies and the metropolitan powers. Massachusetts ships transported slaves and the products of slave labour. The slave plantations of the West Indies were the major export market for grain grown by the free farmers of Pennsylvania. Slavery, Blackburn makes clear, served the interests even of non-slaveholders. Merchants, small farmers, consumers and political rulers all profited from it. The point is that in a slave-based empire, everyone, in a sense, was part of a slave society.

Overall, these two accounts complement one another. Both emphasise the multicultural nature of an Atlantic world in which Africans, Europeans, Creoles, Indians and colonists were constantly interacting, and both remind us of the complexity of the institution of slavery and of the historical process itself. Most important, perhaps, both make clear the centrality of slavery to American history from the earliest days of colonial settlement. Understanding this basic fact is the first step towards exorcising the divisions and inequalities that are among slavery’s most enduring legacies.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences