In 1980, Ira Berlin published in the American Historical Review an important and frequently cited essay on the history of North American slavery, “Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America.” In it, he argued that in their attempts to expose the nature of African American slavery, historians had frequently simplified their vision to focus on slavery as it was known in the decades before the Civil War, ignoring the fact that slavery had changed over time and space during its centuries of existence. That article ends with a call for a lengthier investigation into the changing face of slavery in different times and places. Many Thousands Gone is the author’s answer to his own call. In the intervening years, however, his understanding of his material has undergone a subtle but profound transformation. Rather than simply noting the transformations that slavery underwent, Many Thousands Gone (which takes its title from an old spiritual song celebrating freedom) is an investigation of the ways in which freedom and slavery were negotiated between slaves and slave owners, making the point that no matter how powerful the slave owner became, the culture and the actions of the slave were never completely in his power. Thus, the history of slavery becomes, in part, a history of strategies—some partial failures, some partial successes—for establishing African American self- determination in a time of slavery.
Berlin, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, knows the value of a good anecdote, and he begins his look at seventeenth century slavery with a fine one. The story of Anthony Johnson is used to illustrate the porousness of seventeenth century slavery in the Chesapeake region. Imported into the country as “Antonio, a Negro” in 1622, Johnson lived the life of an agricultural slave—but he also maintained his own farm, married a wife, and baptized his children while still a slave; eventually, he purchased his freedom to become a wealthy property and slave owner himself. When one of his slaves ran away to work for a neighboring plantation, Johnson was able to sue successfully for the man’s return.
If Johnson’s story is exceptional in any age, it does typify the vagaries of slavery in early colonial America, societies that Berlin characterizes as “societies with slaves” rather than “slave societies”—the distinction being that in the former, slavery is only one form of bonded labor, and bonded labor only one source of labor. However important, the distinction between slave labor and other forms of labor is not crucial to the society’s economic survival, and therefore is not seen as immutable. By and large, the first century of slavery in North America—what Berlin terms the “charter generations”—was characterized by the features of societies with slaves. Slaves filled no vital and unique economic niche, and there was relatively easy socializing between the races, free and enslaved, among the laboring classes. Because the frequently rugged conditions of life demanded close contact between slave and slave master, and because the practice of slavery had not yet spawned an ideology of slavery, a rough sort of cheek-by-jowl equality existed between the master and the slave, each person’s well-being fully dependent on the other’s care and responsibility. The image of the backward, childlike African slave had not been born. Instead, images of slavery were dominated by the image of the worldly “Atlantic creole,” the man of some African heritage and considerable exposure to Western culture. Berlin notes that the intermediary role that creoles played in translating one culture to another was absolutely crucial to the growth of the slave trade from Africa. Their knowledge of languages and cultures provided a popular image of African peoples as sophisticated and civilized, an image that stands in stark contrast to the primitivist images of Africans that later slave societies would manufacture.
In all, Berlin’s taxonomy of the first two centuries of slavery in America consists of four major regions—the North, the Chesapeake, the South Carolina-Georgia-Florida Lowcountry, and the Mississippi Valley—during three major periods: the charter generations of the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, and the revolutionary period. Only in parts of the Lowcountry was the plantation model of slavery successfully established in the charter generations of slavery; thus, the rigid social distinctions that segregated people on the basis of race were not a universal characteristic of these early societies with slaves. The rules regarding the limits of slavery varied greatly within regions and between regions, but in most of these societies, slaves maintained an independent economy of growing, buying, selling, and hiring that competed with the economy of the slaveowners. Slavery was often seen as a temporary state that time or money could...
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