When Americans look at slavery, they conjure up images of tired black bodies picking cotton from sunup to sundown under Southern skies. That image is partly true, but, as the noted history professor Ira Berlin details, the lives of slaves in America's racist system were complex and diverse. "Viewing slavery through the perspective of what slaves did most of the time," Berlin writes, "provides a means to draw some fundamental distinctions and find some essential commonalities among the various experiences of North America."
Berlin reveals the color-caste codes of the Afro-Creoles of the Chesapeake, the survival of African culture in the South Carolina-Georgia-Florida coastal area, and the intermingling of Africans with French and Spanish in the Mississippi Delta area. He weaves a woeful and wondrous tale of the mores, occupations, conflicts, wars, and rebellions that made up the ongoing relationships between masters and slaves. Many Thousands Gone is an excellent companion to Philip D. Morgan's Slave Counterpoint, revealing the influence the "peculiar institution" of slavery had on those of African and European descent alike. --Eugene Holley Jr.
From Publishers Weekly
The history of slavery in North America is not as simple, clear-cut or tidy as is often believed. That is the message of this impeccably presented history of American slavery from 1619, when John Rolfe brought "twenty Negars" to the Jamestown colony, to the 1820s, when the spirit of emancipation began to take hold in the North. Berlin, a history professor at the University of Maryland, shows how at different times and at different places, slavery was a very different thing. He makes a great distinction, for example, between slave societies such as the Carolina low country in the 17th century (in which both the economy and the social structure was built upon slavery) and societies with slaves (the lower Mississippi of the same era) where slavery was only part of a more complex structure. He shows how slavery was different for those born in the West Indies, Africa and North America, and for those serving in urban settings (which encouraged a certain entrepreneurial spirit) and in rural. These distinctions have continuing resonance, as Berlin shows that once a society with slaves became a slave society, all blacks?free or not?could come to be regarded as slaves: in short, how an economic system became racism. Although the prose is serviceable more than anything else, the book holds many surprises gleaned from the facts, whether in its portrait of New York as a major slave city or its descriptions of free enterprise at work among slaves. The economic and historical research presented here is impressive. But what gives the book an additional dimension is its deftly employed social insights.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.