38: Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone

Ira Berlin’s argument in Many Thousands Gone is a simple one: the slave experience in America varied over time and from place to place, and as the institution of slavery matured from 1619 to 1861, racism and slavery fed on one another to increasingly exploit and degrade African Americans.  Although this book was published in 1998, it is the first major synthetic work to argue that slavery was not a monolithic, unchanging enterprise from such a long view.

Berlin divides the history of American slavery into four regions (the North, the Chesapeake, the Lowcountry, and the lower Mississippi Valley) and compares them across three chronological eras.  The first or ‘charter generation’ of slaves were cosmopolitan Atlantic creoles, many of whom came from West Africa or the West Indies, had interacted with the Spanish or Portuguese, and had worked as translators or interpreters.  Slavery was relatively fluid in all four regions, and some slaves bought their freedom, baptized children, had children with whites, and owned property.  Beginning in the late 17th century, three revolutions then transformed slavery.  The Plantation Revolution, which began in Barbados and spread to the Chesapeake and the Carolinas in the late 17th/ early 18th centuries, consolidated planter power and shifted from wage to slave labor.  The Democratic Revolution produced the first sustained intellectual opposition to slavery in the New World, but had contradictory effects on slavery: it became more entrenched in the South, began to disappear in the North and Old Northwest, and was accompanied in all regions by virulent racism.  The Cotton Revolution undercut the illusion that slavery was a dying institution by expanding slavery, despite decreasing production, soil exhaustion, and shift to grain.

While this is largely a synthetic work, Berlin does employ a number of innovations.  First, he focuses on two unique overarching developments: the shift from “societies with slaves” to “slave societies,” and the historical development of race as a generational phenomenon.  His focus on the generational development of race is particularly important because the generations up with the three chronological periods under study.  But even more important is his insistent preservation of dual points of view – both the history of slavery and the diverse histories of the people who were enslaved.  He thus combines two very different ways of doing history: as a narrative of domination, and as an exploration of the cultures and agency of the oppressed.

If you would like more info, there is a much more in-depth summary here.

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