Rethinking the "Unthinking Decision": Old Questions and New Problems in the History of Slavery and Race in the Colonial South

Article excerpt

IN RECENT DECADES, HISTORIANS OF EARLY NORTH AMERICA HAVE explored the emergence of the institution of black chattel slavery. They have also investigated ideas of heritable physical differences and inferiorities that justified and defended slavery--concepts that moderns have called race. Chattel slavery and race were critical to the formation of the Atlantic colonial enterprise, even as they were simultaneously the products of it. Unsurprisingly, given the importance of the topic, the mechanisms by which both slavery and race became so firmly entrenched--how, when, where, and why--remain hotly debated questions. The outpouring of scholarship on these questions reveals astonishing regional variations in slavery and in the experiences of enslaved people, as well as the chronologically and geographically uneven development of racial ideologies. The resulting profusion of scholarship is both exciting in its complexity and daunting in its numbers. This is especially true of the region encompassing today's United States South, where understanding slavery and race has been critical to understanding the antebellum South and the so-called New South of the post-Civil War period, yet those nineteenth-century experiences cannot be conveniently applied to comprehending the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. In addition, the very complexity of the colonial South's experiences of slavery and race is difficult to assess synthetically, especially in the context of three European colonial powers, vigorous Indian groups, and free and enslaved blacks.

The historiographical problem of slavery and race in the colonial South is in part numerical: scholarly interest in human bondage grew steadily throughout the first half of the twentieth century, exploded during the 1970s, and has expanded geometrically ever since. In the past decade alone, compilers of the Bibliography of Slavery and World Slaving, a comprehensive online database, have added approximately 1,500 titles annually, and at the moment the database contains approximately 25,000 items. Even though not all of these entries deal with Atlantic slavery from 1500 to 1800, the sheer profusion of available research is overwhelming, making it difficult for historians of slavery to construct a coherent whole out of the thousands of fragments of knowledge available. (1) Scholars continually add to what we know by readdressing old questions, finding new evidence, turning new methodologies on familiar evidence, and asking entirely new questions. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if we know too much about race and slavery, rather than too little.

The appearance in 1998 of two synthetic works brought order out of chaos for historians of North American slavery. Ira Berlin's Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America tracked the development of slavery and the experience of enslaved blacks in four corners of British North America (the North, the Chesapeake, the Lowcountry, and the lower Mississippi Valley) across three temporal divisions that Berlin labeled charter generations, plantation generations, and revolutionary generations. Berlin also concluded that the concept of race itself was a product of slavery: "the slaveholders' explanation of their own domination generally took the form of racial ideologies." Philip D. Morgan' s Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry focused on two plantation regions of the British American South, comparing each region's geography, environment, and demographics to outline the processes by which black cultures formed and reformed in the early South. Morgan also noted the early fluidity of race relations in both the Chesapeake and the Lowcountry, in the early and late seventeenth century, respectively. (2)

Berlin's and Morgan's syntheses gave scholars of slavery coherent narratives to follow when teaching the topic (I give lectures to undergraduates using Berlin's generational schema). …