Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market

Article excerpt

Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. By Walter Johnson. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. 283. Introduction, illustrations, notes, acknowledgments, index. $26.00.)

This excellent book provides a wealth of new details about the buying and selling of black people in the antebellum South and remarkable insights into the minds of both the seller and the sold.

Of perhaps a million slaves who traveled from the declining tobacco lands of the Chesapeake region into the rich cotton acreage of the southwest, two-thirds were brought by professional slave-traders. Including local sales by owners, the antebellum slave trade may have involved two million transactions and accounted for 15 percent of the economic activity of the South.

Soul by Soul describes the familiar story of people wrested from their loved ones and marched away in coffles_ the males chained two by two and the women and children following behind. Arriving at the point of sale, they were crowded into prison-like slave pens where they were cleaned and clothed, and even fattened and given medical treatment, to increase their value. When the spruced-up slaves were placed on display, potential buyers questioned them in hopes of learning their histories and assessing their character and examined their bodies to judge their health, strength, and beauty (and occasionally for sexual gratification).

Johnson's focus is on the New Orleans market, the largest in the South, whose operation he documents in detail. His most important evidence are court records arising out of redhibition laws that governed the circumstances under which a buyer could return his human merchandise if the seller had either misrepresented or failed to disclose critical aspects of the health or character of the slave. Here he makes a major contribution to our knowledge of the mechanics of buying and selling people. …