Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

By Bolton, S. Charles | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America


Bolton, S. Charles, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. By Ira Berlin (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998. Pp. 497. Prologue, illustrations, maps, tables, notes, acknowledgment, index. $29.95.)

In this Bancroft Prize-winning history of American slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Ira Berlin utilizes the vast amount of scholarship on slavery done in the last quarter of this century (a significant amount of it his own), adds much original work, and sets the whole in a paradigm of time and space.

The analysis begins with a dichotomous division between societies with slaves, those in which slavery was only one form of labor in a varied economy, and slave societies, in which the institution of bondage was used to produce a staple crop and became a fundamental force in shaping social and political relationships. Berlin presents the development of slavery in a sequence of phases that begins with the "charter generations" made up of those Africans who first encountered the New World. There follow the plantation generations who toiled at the production of staple crops, a process that led to a systematization of slavery that heightened control over slaves and increased their degradation. Finally there are the revolutionary generations, in which the concept of natural rights and the chaos of war brought freedom to some slaves and a vision of it to the rest. Time and space are connected as Berlin deals with each of these phases within four North American regions: the North, the Chesapeake (later the upper South), the lowcountry (which becomes the lower South), and the lower Mississippi Valley.

The charter generations of North American slaves were usually bilingual and familiar with the white world. From their first purchase of Africans down to Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, Chesapeake masters treated these slaves much like their white servants. Indeed slaves fared somewhat better than white laborers in one sense. Because the planters were unable to purchase all the males they wanted, they bought numerous black women; thus, slave families developed while the servant population consisted largely of restless young men. In this period, and to varying degrees throughout the history of slavery, slaves developed an economy of their own made possible by the always negotiated relationship between them and their masters. Using time and land gained by this subtle bargaining process, slaves grew crops and bartered or sold them for their own benefit. A significant number were able to purchase their freedom as a result of this activity. In South Carolina, the charter period was similar but abbreviated, beginning at the end of the seventeenth century and ending by 1715. Even here, however, African Americans were used as militia troops against the Spanish in Florida, who did the same thing to a much greater extent.

The plantation generations of slaves began in the Chesapeake during the 1680s when planters imported large numbers of Africans to create an all black labor force for tobacco production. The work of slaves became less varied, less skilled, and more regimented; the interstices of opportunity became smaller, and whites used racism to rationalize the sharper division between domination and subordination. Gradually, however, slaves adapted to their new circumstances, and a new mediation between the wills of owners and those of the owned brought back the gardens of the latter and a smaller but still significant slave economy emerged.

Rice plantations in South Carolina created a similar slave society, although here the task system gave slaves fixed work assignments allowing them more time to produce wealth for themselves. Both on the plantations and in the freer atmosphere of Charles Town, slaves also developed their own culture, Africa-oriented in the rural ares and influenced by the proximity of white and black in the lowland capital. Plantation generation slaves in South Carolina also ran away to Florida or to maroon communities in remote areas. …

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