Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790

By Hudson, Larry | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 1999 | Go to article overview
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Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790


Hudson, Larry, South Carolina Historical Magazine


Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790. By Robert Olwell. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. Pp. xvi, 294. $49.95, cloth; $17.95, paper.)

Robert Olwell's primary aim in Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790 is to illuminate the complex interrelationship between "Kings & Slaves," colonialism and slavery, in one early American Slave society" (p. 3). Underpinning this purpose is the premise that as a "Slave Society" the domination of slaves "was always the main obejective of the ministers of state and church and the main public concern of the master" (p. 5). But Olwell seeks to describe more than this "culture of power" and the process by which "the seeds of domination were sown, nurtured, and ultimately harvested." An "equally important aim of the book is to "reveal Slaves" agency in the creation and perpetuation of late-colonial South Carolina's social order" (p. 7). Masters, Slaves, and Subjects is not a simple story about masters or slaves, it is about the complex relationship between the two which, as Olwell describes it, more closely resembled an ongoing "tug of war" than "open warfare" or the slaves"' "abject submission before an overwhelming power" (p. 7). Despite the abundance of resources-legal, political, religious, and economical-at their disposal, slave masters had to contend with slaves who were not the "passive subjects of the slave society... shackled by their condition... " They were, Olwell stresses, "intelligent agents whose choices and actions ... helped to shape the world they lived in" (p. 7).

Unfortunately, the slaves' cultural participation in colonial slave society was fraught with risk as most of their responses to slaveholders' power what might be termed resistance- "tended to implicate and entangle slaves within the very institutions and discourses that oppressed them." For, as is so often the case, in articulating their grievances, the powerless have to "appropriate the language and metaphors of the dominate" group: in the slaves' acts of every day resistance "a degree of accommodation to power was required" (P. 10).

The main contested arenas-law, the -church, market, and the plantation-shape the book's structure. In each of these arenas "masters' efforts to cultivate power and impose their rule were met by the slaves' own determination to secure a measure of autonomy within slavery or to deny their servitude entirely" (p. 13). In the public arena slaveholders constructed the law in such a way as to aid them further in "ordering and governing" their slave society. The Negro Act of 1740, which defined the legal condition of the slave and created a host of slave crimes, was above all an assertion of masters' power over their slaves. When the seriousness of a charge against a slave could be diminished substantially with the appropriate amount of deference and gratitude on the part of the accused, the quicker slaves learned the ways of their masters, the better were their chances of survival and social advancement.

The few slaves who gained some social mobility and status in white society were those whose value system most closely coincided with their masters'. As Olwell points out, Anglican Church membership was the primary avenue thorough which white slave society sought to differentiate and order their world. Given the other imposed status hierarchies among the black population such as mulatto over black, creole over African, and the skilled over underskilled, a hypothetical portrait of the slave most likely to be invited into Anglican fellowship "would depict a mulatto, creole, skilled slave able to speak English well" (p. 125).

The Lowcountry market economy "engendered" and "enmeshed" masters and slaves in a host of "contradictions and ambiguities." Olwell suggests that masters permitted their slaves to circumvent the laws against accumulating and holding property because it suited their own immediate goals to do so; longer term, this was seldom the case.

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