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. As Olwell makes clear "Masters who wished to avoid trouble were careful to acknowledge their slaves' claims to property" (p. 148). Beyond the familiar concerns about the "good order of their society, slave masters' fear of the role the market could play, Olwell suggests, was more psychological than practical-as a source of self-esteem and material improvement market activity might reduce the slaves' need "to go cap in hand to the great house" (p. 152). Like Henry Laurens, most lowcountry planters were obliged to respond to slaves' "universal" desire to trade by restricting the slaves' access to market to a context in which they could still play the central and dominant role (p. 145). In this way, Olwell asserts, masters reconciled the slaves' assertion of property rights and market relations with their own claims of authority and need to maintain control (p. 157).
For the many slaves who increased thier income through public market activities-the majority of whom were women-the market place was "one of the central cross roads of the Lowcountry black community" (p. 172). It must have served a self-affirming role in the lives of slave marketeers who sometimes found themselves in a position to "challenge their masters and assert defacto equality every time they refused to sell except upon their own terms." Of course, there may well have been a gendered dimension to this form of slave resistance. As Olwell points out, the behavior of the market women "provides an example, in microcosm of how gender differences in patriarchal society may have shaped slave resistance" in as much as "the resistance of the market women largely took the form of verbal aggression and 'impudence."' Ridicule, bluster, and wit, he adds, were the market women's strongest weapons (p. 176).
Even on the plantation slave masters struggled in vain to have all their wishes realized and their commands obeyed by their slaves. There was always some noticeable "gap between the total obedience masters claimed and the limited compliance slaves grudgingly provided" (p. 191). As was typical of the ruling classes in the early modern period, slave masters in lowcountry South Carolina embraced patriarchy as the dominate cultural metaphor to express and naturalize unequal social relations. Patriarchy extended the familial model and the ideal of paternal authority beyond the household to encompass all forms of authority. Before long, each individual within the social order was called upon to understand and live up to the responsibilities and obligations of his or her station (p. 195). One could resist, but such resistance came at a price as most slaves knew only too well "that to stand at the foot of the steps of the great house and openly reject the master's patriarchal script was fraught with dangerous consequences" (p. 194).
For Olwell, the Revolution signaled a major break with the past. Although patriarchal ideas continued to influence relations between masters and slaves, the destruction of kingship weakened the links between political and familial power. Masters no longer described themselves as monarchs and their plantations as little kingdoms. Instead, Olwell, suggest, "they became masters of plantation "households'. . . slaves ceased to be subjects and became children." And, gradually, "the distance, autonomy, and violence of patriarchy were replaced with the closer and more controlling, if less overtly brutal, language of 'paternalism"' (p. 238).
The effects of war are often profound and lasting, but one wonders about other factors (pre-and post war) that might have contributed to the erosion of the patriarchal metaphor. The technological improvements in the work place and elsewhere that made even the slaves' lives a little less tedious; a more affectionate and egalitarian family environment; the rise of evangelicalism and humanitarians-the simple passage of time-surely played a part. Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790 is a masterful and beautifully presented piece of research that provides a fuller understanding of culture, power, dominance, and resistance in a small but important comer of early modem Anglo-America.
University of Rochester
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Publication information: Article title: Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740-1790. Contributors: Hudson, Larry - Author. Journal title: South Carolina Historical Magazine. Volume: 100. Issue: 4 Publication date: October 1999. Page number: 389+. © South Carolina Historical Society Oct 1999. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.