Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Social Death and Resurrection: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Social Death and Resurrection: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa

Article excerpt

Social Death and Resurrection: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa. By John Edwin Mason. Charlottes ville: University of Virginia Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 334; notes, index. $59.50 cloth, $19.50 paper.

Social historians of South African history are, by and large, good storytellers. Perhaps because of the roots of social history in South Africa as an alternative to apartheid history, historians have made particular efforts to paint rich and multilayered narratives that do justice to the complexity of the lives of their historical subjects. This is especially evident in the historiography of slavery in South Africa. Historians have had to rely on reading colonial sources "against the grain," long before the term became fashionable, in order to write about slavery from the perspective of those who suffered under its yoke. There is no more talented storyteller than John Edwin Mason.

This is Mason's chosen identity as a historian. As he rightly points out: "Telling stories is an essential part of doing history and, to be sure, of being human.... We tell them for all sorts of reasons-to entertain, to instruct, to caution, to arouse, to console.... Historians, unlike our more subtle cousins the bards, poets, and novelists, feel the need to make our points explicit" (p. 6). With this in mind, Mason resists the temptation to erase ambiguity in his storytelling. In presenting his stories with multiple meanings he is able to set out a history of slavery and emancipation in the Cape Colony of South Africa that highlights the lived experience of those for whom it was a life-altering process, both slave and free.

As one would expect, the title of the book is no coincidence and it pays suitable homage to one of the great historians of slavery, Orlando Patterson. Mason draws on Patterson's notion of slavery as "social death," and pairs it with Nell Irvin Painter's theory of "soul murder" as being at the core of the psychology of slavery. Mason uses these intellectual tools as literary metaphors to examine how "most slaves never ceased to fight for life" (p. 9). In this struggle, slaves used every means available to them, including recourse to the law, in order to assert the fullness of their own humanity and their right to life and family. In the period before official emancipation as decreed by the colonial government in 1838, slaves at the Cape had "begun the process of social resurrection" (p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.