The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach

By Kaye, Anthony E. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2014 | Go to article overview

The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach


Kaye, Anthony E., The Journal of Southern History


The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach. By Joseph C. Miller. The David Brion Davis Series. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 218. Paper, $30.00, ISBN 978-0-300-11315-0.)

Joseph C. Miller has written the most important book on the world history of slavery since Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1982). Miller's reflections are a revised version of his inaugural David Brion Davis lectures at Yale University and prolegomena to a forthcoming narrative world history of slaving. Most of what historians think they know about slavery, Miller provocatively argues, merely projects the peculiar institution of slavery in the Americas, especially the U.S. South, onto the world history of slaving. Southern historians will find profound challenges and insights in Miller's astonishing rewriting of the world history of slavery.

In the first chapter, Miller seizes the trope of '"slavery as an institution'" as the first in a cascade of reifications that turn lived experiences of slaves and slavers into the sociological abstractions that have become elementary analytical categories in the historiography of slavery, including '"slave societies,"' "'slave/creole cultures,"' "'the idea (or ideology) of slavery,"' and the "ahistorical conflation of race and slavery" (pp. 1, 2, 15). This narrow understanding of slavery as an institution obscures slaveries that do not fit this paradigm, and subsequent chapters open with penetrating elaborations on the reifications and occlusions that distort the historiography on the period and region at hand. Historians preoccupied by slavery institutionalized in law have disregarded a great deal of slaving that was critical to historic changes in the earliest communities of late hominids from approximately 20,000 BCE through 1000 CE (chapter 2). Scholars long overlooked slaving in Africa, too, and imposed anachronistic concepts of kingship, kingdom, and empire on rulers who did not exercise internal authority over communities that combined for temporary purposes during the transatlantic slave trade era (chapter 3). By the same token, historians have neglected the novelty of the role of race, the state, and the nation-state in the rise and fall of the institution of slavery in the Americas from 1600 to the end of the nineteenth century (chapter 4).

In his historiographical overtures to each of the four chapters. Miller aims to rework slavery itself as other scholars have reworked race and nation. He reformulates ideologies of slavery, which scholars have taken as preexisting fixtures of society and objective categories of analysis, as outcomes, usually unintended, of historical struggles and processes particular to their time and place. In the body of these chapters, Miller sketches what he considers a genuinely historical account by reformulating slavery in terms of slaving and tracing changing strategies of slavers to the political contexts that enabled and motivated slavers to adopt new strategies. An appendix arranges this complex account in tabular form.

Miller recasts the world history of slavery as a means for marginalized insiders to appropriate outsiders and mobilize them in the slavers' competition with predominant elites. This was "the macro-logic of slaving as a strategy," and its history lies in explaining how the insiders were marginalized, how they defined the enslaved as outsiders, and how a particular strategy of slaving was effective in the slavers' challenge to their superior rivals (p. 143). Slavery was not an economic institution for most of its history, much less a labor system, nor was it the favored strategy of the most powerful. Rather, slaving was typically a political strategy adopted by ambitious insiders who found enslaved people useful resources in making a way into the elite. …

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