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Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998)

by Ira Berlin

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Today most Americans, black and white, identify slavery with cotton, the deep South, and the African-American church. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, after almost two hundred years of African-American life in mainland North America, few slaves grew cotton, lived in the deep South, or embraced Christianity. Many Thousands Gone traces the evolution of black society from the first arrivals in the early seventeenth century through the Revolution. In telling their story, Ira Berlin, a leading historian of southern and African-American life, reintegrates slaves into the history of the American working class and into the tapestry of our nation. Laboring as field hands on tobacco and rice plantations, as skilled artisans in port cities, or soldiers along the frontier, generation after generation of African Americans struggled to create a world of their own in circumstances not of their own making. In a panoramic view that stretches from the North to the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina lowcountry to the Mississippi Valley, Many Thousands Gone reveals the diverse forms that slavery and freedom assumed before cotton was king. We witness the transformation that occurred as the first generations of creole slaves--who worked alongside their owners, free blacks, and indentured whites--gave way to the plantation generations, whose back-breaking labor was the sole engine of their society and whose physical and linguistic isolation sustained African traditions on American soil. As the nature of the slaves' labor changed with place and time, so did the relationship between slave and master, and between slave and society. In this fresh and vivid interpretation, Berlin demonstrates that the meaning of slavery and of race itself was continually renegotiated and redefined, as the nation lurched toward political and economic independence and grappled with the Enlightenment ideals that had inspired its birth.… (more)
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In Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, Ira Berlin demonstrates how race was an historical social connection as he argues, “Slavery, though imposed and maintained by violence, was a negotiated relationship” (pg. 2). He continues, “If slavery made race, its larger purpose was to make class, and the fact that the two were made simultaneously by the same process has mystified both” (pg. 5). His survey focuses on four distinct areas: the North; the Chesapeake region; “the coastal lowcountry of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida;” and “the lower Mississippi Valley” (pg. 7).
Berlin begins with a look at societies with slaves. Examining the Chesapeake region, Berlin writes, “Into the middle years of the seventeenth century and perhaps later, slaves enjoyed the benefits extended to white servants in the mixed labor force” (pg. 32). He continues, “As long as the boundary between slavery and freedom remained permeable, and as long as white and black labored in the fields together, racial slavery remained only one labor system among many” (pg. 38). Of the North, he writes, “Slaves were neither an inconsequential element in northern economic development nor an insignificant portion of the northern population during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (pg. 54). He writes of the Lower Mississippi Valley, “The evolution of slavery in the lower Mississippi Valley during the eighteenth century ran backward, from slave society to society with slaves. In the process, black life in Louisiana changed from African to creole, rather than creole to African” (pg. 77).
Transitioning to slave societies, Berlin writes, “The plantation’s distinguishing mark was its peculiar social order, which concede nearly everything to the slaveowner and nothing to the slave” (pg. 97). Further, “As plantation production expanded and the planters’ domination grew, slaves in mainland North America faced higher levels of discipline, harsher working conditions, and greater exploitation than ever before” (pg. 106). He writes of the Chesapeake, “The Africanization of slavery marked a sharp deterioration in the conditions of slave life” (pg. 111). This included increased violence and a new focus on paternalism rather than patronage. Of the Lowcountry and the rise of rice production, Berlin writes, “The battle over the slaves’ economy paralleled, complemented, and complicated the struggle over the masters’ economy, with masters and slaves negotiating and renegotiating the rights to which each believed themselves fully entitled” (pg. 165). Of the lower Mississippi Valley, he writes, “If the plantation revolution affected the northern colonies indirectly, it touched the lower Mississippi Valley – the colonies of Louisiana and West Florida – hardly at all” (pg. 195). Berlin continues, “As the century progressed, slavery in the lower Mississippi Valley increasingly became an urban-centered institution, as in many other societies with slaves” (pg. 199).
Examining the Revolutionary generation, Berlin writes, “The new societies of free and slave did not emerge everywhere at once. Freedom triumphed only in the northern states and then only slowly and imperfectly. But nowhere did slavery enjoy an uninterrupted ascent” (pg. 227). Of the North, he writes, “The American Revolution reversed the development of northern slavery – first, liquidating the remnants of slave society; then, revivifying the North as a society with slaves; finally, transforming the society with slaves into a free society” (pg. 228). He continues, “The heady notions of universal human equality that justified American independence gave black people a powerful weapon with which to attack chattel bondage” (pg. 231). Meanwhile, in the Upper South, “Thousands of slaves gained their freedom in the Upper South, and the greatly enlarged free black population began to reconstruct black life in freedom. But the expansion of slavery and with it a host of new forms of racial dependencies more than counterbalanced the growth of freedom” (pg. 256). During the war, “As slaveholders piled new tasks upon the old, increasing the slaves’ duties and lengthening their workday, wartime changes evoked new struggles between master and slave over the terms of labor and the circumstances of slave life” (pg. 263). In South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, “As nowhere else on the North American continent, the War for American Independence in the Lower South became a bitter civil war, filled with a savage, fratricidal violence that tore the fabric of society” (pg. 291). He continues, “While the war disrupted plantation life in the Upper South and forced master and slave to renegotiate the terms under which slaves labored, it altered plantation life and labor in the Lower South in far more fundamental ways. With slave discipline in disrepair, slaveholders bowed to the slaves’ demands, allowing them to enlarge their own economies” (pg. 301-302). Of the Lower Mississippi Valley, Berlin writes, “The purchase of Louisiana by the United States ended the great wave of manumissions and self-purchases that had spurred the increase in the number of free people of color. The planter-controlled territorial legislature abruptly terminated the rights the slaves enjoyed” (pg. 333). He continues, “Just as tobacco had earlier remade the Chesapeake and rice the lowcountry, the sugar and cotton revolutions forever altered the livelihood and lives of blacks and whites in the lower Mississippi” (pg. 343). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Aug 22, 2017 |
Review
  smbarb01 | May 1, 2016 |
The Atlantic Creole, first people of African descent to be brought as slaves to mainland America. Different from antebellum Cotton-growing slaves, they have participated in the Atlantic System. Arrive in mainland N. America at the same time as Unfree whites. Begin to integrate into new world society. Participate in mainland society. Worm their way out of slavery 1/3 - 1/4 gain slavery. Experience in slavery is radically different from what we think. They are critical to the Chesapeake to New Amsterdam different.

With the advent of plantation slavery, discipline changes. Atlantic Creoles ousted by new generation of slaves from Africa. Little knowledge of western world, don't participate in marginal economies. Work harder, die earlier, transforming slavery. It is this transformation that changes our definition of race.

Early Atlantic Creoles stereotyped as slippery characters, not to be trusted but cleaver. But not stereotyped as plantation generation, as dull, stupid, dirty and lazy. Imposition of the plantation transforms the very definition of race.

To be transformed again in the era of revolutions. Large numbers of blacks gain freedom and slavery is overthrown in the North. Bifurcation of American polity. Slaves even gain freedom in the south. Here again the definition of race changes again as free blacks create schools, churches and new wealth and institutions of their own. Richard Allan, Benjamin Bannaker, etc. as black leaders...

Slavery is a central institution in forming American life. The weight of this experience has weighed on our history - beyond the civil war, beyond reconstruction, beyond civil rights, into today's world. The color line is still the great question of the 21st century. We can benefit from an historicized understanding of these issues.

Part III: Slave and Free: The Revolutionary Generations

Introduction

One impact of the Revolution on slavery was to expose cracks in the "master class" as planters divided between patriot and loyalist. The masters' position eroded under the chaotic conditions of warfare, as the dual effects of revolutionary ideology and evangelical religion worked together to undermine the ideological underpinnings for slavery. Squeezed between the reforms of the Spaniards and the later French Revolution, plantation slavery in the south had external forces to contend with as well. Free slaves themselves agitated for abolition. Yet the forces working against freedom were also strong. As émigrés fled the events of Santo Domingo to the northern mainland, they brought with them renewed fears of slaves. Yet the slave trade was also reopened after the Revolution and slavery also found curious reinforcement from a take on revolutionary ideology that posited black slavery as ipso facto proof that slaves were, in fact, not men at all. The demographic affects of the revolution were in the opening up of western territories and the growing urbanization of the new nation. Slave began to work more in urban centers, which offered opportunities for greater liberty. The forms of slavery and mastery which emerged after the Revolution varied as to time, place and section. Much was determined by the particular circumstances of individual slaves and master. But above all, it was intensely regional.

Chapter 9: The Slow Death of Slavery in the North

The north became free states during the period from the end of the Revolution to the early 19th C (by 1804 every northern state had written manumission into law). Yet slavery died out from slow attrition rather than grand liberation. In the middle colonies especially, the impact of the Revolution's chaos had led slaves to run away and thereby reduce the actual slave population. In Philadelphia, this continued after the end of the war with slaves running away and setting fire to buildings on the seaboard. Progress in the North was very slow, as manumission proceeded slowing in rural areas and remained high in areas like Long Island with high percentages of slave holding families. Taking new names and migrating from the country to the city, freedmen took advantage of their freedom to carve out new lives for themselves. Arriving in cities of the north they took up menial labor positions unlike in the southern cities like Charles Town and New Orleans, they had a hard time carving out a niche for themselves. Encountering difficulties in finding work many black men became sailors. The ones who did find a niche did so in occupations like barbers and carters. Free blacks also went about the task of reconstructing family life in the new urban environment, often living several families to a dwelling. and increasingly living in concentrated areas. These new urban settlements saw the emergence of new African American institutions, among which the churches played a very strong role. A new leadership class arose to preach republican values to the free blacks. Men like Richard Allen and Prince Hall forged a new African American identity, making one of the many ethic divisions of the former slaves.

Chapter 10: The Union of African-American Society in the Upper South

Because the upper south did not enact manumission legislation, bondage not only remained but expanded into the western frontier. As a result of the revolution, however, many slaves had in fact achieved freedom. The society that emerged in the Chesapeake featured close association of free and slave blacks, with little of the class structure that emerged among free blacks in the north. Just as whites rallied around race in the upper south so too blacks.

During the Revolutionary War, Lord Dunmore had incited Virginia slaves to leave their masters and join the loyalist cause in exchange for freedom. Tories seized Patriots' slaves, British continentals took particular joy in freeing the slaves of Patriot leaders. Though as many as 5,000 upper south slaves gained freedom during the Revolution, natural increase easily made up for this allowing the planters of the upper south to emerge from the revolution as opponents of the slave trade adopting a contemptuous posture toward its anxious advocates to their south. After the war, a return to Tobacco from staple culture and the diversification tot wheat brought a new intensification of the labor requirements on slaves at the same time as the new "modern" agricultural approaches of planters required an increasing array of tasks be performed by slave labor, which grew to include work in iron forges and other proto-industrial tasks. Slave families achieved a measure of stability as masters increasingly sanctioned slave marriages, but it was always open to disruption through sale to the west. Slaves were also increasing brought into the cities to work in new occupations in transport and maritime industries. In the cities, however, black labor's competition with white caused conflict. Furthermore, the atmosphere of black life in the city fostered the growth of a type of communal life that evaded white supervision and caused great alarm. As slavery grew and expanded into frontier and urban setting, so too did manumission. An amalgam of free black labor and mobile slave black labor developed in the upper south. This created yet more space for blacks to pass from slave status to free, as they did through purchasing their own freedom or blending with free black population until they could forge papers attesting to their freedom. Free blacks took new names and moved increasingly to the cities. Here too an emergent class of black leaders appeared -- Daniel Coker in Baltimore and Christopher McPherson in Richmond. Here too the African American church played a large role in institution building. Yet the shadow of slavery worked against the emergence of class differences amongst free blacks in the Upper South.

Chapter 11: Fragmentation in the Lower South

Describes the emergence of three cast system -- black, white and brown. As the planters of the lower south moved to re-open the slave trade and primed the system for the expansive growth of slavery of the next half century, they would not even countenance slave manumission. Free blacks in urban areas sought to distance themselves from slaves. Many of them of mixed ancestry, Berlin refers to them as "brown."

The Revolution in the south was a true civil war, with loyalists and patriots squaring off amidst a large population that wanted nothing to do with either side. In this environment, disciple became much more severe for slaves. As fear of black insurrection unsettled whites, it empowered black slaves to desert their owners in droves. Thomas Pinckney of S. Carolina returned from the Continental Congress in 1779 to find all put a handful of his slaves gone. Many groups of slaves escaped to the British. Others escaped to the cities, where they tried to pass themselves off as free and put themselves out to hire. The British, for their part, vacillated on slave liberation. Seeking not to alienate slave-holding Loyalists, they also rounded up run away slaves in the cities and ran captured patriot plantations with slave labor. Slaves received inconsistent treatment at the hands of the Patriots as well, some of whom wanted to arm them to fight the British but others who refused to do so. In some cases Patriots even gave captured slaves to their troops as the spoils of war. Groups of bandits roamed the countryside stealing and looting amidst the chaos of warfare. As the British departed, slaves sought their freedom by departing with the British -- yet even the British ended up allowing Americans to reclaim their "property." The overall effect of the war was a decline in the slave population of the region, prompting the region to agitate for the reopening of the slave trade.

After the war, free blacks formed maroons and fought against the new American government to keep their freedom. In combination with the fears generated by Caribbean slave revolt in 1790s, this lead to an increasingly violent slave system. Cotton growing, which slaves had done on their own during the Revolution, grew tremendously with the introduction of the cotton gin and press. Between 1790 and 1800 cotton exports grew in S. Carolina from 10K lbs to 6 M lbs mostly from the back country! The need for black slave labor encouraged slave holders in the upper south to sell their slaves south before they were under legal obligation to manumit. The S. Carolina government opened the slave trade (1782-87), closed it briefly (1787-1803) and then reopened it again in (1803-1810) -- importing a total of 90K slaves during the period. Plantations became larger as grandees bought up departed loyalists property at bargain prices. Slavery moved west after the war, and cotton agriculture picked up in the back country. In this environment, the slave driver assumed greater prominence and stood as intermediary with the master. Slaves continued to develop their own economies by growing their own crops on small plots and selling their produce. Planters increasingly retreated to cities on the coast, leaving the running of plantations more and more to slave drivers and overseers. In these cities, black slaves worked as artisans and increasingly hired themselves out for wages. The black districts of these cities grew and the organizational infrastructure of black culture also expanded under leaders like the preacher Andrew Bryan in Georgia. In these areas, they mixed with free people of color who came as refugees from the Caribbean as well as escaped slaves. Yet the close ties between slaves who had been freed and their former masters insured that commercial bonds remained even in freedom, leading to a lack of solidarity between the slave and the free among black the black population. Not accepted in white society, but wishing to escape the association with bondage, free people of color formed their own benevolent associations to support burials, the indigent, widows, orphans, etc. The Brown Fellowship Society, founded in Charleston in 1790, acted to fragment black society rather than draw it closer together by excluding slaves and blacks with darker skin. This helped establish a "racial pecking order" in the lower south.

Chapter 12: Slavery and Freedom in the Lower Mississippi Valley

The context of worldwide revolution was most important for the Lower Mississippi Valley, due to its proximity to both Spanish and French colonial possessions. New Orleans, Mobile and Pensacola all became havens for refugees from the Caribbean. At the same time, as sugar and cotton cultivation expanded, this region quickly moved from being a society with slaves to a slave society. In the context of chaos created by war with the Spanish, slaves escaped their plantations to form maroon communities. The community of maroons worked with the slaves to get their goods to market. One community lead by St. Malo was particularly well developed in New Orleans and lead by a bold and audacious leader. The free blacks also fought in the Spanish army frequently. With the expansion of commerce in New Orleans, Mobile and Pensacola under Spanish rule, blacks increasingly found ways to buy their freedom. This trend ended with the Louisiana purchase. The flood of refugees from the Caribbean still continued to swell the ranks of the free black population which was generally lighter skinned and skewed toward females. As with the lower south, in the lower Mississippi Valley free blacks kept associations with their former masters, not hastily discarding their surnames or giving up the commercial links thus forged they were able to reach middling status in the Gulf ports. By owning slaves themselves they sought to enter the ranks of the ruling class.

After the settlement in 1787 between the British and Americans, rapid transformation took place in the Lower Mississippi. As settlers moved into the area with promises of economic opportunity and cultural freedom from the Spanish Crown, they demanded a more secure plantation labor force from the Spaniards. The Spaniards in turn began to enforce the Code Noir and attacked maroon settlements, hunting down and executing St. Malo and many of his followers. Fluctuating wildly between legality and illegality the slave trade on the Mississippi grew in fits and starts. In the 1790s, aided by Caribbean refugees the planters of the valley made the transition to sugar cane agriculture in Lower Louisiana. Further north at Natchez, entrepreneurial tinkerers produced cotton gins that could separate the seed from the fiber and launched the Cotton agricultural revolution around Natchez. Sugar and Cotton required large labor forces, thus the planters sought ever more slaves for their fields, eventually organizing them into work gangs and restricted the slaves' economic lives. Association between the slave black and the free black grew less frequent. Free urban blacks sought to distance themselves from slaves, many of whom were newly arrived from Africa. Prime among the free blacks who sought greater status were those who served in the militia. Carondelet, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, used them liberally and supported many of the blacks attempts to gain freedom. When America bought Louisiana, the free black militias were slowly disempowered and the regime of plantation slavery firmly fixed on the Lower Mississippi.

Epilogue: Making Race, Making Slavery

New racially based slavery of the 19th century is unique, not like the last two centuries. Free North and Slave South are creations of the 19th Century not natural outcomes of the last two hundred years. As labor moves west into the black belt, the south becomes the Cotton South. Slavery in made again through new racial ideas.

Racism infects the North as well, as slavery is seen by Free Labor as a threat to the white man, while black subjugation ignored. Interesting point to follow up on here is the exclusion of black labor from machine shops that Ira Berlin points to, speaks to the interaction of race and technology in the workplace. White male artisans being de-skilled by advancing mechanization of the workplace lash out at blacks? New York city draft riots during the Civil War happen when whites in that city are convinced this is a war to free the black slaves...
  mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
This book is about a history of African-American slavery in mainland North America during the first two centuries of European and African settlement. Many associate slavery with the South and cotton fields, rice, and tobacco plantations. MANY THOUSANDS GONE traces the evolution of black society from the early 1700s through the Revolution. Berlin is a leading scholar on African-American life. The work is well illustrated and contains extensive notes and an index.
  zoranaercegovac | Jan 14, 2009 |
Reviewed by Sally E. Hadden for H-Net here:

http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=32700988988626
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  chrisbrooke | Oct 27, 2005 |
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Today most Americans, black and white, identify slavery with cotton, the deep South, and the African-American church. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, after almost two hundred years of African-American life in mainland North America, few slaves grew cotton, lived in the deep South, or embraced Christianity. Many Thousands Gone traces the evolution of black society from the first arrivals in the early seventeenth century through the Revolution. In telling their story, Ira Berlin, a leading historian of southern and African-American life, reintegrates slaves into the history of the American working class and into the tapestry of our nation. Laboring as field hands on tobacco and rice plantations, as skilled artisans in port cities, or soldiers along the frontier, generation after generation of African Americans struggled to create a world of their own in circumstances not of their own making. In a panoramic view that stretches from the North to the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina lowcountry to the Mississippi Valley, Many Thousands Gone reveals the diverse forms that slavery and freedom assumed before cotton was king. We witness the transformation that occurred as the first generations of creole slaves--who worked alongside their owners, free blacks, and indentured whites--gave way to the plantation generations, whose back-breaking labor was the sole engine of their society and whose physical and linguistic isolation sustained African traditions on American soil. As the nature of the slaves' labor changed with place and time, so did the relationship between slave and master, and between slave and society. In this fresh and vivid interpretation, Berlin demonstrates that the meaning of slavery and of race itself was continually renegotiated and redefined, as the nation lurched toward political and economic independence and grappled with the Enlightenment ideals that had inspired its birth.

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