Friday, March 8, 2013

David Brion Davis: Inhuman Bondage


As reviewed in the  The New York Times, by Ira Berlin, "'Inhuman Bondage,' by David Brion Davis: Slaves in the Family," on 14 May 2006  --  IT wasn't so long ago that few Americans spoke of slavery, least of all historians. Except at a handful of black colleges, it rarely entered the classroom. History texts gave it scant recognition, other than noting how its presence burdened white Americans. Perhaps the only exception was discussion of the Civil War, but even then slavery made only a brief appearance — since everyone knew the great conflict was about states' rights.


Now slavery is everywhere, with movies like "Amistad," "Glory" and "Beloved," and television documentaries like "Unchained Memories" and "Slavery and the Making of America." Nearly every major museum has mounted an exhibition on slavery, while new museums devoted entirely to the subject are being planned. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, two presidents representing very different constituencies, have visited the West African slave trading post of Gorée and peered out the "Door of No Return." Congress has mandated that the National Park Service address the question of slavery at all Civil War battlefields, and federal and state courts have adjudicated numerous cases regarding profits extracted from slave labor centuries ago. In today's history books, slavery has become the foundation for our understanding of the past, and almost all universities in the country offer some course on the subject. Books pour from the presses; by one count more than 75 have been published this past year. More are on the way, along with the usual array of CD's and Web sites.

But despite this enormous outflow, controversies continue. For some, slavery is a handy metaphor for exploitation (thus "wage slavery" and the "slavery of sex"). Today's sweatshops, they say, are indistinguishable from yesterday's sugar mills and cotton fields. For others, however, chattel bondage is not just one kind of coercion. Its specific attributes distinguish it from all other forms of oppression, giving it a unique place in human history. And for all Americans, there is the enduring contradiction of their republic as both the beacon of liberty and the world's largest slaveholder.


So the publication of David Brion Davis's "Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World" could not be more welcome. As much as any single scholar, Davis, a professor emeritus and the former director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University, has made slavery a central element in modern historiography. Although the focus of "Inhuman Bondage" is largely on the Americas, he appreciates that the slavery of the recent past cannot be understood apart from its long history, one that reaches back to antiquity and stretches across the globe.

The genius of "Inhuman Bondage" is in Davis's ability to identify the big questions: Why slavery? Why did slavery become identified with Africans and their descendants? Why was slavery so easily accepted before 1776 and so readily challenged thereafter? Why did racism outlast slavery? On each of these matters, and dozens more, Davis expertly summarizes the debates, bringing clarity to the contending arguments. "Inhuman Bondage" is a tour de force of synthetic scholarship.


But Davis is not merely a referee among historical gladiators. He gets in with the lions, forcing a rethinking of many of the most fundamental issues. He examines the twists and turns of slavery's development and the contingencies that set human history off in unexpected directions: the patent evil that redounds to the good and the earnest benevolence that creates untold pain.

Tracing slavery back to its beginnings, Davis links it to the domestication of wild animals. Associations with animals range from Aristotle's musing that an ox is a poor man's slave to the brutish treatment of enslaved people — throughout history, slaves, like domesticated beasts, have been given the names of barnyard animals and household pets, branded with hot irons and forced to wear collars, making it easy for slave masters to dehumanize them. Although the masters often rationalized slavery as a variation of patriarchal paternalism, Davis sees bestialization as the means by which slaveholders elevated themselves, creating the illusion that they enjoyed "something approaching divine power."


A s for American slavery in particular, Davis traces several critical transformations. The first was the mass production of previously exotic commodities — sugar, coffee, rice and tobacco — for sale on the international market. These products joined Europe, Africa and the Americas together, spurred the investment of an unparalleled amount of capital, stimulated technological innovation and, most important, resulted in the enslavement of millions of men and women. At first some of these were taken from Europe and others from the Americas. Eventually, however, Africa became the exclusive source of slave labor.

The identification of Africans with slavery required a new ideology. Derived from a complex of ancient and medieval ideas — biblical references, linguistic connections between blackness and filth, and Arab and European stereotypes of dark-skinned peoples — it gained acceptance as the plantation system grew into a huge source of wealth. Racial slavery, Davis insists, was neither accidental nor marginal; it was "an intrinsic and indispensable part of New World settlement."


Men and women made slavery and also destroyed it. Davis discusses abolition with his usual historical sweep, although slavery had an ancient pedigree, while antislavery had hardly any past. Drawing on his earlier work, Davis sees opposition to slavery originating in the revolutions of the late 18th century — most especially the American, French and Haitian — which made equality, not hierarchy, the norm for human relations. Before the age of revolutions, slavery and the trans-Atlantic trade in human beings existed nearly unchallenged, except by the slaves themselves (who objected to their own enslavement but rarely to the practice of slavery). After the revolutions, slavery was everywhere on the defensive, and while novel rationalizations came fast and furious, they were no match for a new moral sensibility that defined slavery as both the essence of barbarity and a highly inefficient form of labor. Within little more than a century from the first emancipations in the Northern United States, slavery had been outlawed throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Davis follows the large story of slavery into all corners of the Atlantic world, demonstrating that hardly anyone or anything was untouched by it. He is particularly interested in the way ideas shaped slavery's development. But "Inhuman Bondage" is not a history without people. Princes, merchants and reformers of all sorts play their role, though, sensibly, Davis gives pride of place to the men and women who suffered bondage. Drawing on some of the best recent studies, he not only adjudicates between the arguments, but also provides dozens of new insights, large and small, into events as familiar as the revolt on Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and the American Civil War.


Not all of his interpretations will be readily accepted. Probably few historians will agree with him that the low number of white deaths during the various slave rebellions was evidence of the "wisdom and self-discipline" of the slave rebels. Still, here and in his other interventions, Davis cuts to the heart of controversies. He is an invaluable guide to explaining what has made slavery's consequences so much a part of contemporary American culture and politics.(source: The New York Times; Ira Berlin, who teaches at the University of Maryland, is the author of "Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves.")


David Brion Davis: Inhuman Bondage from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.

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