As reviewed in the New York Times, by George M. Fredrickson, in an article entitled, "Of Human Bondage: In the 17th and 18th centuries, a historian says, the idea of slavery was not yet firmly defined," on 4 October 1998 -- The conventional image of a gang of slaves picking cotton under the watchful eye of a master or an overseer would be true to the experience of a large proportion of the Southern black population in the decades just before the Civil War. But it would be misleading to read it back into the two centuries of slavery between the arrival of the first blacks in Virginia in 1619 and the rise of the Cotton Kingdom in the early 19th century -- and not merely because the crops being grown were different. In this masterly work, Ira Berlin, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, has demonstrated that earlier North American slavery had many different forms and meanings that varied over time and from place to place. Slavery and race did not have a fixed character that endured for centuries but were constantly being constructed or reconstructed in response to changing historical circumstances. ''Many Thousands Gone'' illuminates the first 200 years of African-American history more effectively than any previous study.
One basis of variation was geographical. According to Berlin, race-based slavery in North America before the antebellum period has four distinct regional histories -- in the North (the mid-Atlantic and New England colonies or states), in the Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland), in the Carolina low country and in the lower Mississippi valley (principally Louisiana). Slavery in these areas differed markedly in how it originated, in what role it subsequently played in the economy and the society, and in the patterns of race relations that it engendered. Berlin also distinguishes among three basic slave experiences that correspond to successive historical periods. His distinction among ''charter,'' ''plantation'' and ''revolutionary'' generations applies in differing ways to each of his regions and provides an integrating device for what would otherwise be a collection of separate stories.
Berlin's account of the earliest, or charter, generations is perhaps the most original part of the book. The people of African origin who arrived before the late 17th century in English North America did not, for the most part, come directly from traditional African societies. Before the 1680's, the Atlantic slave trade was devoted almost exclusively to providing labor to tropical sugar-producing colonies in the Caribbean and Brazil. Blacks who were brought or found their way to North America were likely to be ''Atlantic Creoles,'' not purely African in culture and sometimes not even in ancestry.
Berlin describes vividly a 17th-century Atlantic rim in which races and cultures mixed to a surprising extent. The first wave of blacks to arrive in what is now the United States often came with Spanish or Portuguese surnames, knowledge of a European language and a previous exposure to Christianity. Many had spent time in the Caribbean or even in Europe. In the Northern colonies, in the Chesapeake until the late 17th century and for a relatively brief period in South Carolina, the charter generations lived in ''societies with slaves,'' as distinct from ''slave societies.'' What this meant was that the labor force was only marginally composed of black people who were owned by their masters. The bulk of the work was performed by indentured servants, most of whom were white. Although Berlin maintains that any person of African origin who arrived as cargo on a slave-trading ship was considered from the beginning to be subject to service for life rather than for a fixed term, a significant fraction of the charter generations became free. Historians have long been intrigued by the black freeholders who appear in the early records of Virginia as voters, as litigants in court cases involving whites and even as husbands of white women. Berlin places them in a broader context, one in which slavery itself remained ill defined and servants for life (which was indeed a status reserved for blacks) were much freer and more independent in their day-to-day activities than later slaves would be.
Because the Atlantic slave trade expanded enormously in the 18th century, the ''plantation generations'' were much more likely to come directly from societies in the African interior. The demand for African captives was fueled by the rise of plantations producing staple crops for export -- tobacco in the Chesapeake and rice and indigo in the low country. These regions developed into full-blown slave societies dominated by large planters, who imposed harsh discipline on their slaves and increasingly restricted the rights of free people of color. The North also imported a substantial number of slaves in the 18th century but did not evolve into a slave society. Crops suitable for plantation cultivation were lacking, and a mixed economy was developing that used slaves on farms, in households and in the industries of port cities. Since the new arrivals were mostly men from the African interior who lacked immunity to many diseases endemic to the Northern colonies, the combination of a high death rate and an unbalanced sex ratio checked and ultimately reversed the growth of the Northern black population.
Although both remained plantation zones, the Chesapeake and the low country diverged during the 18th century and beyond, because American-born or Creole slaves came to predominate in the former by midcentury, while substantial influxes of Africans, including 35,000 between 1803 and 1808, enabled the slaves of coastal South Carolina and Georgia to remain closer to their African roots. For a variety of cultural and economic reasons, slaves in the low country made a world of their own apart from whites to a much greater degree than those of the upper South. In Louisiana, meanwhile, abrupt shifts in the economic prospects of the colony and from French to Spanish to American rule made the experiences of slaves and free people of color vary and fluctuate to an extent that defies summary.
Berlin's contention that a distinctive revolutionary generation replaced the plantation generations around the beginning of the 19th century is suggestive but somewhat confusing. Certainly the American and French Revolutions created a new conception of freedom and equality that inspired black resistance to slavery. But the great upheavals had such diverse and contradictory effects on the circumstances and prospects of blacks in different regions that it is hard to think of them as a common experience. In the Northern states the result was gradual emancipation. In the upper South, no general emancipation was started but substantial numbers of slaves were manumitted voluntarily by their masters or were freed as a reward for military service. This upsurge in the free black population of Virginia and Maryland was partly the result of the reduced need for slaves in the more diversified economy that followed the decline of tobacco as a staple crop, but in at least some cases the principles of the American Revolution were being lived up to. In the lower South, however, attachment to plantation slavery was unshaken and very few manumissions took place. Most slaves who did gain their freedom were of mixed race, often the sons of their emancipators. This development, as Berlin shows, helped to create a three-caste racial hierarchy of white, brown and black, like that of the Caribbean. A similar race pattern existed in Louisiana as a legacy of French and Spanish occupation. This kind of status system contrasted with that of the upper South and the North, where the freed people could be of any pigmentation. It was north of the Carolinas that the peculiar American tradition of classifying people with any known African ancestry as ''black'' first took root.
For slaves in the lower South, the Revolutionary era simply tightened the chains of bondage. The invention of the cotton gin shortly after the American Revolution made the low country's form of slavery the model for the expanding plantation system of the 19th century. As planters moved west from South Carolina and Georgia, they brought with them a commitment to slavery that had survived the Declaration of Independence -- which they took to mean that all white men were created equal and that their pursuit of happiness might require the ownership of slaves. The militant form of the proslavery argument that was based squarely on racial differences originated in South Carolina very early in the 19th century and became the dominant credo of the Cotton Kingdom. For the majority of African Americans, therefore, most of the experiences that Berlin identifies with the plantation generations persisted until the Civil War. The Revolution had two forks, one that led to greater freedom and the other to more oppressive enslavement. (source: The New York Times)
Ira Berlin: Many Thousands gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.