Slavery in the U.S., as seen in its shackles

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Robin Blackburn teaches social history at the University of Essex and is the author of "The Making of New World Slavery," among other works.

“Generations of Captivity” is a work of great authority, covering the whole history of African American slaves from Colonial origins to 1865. Ira Berlin is one of the most accomplished historians of American slavery. He has written widely and well about such subjects as the free people of color in the antebellum period and the slave experience in Colonial America. He has researched the role of blacks in the Civil War and edited the main documentary collection on this topic. The framing of the story in this book around generations defined by decisive turning points helps lend it drama and urgency, without offering the false consolation of a happy ending.

In contemporary discussions, slavery often serves as an all-purpose stand-in for social evil. But we should also be aware that historical slavery was a more changeable affair. Indeed, for a few millenniums, enslavement was a more humane solution to the problem of what to do about captives than the most common alternative: slaughtering them. Given the prevalence of warfare, an institution that allowed the sparing of captives had something to recommend it.

In fact, slavery supplied the main institutional mechanism whereby people became members of a society other than the one into which they were born. The enslaved could be ransomed, become concubines or find a type of freedom as servants or soldiers. None of this is to deny the terrible abuse that could be, and often was, visited on slaves. But it does bring out the flexible and, over generations, transitional, character of much historical slavery.


Slavery in English-speaking America became altogether more rigid and permanent. This did not happen all at once. “Generations of Captivity” supplies a vivid account of the diverse and mobile character of enslavement in the 17th century English-speaking world, especially in North America. About a fifth of the members of what Berlin calls the “charter generation,” he observes, achieved manumission, and many others enjoyed considerable autonomy or won positions of trust: The enslavement of tens of thousands of Native Americans at this time was harsher.

Reworking a famous essay he published on the “Atlantic Creole” as a chapter in this book, Berlin describes the African American farmers, artisans, petty merchants, mariners and interpreters who found nonservile roles in the English, Dutch, French and Spanish colonies of 17th century North America. Africans knew craft and agricultural techniques that worked in the New World and, unlike most Europeans, were often gifted linguists, speaking at least three or four languages as well as helping to invent new tongues.

But the plantation revolution was to steamroller the variable slavery of the “charter generation,” imposing a far more even and permanent species of oppression defined in starkly racial terms. Manumission became difficult and expensive; in Virginia, the freed person had to leave the colony because the planters did everything possible to reduce the number of freed people in the colony. Following the trail blazed by Caribbean sugar planters, the tobacco planters found that the slave gang, its merciless pace maintained by the lash, hugely raised output.

Notwithstanding the Atlantic slave trade, there was always a shortage of labor. The “one drop” rule (which “deemed ‘black’ anyone who had a drop of black blo

od”) and the virtual outlawing of manumission and interracial marriage reinforced white privileges and closed what some historians, writing of Brazil, have called the “mulatto escape hatch.” The descendants of slaves were denied hope of ever escaping slavery’s curse.

Though North American slavery was more rigid and permanent than most traditional patterns of slavery, Berlin challenges any static or stereotypical view of Colonial or antebellum slavery by careful attention to changing contexts and to the struggles of successive generations of captives to redefine and resist their lot. The transition from the 17th century “society with slaves” to the 18th century “slave society” gave rise to revolts and conspiracies even though the planter class had the resources, allies and unity to suppress these. The epoch of the American, French and Haitian revolutions exposed fault lines in the slave systems. In the resulting turmoil, some members of the “Revolutionary Generations” won their freedom. Berlin helpfully charts the fate of African Americans in New England and the Atlantic states as well as in the plantation zone.


But he also registers the ways in which the slaveholders, favored by the buoyancy of the slave system, were able to prevent the very limited antislavery gains at this time from curbing the expansion of slavery in the plantation zone. Thus Berlin stresses the effect of the “Second Middle Passage” whereby, following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, nearly a million slaves were torn from family and community in the East to become the shock troops of the burgeoning cotton empire of the Southern interior. The ability of the slaveholders to respond to the rise of a new global market in textiles revealed the fragility of the gains made by slaves during the revolutionary period.

Berlin moves straight from the story of the “Migrating Generations” to that of the “Freedom Generations” in the Civil War. Here he supplies a sketch of the slaves’ Civil War, which, omitting generals and battles, concentrates on the enormous contribution made by African Americans in the slave quarters and army camps to undermining the slaveholders and strengthening the Union army. So long as slavery survived, Berlin observes, the different aspirations of slaves and free people of color, of the urban and the rural dwellers, had a common focus. The book closes by evoking the divergent perspectives opened by the suppression of slavery, with freedmen emphasizing land and urban leaders more apt to extol the benefits of the wage economy in a social landscape in which black codes and Jim Crow were mobilized to contain and crush the freed people of the South. American slavery, far from preparing those it afflicted for a gradual social integration, gave way to a new formula of racial oppression.

Berlin deliberately focuses his story on the slaves and their experience, drawing on slave narratives where possible and using slaveholder accounts sparingly. The powerful legal, physical and political constraints operating on the slaves are described from the latter’s perspective. But the specific assumptions and mechanisms that allowed slaveholders a relatively free hand are not explored, presumably because this would have then ceased to be a history of African Americans. The subjugation of the slaves was condoned by many who were not themselves slaveholders, partly out of racial feeling, partly because slaves were a valuable form of property, partly because many 18th century English or American gentlemen could not bring themselves to question the domestic arrangements of their neighbors and compatriots.

Eventually the antislavery cause won recruits, but they remained a small minority, even in the North. The upstart abolitionist ran the risk of being tarred and feathered by the self-described gentleman of property and standing. Even those uneasy about slavery were fearful of the fate of the Union and did not at all see things from the standpoint of the slave. An institution that was central to national wealth, and sanctioned by the Constitution, had to be defended. It was nation as well as race that was at stake. While slaveholders dominated the great offices of state, slaves were hidden from view. Berlin’s intense concern to illuminate the slave experience shows the picture in a new light but does not probe the fateful racial contract negotiated by the white citizenry.

“Generations of Captivity” includes 70 pages of endnotes that furnish a guide to the latest reading on the topic. The author uses figures sparingly but, in an appendix, constructs a useful census of African Americans, whether free or enslaved, at the different turning points and with a regional breakdown. There are choice nuggets of information: for instance, that Martin Van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, brought his black wife and children to Washington in 1836. However, I wish Berlin had filled his book with more detail and incident, drawing on his vast fund of knowledge and the distilled wisdom of his years. Yet, had he done so, the book would soon have outgrown the limits of a compelling survey for all readers and become yet another heavy tome for the specialist.