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A History of African-American Slaves

March 23, 2003, Sunday

Many Thousands Gone
By Charles B. Dew

A History of African-American Slaves.
By Ira Berlin.
Illustrated. 374 pp. Cambridge, Mass:
The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $29.95.

IRA BERLIN has written what will undoubtedly become one of the indispensable books on North American slavery. ''Generations of Captivity'' traces the history of this dismal institution from its 17th-century origins to its 19th-century destruction in the maelstrom of civil war. He comes closer than any other contemporary historian to giving us an opportunity -- in a single, readable volume -- to come to grips with a subject very few of us wish to think about but which all of us surely need to consider: how millions of white Americans over the course of three centuries came to hold millions of black Americans in chattel bondage while managing to lose nary a moment's sleep over their complicity in this monstrous enterprise.

And a monstrous enterprise it certainly was. ''Slavery, of necessity, rested on force,'' Berlin writes in his prologue, and he weaves together the critical, interrelated themes of ''violence, power and labor.'' Chapter by chapter, he illuminates the changes that occurred in slavery over time. At any given moment, bondage meant different things to different people across the various regions of North America. Berlin's perceptive discussion of regional distinctiveness and his nuanced analysis of how slavery was transformed over the course of 300 years are two of his signal achievements.

Berlin, who teaches history at the University of Maryland, College Park, begins with what he calls the ''charter generations.'' These 17th-century black settlers entered areas like Dutch New Netherland, the English Chesapeake, French Louisiana or Spanish Florida with an indeterminate status that only gradually evolved into slavery. Their debasement was driven by the European demand for workers who could be used to exploit the economic opportunities offered by the New World. But Berlin argues that the slaves who formed the core of these ''charter generations'' were often able to escape a bondage that had not yet rigidified into an all-encompassing institution. In Florida, for example, militia service offered slaves a pathway to freedom.

Their successors were not so fortunate. As money-making crops like tobacco sparked the growth of large-scale commercial agriculture, the ''plantation generations'' began to emerge in the Chesapeake region. What had once been a ''society with slaves'' was transformed into a ''slave society,'' where the institution took its place ''at the center of economic production.'' The arrival of tens of thousands of slaves in the late 17th century and early 18th century redefined the meaning of race, heightened the level of violence and led to ''a sharp deterioration in the conditions of slave life.'' The Chesapeake plantations established a pattern for low-country South Carolina, Georgia and East Florida, with consequences that would extend deep into the 18th century.

Hope for the enslaved did not arrive until the American Revolution. In the South, thousands of slaves in the ''Revolutionary generations'' found freedom in the turbulence of war. In the North, Revolutionary ideology, the relatively small numbers of slaves and their marginal economic significance combined to produce eventual emancipation. But Southern masters held their ground, and with the restoration of peace they carried the plantation system west. In the lower Mississippi Valley, the Louisiana Purchase led to the dramatic growth of slavery in that region. ''At the end of the Revolutionary era, there were many more black people enslaved than at the beginning,'' Berlin notes. The promise of the Revolution for the vast majority of slaves had come to naught.

The stage was now set for the ''migration generations.'' From the late 18th century until the eve of the Civil War, slaves were caught in the vise of a mass movement Berlin refers to as a Second Middle Passage. More than one million slaves were transported from the Eastern Seaboard states to the cotton and sugar areas of the Deep South, a process ''dwarfing the trans-Atlantic slave trade that had carried Africans to the mainland.'' Black families were regularly torn apart, and longstanding slave communities were devastated as traders sought to meet this voracious demand. ''The internal slave trade became the largest enterprise in the South outside of the plantation itself,'' Berlin writes, ''and probably the most advanced in its employment of modern transportation, finance and publicity.''

Slaves fought back as best they could. They built new families in the developing regions and turned to Christianity as a faith that offered hope for eventual salvation. They used the critical leverage they possessed -- the masters' dependence on their labor -- to demand better living conditions, payment for work on Sundays and evenings, and the right to till their own gardens and raise poultry and livestock for their own use. ''Despite their enormous power, slaveholders found such compromises prudent,'' Berlin notes, and slave men and women used the space they carved out for themselves to create a culture that reflected their religious and secular values. Their success in resisting the dehumanizing effects of their bondage is one of the few bright threads in the gloomy tapestry of slavery.

Slave owners, in the end, felt no guilt over what they had done and were doing. It was all part of God's plan, they told themselves, and they insisted that they -- the masters and mistresses -- shouldered the real burdens of slavery, looking out for a childlike people who needed white guidance and discipline. But then came the Civil War, and the slaves shattered their owners' illusions and wrote the final chapter in the tragedy that was the American slave system. They sought and gained their freedom by the tens of thousands as federal forces approached, and over 200,000 blacks served in the Union Army and Navy. It was ''a social revolution of mammoth proportions,'' Berlin concludes, and black men and women were active agents in destroying the institution that had held them in bondage for so long.

Berlin has given us a moving, insightful account of slavery in the United States. Readers will not soon forget the story he has told, nor should they. We still live with the consequences of this institution, and we should understand what slavery meant to the generations of captivity who lived it.

Charles B. Dew teaches Southern history at Williams College and is the author of ''Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge.''

Published: 03 - 23 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 17

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