Review: B. Rushforth, W. Jordan, E. Morgan, S. Smallwood

Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France. By Brett Rushforth. Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press. 2012. 416 pp.

The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States. By Winthrop Jordan. New York: Oxford University Press. 1974. xxvi, 229 pp.

American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. By Edmund S. Morgan. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1975. x, 454 pp.

Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. By Stephanie E. Smallwood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. 261 pp.

Slavery remains at the center of the historiographical debates in the field of Atlantic History. In order to enter the concerns animating these debates, it may be useful to illustrate some of the defining issues in this scholarship. Although some formulations of the following issues may have receded from popular historical imagination, the key moving parts remain: the relationship between slavery, race and racism and the relationship between slavery, the economic structure and class interest.

This brief review will take up the work of four historians who touch on the role of Atlantic slavery, North American colonial development, and economic, legal and cultural formations shaping, and shaped, by slave relations. Throughout, I’ll return to the configuration of race, class and slavery in their work.

Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France by Brett Rushforth

Brett Rushforth’s Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, is the story of colonial practices in New France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this period, French colonists and their native allies in the region enslaved thousands of Indians, whom the French eventually sold off to the Caribbean or kept in the towns of New France. In contrast to the American colonies, Native slaves were a key part of social life while black slavery remained marginal. Rushforth’s central argument is that a new form of slave relations was brought about as a result of cultural negotiations between the French colonists and their native allies. The peculiar form of native practices of slavery (i.e., the capturing of enemy population during conflict with other tribes) and the French colonial imagination of Caribbean black slavery (i.e., of blacks as a labor force) shaped this syncretic process of exchange. The French colonists’ limited resources in the region forced them to relate to their trading partners in unexpected ways. While tribes benefited from French manufactured products and could lean on the French for military support against their enemies, the colonists in New France were carefully opportunistic at pitting tribes against one another in order to profit from their alliances. Rushforth concludes that the system of slavery developed in New France was thus not “racial slavery” but was shaped by the natives’ “inclusive” form of slavery dominant in the region, and played a strategic role by strengthening the colonial presence in New France.

Rushforth’s book opens up new territory in terms of the political opportunism motivating French colonial slavery. The historical work helps to disentangle the often-conflated problems of racism and slavery in this period, and underlines the instrumental role played by alliances of different races (and cultures) in colonial ventures. His book sheds light on how social conditions already present before the arrival of colonists shaped the development of colonial power relations. In the case of New France, the need to develop strategic relations with Indians deeply affected the colonists’ social imagination regarding cultural and racial difference.

White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism by Winthrop Jordan

Winthrop Jordan’s The White Man’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States begins with a discursive approach to English racial imagination. By examining texts retelling the impressions and experiences of the first encounters with African blacks, Winthrop weaves an image of Elizabethan views of “blackness” as ugly, dirty, uncivilized, beast-like, sexually lascivious and deviant, and heathen in the eyes of the English. He stresses that this perspective remained in the back of the English social imagination and flared up in later years as part of the justification for black slavery. Jordan targets crude economistic historical perspectives that see the emergence of black slavery in the American colonies stemming solely from labor demands and economic calculation. He writes that although the economic is central to the story of Atlantic Slavery in the English colonies, there remains the issue of how blackness was interpreted, and in what way African subjects met the “criteria” for enslavement in the colonial world. Thus Winthrop, although for different reasons that Rushforth, also spends a good deal of time in explaining the conditions of first contact—in this case—with native blacks in Africa. He wants to show the ways in which these first impressions left behind a conceptual framework and lasting a subjective experience that informed colonial practices against blacks in later years. These impressions, argues Winthrop, became part of a popular English social imagination that cannot be ignored by historians when dealing with slavery practices in the English colonies.

Though insightful, Jordan is at times vague about the specific intersections of race and class relations surrounding slavery. He seems to offer that slavery and race were mutually constitutive social relations, and “seemed to have generated each other,” noting that, after all, “Both […] were twin aspects of a general debasement of the Negro.” But this formulation raises more questions than answers. When Jordan does finally bring up the issue of class, it is in the case of the American colonies and the “blurred” class lines between freedmen (freed indentures servants) and large property holders with greater capital resources. While Jordan correctly notes how the availability of land in the early colonial period did blur these class relations, the story becomes incredibly more complicated when we look at the period after the 1620s tobacco boom in Virginia, when freedmen and large planters butted heads over labor terms and property relations that would make class a key issue in the introduction of slavery in the region— a central part of Edmund Morgan’s fascinating tale of the Virginia colony in American Slavery, American Freedom.

American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia by Edmund S. Morgan

Morgan’s masterful book tackles the historical relationship between race-based American slavery and Republican ideas of freedom. The book leaves no stone unturned in the story of Virginia’s colonial development. Morgan describes the first late-sixteenth century ambitions for the colony, led by a principle of living peacefully alongside American Indians as well as serving to relieve England of its growing poor population. Morgan shows how each experiment collapses time and time again on the basis of available resources, self-government, and labor relations. After a series of delays, Jamestown finally begins to show signs of productive life as indentured servants make their way to the colony. In this early period of colonial settlement open land was bountiful, and after serving theirs indentured servants were most likely to remain in the colonies and tend to a plot of their own. As this process became more systematic, mounting issues regarding land and labor took center stage in the colonies. The book sharply delineates an emerging class division between small planters (the “freedmen”) and the large planters (the elite) in Virginia on issues regarding, taxation, labor and land. As tensions increased, the mounting discontent from indentured servants and freedmen presented a threat to the status quo in the colony, and by 1675 it begun to erupt into a series of events we now call “Bacon’s Rebellion.” Morgan successfully shows how Nathanial Bacon opportunistically appealed to indentured servants and freedmen by playing on their frustrations. Although originally aimed solely at the American Indians, Bacon’s rebellion would eventually condemn the colonial elite whose economic status in the colony had become proof of the enormous chasm between the indentured servants and freedmen, and those large planters who served as officials in the colony. After the rebels burned Jamestown to the ground, those in power vowed to carefully police the rebellious tendencies of their indentured servants and freedmen.

At this historical juncture black slavery becomes integral to the colonial labor force. And herein lies the crux of Morgan’s argument: It was through the introduction of slave labor that small and large planters were able to reconcile as a social group sharing common political interests. The presence of slaves relieved the elite’s demands on indentured servants and freedmen—in the form of labor, taxation, or by blocking political participation. Thus, Morgan writes “I believe partly because of slavery [freedmen] were allowed not only to prosper but also acquire social, psychological, and political advantages that turned the thrust of exploitation away from them and aligned them with the exploiters” (Morgan, 344). The historical shift that Morgan is describing is one in which class distinction is redefined in terms of racially defined social boundaries between “those who labor” (black slaves) and “those who are free” (whites).

Throughout the book, Morgan highlights commonalities between English opinions of the poor, and colonial opinions of slaves. He shows how these similar dehumanizing perspectives helped define the conception of the industrious Englishman. In the end, it was because slaves were not seen as men but as “laboring property” that Republican ideas of liberty could develop with such vehemence in the slave society of Virginia.

Morgan has an incredibly nuanced approach to the intersections of slavery and class relations in colonial Virginia. Without positing a crude causal relationship between economic interest and slavery, Morgan is still able to show how the needs of plantation life in the colonies propelled a system of slave labor relations that had effects on the political freedoms of white colonists. In what remains a central “American paradox” these novel conditions were the fertile ground on which a united front for Republican freedom developed.

Like Rushforth, Morgan also highlights how the specific conditions in the colonies presented unforeseen challenges to colonists. And it is from the attempt to solve these obstacles that new systems of social relations developed. Unlike the case of the French colonists, the English were unable to form meaningful political alliances with American Natives and this inability then became a central feature of the history of the United States. It was useful to read these two books side by side. In spirit, they are both detailed studies of the colonial relations emerging in a specific region, shaped by and responding to the colonial world, which was far from a blank slate.

Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora by Stephanie Smallwood

Intersections between economic forces and slavery are also key in the Stephanie Smallwood’s Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. She explores the subjective experience of commodification by African slaves as they were prepared for their departure from the coasts of Africa onto the vast ocean. Smallwood describes brief moments of the lives of enslaved men and women she glimpsed from the pages of slave trade documents. She underlines the “thoroughly scientific enterprise” of turning captives into commodities (Smallwood, 43). A system of calculation for food rations as well as descriptions of slave bodies for market sales show how black men, women and children were turned into dehumanized objects of exchange. This process of dehumanization she describes is the key to the “alchemy of the market” (Smallwood, 63), which turns otherwise living human beings into property. By using Orlando Patterson’s concept of “social death,” she describes the process of commodification as that of draining humans from any “social value.” Smallwood presents the human interactions and choices that compose what we more commonly and abstractly refer to as “the market.”

Although Smallwood describes the process of commodification at great length in relation to the commodification proces of bodies for the slave trade while Morgan provides a detailed narrative on the emergence of class tensions on the basis of labor, and the legal and political transformations arising from this conflict, both authors pay special attention to slaves as a tradable laboring commodity. Unlike Smallwood, Morgan pays special attention to the shifts in political relations deeply embedded in the world of American Republicanism.  His work remains an important touchstone for understanding the social, political, and cultural relations shaped by slavery and it stands out as widely successful attempt to show the deep history of the American colonial period. American Slavery, American Freedom illuminates the development of conflicts (between class, labor and race) in the nineteenth century that are then exasperated by the Civil War. Students of American history ought to spend some time with Morgan’s impressive work on American slavery, as it remains to be surpassed.

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