- Recovered Lives
Kathleen Chater’s Untold Histories and Catherine Adams and Elizabeth H. Pleck’s Love of Freedom are very welcome and much-needed additions to the historiography of slavery in the English-speaking world during the seventeenth and long eighteenth centuries. Both books examine the archival evidence widely and deeply to reconstruct the lives of people of African descent in “societies with slaves,” to use Ira Berlin’s definition, in which “slaves were marginal to the central productive processes; slavery was just one form of labor among many. . . . In slave societies, by contrast, slavery stood at the center of economic production, and the master-slave relationship provided the model for all social relations.” 1 The high percentages of slaves in the populations of slave societies rendered them a constant threat to their owners and to the economic and social system built on their coerced labor. Typically, slave owners strongly resisted allowing their slaves, who were legally defined as chattel, to [End Page 98] be converted to Christianity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their owners feared that access to spiritual equality would inevitably lead to demands for recognition of their personhood and consequently legal equality, despite laws explicitly denying that being baptized and converting to Christianity conferred freedom on slaves. In societies with slaves, the relatively few enslaved posed less obvious existential threats to their masters, resulting in relatively greater freedom, fewer laws restricting their activities, and frequently more ambiguity about their status.
Kathleen Chater argues in Untold Histories that historians’ misconceptions about the condition of black people in Britain are based on their failure to recognize that while “in America race is paramount,” in Britain “class [is] more significant” (220). A careful scholar, Chater repeatedly reminds us that many of her conclusions are provisional because many relevant data have not yet been examined. She frequently indicates where further research is needed. Working from a constantly expanding database she has compiled of more than 4,500 entries from various parish records, court and prison records, and published records, Chater makes a compelling argument that many commentators have too hastily drawn general conclusions from misleading data assessed by anachronistic standards. Her goal is to “examine the experiences of the average Black person in England and Wales during the period of the slave trade,” when “the question of slavery apparently impinged very little on the lives of the overwhelming majority” (78). Perhaps Chater’s most startling observation is that “Mansfield’s review of English law concluded that slavery had not existed and did not exist in England and Wales. There were slaves and masters from the colonies who did not understand the law and some modern historians fall into the same error” (92). In other words, England never fit Berlin’s definition of a society with slaves. Chater includes among the errant historians David Dabydeen, Simon Schama, and Seymour Drescher. Chater, in effect, offers Drescher as a representative example of a historian
exploring slavery in England using an American context. He called slavery in England a ‘latent social problem.’ For this definition he assumed that American practice was a norm, and so where other nations’ practices differed, these were regarded as problematic. It is, however, especially important in this area to look at the British background, particularly as America was a colony during the largest part of the British slave trade. British practice should perhaps be regarded as the norm and what happened in the colonies as an aberration.(85)
Chater demonstrates that other historians have made less consequential errors by failing to consider a sufficient number of cases. For example, I am one of many who have mistakenly asserted that whenever people of African descent [End Page 99] were named after classical figures, they were being mocked for the disparity between their names and their status...