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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 324-326



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Book Review

The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies

Spaniards, Planters, and Slaves: The Spanish Regulation of Slavery in Louisiana, 1763-1803


Betty Wood. The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997). Pp. 132. $18.00 paper.

Gilbert B. Din. Spaniards, Planters, and Slaves: The Spanish Regulation of Slavery in Louisiana, 1763-1803 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999). Pp. xiv + 356. $49.95 cloth.

We generally expect historical scholarship that is full of details drawn from archival sources to be more valuable than an introductory overview. Betty Wood, however, has written an excellent brief account intended for classroom use. Gilbert Din's book is a specialist study, less about slavery than about Spanish colonial administration in Louisiana. While Wood's book has no notes (although there are nine pages of "Suggestions for Further Reading"), Din's book includes eighty-two pages of endnotes, as well as an extensive Bibliography and a useful Glossary of Spanish terms.

The Origins of America Slavery is a pleasure to read, mainly because of the depth of learning behind the carefully qualified generalizations. Wood's primary concern is to assess the two dominant explanations--"racial ideology" or "economic and demographic considerations" (7)--for why the English enslaved West Africans in the seventeenth century, creating in the colonies a status that had no precedent in English common law. Wood states that the "different slave systems" in the Americas could only have come about through "the complex interaction" of both ideology and practical concerns (8). This introductory statement misleadingly implies that Wood seeks to outline opposing interpretations and mediate between them, since in fact she nearly always emphasizes pragmatism over ideology. Thus, the Iberian model, the active Dutch slave trade, and the pressing need for labor led the practical English planters to adopt West African slavery in the Caribbean. For Wood, racial ideology only comes in after the fact: "negative images of Africans" were ready to hand if planters "felt they needed any other justification for their actions, and there is no suggestion that they did" (48). Wood insists, here and elsewhere, on "economic rationality" as the primary motive for the adoption of African slavery. Her emphasis on practical concerns slights "the complex interaction" with ideological motives and thus de-emphasizes the fact of racism. One might doubt that, in the psychologically vexed arena of master-slave relations, the masters were simply rational economic agents and calculating individuals. [End Page 324]

Wood is especially insightful in explaining the importance of British Caribbean possessions to the establishment of slavery in the North American colonies and even to the founding of the colonies themselves. Drawing upon the work of Richard S. Dunn, Wood argues provocatively that Carolina was "as much a Barbadian as it was an English creation"(60). Wood's point that, in the seventeenth century, the Caribbean islands were the most influential part of English America is essential for an intended audience that includes undergraduate students of American history. The chapter on "Tobacco Slaves" in the Chesapeake is especially illuminating for its subtext about solidarity between workers of European and African descent, based on their common labor, "shared housing," and social and sexual contact (82). Wood explains how prominent planters attempted to use racist ideology in order to break the solidarities of blacks and plebeian whites. However, in Wood's view, ideology may once again have been less significant than demography. The influx after 1680 of large numbers of Africans created a predominantly African workforce and reduced opportunities for interracial fraternization (91). Nonelite whites would have found it difficult to identify with African-born slaves who spoke unfamiliar languages and practiced alien customs. In this instance, Wood also considers the perspective of Africans, who, torn from their native land by Europeans, would have had little reason to form alliances with any of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 324-326
Launched on MUSE
2001-01-01
Open Access
No
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