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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 341-342

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Book Review

Beyond Slavery:
Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Postemancipation Societies

Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Postemancipation Societies. By Frederick Cooper, Thomas C. Holt, and Rebecca J. Scott (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 198pp. $34.95 cloth $15.95 paper

Comparative studies of slave societies are much more common than comparative studies of the societies that evolved in the aftermath of slavery. Of the latter, none have the geographical range of the present volume, and few can boast its time span of a century and a half--a striking achievement given the book's brevity. Jamaica, Louisiana, Cuba, and several African colonial societies receive particular attention, but the book calls up an even wider world of post-slavery labor on page after page in accordance with the requirements of the argument.

The approach is mainly historical, albeit within a rich comparative framework. Moreover, the three authors have made seamless contributions. Although only the introduction and a disappointingly brief afterword are jointly written--or, at least, do not have a by-line--the chapters betray little evidence of the multi-authored nature of the text.

With the possible exception of St. Domingue, all ex-slave societies shared in the failure to recognize the full citizenship of former slaves. Ironically, Britain and the United States were the most responsive to the demands of former slaves on this issue, even if only temporarily, despite having had the most absolute racial barriers to full citizenship of any of the major slave powers during the slave era. The book explores the status of ex-slaves, how this status was at variance with the construction of freedom that each emancipatory power espoused, and, more particularly, how ex-slaves attempted to fashion and impose their own perceptions of freedom on their societies. The shortness of the book and its large geographical scope make for a strong impact. The same issues reappeared on three continents and amid a variety of cultural environments.

Western ideology jettisoned slavery only after early modern Western governments had enforced the most violent and exploitative version of the institution that the world had seen--exclusively on non-Europeans. [End Page 341] The abolition of slavery did not remove the need for the tropical products and labor that had triggered the creation of the plantation complex. The book neatly juxtaposes the choice at the heart of free-labor ideology with the state's repressive response to the refusal of ex-slaves to do what the elite wanted. But it also charts the conflict between three competing visions of post emancipation society: that of the ex-slaves, that of their former owners, and that of the imperial power (in the case of the United States, the federal government).

Each of the authors adds to his or her previous work on the subject, though the major novelty lies in the comparative perspective. Holt incorporates gender into his earlier work on Jamaica; Scott gives a taste of her much anticipated forthcoming work on Louisiana and Cuba; and Cooper provides twentieth-century Francophone Africa with a comparative perspective that it rarely receives.

The book's coverage and the comparative insights that it generates will ensure it a deservedly wide scholarly audience--sociologists and anthropologists, as well as historians. It seems churlish to quibble that it might have adopted an even broader perspective. Ideological tensions and outright contradictions were not just to be found in the intentions of imperialists and abolitionists. They were also inherent in the competing visions of the ex-slaves and of the modern scholars who write about them. Ex-slaves partially denied the efforts of planters and states to impose less explicit forms of coercion on them. Planters saw these controls as essential to an export economy. The three authors choose not to examine the possible consequences of the ex-slaves imposing their own constructions of freedom on post-emancipation societies.


David Eltis
Queen's University, Kingston



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