Journal of World History 8.1 (1997) 169-172
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At the core of From Chattel Slaves to Wage Slaves is a laudable premise. Its fourteen essays are organized around the idea that negotiation over working conditions and/or material rewards regularly and systematically took place between nonwhite workers and those who employed them. As such, all laborers, regardless of their formal legal status, could be placed on a continuum based upon the degrees and levels of "freedom" they enjoyed. While this might not strike students of either slavery or the "work process" in twentieth-century America as either new or especially interesting, the book's central assumption does go a considerable distance toward connecting the numerous histories of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the free "labor history" that addresses work-related issues in the years after the demise of the "peculiar institution." The process approach that editor Mary Turner adapts in her introduction highlights the varied forms of bargaining into which masters and slaves, employers and employees, entered.
Many scholars, too numerous to mention here, have persuasively argued that slaves actively carved out both positive and negative institutions and collective identities from within the confines of slavery. Turner acknowledges this historiographical legacy while simultaneous-ly pushing it forward. For readers who might be tempted to focus exclusively on the rich cultural traditions that slaves created with very little material base, she offers the reminder that "there was only one economy and the slaves contributed to it seven days a week" (p. 12). In this nuanced view, slaves directly participated in an Atlantic world economy that required their labor in order to function. Remuneration for their work took a variety of forms, but all slaves received something in exchange for their travails. They were thus both producers and consumers. Their economic interests, if not other interests as well, therefore converged with those of free laborers who filled similar social, political, and economic niches. As the essays in this book demonstrate, the slaves understood their economic interests and effectively organized; they exerted some control over the work process to ensure that they did not lose ground as either consumers or producers.
The essays in this book, originally presented at a conference held in London in 1991, address labor bargaining in specific geographical [End Page 169] and temporal locations within the Americas; most (eleven of fourteen) wholly or in part concern the Caribbean. The rest consider particular historical moments in either eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Georgia, the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia, or Peru. On the surface, the essays seem to be on disparate subjects that are much more grounded in local historiographical traditions than in any broader geographical or theoretical literatures.
That said, Turner's introduction goes some distance in relating the issues that each author raises to her broader process-oriented approach. Spanning a period that saw the end of slavery and the slave trade, the rise of capitalism, and the spread of the industrial revolution, Turner has defined a broad and rich epoch in which to highlight the connections between workers and those for whom they worked. The book has been divided into three separate and unequal sections, each of which addresses labor bargaining in a particular temporal context. Taken to-gether, these sections effectively illuminate the ways in which nonwhite laborers engaged with white employers over control of the work process. Like the workers they describe, the individual essays do not all work as well on their own as they do collectively.
The book's first section, "Negotiating Slavery: Informal Contracts and Cash Rewards," contains more than half of the essays. Authors Richard Sheridan, Michael Mullin, Betty Wood, Lorena Walsh, Nigel Bolland, Rosemary Brana-Shute, Howard Johnson, and Mary Turner each examine at least one problem drawn from a varied list of issues. These range...