Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 485-488
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Plantation Societies in the Era of European Expansion
Plantation Societies in the Era of European Expansion. An Expanding World: The European Impact on World History, 1450-1800, Vol. 18. Edited by JUDY BIEBER. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1997.
Since the latter half of the twentieth century, historians have challenged the tendency to overemphasize Europe's role in the making of the global economic and political systems that transformed the world between around 1450 and 1800. Thus, serious works reconsidering Europe's impact, such as Immanuel Wallerstein's The Modern World System, have stimulated heated debate based on the new scholarship. The multi-volume Expanding World series, edited by historian A. J. R. Russell-Wood, thoughtfully engages this polemic by bringing the work of specialists to bear on specific dimensions of the interactions between Europeans and the peoples they hoped to colonize.
Plantations were central to this process in the Atlantic world as, simultaneously, the economic and sociocultural mechanisms of colonization. In Plantation Societies, editor Judy Bieber presents selected articles that seriously challenge the notion that Europeans imposed a predetermined process on the New World. Rather, they brought the outline; the societies that eventually emerged would be the product of revisions made by a wide cast of characters. Though most of the articles are at least fifteen years old, they generally represent important detailed scholarship frequently known only to specialists. Bieber also [End Page 485] has the luxury here of focusing on the plantation system itself without diverging into the intricacies of the slave trade or slavery (each of which has a book in the series), although both are integral issues in this volume. (Patrick Manning, ed., Slave Trades, and Colin Palmer, ed., From Indentured Servitude to Slavery focus on slave trading systems and the construction of Atlantic slave systems, respectively.)
Bieber's own introduction and an article by Sidney Greenfield on the evolution of the Iberian-Atlantic plantation model explain the role of plantations in the burgeoning global economic system, Portugal's objectives and modus operandi, and the impact of Portugal's experiences on subsequent strategies by other European nations. These two chapters provide an excellent context for consideration of the degree to which local customs, demography, environment, and a myriad of personal choices affected the implementation of a proven system of effective colonization. The main body of the volume, rich in quantitative analysis, details case studies from Portuguese, Spanish, British, Danish, and French colonies that demonstrate that local conditions consistently reconfigured the plantation template.
The two concluding chapters explore constructions of personal liberty and the relations of production as common themes in New World plantation history. In the first of these, Arthur Stinchcombe's efforts to define the conditions of freedom in the Caribbean highlight the difficulties of an imposing regional approach on areas that did not function as such. Ironically, this most recent of the articles is based on generalizations about Caribbean slavery that the other selections meticulously dismantle. Stinchcombe, for example, argues for the omnipotence of slaveowners' desires: "The very thing that made slave owners powerful--the existence of a slave society--made what they wanted to do the main determinant of what happened to the slave" (p. 289). In his analysis of degrees of (un)freedom experienced by the enslaved, Stinchcombe states "Coercion, rather than reward, dominated labor relations in the Caribbean, especially in the core of the slave system, the sugar plantation" (p. 295). Yet even these types of generalizations should have long been outdated with the work of such writers as Stuart Schwartz on the need to combine coercion with positive incentives, a need derived from the planters' dependence on the performance of critical tasks by the persons they enslaved (Stuart B. Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550-1835. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 154).
Stinchcombe's de-emphasis of the interdependence of planters and slaves raise an important issue that this book does not sufficiently [End Page 486] engage--the actions by...