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  • Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves
  • Jennifer L. Weber
Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. By Ira Berlin. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. Pp. 374. Cloth $29.95; paper $16.95.)

In 1998, Ira Berlin published Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. So much new research came out in the five years after that Berlin, one of the leading historians of slavery in the United States, felt that he needed to revisit and extend his earlier study. The result is Generations [End Page 306] of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, a dense (though not densely written) account of the development of slavery in the parts of North America that became the United States. Berlin is after big game here, seeking to alter the course of a historiography whose terms were set almost fifty years ago by Kenneth Stampp, who wrote that slavery in the antebellum years was "rigid and static."

As Berlin demonstrates, though, slavery was an institution that was almost constantly in flux. He breaks its development down into four "generations": charter, plantation, revolutionary, and migration. This comes with the caveat that slavery developed differently in different regions and at different rates. Berlin then examines what kind of culture arises in slaveholding areas. Societies with slaves feature bondage but are not dominated by it. Slave societies, on the other hand, are so deeply marked by the institution that all other relations mimic the dominator/dominated binary of slavery. These overlapping frameworks allow Berlin to analyze powerfully the rise of slavery, its demise in the North, its contraction along the Atlantic seaboard, and its antebellum boom in the Lower South.

The charter generation, the first imported to the American colonies, involved the sophisticated offspring of Europeans and their African wives or mistresses. These slaves knew several languages, were savvy about trade, and could act as diplomatic intermediaries. When they arrived in the North American colonies, masters were quick to realize that their slaves were as valuable for these skills as for their labor. Partly because of this, partly because of the plastic nature of that early society, blacks were able to negotiate the New World effectively. Many obtained their own freedom and earned an ample measure of respect among whites. This was a society with slaves.

That changed with the plantation generation, which saw the rise of cash crops such as tobacco, indigo, and rice. The demand for labor grew to such a degree that slave traders went deep into the African interior to meet the needs of the planters. When they arrived after the middle passage, these slaves found a much more hostile environment waiting for them. The work was hard and planters sought to enforce their will through violence. Slaves were cheap, and so life itself was cheap. With this phase, the Chesapeake and Southern seaboard states became slave societies.

The Revolutionary era brought some easing of restrictions as slaves were able to take advantage of the chaos to extract concessions. The British army's promises of freedom prompted many slaves to run away, although the British reneged with their loss at Yorktown, leaving many bondsmen to try to flee to Canada or the West or face reenslavement. Planters in this period were challenged not only by their bondsmen but also by their yeoman neighbors, who took seriously the [End Page 307] Declaration's claim that all men were created equal and pushed for their own rights. By the early nineteenth century, though, planters had regained control of the social order.

The final phase featured a slave society at its apex. This section is where Generations of Captivity steers away from Berlin's earlier book, which did not examine the nineteenth century. The grandees controlled the Lower South in every way imaginable. King Cotton brought a level of wealth that the United States had rarely seen before. It also brought a new level of dehumanization for the slaves, whose relentless work in the gangs left little time for growing their own crops or pursuing their own side ventures that could earn a little money—something that the task system of, say, tobacco...