- Labor and Race in the Atlantic World
Simon Newman’s terrific book is among the very best studies we now have of labor systems and of ordinary people in the British Atlantic World. It focuses on workers—Europeans, Africans, and people of mixed races—who, of course, accounted for the majority of the inhabitants of that world. It also explores the range of labor systems developed by British, Africans, and Barbadians that formed the economic engine shaping many of the societies bordered on or surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. A New World of Labor both represents the maturing of Atlantic World history and charts new directions for scholars studying that area. To simplify Newman’s very sophisticated and nuanced arguments, class trumped race in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century British Atlantic World, while race assumed a considerably greater importance during the eighteenth century.
Newman correctly criticizes many scholars (one of the authors of this review included) who have treated free labor, bound labor, and enslaved labor as relatively static, independent categories rather than as a series of types along the spectrum of coerced labor. Slavery, as the absolute denial of freedom, has assumed the form of a “peculiar” institution for many historians, shaping their analyses as well as their research agendas. Believing racial bondage to be radically dissimilar to other forms of labor, some scholars have focused on slave behavior to ascertain how “the enslaved resisted total domination and struggled to obtain freedom from bondage” (p. 3). On occasion, historians have represented slaves primarily as political actors and freedom fighters more than as another group of laboring people seeking to ameliorate their working conditions. This interpretation, as Newman astutely observes, “has had the unfortunate effect of—at least to a degree—simplifying slavery” (p. 3). Instead, Newman strives “to fully contextualize the ways in which bondage, resistance, and freedom were both defined and experienced” (p. 3) in different places and at different times in the Atlantic World. Analyzing the development of labor systems and the participation of British, West African, and Barbadian [End Page 20] workers in them is at the heart of the book’s organization and interpretation. A sustained comparative approach is one of its great strengths—and an enormously ambitious undertaking for any scholar.
Expanding significantly on the brilliant insights of Ira Berlin in Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998) and other scholars since, Newman argues that, in the early modern Atlantic World, the “difference between slavery and other forced labor systems was more a matter of degree than of kind” (p. 13). Class exploitation intensified in the British Isles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as the state and wealthier Britons colluded to develop new institutions to control the supposedly unruly poor. Despite strong opposition by workers, involuntary and bound labor grew increasingly common. Within this context, the British invaded and colonized Barbados, drawing on the tradition of bound labor in their homeland to establish plantations worked by indentured servants, vagrants, convicts, and prisoners of war. Enjoying little constraint from the English government during the early seventeenth century, plantation owners created a startlingly brutal regime of white indentured servant labor, one that assumed the outlines of a slave system but, significantly, lacked its racial connotations. Racism was not a prerequisite for this virtual slavery on Barbados. On this controversial, significant issue, Newman fully engages the enormous, contentious historical literature of the past few decades. “The centrality of class and labor in explaining the development of plantation slavery in Barbados,” Newman rightly claims, challenges “historians’ ideas regarding the development of ideas and practices of race and racism” (p. 248). We find the book’s interpretation convincing and supported by solid evidence.
The vicious use of white indentured servants assisted the creation of racial slavery on Barbados in several ways. The profit generated from cheap labor in tobacco, cotton, and indigo allowed the upper classes on the island to...