- Making a Slave State: Political Development in Early South Carolina by Ryan A. Quintana
How was the slave state produced? Who built the roads, canals, railroads, and public buildings designed to ease the flow of slave-grown commodities to global markets? Who built the military fortifications designed to enforce the [End Page 416] white supremacist order? Zeroing in on South Carolina from the early eighteenth century through the 1820s, Ryan A. Quintana answers these deceptively simple questions, joining a vibrant group of scholars investigating the intersection of capitalism, slavery, and statecraft across the early South.
Enslaved black people harvested rice and picked cotton, but they also dug canals and cleared forests, materially producing the state's infrastructure and public works. In laying these foundations, black Carolinians influenced the state's political development and early governing praxis. Confronting the long-held notion that slavery and modernity were "antagonistically opposed"—an idea that should by now be thoroughly debunked—Quintana powerfully illustrates that South Carolina's modern infrastructural state thrived "not in spite of slavery but rather because of it" (p. 10).
Slavery and enslaved people rightfully sit at the heart of this story. Combining the methodologies of social history and critical geography, and deploying a wide variety of sources from within South Carolina and without (with refreshingly little emphasis on traditional politics, courts, and legislative debates), Quintana illuminates how black Carolinians not only built public works but also established semiautonomous extralegal economic enclaves and social communities along South Carolina's roads, rivers, and canals. In the process, they imposed their own social and cultural meanings on the landscape, challenging "the meaning and practice of liberal state space" (p. 6).
Most creatively, Quintana uses the physical environment and infrastructure itself as a source, illuminated through comptroller's reports, grand jury presentments, and petitions. Indeed, the state's reliance on slave labor and expertise, perhaps ironically, made the state unable to effectively police slave mobility. Thus, in describing the Stono Rebellion of 1739, Quintana imagines how dozens of slaves constructing a public road gained knowledge of the swampy terrain of St. Paul's Parish, noticed traffic patterns, communicated, and came to contemplate the journey southward to Spanish Florida. Forest Joe, a fugitive and presumed murderer, was able to elude capture for three years due to his extensive knowledge of the natural and built landscape around the Santee River, a knowledge born of "generations of habitation and labor" and surpassing that of the state militia (p. 149).
But violence was never far from a slave's life. Quintana shows that public works could be just as deadly and coercive for enslaved people as plantation work, with industrial accidents, falling trees, mosquitoes, and violent overseers killing many. The violence of a modern, infrastructural slave state looms large, too. White people relied on slave labor but also feared the "within enemy," black Carolinians bent on destroying the very state they had built (chap. 1). Enslaved people could and did use "the state's infrastructure to survive and resist slavery, and even to escape to freedom" (p. 186). But did resistance grow harder and deadlier over time as the state became more modern? Did extensive, high-quality, slave-built state infrastructure make it easier both to enslave people—by allowing the state to dispense violence more effectively—and to generate larger profits—by easing the transfer of goods and people from the hinterlands to Charleston to ports around the world? [End Page 417]
Thus, while slaves might have had "a vision of the state and its infrastructure that was at once egalitarian, emancipatory, and without racial limits," Quintana hints at the central paradox, perhaps the cruelest tragedy of early South Carolina: black Carolinians were forced to physically build a state that—by design—exploited their lives and labor ever more efficiently (p. 186).