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  • The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Greater Caribbean by Daniel B. Rood
  • Robin Blackburn (bio)
The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery: Technology, Labor, Race, and Capitalism in the Greater Caribbean. By Daniel B. Rood. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. 272. Cloth, $74.00.)

This highly informative book illuminates the impact of technology, competition, and resistance on the major slave economies of the nineteenth-century Americas—those of the United States, Cuba, and Brazil. Daniel Rood vividly conveys how slavery was interwoven with sugar making, wheat growing, flour kneading, cotton baling, railroad construction, maritime navigation, and other laborious and complex processes. He explains how "racial capitalism" conscripted a captive labor force of African descent, and how the slaveholders exploited the ingenuity and knowledge of their slaves. Industrial methods intensified this slaveholder capitalism.

Among those whose activities Rood studies are the adventurer Matthew Fontaine Maury, who tracked the Atlantic currents; Joseph Anderson of the giant Tredegar Ironworks; Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper; and Norbert Rillieux, the free man of color who perfected the vacuum-pan method of extracting sucrose from cane juice (the crushed [End Page 304] cane husks—bagasse—were used to fuel the mill's furnace). Maury, the navigator, believed that slavery would prevail only if the slaveholders of the U.S. South, Cuba, and Brazil worked together. Rood tracks the collaboration of scores of experts and entrepreneurs across the three slave zones and the wider Atlantic.

The first half of the book is largely devoted to sugar, the second half to coffee and wheat. Cotton and tobacco crop up from time to time but are not central to the story. While cotton slavery is now fairly well covered, research into sugar has been relatively neglected. Rood's study helps to redress the balance. Sugar continued to play a central part in the new food industries, brewing, and baking as well as confectionary and sweetened beverages. The northern and western farmers were drawn into the "market revolution" as much by their sweet tooth as by the appeal of cotton cloth.

Rood includes a fascinating discussion of the color coding of the division of labor and racial identity. There was an assumption that "white" products—sugar, flour, cotton—were purer and should be processed until all impurity was eliminated. A doctrine of "plantation vitalism" held that the microscope revealed the ferment in the world of fermentation and the threat of inversion/subversion in the sugary syrups of refining (43). Rood supplies a compelling account of the lively trade of flour for coffee between Rio de Janeiro and Richmond, Virginia. That wheat flour was a major slave-produced good is rarely appreciated. Here Rood shows how the Richmond millers went to great lengths to ensure maritime access to their city and to ward off the danger of spoilage en route to Rio. This turns out to have involved a hybrid labor force, partly enslaved, partly free.

A welcome feature of The Reinvention of Atlantic Slavery is that its arguments and evidence are derived from documents and secondary works drawn from the "greater Caribbean," with Cuban and Brazilian sources drawn upon as freely as U.S. materials. Rood makes relevant comparisons but also brings attention to the incipient planter alliances. The latter were encouraged by the alarm provoked by the uneven advance of slave resistance and abolition.

Rood also situates his work in the context of the "second slavery" of the nineteenth century, successor to the colonial slavery of the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Caribbean and Brazil. This was to see a sustained boom in slave-produced staples in conditions of greater security. From 1804 to 1815, the Atlantic slave trade and slavery were under attack and had lost some important battles. But just twenty years later vast new zones were being opened up to slave planting—the Mississippi valley, the Paraiba valley, and Cuba's central plain. According to the "second slavery" perspective, the new plantations answered to an industrial rhythm, leaving behind [End Page 305] the artisanal practices of the eighteenth-century tobacco plantation or sugar ingenio.

The productivity and profit of the slave plantation meant that governments were keen...


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