Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America by Ira Berlin

Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

Ira Berlin
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Many Thousands Gone traces the evolution of black society from the first arrivals in the early seventeenth century through the American Revolution. Laboring as field hands on tobacco and rice plantations, as skilled artisans in port cities, or as soldiers along the frontier, generation after generation of black slaves struggled to create a world of their own in circumstances not of their own making. In a panoramic view that stretches from the North to the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina low country to the Mississippi Valley, Berlin reveals the diverse forms that slavery and freedom assumed before cotton wa king.

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Today most Americans, black and white, identify slavery with cotton, the deep South, and the African-American church. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, after almost two hundred years of African-American life in mainland North America, few slaves grew cotton, lived in the deep South, or embraced Christianity. “Many Thousands Gone” traces the evolution of black society from the first arrivals in the early seventeenth century through the Revolution. In telling their story, Ira Berlin, a leading historian of southern and African-American life, reintegrates slaves into the history of the American working class and into the tapestry of our nation.

Laboring as field hands on tobacco and rice plantations, as skilled artisans in port cities, or soldiers along the frontier, generation after generation of African Americans struggled to create a world of their own in circumstances not of their own making. In a panoramic view that stretches from the North to the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina lowcountry to the Mississippi Valley, “Many Thousands Gone” reveals the diverse forms that slavery and freedom assumed before cotton was king. We witness the transformation that occurred as the first generations of creole slaves—who worked alongside their owners, free blacks, and indentured whites—gave way to the plantation generations, whose back-breaking labor was the sole engine of their society and whose physical and linguistic isolation sustained African traditions on American soil.

As the nature of the slaves' labor changed with place and time, so did the relationship between slave and master, and between slave and society. In this fresh and vivid interpretation, Berlin demonstrates that the meaning of slavery and of race itself was continually renegotiated and redefined, as the nation lurched toward political and economic independence and grappled with the Enlightenment ideals that had inspired its birth.

Review
The American Constitution chose slavery...and the nation justified the choice by formulating an ideology that made blacks into something less than human beings. The result, as historian Ira Berlin argues in a new book on slavery, Many Thousands Gone, is that African slavery became "no longer just one of many forms of subordination—a common enough circumstance in a world ruled by hierarchies—but the foundation on which the social order rested." — Ellis Cose Newsweek Ira Berlin's magisterial [book] is a story of slavery in evolutionary perspective...As a comprehensive study of early North American slavery the work is unexcelled and will be a boon to students and scholars alike. — Daniel C. Littlefield Slavery and Abolition In [Many Thousands Gone], Berlin emphasises that slavery, too often treated by historians as a static institution, was in fact constantly changing. The range of subjects is impressive—from work patterns to family life, naming practices, religions, race relations and modes of resistance. But by organising his account along the axes of space and time, Berlin gives coherence to what would otherwise have been an account overwhelming by its detail and complexity...Many Thousands Gone is likely to remain for years to come the standard account of the first two centuries of slavery in the area that became the United States. — Eric Foner London Review of Books Berlin's study is the best account we have of the beginnings of servitude in America. It is also a reminder of slavery's adaptability. The notion that it was necessarily tied to the production of export staples is false. — Howard Temperley Times Literary Supplement Occasionally we are rewarded with a brave soul willing to impose shape and direction on what has become, for many, a prodigiously confusing historiography. Ira Berlin, like the very best historians who have tackled the problem, brings to the task a formidable record as a researcher and writer in more specialised areas of slave and post-slave studies. The result of Berlin's labours is a vital book, not simply in making sense of historical complexity, but in advancing a new and distinctive argument about the shaping of North America...[Many Thousands Gone has] a sophisticated argument that imposes shape on historical diversity without in the least riding roughshod over the specific local and regional differences that fragment the American slave experience. This is a deceptive book, for it is not simply a general account of slavery in North America. It is a subtle—and beautifully written—argument about the phases of slave history and of that sharp differentiation across time and place that makes slavery so hard to contain within a more generalised format...What emerges is the most original and most persuasive overall study of North American slavery for a very long time...[Many Thousands Gone] is moreover a book with powerful implications for anyone interested in the wider history of America. It is, quite simply, a book of major importance for all historians of North America. — James Walvin Times Higher Education Supplement Many Thousands Gone will challenge just about everything you thought you knew about slavery, especially its dawning...Through this honest and responsible work, perhaps we can begin decoding our Pavlovian responses to the buried racial and experiential triggers we dare not analyze. — Debra Dickerson Village Voice Ira Berlin provides a sweeping survey of slavery and black life in North America...from the early 17th into the early 19th centuries. The result is the best general history we now have of the “peculiar institution” during its first 200 years. Many Thousands Gone is a remarkable book, one that beautifully integrates two centuries of history over a wide geographical area. It is a benchmark study from which students will learn and with which scholars will grapple for many years to come. — Peter Kolchin Los Angeles Times Many Thousands Gone is an imaginatively conceived, brilliantly executed academic history of the experience of African-Americans, from their arrival in Jamestown in 1619, through the early decades of the nineteenth century. With clarity and sympathetic attention, Berlin depicts how, with regional and historical variations, blacks in North America employed a variety of stratagems to confront modify, ameliorate, and even surmount their degraded condition as slaves...Berlin's knowledge of slave life in America is little short of encyclopedic. On virtually every page he illuminates how and to what extent African-Americans in different times and places strove “to negotiate” the terms of their servitude with their masters...This book seems destined to define the terms of discussion for many years to come. — Haim Chertok Jerusalem Post When Americans think about slavery—and try to work through its legacy—they're operating from a misleadingly narrow image: the cotton plantations of the deep South. So says Berlin, who chronicles the slave experience in the 200 years—1619 to 1819—that preceded the antebellum period. It's a horrific picture, but a complex one too, including the dramatically different lives of the first Creole slaves, the long northern enthusiasm for slavery, and ever-present patterns of resistance and renegotiation. Globe and Mail In Many Thousands Gone, Ira Berlin tells the complex and neglected story of American slavery from 1619 through about 1810. It is a story most Americans do not know...Berlin has written a sweeping history that builds upon the pioneering work of John Hope Franklin, John Blassingame, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman and Edmund Morgan, and shines as both a comprehensive and astute synthesis of current scholarship and as an original contribution to the field. — James L. Swanson Chicago Tribune In his pathbreaking book on slavery's first two centuries in America, Ira Berlin argues that our historical memory is incomplete, based almost entirely on 19th-century portraits of the “peculiar institution.” Underscoring differences within the North American slave experience over time and place, Berlin paints a much more complex picture of slavery's origins and formative years...[and] skillfully unravels slavery's complex evolution. Berlin's foremost contribution is his nuanced analysis of the creolization process. His book is the best study of black life before the “plantation revolution” and its mainspring, slavery, which locked African Americans into an inferior class defined by color...Race, then, as Berlin reminds us, like class, is the product of a particular kind of social construction. It required major demolition—the Civil War—to begin to renovate the structure that slavery and racism built. — John David Smith News and Observer As Ira Berlin makes abundantly clear, racism was an ideology crucial for creating an intellectual and emotional climate that would allow slavery to exist. It gave an institution, albeit a “peculiar” one, the required veneer of “reason”...Berlin explodes several myths and sets in their place a history that honors the complexity of the American past with an unswerving, unsentimental gaze. One myth that Berlin seizes is that of the Old South, the common belief that slavery was for the most part situated below the Mason-Dixon Line. Slavery became a southern phenomenon only after 200 years of American history. These 200 years are Berlin's subject, as he tracks the black presence throughout early America, emphasizing in vivid detail the diversity of slave existence, urban and rural. He underscores the fact that as America was being constructed by slave labor, slaves were living their own lives and creating their own culture, a syncretic mix of African origins...Berlin's argument, and it is brilliantly posed, is that slavery, with all its resonance, haunts America even as the new century is about to begin. — Michelle Cliff San Jose Mercury News Berlin offers a complex picture of how slaves etched out small freedoms under dire circumstances in early America. Their existence was defined by religion, family structure and African inheritance—not just the fact that they were slaves. Many Thousands Gone is not an apology for slavery, but a testament to the willpower of a people to define their own lives under the most dismal conditions. — Ronald D. Lankford Roanoke Times Rather than focus on slavery in the antebellum South, Berlin provides a revealing look at the diverse lives and cultures of the early slaves. Washington Post Book World In this masterly work, Ira Berlin has demonstrated that earlier North American slavery had many different forms and meanings that varied over time and from place to place. Slavery and race did not have a fixed character that endured for centuries but were constantly being constructed or reconstructed in response to changing historical circumstances. Many Thousands Gone illuminates the first 200 years of African-American history more effectively than any previous study. — George M. Fredrickson New York Times Book Review This meticulous scholarly study demonstrates how and why slavery took different forms at different times in different colonies and states, and describes the kinds of autonomy that slaves were able to wrest from their masters under each variant of the system. Berlin also stresses slaves' skills and acumen, not to palliate the evil of slavery but to show slaves as something other than victims—as competent, often exceptionally able, men and women. New Yorker Ira Berlin, one of this nation's foremost scholars on the slave era...presents a thorough and extensive examination of early slavery...[He] considers the evolution of slavery, and the changing nature of how slaves were treated. Though he never understates the violence and domination practiced by slaveholders, Berlin introduces the notion that slavery during its first two centuries was a “negotiated relationship,” even if that relationship was “so profoundly asymmetrical” that most discount even the “notion of negotiation” between the owner and the owned. — Renee Graham Boston Sunday Globe In Many Thousands Gone, Ira Berlin has produced an intriguing and compelling new interpretation that is one of the most significant books about slavery in several years...Berlin's work is an impressive and masterfully written narrative. He provides a clearer picture of slavery, which has often been clouded by imprecise accounts. As he astutely concludes, slavery's effects still persist as an unwelcome guest in American society. — John A. Hardin Lexington Herald Leader By concentrating on slavery in North America from the early years of settlement through the Revolution, Ira Berlin restores historical depth and a human face to a field usually mired in angry polemic and narrow quanitification. This rich and well-written narrative—the best book on American slavery since Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll—challenges traditional accounts...Many Thousands Gone shows how we must place American history and the contemporary American dilemma of race and cultural heritage in the hemispheric and Atlantic context to comprehend fully America's peculiarities and uniqueness. Foreign Affairs Today's correct historian can be as guilty of over simplification as yesterday's apologist for slavery, but Berlin scrupulously resists any such temptations. His emphasis is on subtlety and complexity...According to Berlin the history of the first two of slavery's three centuries in North America reveals nothing so much as change, ambiguity and “messy, inchoate reality.” For this reason alone his book has great value and importance; it is also lucid, measured and entirely persuasive...Indeed, for all the oppression it documents, Many Thousands Gone can be read not as a chronicle of denial and enslavement but as evidence of the irresistible impulse for freedom. In this sense Berlin's book is an affirmation, not merely of the fortitude and dignity of the slaves (a matter of grave concern to many of today's historians) but of the capacity of American democracy—despite its shortcomings—to live up to its promises. — Jonathan Yardley Washington Post [Top 10 Pick for 1998, Nonfiction Category, Christian Science Monitor] [This is] a monumental, sweeping study of the evolution of America's “peculiar institution” from the earliest white settlement through the early Republic period. Berlin, one of the foremost historians of American slavery, has written an addition to the canon of essential works on the subject...Many Thousands Gone makes clear that slavery at no point achieved the “stable maturity” that many historians have ascribed to the 19th century period. — Neal M. Rosendorf Christian Science Monitor Ira Berlin has helped to shape the recent literature on slavery in the United States...Many Thousands Gone represents Mr. Berlin's most ambitious undertaking to date and a sharp temporal departure from his previous books, for he has backtracked from the 19th century to write a 200-year history of slavery on the North American mainland that begins with the African background to England's settlement of the colonial Chesapeake in the early 17th century...[He] has written a major synthesis that will surely draw praise from the academy. — Robert L. Paquette Washington Times In each society and in each generation slaves adjusted and adapted to their conditions. Blacks never were exclusively the hapless victims of the “white devil” of history or the obsequious Sambos of the “Gone With The Wind” model. Berlin's greatest achievement is finally correcting the misconceptions black and white Americans have about how slavery operated in this nation. — Gregory Kane Baltimore Sun Berlin, who has already contributed significantly to the literature, here brings together in a magisterial synthesis much of what has now been learned about slave life during its first two centuries within the present United States...Berlin's achievement is to order the resulting variety by identifying four different regions with four different economies (the Chesapeake, the eastern tidewater from South Carolina to Florida, the Mississippi Valley, and the North) and by dividing the social developments of two centuries in each region into three periods, which he designates as the charter generations, the plantation generations, and the Revolutionary generations, stopping short of the heyday of slavery in the antebellum decades of the nineteenth century. — Edmund S. Morgan New York Review of Books Synthesizing a generation of scholarship, Berlin provides a sweeping survey of slavery and black life in North America (the European colonies that became the United States) from the early 17th into the early 19th centuries. The result is the best general history we now have of the 'peculiar institution' during its first 200 years...Many Thousands Gone is a remarkable book, one that beautifully integrates two centuries of history over a wide geographical area. It is a benchmark study from which students will learn and with which scholars will grapple for many years to come. — Peter Kolchin Los Angeles Times Book Review An original, eye-opening study in which Berlin most persuasively argues that slavery was no monolithic institution but one that evolved in different ways in different places, and did not become the 'slave society' so well known to students of American history until relatively late in its long, painful development. — Jonathan Yardley Washington Post Book World No general synthesis existed to pull all of [the] fragments of scholarship together and present a coherent narrative of the first two centuries of North American slavery—until now. Ira Berlin's splendid study tells us what we need to know about how the peculiar institution of antebellum America got that way over the previous 200 years. The scholarship of this study is astonishing. Berlin appears to have read every secondary source and every published primary source—not all of this in English—relevant to the subject. Yet this burden of scholarship does not weigh down the text with dull, heavy prose. Quite the contrary; Berlin has accomplished a small miracle of organization, compression, and skillful exposition...Many Thousands Gone is essential reading for all those interested in the history of African Americans and of race relations in this country. Berlin writes this history more from the viewpoint of the slaves than that of the master. This is all to the good, for it helps redress the balance of most studies of slavery. Black people herein are not merely victims; they help make their own history, a history in which many of them gained freedom and formed a distinctive culture long before the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, this is as much a history of freedom as of slavery, a story of success against the odds as well as a story of exploitation and cruelty. — James M. McPherson Journal of Blacks in Higher Education [Berlin] draws on recent scholarship to sketch in the contours of the slave experience in colonial Florida and Louisiana, reminding us that the ancestors of many black Americans learned to speak Spanish or French long before they ever heard English. Berlin paints deftly with a broad brush, and his trim narrative is informed and gripping...Berlin documents the high hopes for freedom, the desperate attempts to gain liberty, and the deep sense of disappointment and betrayal that led slaves to form conspiracies from Richmond, Virginia to Pointe Coupee, Louisiana. — Peter H. Wood Brightleaf Berlin crafts a deft synthesis of the many regional studies that have slowly been changing our understanding of slavery...No one before Berlin has made sense of these works altogether, as a unified field of inquiry. There is originality in Berlin's synthesis, as historical events and cultural tendencies take on new and fresh meanings. Further, his distillation of the burgeoning field is highly valuable. It is a brilliant summary for general readers and newcomers to the field; it will be a standard work for graduate students preparing for exams, and many a burdened faculty member who needs a quick overview in order to prepare lectures will dog-ear its pages. — Joyce E. Chaplin Reviews in American History Many Thousands Gone is an investigation of the ways in which freedom and slavery were negotiated between slaves and slave owners, making the point that no matter how powerful the slave owner became, the culture and the actions of the slave were never completely in his power. Thus, the history of slavery becomes, in part, a history of strategies—some partial failures, some partial successes—for establishing African American self-determination in a time of slavery...By beginning with the assumption that slavery was not one thing but was instituted and experienced in a variety of distinct ways, Many Thousands Gone allows readers to glimpse a more nuanced picture of the strivings and accomplishments of the souls and bodies caught in slavery's meshes, enriching rather than compromising the understanding of the institution's true harmful nature. — Thomas Cassidy Magill's Literary Annual In his pathbreaking book on slavery's first two centuries in America, Ira Berlin argues that our historical memory is incomplete, based almost entirely on 19th-century portraits of the 'peculiar institution.' Underscoring differences within the North America slave experience over time and place, Berlin paints a much more complex picture of slavery's origins and formative years. — John David Smith Raleigh News & Observer This important study successfully synthesizes insights of the past 40 years while advancing new scholarship which emphasizes the shifting definition of both race and slavery in North America...Many Thousands Gone is a well-written, provocative reappraisal of the first 200 years of North American slavery. — Marion Lucas Bowling Green News [Many Thousands Gone] is a serious study that the general public will find interesting and useful...As an introduction to the new history of slavery in North America, especially in the long era prior to the 'Old South,' one could do little better than to buy this book. — Douglas B. Chambers The Commercial Appeal A noted historian with other books on slavery, Mr. Berlin focuses in this latest work on what slavery meant during the 1600s and 1700s. And one of his major points, carefully documented and argued, is that slavery and race then were not always what we think of them as being now...What's refreshing about his analysis is how many layers of African-American life he is able to penetrate. Drawing upon Dutch, French, Spanish and English documents, he looks globally at how the African diaspora of slaves shaped North American communities. — Meta G. Carstarphen Dallas Morning News Berlin has written an imaginative, detailed account of American slavery from its origins at the beginning of the 17th century through the Revolution...A major contribution to the study of slavery in the United States. — Anthony O. Edmonds Library Journal Many Thousands Gone...is a sweeping scholarly study of four kinds of slave society...those in the Northern colonies, the Chesapeake Bay area, the Carolina low country, and the lower Mississippi valley...One of Mr. Berlin's most striking realizations...[was how] slaves had had such different experiences of slavery. Some had been skilled laborers, others small farmers, still others plantation workers...'What Ira has done is to etch the patterns,' says Ronald Hoffman, director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, in Williamsburg, Virginia. 'He's developed a model of how slavery changed that's going to be enormously important'...More than just highlighting diversity, the patterns that Mr. Berlin draws in his scholarship also throw into relief changes in the nature of slavery...Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University, says, 'In a way that no one else has done, Berlin takes the entire area of what became the United States and gives us a genuine transcontinental perspective. That has tremendous force in driving home the point that slavery was never static, but an evolving institution...The field today is ripe for broad debate and Berlin's superb synthesis is just the work to spark it.' — Karen J. Winkler Chronicle of Higher Education Through his scholarship and leadership, Ira Berlin has recast the way we conceive of the history of African Americans and their relationship to other Americans...Covering a vast terrain and chronological span, the author gives us a fuller portrayal of slavery's formative stages in this country than we have ever possessed. The book is a work of synthesis, harvesting the research and insights of hundreds of historians who have focused on one place, time, or issue. Though the book contains no original archival research, it is a rare student of the American past who will not be surprised by something in virtually every chapter. It is the pattern of slavery that is significant here, the variations and consistencies across the continent and across the centuries. Berlin follows no one historiographical tradition, but weaves among several, taking the best of each...[The] combination of context and change, as well as negotiation and material grounding, gives Berlin a nuanced, yet powerful way of understanding slavery. The keys for Berlin's interpretation are not simple and familiar ones such as 'race' or 'capitalism,' but distinctly complicated conceptions with which we have become familiar in this decade: negotiation, complexity, agency, multiplicity, indeterminacy, and interaction. Berlin manages to portray slavery as both fundamentally important and highly contingent, an analytical juggling act that would have failed in less skillful hands. — Edward L. Ayers The Historian The history of slavery in North America is not as simple, clear-cut or tidy as is often believed. That is the message of this impeccably presented history of American slavery from 1619, when John Rolfe brought 'twenty Negars' to the Jamestown colony, to the 1820s, when the spirit of emancipation began to take hold in the North...[Berlin's] distinctions have continuing resonance, as [he] shows that once a society with slaves became a slave society, all blacks—free or not—could come to be regarded as slaves: in short, how an economic system became racism...The book holds many surprises gleaned from the facts, whether in its portrait of New York as a major slave city or its descriptions of free enterprise at work among slaves. The economic and historical research presented here is impressive. But what gives the book an additional dimension is its deftly employed social insights. Publishers Weekly Rather than focus on the much studied slavery of the antebellum South, Berlin examines the earlier history of slavery throughout North America and how it affected the consequent nature and evolution of the peculiar institution...He traces the first African presence in the Americas to a 'charter generation' that was multilingual and multicultural, through the 'plantation generation' that adjusted its African culture to the various regions of the U.S., and, finally, the 'revolutionary generation' that began to challenge U.S. ideals of liberty and freedom in the face of slavery. Throughout this fascinating book, Berlin deftly outlines the human negotiations that went on even in so unequal a relationship as master-slave. — Vanessa Bush Booklist In a real contribution to the literature of American slavery, Berlin sketches the complex evolution of that institution in the American colonies and the early US...[He] traces the development of a 'society with slaves'—that is, in which slavery was a marginal institution that represented only one among many labor sources—into a 'slave society' in which slavery was not only central to the economy but formed the basis of all social institutions...A cogently argued, well-researched narrative that points to the complex nature of American slavery, the falsity of many of our stereotypes, and the unique world wrought by the slaves themselves. Kirkus Reviews Berlin's adept mixture of economic and social history enlarges our understanding of colonial slavery and contributes fascinating new insights...[N]ovel insights permeate nearly every page...Authoritative, original, beautifully organized and composed, Many Thousands Gone is a striking combination of black history and the study of the evolution of slavery. Any reader intrigued by the tumultuous, shifting account of early American slavery and the people who made it need look no further than this state-of-the-art achievement by a masterful historian. — Graham Russell Hodges America Berlin repeatedly recalibrates the received story of slavery, all the while revising the record with numerous therapeutic reinterpretations...To see enslaved people as Berlin does, that is sequentially as the charter generations, the plantation generations, and the revolutionary generations, is to see them as different populations facing different concerns at different times. In this way he restores to millions of black people a degree of personhood that is finally profoundly liberating. For if enslaved people are seen as participating actively in their own social formation, they are then granted fundamental humanity that the proponents of chattel slavery tried so hard to eradicate. American Studies International [Berlin presents] a full-scale interpretation of the complexity and diversity of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century African-American slave life and work. His five-hundred-page book,Many Thousands Gone, is the most comprehensive study yet produced of the first two centuries of slavery in North America. Berlin is, of course, well qualified for his ambitious task, for he has spent his entire career studying American slavery and facilitating the work of other scholars in this field...Berlin has his own distinctive argument, which endows the book with originality and power. — Richard S. Dunn William and Mary Quarterly 19991001 In this book, Berlin, has produced a masterly synthesis of the vast body of research hundreds of scholars have done on the first two centuries of slavery in British, French, and Spanish North America, a portrait of highly fortuitous change that should leave a telltale stamp on all future treatments of New World slavery. — David Brion Davis American Historical Review 19991001

Author Biography

Ira Berlin is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

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