The Origins Of American Slavery: Freedom And Bondage In The English Colonies, by Betty Wood
Not everyone may read a lot and write a lot about slavery , but for those of us who do, and especially for those of us who are from British North America, where the post-colonial legacy of slavery is, to put it very politely and mildly, problematic, this book deals with a very thoughtful and contentious question: how was it that British North America, both on the mainland colonies of the future United States and in the Caribbean, did the system of plantation slavery develop in the first place, especially since Britain had abolished serfdom centuries before? There are some people who argue that the English were inherently racist, and had a negative and sloping hierarchical view of the world that made it easy to deny fundamental rights and the recognition of humanity to West Africans, and there are others who argue that the decision was made for reasons of economics and that little thought or reflection beyond that went into it. The author, although in ways that are a bit preachy and irritating, argues successfully and thoughtfully in this brief (roughly 130 page) book that the answer is both.
The structure of this book is illustrative of the author’s nuanced intent to discuss a somewhat complicated matter of how it was that over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries that the status of slave became connected particularly with West Africans in the English colonies of North America. The book contains five chapters, divided thematically. The author begins by examining the concept of freedom and bondage in English thought, demonstrating a certain hierarchy that privileges English to neighboring peoples, Protestants to Catholics, and Christians as a whole to heathens, and where the ambivalence of feelings about indigenous peoples in North America could be contrasted with much more negative feelings about West Africans in the first two chapters. The last three chapters of the book contrast the history of the establishment of slavery in the Caribbean and South Carolina, the Chesapeake Colonies, and among the Puritans and Quakers in the middle Atlantic and northern colonies. To simplify what is a somewhat complicated point, none of the colonies started with slavery in mind, but the combination of rising tensions for land and the problems of availability of labor, combined with the inability to keep large amounts of native inhabitants, who the early colonists were dependent on food and wanted to get along with, and believed could be converted to Christianity, and often believed were among the lost tribes of Israel, led colonists to enslave West Africans for both greed and out of a lack of regard for their humanity. It should be noted that while northern colonies did not have many compunctions about enslaving West Africans, that they at least tended to view their slaves as people, who did not lose their rights or status as human beings through being enslaved, in stark contrast to those colonies from Maryland and south as well as in the Caribbean.
Although this book has a persuasive thesis and is quite interesting in terms of its material, there is quite a bit about this book that is unfortunately very irritating and is symbolic of what is deeply wrong about a great deal of contemporary historical scholarship. Problems that exist in longer works are probably more irritating in a work like this one simply because it is so short that the repetition of the author’s thesis, a deeply misguided one, that the English view of Protestantism as superior to Catholicism, and Christianity as superior to heathen beliefs, was simply a matter of prejudice. The author’s contention that encouragement to others to become Christian is a matter of coercion, and may even be considered as an equal problem to the physical coercion that comes through beating and the problems of the loss of rights and dignity is immensely offensive. People who have a disdain for true religion should keep their opinions out of their histories–this book would have been far better, and certainly far more enjoyable, and certainly far more accurate as well as enlightening had the author not been so biased against Christianity. Fortunately for the author, her attention to sources makes this book worthwhile despite her clearly misguided religious worldview.
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