Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries Of Slavery In North America, by Ira Berlin
It is a regret that I read this book when I did. After all, in the order of Berlin’s books, this one comes before Generations Of Captivity, which substantially copies much of the language of this book and carries it further to Emancipation. Reading this book, therefore, felt like reading a self-plagiarized work that was simply not all that original in light of having read the later work. Of course, had I read the later work in order of publication rather than in order of the size of the book, as I did, I would have been equally disappointed with its lack of originality as well. This lack of transparency about the self-plagiarism is all the more notable because both books present themselves as being original and new works, this one published first in 1998, and Generations of Captivity in 2003. Nor am I aware of a great deal of controversy about the obvious self-plagiarism and the copying of whole passages and even pages from this book to the later one, suggesting that those who would have been critical about this practice have likely not read the books in the first place, and that those who read both books and gave approving blurbs about them wished to avoid drawing attention to something unpleasant.
This book is a hefty one at more than 350 pages. The book is divided into three parts and twelve chapters along with other supplementary material. The author begins with a prologue about the making of slavery and race as a simultaneous process. The first part of the book discusses the charter generations of North American blacks as living in societies with slaves (I), discussing the emergence of Atlantic creoles in the Chesapeake Bay area (1), the expansion of creole society in the North (2), the divergent paths of blacks in the low country of South Carolina and nearby areas (3), and the devolution of slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley (4). After that there is a look at the development of slave societies (II), including the tobacco revolution in the Chesapeake (5), the rice revolution in the low country (6), the growth and transformation of black life in the North (7), and stagnation in the lower Mississippi valley (8). Finally, the author discusses the divergent fate of the North and South in the revolutionary generation (III), with chapters on the slow death of slavery in the North (9), the union of African-American society in the Chesapeake (10), the fragmentation and division of black society in the lowlands (11), and the growth of both slavery and freedom in the Lower Mississippi valley (12), after which there is an epilogue that talks about the making of race and slavery, tables, abbreviations, notes, acknowledgements, and an index.
Unfortunately, at least for me as a reader, the lack of originality I found this in this book greatly detracted from my enjoyment of reading it. Indeed, the originality of the author’s discussion of the agency and perspective of slaves vis-a-vis their masters and the internal divisions among blacks is among the factors that make the author’s work worth reading, even if the author has somewhat problematic views when it comes to trying to separate the agency of slaves and free blacks from their responsibility for their own life achievements. Yet when one realizes that this book is not original at all, and that this may have been a more common element of Berlin’s writing than has previously been acknowledged, then what should be a triumphant discussion of the agency and humanity of slaves and free blacks even in the face of their pressures and internal divisions as a community ends up being a work that one has to read critically with attention to the fact that the author copies large portions of his previous work into future ones as a way of padding his reputation as a preeminent scholar of slavery when simply publishing updated version of previously published books would have been a far more honest approach.