On the eve of the American Revolution, nearly three-quarters of all African Americans in mainland British America lived in two regions: the Chesapeake, centered in Virginia, and the Lowcountry, with its hub in South Carolina. Here, Philip Morgan compares and contrasts African American life in these two regional black cultures, exploring the differences as well as the similarities. The result is a detailed and comprehensive view of slave life in the colonial American South.
Morgan explores the role of land and labor in shaping culture, the
everyday contacts of masters and slaves that defined the possibilities and limitations of cultural exchange, and finally the interior lives of blacks--their social relations, their family and kin ties, and the major symbolic dimensions of life: language, play, and religion. He provides a balanced appreciation for the oppressiveness of bondage and for the ability of slaves to shape their lives, showing that, whatever the constraints, slaves contributed to the making of their history. Victims of a brutal, dehumanizing system, slaves nevertheless strove to create order in their lives, to preserve their humanity, to achieve dignity, and to sustain dreams of a better future.
South Carolina in the 18th century was a colony that had been built on the back of slave labor. By contrast, Virginia only began to "recruit" slaves in large numbers at the beginning of that century. Consequently, although there were some similarities in the black cultures that emerged in the two regions, there were also substantial differences. Philip D. Morgan, a history professor at William and Mary, has produced an intricately detailed comparison of the Lowcountry and Chesapeake cultures that tells us much about the way of life of some of the earliest African Americans.
Looking at everything from the types of work the slaves performed to the houses in which they lived to the food they ate, Morgan reveals the patterned differences between the two slave societies; all slaves were exploited, but not all slaves were exploited alike. He also shows the differences within the societies; the slave experience would be much different for somebody who arrived directly from Africa than it would be for somebody who'd first spent time in the West Indies.
There are even some surprises: relations between the races in early Virginia, for example, were rather flexible, as black slaves came into regular contact with white indentured servants, and as Morgan writes, "the level of exploitation each group suffered inclined them to see the others as sharing their predicament." Furthermore, although there was sexual exploitation of black female slaves by their white masters, there was also a significant amount of consensual interracial sex, among white women and black men as well as white men and black women. That would change as the use of indentured servants declined while large quantities of slaves were imported directly from Africa and as various initiatives were launched by authorities to promote the social separation of the races. Chronicling the visible results of these and other phenomena in straightforward prose that is precise when possible and admits ambiguity when necessary, Morgan makes a crucial element of early American history far less remote to the modern reader.Price: $33.75