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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: The Origins of American Slavery by Betty Wood

Title: The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies 
Author: Betty Wood 
Genre: Nonfiction- American 
Finished: January 19, 2011

Betty Wood’s concise The Origins of American Slavery: Freedom and Bondage in the English Colonies examines the early roots of American slavery by tracing how and why the English adopted slave practices, why the English chose West Africans in particular for enslavement, how the ambiguous legal standing of a slave became one of undisputable human property, and how the English justified enslavement. Though Wood does not have a direct or clear thesis, she does state that she will show the English chose to enslave West Africans for economic and racial considerations. According to Wood, historians believe that either one cause or the other influenced English enslavement of West Africans, racial or economic, but according to Wood both were central elements (7-8).

In Wood’s introduction, she mentions nothing about religion, though religion, in fact, features heavily throughout the book, both as justification for slavery and to distinguish the various English groups who sought to rationalize the practice of slavery such as the Puritans. Slavery is typically discussed within the context of the ideology of racism since, as Wood states, the link between race and enslavement was undeniable by the 18th century. Yet, according to Wood, there are other complex systems of belief to take into account when studying the history of slavery. First and foremost, and one that historians often fail to analyze, was the English concept of enslavement and how that reconciled with beliefs about freedom. In order to practice slavery, the English had to find ways over the dual hurdles of equality and freedom. Wood stresses the absence of slavery from English common law, and that the English had to devise an unprecedented legal standard using systems practiced by the Spanish and Portuguese as the foundation. Wood is correct in stating that the hierarchy of English society and politics was transplanted to the New World, but Wood misses something important and vital about English concepts of equality, which were not all encompassing for every Englishman. Wood writes that all English could “lay claim to the liberties, privileges, and rights of Englishmen (12-13).” However, equality in English society did not exist, though freedom for all certainly did with various levels of servitude, and all men did not possess the same liberties. In the 1430s, Henry VI established the forty shilling property requirement for voting, which would be maintained until the Reform Act of 1832 lowered property requirements. It would not be until 1928 that England would remove any and all property restrictions. Hence, even in England, the English had set legal restrictions on social rank and a sense of the worth of people who were afforded legal rights accordingly. It was not, therefore, as difficult or as much of the reach that Wood suggests for the English to create newer and more restricted categories of social hierarchy and fit them into established hierarchical practices along with ethnocentrism. There was, in fact, a system in place that would support slavery by virtue of delineating the social ranking and legal powers of different men, though the model of actual enslavement was taken from elsewhere. Wood’s thoughts are sometimes scattered and sometimes too extensive for such a small book.

In chapter 3, Wood discusses early that there was a shift between indentured labor and slave labor. It is not until pages later that Wood finally delineates the numerous reasons for this shift. For a more cohesive understanding of the movement away from relying on European indentured servants to slaves, it would make more sense for Wood to include these two portions together so as not to scatter the reader by jumping between subjects. Similarly, Wood devotes a lot of space in her brief monograph toward English feelings about mainland natives. The reason Wood includes such a topic is because she is trying to make a point about why the English used West Africans instead of the ready supply of natives at hand (29, 48 & 55). However, in a book only 117 pages, devoting 10 entire pages to English feelings toward natives is excessive when instead Wood could use her pages to further flesh out shifting ideologies, practices, and economic conditions. While it is important to understand why the English chose West Africans, feelings toward the natives can be understood in greater brevity. This is especially the case when, in some sections of the book, details are lacking where they would be useful. Wood uses the example of one escaped group of white and black laborers to show that even as of the 1680s there was a distinct difference in the treatment of whites and blacks doing the same jobs. According to Wood, the fact that the black slave was dealt a different and indeed harsher punishment indicates that all black workers were considered inferior (83). While this estimation is without a doubt correct, Wood could have fleshed out her evidence more. For instance, Wood stated that the workers had different owners. Different owners may naturally have had different styles of punishment. Wood would have proven her point better to give an example of a black and white worker of the same owner. Further, more examples would have strengthened the correlation between race and punishment. Wood would also benefit from the inclusion of citations and tables. There is no indication whatsoever what sources Wood uses to gather the numbers she gives of the slaves and English in various colonies, which feature in her claims about the growing importance and reliance on slave labor by a small portion of settlers becoming very wealthy. In fact, the book lacks any citation at all; it is impossible to know where Wood got any of her historical data. The fact that she does not provide a guide for fact verification casts doubt on her historical information, and by association, the inferences that she makes.

All that Wood provides is a guide of suggested readings, lacking a proper bibliography. A conclusion would have also helped sum up her thoughts and questions, especially since she does not state a clear thesis in her introduction. Using tables for quantitative data such as population is also a useful tool for readers, and explains with better understanding what often gets confused in words. None of this is to suggest, however, that Origins of American Slavery is without any merit or historical use. Wood traces the development of English involvement in slavery and the slave trade in a clear and succinct way, and she also poses questions that readers do not typically encounter in general histories such as English law and the development of slave codes; religious justifications for enslavement; and how the virulent racism that people typically associate with slavery was not the sole cause of slavery, but rather the result of it, and necessary to remove any lingering moral question over the practice of human enslavement. The link between how America changed from small suffering colonies of starving Englishmen to one with a powerful pre-Civil War Southern economy driven by slaves is often missing. Wood places a link in early American transformation, also hinting toward later history through her examples of the small numbers of Englishmen dominating the economic scene through the products of slave labor, which would characterize the later Southern plantation economy. People recite that Africans were enslaved in America, but without asking the question of why they were the ones enslaved and how this came about. While Wood by no means provides a complete and thoroughly documented set of answers to her questions, she engages readers in what could be the beginning of an historical discussion that could be taken further with more research.