Title: Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry
Author: Philip Morgan
Categories: Slavery, Social History
Place: The Chesapeake and Carolina Lowcountry
Time Period: 1700-1800
Philip Morgan writes a comparative history of slavery in two regions in the 18th century: the Chesapeake (dominated by Virginia) and the Lowcountry (predominantly South Carolina). In doing so, he attempts (much like Ira Berlin in Many Thousands Gone) to add an element of dynamic change both spatially and temporally - as he reminds the reader, "Too often in history one South has served as proxy for many Souths." For Morgan, environment and ecology play a crucial role in explaining the differences between the two regions, specifically in the difference in raising staples (tobacco and later wheat in the Chesapeake, and rice and secondarily indigo in the Lowcountry). If ecology is Morgan's causality, his end result of the two societies is what he describes as an inverse relationship between communal autonomy and material conditions. In the Chesapeake, slaves were scattered on smaller plantations, more closely assimilated into white culture, and lacked long-standing stable communities. In the Lowcountry, slaves were often far removed from a smaller white population, lived in larger and more cohesive groups, maintained more elements of an African culture, and had more autonomy to hunt, fish, or raise personal crops. On the flip side, Lowcountry slaves had higher mortality rates and were treated with more brutality than slaves in the Chesapeake.
Morgan unsurprisingly makes several more historiographical arguments over the course of seven hundred pages. He enters into the paternalism debate by arguing that in both regions (although more so in the Chesapeake) austere patriarchalism gradually gave way to a gentler form of paternalism as the 18th century progressed - although reviewers seemed to take issue with his characterization as being a bit too charitable. In terms of a "carryover" of African culture, Morgan takes a middle ground: pointing out how many elements (particularly language and magic) survived for much longer in the Lowcountry than the Chesapeake. Finally, he argues that historians do a disservice by romanticizing the cohesion and solidarity of slave communal life. Instead, he argues that it is just as important to emphasize the internal division and conflict engendered by a slave system.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Inverse relationship of communal autonomy and material conditions
- Trying to heterogenize the slave South
- Diversity of two experiences, but also a "grammar of culture"
- Importance of environment and ecology (and labor related to staple crops)
- Patriarchalism shifts towards paternalism
- Importance of mobility and visiting (kinship networks)
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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